Tag Archives: media

Thoughts on Richard Sennett’s “Flesh and Stone”

The other day I read the introduction to Richard Sennett’s, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. What an incredible piece — perfect example of why I love introductory essays.

Sennett here is writing a history of the physical aspect of life in the cities I have been learning about all my life: Athens, Rome, Paris, London. He isn’t interested in an intellectual history: just a bunch of Western thoughts traveling along from one place to another. Instead, he writes, “I was prompted to write this history out of bafflement with a contemporary problem: the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building: the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.” With the context of history, Sennett introduces us to the ways citizens have lived differently in the past and the role of the city in protecting and facilitating human interactions.

Additionally, Sennett conjures a common conflict within this history that sets Western cultures in opposition to the body. He writes, “Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and diversity of human bodies …” from the Greek ideal of male athletes to the multicultural communities of modern Greenwich Village (15).

Consistently returning to the current experience, Sennett writes that rather than interacting with other people while accomplishing daily tasks, even literally bumping into them, many of us live from one contained space to another: the home, the car, the office.

Today, more sensory experiences are now consumed with little required input. Pleasure and pain are most often experienced through television, movies, and video games and even the greatest cities are most often viewed through the windshield of a car. Distances that once involved hours and innumerable human interactions now require only 10-15 minutes of driving. “Both the highway engineer and the television director create what could be called ‘freedom from resistance.'” Sennett is writing from the vantage of this society we’ve created for ourselves in order to prevent unplanned, unwarranted encounter. “Thus the new geography reinforces the mass media. The traveller, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms…” (18).

After looking through my books, multiple friends have commented that the large font of Flesh and Stone “stands out” on the shelf or that the title is “weird”. I think Sennett (or his publisher) chose the title partly in order to make people uncomfortable. The fact that it sounds sort of like an adult romance novel is definitely connected to Sennett’s thoughts on contemporary life and our discomfort with even the word “flesh.” Sennett is concerned for the experience of the body in the city in and most importantly the way that social behavior reinforces social connection far more than in merely romantic terms. He writes, “much as today in small southern Italian towns a person will reach out and grip you hand or forearm in order to talk seriously to you” (21).

When I read that particular example I was struck by the simple idea of it and how far it is from normal behavior among my friends and family. Sennett writes to teach us about ourselves and the lives that we live, sometimes prescribed by urban design and other times by cultural tradition we have forgot to even notice

Finally, Sennett concludes with a personal note about the origins of his research, particularly within the context of his friendship to the late Michel Foucault. When they began in the 1970s, he writes that Foucault envisioned human bodies as constrained by tradition, culture, and “choked by the knot of power.” But as he observed Foucault in his last days, Sennett noticed that the fixation on power and control began to relax. As a result, the book that he completed is not the research that Sennett began decades before.

Particularly, he pushed his research beyond simply the realm of human sexuality and, to honor his late friend, embrace the numerous aspects of life that provide meaning and value. He writes, “If liberating the body from Victorian sexual constraints was a great event in modern culture, this liberation also entailed the narrowing of physical sensibility to sexual desire” (26). This narrowing, to Sennett, is no longer necessary or helpful toward understanding human social interaction. As in the example from Italy (I think the Instagram account @notmynonni is a fitting connection here) there are a million meaningful moments in a life that deserve our attention.

Ever-committed also to his hope in the potential of the city, Sennett writes from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the body is connected to the spirit, valued and important. Although I don’t think Sennett is a Christian today (in more recent interviews it seems like he identifies as a secular humanist), at the time of writing this book he identified as a “believer” and acknowledged this perspective in his research. While conceding the Biblical idea of “the fall” and great separation between humans (loss of trust, for example) he also shares the way that his faith weaves into his research and his own stubborn optimism.

Somewhere between the chaos of the past and the isolation of modern life, Sennett ultimately writes, “to show how those who have been exiled from the Garden might find a home in the city.”

Thoughts from “The Creative Call”

Some artistic people in my life are reading a book right now called The Creative Call. It’s great. There’s a lot of wisdom for people who feel like they never “found their artistic voice” or perhaps never identified as “creative.” If you lack a medium through which you can express the inexpressible, this book is for you. *Just as a side note, this book is a Christian perspective of creativity in life, but there are plenty of secular examples to choose from such as The War of Art and The Creative Habit that beckon readers to reengage their creative side without also talking faith and the Christian life.

