Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Detroit, I loved you once

My last post about Detroit was sentimental  and maybe a little maudlin. It was a call to action. Even the most "I will never be prescriptive!" political theorist wants people to just get off their asses and do something. Of course, me being the one to ask questions, I find this interesting. Why am I so fucking sentimental about this city?

Maybe it's because I've imagined something great and (hello repetition) imaginary. William Connolly has described this type of imagination in his description of the nation as envisioned by other sources ( this is not Connolly's vision of the nation - this is his baseline):
Above all, then, nationhood is founded on shared memories of sacrifice and a common will in the present. It is refined by its memory of the enemies it faced in the past. Its victories fill it with glory. Its defeats fill it with the determination to reverse that result in the future. What's more, a nation is formed out of "a long past spent in toil, sacrifice and devotion." (75)
Detroit, much like this baseline idea of the nation, bears the shared memory of sacrifice. Weren't all of us working on the line, putting together cars? Didn't we all take the streetcar downtown to shop at Hudson's? Wasn't a house in Boston Edison or Indian Village just the height of "You've made it!"?

I should say some things about my life in Detroit. I'm a transplant, but my mom grew up in the area. She has a story of going downtown during the riots because she didn't recognize what was going on. She didn't understand the dire consequences of a history of segregation. She just wanted  to go to work. The guy on the trolly kept asking her, "Are you sure you want to go downtown?" So my love of the city is tainted by the ideal, by going downtown without realizing what on earth is happening, of hoping for that ideal.

Let it be known: I am schooled enough in the imagination of our ideals to question everything. This blog, so you know, is founded in irony. Rorty describes an ironist as someone who always harbors doubt. She does not think of her reality as closer to the "real" reality - someone else's reality has possibility, too. It interests me that Rorty introduces this definition in the chapter titled "Private Irony and Liberal Hope." (all of this is on page 73 of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity). I think that Rorty is both suspicious and admiring of hope. He notes of the liberal metaphysician, "He prays, with Socrates, that the inner and outer man will be as one - that irony will be no longer necessary (92)."

Don't we all pray this way? Irony is exhausting. It is so much more energizing to think of the unified one. To think of a city that was perfect and beautiful and full of hope. I've talked before about the Yves Marchand  & Romain Meffre project about the ruins of Detroit - I've spoken romantically of these photos, because that is what they are. Aren't ruins inherently romantic? We visit Rome not to see destruction, but to marvel at past greatness.

But the romance is too hopeful. It is not critical enough of a city that is representative of all that can go wrong with the American ideal. It is especially lacking in critique of the racial tensions still present in the city.

But the romance is so moving. It makes you want to achieve some ideal. I think all I ask of myself and of anyone is that they temper that with irony. Detroit is inherently romantic and hopeful. The motto of the city, of course is, "Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus (We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.")

Perhaps because the hope is for something better, the romance in the city is full of irony: we know things have been for shit, and we'd like to make it better, but to do so, we must critique.

Things I read while writing this:
Why I am Not a Secularist by William Connolly
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty

Something Fun:
New Feist!


  1. I took the bus, trollies were gone in '67xoxo

  2. Actually we called then "street cars". Sounds funny now.