dilemmas of “place”

I’m at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, where many people believe in the importance of “place.” That means (I think) that they value geographical communities that are distinctive, rather than anonymous and standardized. They believe that citizens ought to devote attention and passion to participating in the governance of such places. In The Public and its Problems (1927), John Dewey wrote that the home of democracy is “the neighborly community. … We lie, Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.”

I had been thinking about “place” in a slightly different way since last Sunday, when I watched an excellent anti-violence hip-hop video produced by Bomani Darel Armah and some youth at Martha’s Table in Washington. Watching it, I thought: This is very cool. It may not have quite the slick production values of an MTV video, but it’s close enough that it could compete for the same audience. There are barriers to distributing it widely–namely, the big media companies that prefer to sell violent and prurient images of young Black people–but even a kid who was pessimistic about reaching a mass audience would enjoy making this video, because it’s so good.

So hats off to Bomani and his talented students–but what about the rest of us: teachers and students who are unlikely to produce something so cool? We can’t motivate ourselves (let alone groups of students) by promising to produce excellent hip-hop videos. Yet we need audiences for our students’ work, peers who will respect and admire what they’ve made, even if it doesn’t look or sound professional. (See my students’ work, for example.)

The solution is to create videos, news articles, artworks, and other products for communities: for groups of people who know one another and have common experiences and concerns. If a cultural artifact is addressed to a community, then it needn’t be excellent to be valuable and valued.

Affinity groups that are distributed across the country or the globe can function as communities, but only if they are small. If you’re a socialist model-train enthusiast or a gay Esperanto-speaker, you may be able to create cultural products for people who know one another even if they don’t live nearby. However, society is not sufficiently segmented to allow most of us to join such small affinity groups.

Places work better. Everyone in a geographical community can have shared experiences and overlapping social networks, simply by virtue of living or working together.

Unfortunately, many locations aren’t “places,” in this sense. We should transform large, anonymous buildings, such as standard high schools and shopping malls, into more distinctive and human-scaled institutions. There is real momentum in the movement to make high schools smaller and more communitarian.

I believe all of the above, yet I’m worried about relying too heavily on very local places as the venues of democracy. Like it or not, the scale of life has grown. Markets, governments, and institutions are big. We can’t return to a past of stable urban neighborhoods and small towns, where everyone knows your name. Although high schools should be turned into communities, students will eventually have to take their democratic skills and attitudes into the broader world, where professional expertise, slickness, capital investment, and economies of scale usually triumph. It seems to me that democratic participation at a large scale creates dilemmas that we have not begun to address.