The following paragraphs are some responses to a section of a chapter of The Creative Call … it’s nothing special, but I thought it might be an interesting way for others to get a glimpse into my personal relationship with art through the years. Also, I hope anyone that stumbles on this post might think about their own artistic story and find some of their own answers to these questions.

Was there an earlier time in life that you produced art?

I used to make more “creative things” (e.g. bean bags, necklaces, cities in the sand, scarves, castles, drawings) when I was younger. I wasn’t really that cool, but at the time it didn’t matter. Besides, I had the privilege of growing up in a group that didn’t really want to be cool relative to other communities … it was a nice social cocoon. Then I moved into junior high and high school and literally left it behind. No more art classes, no more random projects (that I recall) and seldom did I read for fun as I had in my childhood. I sort of lost that self-confidence that one needs to tinker alone for hours on end with no advice or affirmation.

I was gradually pulled outward as I matured into a more social, active life. As I moved through my room during this post-art era, I often viewed my old paintings and drawings as ruins in Middle Earth … relics of a lost civilization. While I moved on from these visual arts, I realize that I began to move into the “written arts.” This shift has continued from that time except for a few noteworthy ventures into painted worlds at “art parties” my senior year of high school and during a class on “Observational Painting” my junior year of college. Otherwise, I suppose, writing has become my voice. Here’s a relic from early high school: an example of this shift as I struggled through my early adolescence:

“Enter la chimera cha; take my sorrows, learn to draw. 
A sword to take the life of one seeking solace from the sun.
From afar it seems so sweet, upon arrival Charon greets. Means to end 
surreal strife, death alone—that radiant life.”

“I would practice art if only …”

I would practice my art more often if I weren’t always around people: drawn to connect and afraid to retreat. I recently read a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” in which he writes,

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

When I read this quote I realized that in the past decade of my life I’ve been stretched far too thin and removed my support system of art and creativity. I definitely need to stay connected to my community, but as I become more healthy I think I’ll learn to withdraw more often. I often find myself blogging late at night (currently 1 a.m.) because I’ve already committed the rest of my day.

“I’ll start making time for art when …”

I’ll start making time for art when I’m not doing this yearlong internship, when I have more direction for my first book, when I know that I will be able to support myself monetarily (any wealthy patrons out there?), or when I start a graduate program that requires me to daily engage my creative mind.

“I’d be doing my art right now if it weren’t for …”

I don’t really know what my art is. If it’s writing, then I think I am doing my art right now, but sometimes writing feels more like a conviction. I realized the other day that I feel compelled to write … it’s much less a hobby than it is a part of who I am. I also wonder if creativity can get lost in obnoxious intellectual thoughts.

As I continue to write, I want to push myself to more actively integrate my design and personal narrative to perhaps make the process more “creative.” Perhaps the end product would be “my art.”

“I’d always hoped that I’d …”

To be honest, I had always hoped that I would go completely off the deep end, produce something incredible, then die an early death. This thought first entered my mind as I read Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young” and lingered in the recesses for years to come. I wasn’t really morbid about the thought of dying young, but I distinctly remember thinking that my talent would be more influential as tragic unrealized potential. I’d always hoped that I would be tragic, but at the same time I almost always followed the rules.

“I wish I had the courage to …”

I wish I had the courage to tell my own story in a compelling and innovative way. And to let go of the hometown ties that hold me back and keep me from being exposed as a human with flaws and fears. I also wish I had the courage to get past my fear of public humiliation (and latent political ambition) to just be myself. I’m thankful that I have let go of most of the hang-ups from my earlier years, but there will always be something new.

“If I could go back in time I would …”

… produce more at an early age, stop feeling alone on the margins and embrace my strengths as gifts to be used. Also, I would learn how to play the piano and cook great food. I might even learn to dance.

My hope deferred is the thought of me as a classy, unique, professional person, confident, yet realistic and sincere. Right now, I’m afraid I hide behind my words too much. While I’m glad to have further honed this skill, I hope to eventually use writing in a less esoteric way that people can still appreciate and enjoy.

Favorite words (and phrases):

Portmanteau, sin qua non, mutatis mutandis, latent, urbane, nascent, apex, zenith, delight, hallowed, space, amaze, past, significance, embrace, huzzah, fearsome, boulevard, difference, terrifying, nostalgia, anticipate, potential, place, remain, resent, longing, resist, gruesome, lament, sunrise, society, dissonance.

Special thanks to @brainpicker‘s New Year’s Resolution Reading List: 9 Books on Reading and Writing for a great survey.