Jacques Lévy, February 22, 2021

Jacques Lévy contributes to the Rebalance conversation presenting various themes that are circulating in contemporary thought. He spoke about the need for a true universality of morals, the new compatibility of two formally opposed political ideologies: that of equality and liberty, Foucault’s biopolitics, the Tower of Babel, and changing perceptions of urbanity.

Lévy began the discussion stating that the function of myths is to provide morals that make living in a society possible. Despite this goal, however, he says that moral truths or commandments are generally only true within one’s own community. For example, “Thou shalt not kill,” is perhaps not relevant to those living outside of one’s community, religious group,skin color, etc. For Lévy, therefore, we need to re-evaluate what we consider universal.

As an example of competing values, Lévy presents the long held  polarity between equality and liberty. Whereby equality was historically the goal of left wing politics and liberty typical of the right, for Lévy, we have arrived at a point where  “this is now a compatibility, affirmed by most contemporaries.” He adds that, “We have the right to create our own biographies,” and this right does not need to be infringed upon in the search for equality, they have the potential to exist simultaneously. In fact, for Lévy, an individual needs equality in order to assert freedom. This is a very compelling assertion due to the long history of incompatibility. As Noah Harari explains in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, “Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other…The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction (Harari, Sapiens).” Therefore, for Lévy’s assertion that these two foundational values are no longer paradoxical is quite new territory.

The long held  polarity between equality and liberty, whereby equality was historically the goal of left wing politics and liberty typical of the right, have arrived at a point where  “this is now a compatibility”.

Lévy went on to speak about the myth of Babel, otherwise known as the Tower of Babel, as seen in the old Testament, Genesis 11.  Lévy uses the Tower of Babel as a way to explain or better understand where ideas of anti-urban, anti- society come from and why they persist. He begins by saying that there are many different interpretations of this myth, but many people believe the story is about how nobody understands each other. For Lévy, however, the myth is about how people arrive at a place, where there is no competition, they work collectively, there is no evidence of a chief of leader, and it is a full success. He explains that this upsets God because humans become too powerful and this is a metaphor of hubris. In his paper, Urbanity and Humanity: Babel as an Open Myth, Lévy argues that there are vestiges of this myth in society, “a certain continuity,” however he points to neonaturalists and libertarians as two main groups, while perhaps devoid of christian ethics, that have maintained these beliefs.  He goes on to say that perhaps these ideas are also embedded in some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau´s writing, claiming that, Rousseau “very clearly explained all sorts of bad things he ascribed to urban ´artificiality´ in comparison with rural ´authenticity.´” Amidst the debate over the meaning of the myth and the remnants of belief that remain, Lévy´s assertion allows for an important reflection on city growth, urbanity, and the future of our political and geographical world. Furthermore, it makes us reflect on the deep-seeded belief that the city (industry, density, diversity, progress, development, etc.) and ‘nature’ are opposing forces whereby one is evil and the other pure or holy. Development versus purity, culture vs. nature.

While Lévy didn´t explicitly ask or speak about the spirit of “naturalness,” it seems an important part of the discussion. What is natural? The question of what is natural and how civilization inhibits or enables this naturalness to exist is one that Freud, Rousseau, Harari, Sizek (and many many more since the beginning of time) have all considered. In Sigmund Freud’s Society and its Discontents, he claims that our neuroticism comes from the repression of desires, ‘natural’ human drives, that we suppress in order to live and work collectively, in order to preserve the survival and well being of the whole. For Freud society is criticized not because of God and purity necessarily but because of the limitations it places on expressing our ‘natural’ state. Rousseau expressess similar sentiments as stated earlier in the debate between authentic and artificial, and also alludes to this duality in The Social Contract. He claimed that our contract is that which says, we were willing to give up certain rights in order to live collectively. Therefore, these two authors agree to an extent with the conclusion of the Tower of Babel, however view the limitation of freedom as an assertion that civilization is negative. On the other hand, both Noah Harari and Slavoj Žižek speak about this duality and see the remnants of Christian ideology. Harari states that:

Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. In truth, our concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature (Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, 2011).

