Sennett on democracy

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City encounters

Confronting the other, Oxford. (But this image in fact shows a movie actor talking to a policeman off the set -- are we all like that?)

Fashions and others on a Japanese escalator (Hiroshima)

Richard Sennett argues that direct spatial confrontation is a necessity if we are to learn to deal with strangers unlike ourselves.

Aristotle thought the awareness of difference occurs primarily in cities, since every city is . . . a drawing together of different families and tribes, of competing economic interests, and of natives with foreigners. . . . He also included the experience of doing disparate, even incongruous things -- such as praying and banking -- in the same space. . . . Aristotle's hope was that, becoming accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, citizens would be less likely to react violently when challenged by something strange or contrary. Instead, this diverse environment should encourage and support the discussion of differing views or conflicting interests. Sennett 1999, 68-72

Sennett's argument begs the question by presupposing that our choices are between a spatially dense city and a homogeneous small town. Also, there is the danger of thinking that any encounter is unmediated, and that only face to face encounters on city streets are true interactions. Most city encounters are superficial. A tourist sitting in a cafe in Paris watching the French is having a superficial experience, we are told, but is the same person, sitting in a cafe in New York, deeply encountering the other? What's the difference between visiting Beijing as a tourist and going to Chinatown in New York? I am not claiming that they are the same, only that they are more similar than they might seem at first. Urbanism can be tourism, but also tourism may be more like urbanism than some critics want to see. To what extent is the rich panoply of otherness in city life just quaint wallpaper?