It Takes A City

It Takes A City August 23, 2016

In a 1977 Daedalus article on “The Family and the City,” French historian Philippe Aries argued that “the real roots of the present domestic crisis lie not in our families, but in our cities.” As cities “deterioriated” and urban culture weakened, “the omnipotent, omnipresent family took upon itself the task of trying to satisfy all the emotional and social needs of its members.” The stress on modern families, Aries says, is a result of overextension, an effort to compensate for the failure of cities: “People are demanding that the family do everything that the outside world in its indifference or hostility refuses to do. But we should now ask ourselves why people have come to expect the family to satisfy all their needs, as if it had some kind of omnipotent power.”

Aries traces the history of this overextension by attending to the concept of “domain.” In pre-modern society, “domain was neither private nor public, as these terms are understood today; rather, it was both simultaneously: private because it had to do with individual behavior, with a man’s personality, with his manner of being alone or in society, with his self awareness and his inner being; public because it fixed a man’s place within the community and established his rights and obligations.” Family wasn’t a domain, but the source of status within the domain of social life: “The role of the family was to strengthen the authority of the head of the household, without threatening the stability of his relationship with the community. Married women would gather at the wash house; men at the cabaret. Each sex had its special place in church, in processions, in the public square, at celebrations, and even at the dance. But the family as such had no domain of its own; the only real domain was what each male won by his maneuvering, with the help of his wife, friends, and dependents.”

This configuration of society was disrupted by a number of factors. One was the extension of state authority into more and more areas of social life, the state’s unwillingness to “accept the fact that there were certain areas of life beyond its sphere of control and influence.” As a result, “Today, the state’s scrutiny and control extend, or are supposed to extend, into every sphere of activity. Nothing is to remain untouched. There is no longer any free space for individuals to occupy and claim for themselves.” Individuals are allowed some scope for initiative and action, but that scope is limited to designated spheres, school and work, and constrained by “a pre-established order for promotion.” Modern society is far less free than traditional society, where “domain” was an unbounded space without a standardized pecking order. According to Aries, “the concepts of play and free space are no longer accepted; it too must be well regulated.”

Another factor was the “division of space into areas assigned to work and areas assigned to living.” Men began to leave home for work, leaving behind “what had been his domain in traditional society, the place where all his activities had taken place, to go to work far away, sometimes very far away, in a very different environment, where he is subject to a system of rules and to a hierarchy of power.” The marketplace is flexible and adaptable, but “this flexibility has nothing in common with the old concept of free space; rather it depends on the precise functioning of the unit as a whole. Although enterprises in a free-market economy may not be controlled by the state, they are no less controlled if by society at large.” Workers displaced from home were brought into an environment of Foucaultian “surveillance and punishment,” similar to the school, asylum, and prison. Family no longer supported their pursuits in the domain of work; family became instead a private retreat from the hustle of the public domain.

Aries also sees an “emotional revolution” taking place in the modern world:

Previously, feelings were diffuse, spread out over numerous natural and supernatural objects, including God, saints, parents, children, friends, horses, dogs, orchards, and gardens. Henceforth, they would be focused entirely within the immediate family. The couple and their children became the objects of a passionate and exclusive love that transcended even death. . . . those people who did not go out to work (women, children, old men) were concerned exclusively with family life. Nor was the division between job and family either equal or symmetrical. Although there was no doubt some room for emotional involvement at work, the family was a more conducive setting; whereas the working world was subject to constant, strict surveillance, the family was a place of refuge, free from outside control.

Family in this sense, Aries admits, shares “some similarities to the individual domain in traditional society,” but without scope for individual achievement. In the modern family, the individual recedes “for the sake of the family unit, and especially for the sake of the children.” Removed from the wider community, sometimes hostile to the world around it, the family became a private domain. The separation of work and the rest of life “corresponds to the division of life into public and private sector,” and the family has its place firmly within the private zone.

Aries juxtaposes this history of the family with a brief overview of urban history. Nineteenth century cities discovered ways to preserve something of traditional domain within the urban setting: “Central to these new patterns were the cafe and the restaurant, public meeting places where conversation flowed as abundantly as food and drink; the cafe was a place for discussion, an invention of the late eighteenth century. Previously there had been eating places, inns, and hostels, places to serve meals in the home or to provide food and lodging for transient guests. There were also taverns and cabarets where people went to drink, and often for the low life to be found there. But they were places of ill-repute, sometimes brothels. Cafes, on the other hand, were something completely new and different. They were strictly an urban phenomenon, unknown in rural areas.” Despite moral opposition to cafes, they flourished, and Aries goes so far as to say that “In the nineteenth century, civilization was based on them.” The family and cafe were “the only two exceptions to the modern system of surveillance and order which came to include all social behavior. Thus, alongside the growing privacy of the family during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new and lively form of social intercourse developed in even the largest cities.”

