Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Response: Corporate Cosmopolitans and the End of Place
My good friend Matthew recently wrote an excellent essay in response to Manuel Castells's "The Social Theory of Space and the Theory of the Space of Flows," which I have not read.
A major point that Matthew highlighted was the creation by elite corporate society of a globally homogenous living space. Meaning, people with elite (consulting, managerial, etc.) jobs which jet them across the country and the world can find the same living arrangements and lifestyle wherever they go: the same diet, the same hotel furnishings, and the same separation from any locals who aren't serving them.
In this way, these people are freed from the demands that crossing between places of different cultures and histories would place on them, since everywhere that they go is part of what Matthew calls "one global, virtual city of the elite, with outposts all over the physical world" and what Castells calls the "space of flows."
This transcendence of culture and place is precisely what makes such people elite. Instead of traveling to different "places," each with its own unique nature, corporate elites merely inhabit extensions of the same "space." In this view, the value of different locations rests only in the sum of their consumable attributes; New York and Los Angeles become the only cities of worth in the United States. "Whatever they got here they got there, right?" Matthew says of anywhere else.
I notice such an outlook as a student here at Penn.
I was annoyed last semester when the Undergraduate Assembly announced that they would be bringing The New York Times to campus for free this semester. Why not The Philadelphia Inquirer? I realize the Times is larger and regarded as the nation's paper of record, but inescapable is a sense of widespread indifference about the city we live in.
It makes sense in light of the space of flows. Students at the visible top of the ladder at Penn are corporate elites in training, and New York is the nearest gateway into the space of flows. Penn's location in Philadelphia is irrelevant, since the University is just a clearinghouse for the big firms. So students spend four years without leaving the campus and don't look back after graduation.
Penn gives plenty of lip service to being part of the surrounding West Philadelphia community, but its claims are ridiculous in light of the indifference its primary constituency holds toward its surroundings. The University is in the business of attracting the most gifted graduate and undergraduate students, and it doesn't do that by caring about West Philly. The students that come are in turn just passing through, on their way to jobs that also couldn't care less about the city. So they don't care either.
It bothers me for several reasons. For one, as a native to the Philadelphia area, I know that there is a ton that people are missing by ignoring it. There's much of value to learn and experience here, and to see students close their eyes to it is frustrating.
For two, whether or not individual students and the University at large put anything into the city, they are certainly reaping its benefits. Instead of being part of the community, they are - you guessed it, Jon - merely consumers.
This outlook is reinforced by the same philosophy governing the space of flows: West Philly is the space that students inhabit during their time here, not a place. Its own narrative is something separate, parallel to their own lives, not something of which to collaborate in writing the newest chapters.
And the upshot is not that the West Philly community loses and the University community wins; rather, everyone loses, for to be divorced from place is a great cost to the student. Likewise, were the student body to view itself truly as a part whose welfare is bound to its whole, even if temporarily, everyone would benefit.
Penn's community indifference is a popular topic to complain about, but I thought interpreting it in the framework presented by Castells was insightful in understanding it and in linking it to the greater values that drive people through Penn.
Understanding is well and good, but what can be done about the problem aside from complaining? Well, let's think about it.