Saturday, January 12

Place after Mobility?

The one inconvenient thing about geography is that it imposes limitations on us. Each of us only has the capability of being in one place at one time, and traveling between places requires a payment in time and energy. Because of these barriers between different places, each place has had the ability to grow in its own distinct way. Human cultures, just like natural ecosystems, need to have a little space of their own without much interference to be able to uniquely flourish and evolve. (Linguists know that mountainous areas have generated a plurality of different languages, while the plains have been far more linguistically homogeneous). The historical correlation between limitation of mobility and cultural uniqueness seems to be set in stone.

But the modern world is intent on solving the problems of limitation. Technological advances in transportation and communications have essentially been eating away at the barriers between places for centuries. The liberalism of our political order, both right and left, highly values personal autonomy and freedom. We have fought hard for our ability to make our own decisions, and this includes the decision to move to a different place and join a different community. I don't want to make light of these achievements, and I realize that I am fully a product of this world. The freedom of geographical mobility is near to the heart of our shared value system.

However, there has been a persistent uneasiness about our power to defeat the limitations of location. We complain about the McDonaldization of cultures, the lack of care for the natural environment, the aesthetic monotony of suburban sprawl, and the economic hegemony of the various Walmarts. Sure, there may be Philly cheesesteaks, Boston clam "chowda", Cincinnati chili and the like, but these foods are available anywhere. I once knew of a N.Y. bagel shop that imported New York tap water in for an authentic experience. These last vestiges of local food identities have become more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. While we fight to transcend place itself, we often lament the loss of a sense of place. Communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer has written,

"Americans apparently change their residence more often than any people in history ... The sense of place must be greatly weakened by this extensive geographical mobility, although I find it hard to say whether it is superseded by mere insensitivity or by a new sense of many places. Either way, communitarian feeling seems likely to decline in importance. Communities are more than just locations, but they are more successful when they are permanently located."

Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we possess the freedom of movement, not to mention the near universal availability of information, without letting local color bleed at all? I doubt it, but I'm certainly open to any ideas for how this could happen.

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