The Null Device
Star Wars Modern has another excellent post, this time about the history of cities and urbanism as seen through superhero comics, or more specifically, Superman and Batman.
That Depression Era mash of eugenics, nationalism, and progress/self-improvement, when introduced into the settings of the already popular crime pulps, gave birth to two enduring strains of superheroes: those that are inhumanly-super, like Superman; and those that are merely humanly-super, like Batman. Each has a place, an urban setting. More than childhood trauma or costume choices, it is these negative spaces that surround the heroes that make them what they are.While both embody the idea of the übermensch, leavened by Depression-era anxieties, they represent different outlooks in the 20th-century debate on the condition of living in cities; Superman embodies the modernist utopianism of slum clearances and gleaming high-rise tower blocs à la Le Corbusier (in one early story, he demolishes a slum teeming with criminality, forcing the authorities to hastily erect modern tower blocs). Batman, however, represents a more Hobbesian pessimistic world-view, of the urban condition as irredemably producing vice and evil, of urban dwellers as rats, their depravity justifying Batman's brutal methods. (Or, as John Powers writes, "In Batman's Gotham, human-nature makes the city a bad place. In Superman's Metropolis, exactly like More's Utopia, it is the city that makes people bad, and it needs to be physically reordered".) Both, however, were founded in the same prevalent assumption that the urban condition breeds vice, and that a more wholesome life is to be found in small towns, villages or the newly erected Levittown-style suburbs.
A lot of the anti-urbanist arguments cited a 1962 psychology paper titled Population Density and Social Pathology, by John B. Calhoun, in which the researchers cram increasing numbers of rats into a small space and notice that they start attacking and cannibalising one another, and then infer that rat psychology applies equally to humans, and city-like population densities trigger acts of depravity in human populations. To this day you hear the "rats in a cage" argument trotted out as folklore, because it's a vivid, lurid image. The problem is, the experiment doesn't hold; humans in a city aren't rats in a cage, and cities, even densely-packed slum-like ones, left to their own devices, evolve remarkable (if not always aesthetically pleasing) mechanisms of community and cooperation; in fact, the sprawling shanty-town is the ur-city:
Like Jacobs in 1961, who was opposed to Modernist slum clearance and saw density as a positive quality invisible to her contemporaries, Brand sees the high density of slums of contemporary South America, Asia and Africa as the model for future city life. While Jacobs pointed to so-called slums as healthy, but underserved neighborhoods in Boston and New York, and argued that they were positive examples to be emulated by planners, Brand points to vast squatter cities that house billions of people globally as feral urbanism that needs to be legitimized and fostered. The favelas and katchi abadi are thousands of times larger then the neighborhoods Jacobs wrote about, but Brand points out that San Francisco started out as a shanty town, and while he is quick to admit that "new squatter cities look like human cesspools and often smell like them," these are still neighborhoods, they are a legitimate form of urban development. These are not the "breeding ground for suffering and injustice" that Nolan has cast them as. In Brand's description squatter cities are vibrant:
Britain has a new government: it's a coalition between the Tories (cue spitting) and the Lib Dems. The latter had been in talks with Labour about forming a coalition (along with a number of smaller parties, such as the Greens, Plaid Cymru and possibly the Scottish National Party), but the deal apparently was scuppered by elements of the Labour Party deciding to veto it (presulably calculating that, during the upcoming years of austerity, they'd be better served being in opposition, and by encouraging a myth of the Lib Dems' perfidious betrayal of the progressive cause, they'd claim the left-wing vote for themselves come next election). Anyway, the Lib Dems get a few cabinet seats, and a referendum on replacing the grotesquely unfair first-past-the-post voting system with the somewhat less unfair alternative vote system, as used in Australia. (Proportional Representation is out of the question in the lower house, though there is talk about a fully elected House of Lords, so we may possibly get proportional representation there; again, like in Australia.)
Interestingly enough, Charlie Stross (who really dislikes the Tories) is oddly sanguine about the coalition:
All in all ...We've got a government that, for the first time since the 1930s, more than 50% of the voters voted for. There are a lot of positive policies here, on civil liberties and constitutional reform. There are some stinkers, but fewer than I expected. There is also a systemic weakness, insofar as the extreme fringe of either of the coalition parties have the ability to take down the government. So we're probably going to see lots of compromises. In particular, I'm hoping the Liberal Democrats act as an effective brake on the Conservatives (who I fear are capable of behaving much like Stephen Harper's Canadian tories if governing on their own).