Leaving Patholopolis

With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life.

— Georg Simmel ((Georg Simmel. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903). Anthologized in many sociology article-texts.))

Five thousand years ago, the first cities emerged as, and remain today, marketplaces–concentrated centers of trade, commerce, finance. Qualitative values–sentimental, aesthetic, empathic–are replaced by quantitative ones, which could be summed up in the phrase: “How much?” In the beginning, monumental architecture symbolized the awe-inspiring omnipotence of gods and the immortality of rulers. Somewhat later, a market-ideology fostered enthrallment to the false god of Mammon.

As anthropologists have ceaselessly reminded us, modern Homo sapiens, for hundreds of thousands of years, wandered through endlessly varying landscapes, following migrating game animals and seasonally harvesting dozens of different edible plants. As the brain was attaining its modern, enlarged organization, the visual cortex was processing a daily continuum of gradually shifting scenes and movements (including that of insouciant creatures encountered), in the context of the tempo of walking and resting. Such Gestalt perception, the discernment of patterns of contrasting yet integrated elements within forest and landscape, sharply contrasts with the fragmented, fleeting, ever-fluctuating and disjunctive “sensory-overload” of the urban milieu. The late radical historian Theodore Roszak invented a new field, ecopsychology, for the study of these contrasting experiential worlds. ((Theodore Roszak. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Simon & Schuster, 1992.))

Perceptive and cognitive dissonance may fluctuate as stimulus-diversity in urban experience over-stresses and fatigues the individual:

A surfeit of diversity, akin perhaps to the tedium produced by the lack of it – witness the phenomenon of “visual pollution,” i.e., the wearisome hodge-podge of highly diverse sights, represented by the succession of gaudy signs, gas stations, and hamburger stands greeting the motorist on the outskirts of so many American cities…. Psychologists have done little so far to clarify the nature of ugliness, but it is a plausible hunch that it is the very diversity, i.e., lack of unity of a stimulus configuration that is responsible for the response “ugly” that it evokes in us. ((Joachim F. Wohlwill. “Behavioral Response and Adaptation to Environmental Stimulation.” In: Physiological Anthropology, ed. Albert Damon, pp. 295-334. Oxford University Press, 1975.))

As a field biologist and early practitioner of ethology–the naturalistic study of wild animal behavior–Konrad Lorenz proposed a controversial theory that urbanized humans are “domesticated,” with a resultant decline in adaptive versatility. ((Despite his valuable theoretical contributions to biology (co-recipient of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Medicine), the Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) is today a very controversial figure. After the Nazi take-over of Austria in the late 1930s, Lorenz became a member of the Nazi Party and wrote articles in support of Nazi eugenics ideas of “racial hygiene.” Drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1941, he was assigned for at least two years as military psychologist in the Office of Racial Policy. In his later years, he apologized for his bad judgment, claiming that his knowledge at the time of the deportation of Jews to the death camps was quite limited. The extent of his involvement is evidently still unclear.)) Fifty years ago, zoos were still highly confining, and in The Human Zoo (1969) ethologist Desmond Morris elaborated on the analogy: the animals typically suffered symptoms of chronic stress (enlarged adrenal glands), obesity, “stupidity,” stomach ulcers, hyper-sexuality, and various other “neurotic” behaviors (repetitive, obsessional, etc.). ((Desmond Morris. The Human Zoo. Kodansha Globe, 1996 (reprint).))

The modern urbanscape is a geometric artifice, a right-angled gridwork of standardized boxes, intersections and alternating signals. Visual homogeneity (sensory deprivation), jarring noise pollution and fragmentation of image exacerbate cognitive dissociation and strain. Kinesthetic experience–the changing spatial context of varied human movements–is further diminished by the sedentary operation of high-speed automobiles. Inhabitants engage in an ongoing (and largely senseless) struggle to “cope” and “adjust,” becoming addicted to food, drink, “recreational” drugs, sex, TV, shopping, the Internet, and yes, social media.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.