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Tuesday, September 16 2014 @ 06:27 PM CDT

Anarchism and the City

Anarchist Opinion

Just a random thought before making dinner. I often find myself reflecting on Book IV of Plato’s Republic and how he cautions against the city becoming too large. What is the problem, I wonder, with a large city? In the context in which Plato was writing, I suspect the problem was one of the materiality of media. To form a collective, the elements that make up your collective must be able to relate to one another. In Plato’s context, these relations can be forged by sound-waves/speech or writing.

Anarchism and the City

Larval Subjects blog

Just a random thought before making dinner. I often find myself reflecting on Book IV of Plato’s Republic and how he cautions against the city becoming too large. What is the problem, I wonder, with a large city? In the context in which Plato was writing, I suspect the problem was one of the materiality of media. To form a collective, the elements that make up your collective must be able to relate to one another. In Plato’s context, these relations can be forged by sound-waves/speech or writing. Sound-waves dissipate quickly in the air or medium through which they travel, and as we all know from the game of “telephone”, messages transmitted by speech quickly undergo random variation becoming something quite different than what they first were. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to form a collective out of a large and geographically separated population based on speech alone. Your collective can only grow to a certain size when it’s based on the medium of speech/sound-waves.

Things fare better with writing. It is durable so the message is preserved allowing for collective identify formation (cf. Anderson). The problem in this historical context is that only a small portion of the population is literate and writing is both expensive and a rare skill. Following Derrida and ethnologists such as Vernant, I accept the thesis that writing– in its sheer materiality (not content) –fundamentally transformed social relations, making things like formal law, the idea of universal justice (i.e., the indelibility of temple inscriptions and marks), mathematics, philosophy, science, and so on possible; but the problem was that given the institutional infrastructure pertaining to matters like education, writing just couldn’t travel far. It was restricted to an elite few that learned how to read and who could afford writings. If, then, Plato is led to defend the thesis that cities (collectives) shouldn’t grow beyond a certain size, then this is based on a claim about the materiality of media that dominate in his historical context: speech. The material features of that medium prevent certain forms of social relation from emerging.

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