Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech University
In his 1970 book The Uses of Disorder the American sociologist Richard Sennett argued that the post-war generation of Americans that grew up in the suburbs were materially wealthier but psychologically more impoverished than their predecessors. This was due to a strange disruption in the emotional and sensory-motor development of adolescents. The latter grew up in relative abundance yet utterly lacked the ability and wherewithal to challenge themselves or their institutions in ways that might lead to a fundamental change in their way of life, even if such a change were demonstrably good for the whole of the human species and the planet itself. This relates to the election of Trump in two ways.
First, this stunted adolescent growth. In societies marked by relative abundance in the suburbs, Sennett argued that the child transitioned into a body and mind that was biologically and cognitively strengthened to receive new encounters and generate new experiences. These could be guides for future behavior that revised previous experiences and (incorrect) lessons from childhood. Yet, growing up in the suburbs, those compartmentalized worlds of bounded rationality, homogenized sense-making, conformity to expectation, and self-imposed discipline and control, the biologically empowered adolescent was socially shielded from confronting challenges or painful experiences that might have actually tested this new strength, that might have helped it develop in productive and creative ways. Instead of real experience against the unknown, the unexpected, the unpredictable, the contingent, the adolescent got the vicarious experience of received wisdom, of “common sense,” passed down from over-protective parents and disciplinary schools. That is, experience became conditioned on its predictability, repetition, expectation and safety in the suburban environment and its disciplinary institutions of school, work, regulated recreation and family life. This last site, family life, was of particular import for Sennett. The triumph of the nuclear family over any and all other social concerns marked the singularity of the suburban home for the post-war American middle class. It became a quasi-social/ quasi-political fiefdom, to be defended, regulated and ruled over by the parents.
For Sennett, the suburbs valued order and pain-free existence above all else. Though he was writing of the 1960s Sennett’s words continue to resonate in present-day American political life. Hence gun sales soar whenever the specter of danger or uncertainty drifts towards the suburbs. Hence George Zimmerman. The man-child grows up under a micro-fascism whose author is the built environment of the over-protected suburbs, a spatial environment defined by a will for near total security, order and control at home, and intense disciplining of ambivalence in school and elsewhere. Hence the obsession with “law and order” in an era where violent crime is down to historical lows. Hence the so-called “swing voter” of the American suburbs, who is always available to change his or her mind in case of an October surprise (usually in the form of a threat to security, of which there are an infinite variety).
The takeaway for Sennett is that the stunted adolescent development of suburban subjects leads to a phantasmic attachment to the idea of a “purified identity” and a simplified reality, with disastrous political consequences. Through various “common sense” experience we develop into inherently conservative creatures of safe expectations, predictable preferences and high-regulated “choice.” And this gets us to the second point. Since the suburbs effectively present no possible threat or challenge to the predictability, safety and order of experience, the adolescent subject comes to expect and even desire such order and certainty in all future encounters. When such expectations are inevitably disappointed, and disorder, danger, uncertainty and contingency eventually enter the picture, the subject tends towards over-reaction in defense of his or her impossibly secure identity.
But there is an in-between step that is crucial. Sennett argues that the more people live in relative isolation (virtual reality) in the suburbs, the more they demand not just simplified versions of reality, amenable to their desires for safety, certainly and order, but also simplify their relations to and possible encounters with others. Along with vicarious experience comes vicarious community, or what Sennett calls “non-experienced solidarity.” The suburbs shifted life away from heterogeneous urban communities and neighborhoods and the multiple contact points that brought people together and generated unpredictable, unforeseeable experiences in everyday life. They replaced multiple contact points and zones of ambiguity with the regulated security-spaces and functional efficiency of everyday life in the suburbs. To the degree that this was also the time of the advent of the television set in many of these private middle class suburban households, domesticated encounters with heterogeneous figures would be limited to the TV-screen and would take the form of safe and distant encounters with images, many of which were two-dimensional, racist, sexist, classist representations that could be enjoyed, turned off and controlled at will.
The suburb thus constituted a virtual reality that pre-dated the mass mediations of the internet generation. Moreover, the latter only seems to perfect the impoverished ethos and experiential politics of suburbanism. This virtual reality did not stand alone, it was augmented by other media, the car and the infrastructure of automobility, electronic media, the rise of advertising and the production of desire and affect as surplus value. The internet is also a virtual reality but it is a suburbanized virtual reality. It only reinforces the separated existences and vicarious experiences, communities and identities that pre-existed its advent. Trump’s rise comes in the midst of a crumbling suburban virtual reality (the never arriving “recovery” from the never-ending “crisis”) and an insurgent internet virtual reality. His is a phantasmic conjuring of a purified sense of self-identity (“Make America great [white] again”) and vicarious experience (old and perhaps outdated “common sense” representations of minorities, women, immigrants in the place of real encounters with others). He is made possible through the suburbanization of images and virtual reality in today’s internet landscape, which far from connecting us together on one world-wide web of networks increasingly partitions us into disparate sensible milieus, separate communities of sense that share neither a common identity, nor a will to form one. And its not just the Trump supporters. Those that call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” have just as little desire to meet any actual Trump supporter than the latter wants to meet the former. Both are happy to not challenge their pre-conceived “common sense” image of the other. We each want to retreat to our separate worlds where things make sense, where our identities are secured, where we feel safe. Perhaps we all need to grow the fuck up.
Materially, this is all conditioned on the socio-economic and spatial production of “private property” through the phantasm of home ownership. As Harvey notes, the advent of the suburbs and middle class home ownership correlated with a move away from the politics of the city (where surplus accumulation was in crisis) to one of surplus capital absorption in the sprawling residential/consumerist communities of the suburbs. From union representation to white collar work (or more recently, de-regulated corporate workfare), from close and often conflictual communities and dense neighborhoods in the city to the manicured lawns and clean streets of the gated community or subdivision. Debt-encumbered homeowners were not merely more happy (at least in the advertisements and television shows) in their suburban familial enclaves, but also less likely to rock the boat politically. They were the normative subjects of post-war liberal capitalism. But their twentieth century subjectivity was ill-equipped to deal with the problems brought to the fore (and which were steadily brewing well before) in the twenty-first century.
Perhaps the use of Trump is to awaken us from this self-imposed slavery to predictability in our social relations and expectations of others. Perhaps we need to pluralize our communities of sense. I am not advocating making friends with a racist misogynist, but to de-segregate our socio-spatial worlds. To enforce through policy, planning, and regulation an urbanism of multiple contact points. To challenge our investments in ontological security and purified identities by teaching our kids and students to embrace contingency and uncertainty, to trust their instincts in dealing with daunting challenges, to not be afraid. I am speaking not to the activists, artists and intellectuals already engaged in this sort of work through their demonstrations, creative works and teachings. I’m speaking to the comfortable middle class suburbanite who believes voting every four years will be enough to combat the ugly cancer that has taken over the underside of suburban American life. That cancer is not Trump and his supporters, it is the inability on the great mass of people in “mainstream” American society to challenge their received wisdom, to question common sense and begin to experiment with other ways of getting things done.