Slavoj Žižek also rejects the idea of nature, as another, a thing “out there,” and agrees with Harrari’s assertion that this duality has ties to monotheistic ideologies. In An Examined Life, Žižek states:

I think this notion of nature, nature as a harmonious organic balanced reproducing almost living organism which is then disturbed, perturbed, derailed through human hubris, technological exploitation and so on, is I think a secular version of the religious story of the fall and the answer should be not that there is no fall that we are part of nature, but on the contrary, that there is no nature. Nature is not a balanced totality which then we humans disturb (An Examined LIfe, 2010).

Therefore for both Freud and Rousseau, there is a certain naturalness that exists in the world, in both what is authentic and artificial and both within mankind. For Harari and Zizek, however, this distinction does not exist. There is no such thing as nature and if something is possible, it is natural. How can we use these varied definitions to better understand the values that underpin neonaturalists, libertarians, and also pro-city, pro-technology ideologies?

In speaking about urbanity and cities, Lévy was asked to reflect on how the concept of urbanity has changed and is changing. Firstly, Lévy explained that, as taken from Louis Wert in 1938, urbanity has historically been defined as the combination of density, diversity, and mass. However, where before ‘urbanity’ may have been characterized by or seen as synonymous with the city, Lévy makes an interesting point about the current concept of urbanity. He explains that, “urban is traditionally linked to city but I think it is interesting that there are expressions and forms of urbanity which are not cities. The old low-density areas are not cities but they are urbanized, they have similar ways of life as people living in cities but are different.” Therefore, the shift in the concept of urbanity has to do with way of life rather than the classic, density, mass, diversity formula once assumed. Perhaps an individual lives in a small town in upstate New York, traditionally thought of as rural, but their way of life is more similar to a person living in the middle of New York City than a fellow rural individual’s way of life. Perhaps they both telecommute to the office, buy food from the grocery store, and contribute to the same state taxes.

Urban is traditionally linked to city but I think it is interesting that there are expressions and forms of urbanity which are not cities. The old low-density areas are not cities but they are urbanized, they have similar ways of life as people living in cities but are different.

As we reflect on new forms of urbanity and values that underpin one’s affinity for or rejection towards cities lead to a final reflection from  Jacques Levy’s talk. What is the optimal size of a city? And, if Babel was too large, and seen as a sin, it begs the question, to what extent did God from the Old Testament want humans to self-organize? Until what point should a city grow? What is the adequate amount of human development? Is there a limit? How would limiting a city’s growth impede or align with the notion that equality and liberty are becoming compatible? What degree of social mobilization is therefore adequate, acceptable?

In his paper, Urbanity and Humanity: Babel as an Open Myth, Lévy writes about Alberto Magnaghi’s view that “the rule would be to accept a maximum of 300,000 people in each human settlement, an agenda that requires to partially empty many existing urban areas. Magnaghi sides with a group of authors in search of an optimal mass for ‘human-size’ cities, which is generally the signature of a reluctance towards any city.” In his investigation of pro and anti city life, Lévy presents Magnaghi’s view as an example of anti-city sentiments. The notion of a “maximum size” of collectivity is an interesting one that Harari addresses in Sapiens, that the ideal number of humans to live collectively with trust and a desire for altruistic values to hold is 100 people. In last week’s talk, Saskia Sassen advocated for the de-populating of major cities and suggested that we need to re-discover mid-size cities. As we continue talking with experts in various fields in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see how future thinkers grapple with these themes: por-anti-society, is there an ideal size of the city, are we part of nature etc.

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Jacques Lévy is director of the Spatial Intelligence chair, at Université polytechnique Hauts-de-France and member of the Chôros research rhizome. He is the cofounder of the scientific journal EspacesTemps.net (ISSN 1777-5477). He published in French, along with Michel Lussault, the dictionary of geography and space of societies, Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés.

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