Recently a fox was sighted in the mews at the back of our house, which is situated on a London square.footnote1 It was later suggested that the ‘fox’ might actually have been only a cat, since the eye-witness had been drunk at the time. Yet the sighting, real or imagined, is still significant, for in fact everyone in our neighbourhood confidently expects to see a fox sooner or later. We already have squirrels, an owl, jays, even a hedgehog, and all this in Camden Town, the centre of London. To live in this London square has made me much more aware than I ever was before of the extent of nature in the city. Nature penetrates the city, and it appears that the larger the city, the more plants and animals it will shelter.footnote2 This rather goes against the way in which, in Western thought, nature and the city (the rural and the urban) are positioned as incompatible opposites. Discussion of the way in which the built environment encroaches on the countryside is not unusual, but the urban seeping into the rural is certainly almost always perceived as destructive and polluting, and movement in the opposite direction is seldom
This is certainly the way in which Lewis Mumford viewed the relationship between town and country. For Mumford, the city was a container, that is to say it was and had to be a finite space. He believed that the ‘sprawling giantism’ of the twentieth-century city was leading inexorably to megalopolis and thence to necropolis, the death of the city. The sharp division between country and city no longer exists, he wrote. The original container has entirely disappeared:
Using, significantly, an organic metaphor, he describes such city growth as cancerous, social chromosomes and cells run riot in ‘an overgrowth of formless new tissue’, and continues: ‘The city has absorbed villages and little towns, reducing them to place names . . . [I]t has . . . enveloped those urban areas in its physical organization and built up the open land that once served to ensure their identity and integrity . . . [Then] as one moves away from the centre, the urban growth becomes ever more aimless and discontinuous, more diffuse and unfocused . . . Old neighbourhoods and precincts, the social cells of the city, still maintaining some measure of the village pattern, become vestigial. No human eye can take in this metropolitan mass at a glance.’footnote5
This was written over thirty years ago, and Mumford no doubt did not foresee the radical reassessment made by critical theory in recent years of the way in which, or so it is argued, the whole of Western thought is built on binary oppositions. There has, in particular, been a major challenge to the idea of the binary division of gender,footnote6 but on the whole this challenge
There is an excitement, a thrill at all this urban horror and urban squalor. Yes, Silicon Valley is extremely ugly, polluted and full of exploitation, yet Jameson creates a kind of aesthetic of ugliness out of this. He himself converts what he loathes into something meaningful in aesthetic terms. He contrives to evoke this without ever having to concede that perhaps it might be possible to live a spiritually meaningful life in Redwood City.