As cities grew, they changed form a “group of separate neighborhoods or streets, each constituting a community with a character of its own” into a homogenous spread of business and buildings. Older “forms of social intercourse began to break down. The social and socializing function of the city disappeared. The more the urban population grew, the more the city declined.” Families moved out of the “unwholesome and dangerous” areas of crowded cities, seeking pure air and natural surroundings. Especially in the United States, “continuous urban areas” replaced defined cities, and in America’s suburbs, the old system of cafes and public houses cease to exist. Zoning played a role: “Neighborhoods are segregated not only by social class but also by function. Thus, just as there are rich, bourgeois neighborhoods and poor, working-class ones, so, too, there are business districts and residential ones. Offices, businesses, factories, and shops are found in one location, houses and gardens in the other. The means of transportation most often used to get from one place to the other is the private car.”

For suburb dwellers, the only remaining zone of privacy and freedom, the only zone free from the state’s intrusions, was the family. Aries laments that “social intercourse which used to be the city’s main function has now entirely vanished. The city is either crowded with the traffic of people and cars in a hurry or it is totally empty. . . . The urban conglomerate has become a mass of small islands – houses, offices, and shopping centers – all separated from one another by a great void.” Cars and television accelerated the isolation of individual families: “when a couple or a family leave the house to do something that cannot be done at home, they go in a mobile extension of the house, namely, the car. As the ark permitted Noah to survive the Flood, so the car permits its owners to pass through the hostile and dangerous world outside the front door.” But automobiles only intensified a process that was already underway, “thanks to the growth of the cult of privacy in the bourgeois and middle classes during the nineteenth century. To people born between 1890 and 1920 (now between 50 and 80 years old), the green suburb represented the ideal way of life.”

The move to cleaner air and nature was accompanied “by the growing attraction of a warm private family life. In those areas where private family living was less developed, as in the working-class areas along the Mediterranean, i.e., in societies dominated by obstinate males, community life fared better.” New technologies allowed families to be more isolated than ever: “When that happened, the whole of social life was absorbed by private, family living. Henceforth, the only function of the streets and cafes was to enable the physical movement between home and work or restaurant. These are no longer places of meeting, conversation, recreation. From now on, the home, the couple, the family claim to fulfill all those functions.”

In sum: “In the so-called post-industrial age of the mid twentieth century, the public sector of the nineteenth century collapsed and people thought they could fill the void by extending the private, family, sector. They thus demanded that the family see to all their needs. They demanded that it provide the passionate love of Tristan and Yseult and the tenderness of Philemon and Baucis; they saw the family as a place for raising children, but, at the same time, as a means of keeping them in a prolonged network of exclusive love.” Aries doesn’t think that the family is facing a crisis. Instead, “we are witnessing the inability of the family to fulfill all the many functions.” The apparent crisis is a result of the “overexpansion of the family role is a result of the decline of the city and of the urban forms of social intercourse that it provided.”

Aries’s essay is schematic, without much in the way of supporting evidence. His portrait of pre-modern life has overtones of semi-Marxist nostalgia, and his portrait of contemporary cities is too pessimistic about the reality of urban communities. (He was writing before the recent urban revival movement, to which his work and that of other scholars contributed.) His claims about the structural changes of the past centuries is hard to gainsay, however. A world where people leave home for work, and where people live in suburbs and work in cities, presents a novel cartography of public and private.

What is most striking in Aries essay, though, is its blithe secularity. He gives no hint of the role that churches played in “traditional society” or the role they continue to play in fostering urban community and releasing some of the pressure on families. He makes passing reference to religious practices in describing the “emotional revolution” of the past few centuries, but doesn’t stop to consider the church as a center of emotional life and intimate attachments. He doesn’t have to believe the church is the body of the incarnate Son to take note of the church’s past and present role in European and American society. He might at least have noted that the church too is a social reality that escapes regulation by the modern state; he might have pondered whether involvement in the wider family of church affected the health of overextended families. That it doesn’t even occur to him to inquire is one of the most revealing features of his provocative essay.


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