Cities, whether in the literal sense of urban space or more figuratively as political space, are usually assumed to be places of abundance where artifice flourishes as lushly as the natural world outside. Indeed, gardens and parks (and sometimes cemeteries) are attempts to make the exuberance of nature a civic or urban phenomenon. As desire and freedom are supposed to dwell in the city, it should also be assumed that those who live there choose to do so freely. They arrived and settled there because their own inherent condition meant they found other places undesirable. And freedom, like desire, requires protection. The contemporary city has no exterior walls, but governments do still have the power to erect them. When they do so, it is precisely in order to look after their cities, meaning the old city walls have not fallen but have instead been displaced.
City air, according to a German proverb popularised by Max Weber, makes us free. Accordingly, some would say that a fully human breath is tainted by the fumes of industry, the stench of the sewers, the luxury of perfumes and the sweat of the crowd. But, some would add, these are also objects of desire and perhaps the conditions of freedom. There's a myth that anyone who strives to live in the city, climbing fences or crossing moats, is driven by the wish to breathe better air. Aware that the city is defined by countless opportunities to choose all manner of goods, they have chosen the ability to choose. Some would deny them that right (muttering that we are the only ones who get to choose here) and some will want to share it (declaring that being able to choose is wonderful and that it would be cruel stop anyone doing so), but the assumptions of the two statements are alike.
For all that, the city is neither the seat of freedom nor desire. For almost all new arrivals, the circumstances of their first lodgings were humiliating, and to talk to them then about the exuberance of city life would have been insulting. Even though the city doesn't give anyone what was promised, except a few lucky golden-ticket holders, the tale of the happy city tells the lie of a lottery that everyone wins even without a ticket. Or, in another version, the myth that fortune favours those who have worked hard enough, and in particular, those who are not averse to climbing the ladder provided by socialising and study. The city, of course, can hardly tell the truth; that of a huge pyre, hungry for human sacrifice, whose maintenance also demands vast amounts of fuel, provided by a labour force who have never breathed clean air.
The real story of the modern city is a sordid one that is incompatible with a lively narrative. If we were told it properly, we would soon look away and say that this is not our city. And the truth is that it isn’t, because a city never belongs to its residents. The city is a terrible place to stay that can only be called habitable after an unsparing process of habituation. There are similarities with the doorway in Kafka’s story titled Before the Law, but with one notable difference. In the story, anyone who wishes to enter the Law remains forever at the door and knows this to be the case. The modern city, on the other hand, thrives on the illusion that it has made us entirely welcome. The inhabitant of this city wanted to enter the house but could only reach the hallway, and eventually got used to it and began to speak of this inhospitable threshold as their home and city.
The lives of those who claim the name of citizens is a web of deceits, many exceptionally sophisticated, to decorate the doorway so it could never be confused with the presumed interior of the house. For their part, maybe those who climb fences and cross moats to settle in the city don’t really know the difference between a doorway and an actual house. Most will not even enter the doorway and will remain in the street, creating in the so-called citizens the natural vanity of the patrician (whether they prefer to let people sleep on the pavement or are loth to do so) But in reality, the fundamental right of every urban resident is to be provided with a good oxygen mask. This mask is the real citizen’s persona and it should not be denied to anyone. Of course, this is a mask not just in the literal sense—although this is often essential—but above all as protection against the myth of a civic air that fills the lungs with dignity and abundance. Air is always scarce in the city and the pace of urban life does not lead to an over-abundance of vitality; it simply has to be preserved (or faked) to survive.
The official propaganda of the city proclaims that activity pervades every aspect of citizens’ lives, and this is indeed true. Almost all the inhabitants of a city are descended from someone who went there to be used as fuel in an ever-lasting blaze. The blaze cannot stop even for a moment, although by now no one remembers clearly the time when it fed a formidable and productive forge. Nowadays the main aim of this fire is to light up the urban spectacle of a city that must relentlessly change its appearance to refresh its tourist appeal. Of course, this always revolves around façades and doorways, because tourists don't care if buildings are inhabited or empty (and it shouldn't be difficult to fool them in this respect). Inhabitants of old cities, gathering, according to the myth, to breathe the air of freedom, work compulsively to increase the numbers of tourists and to calculate the exact number of immigrants required to maintain this industry (including moral and humanitarian prestige among their distinctions). We city-dwellers belong to different categories of fuel and are also bit players in a show that can never let the tension drop, not even for a second. This is our task, and we need many myths to execute it effectively.
Antonio Valdecantos Alcaide (Madrid, Spain, 1964). Professor of Philosophy of Law at Carlos III University. His most recent books are Sin imagen del tiempo (Abada, 2018), Manifiesto antivitalista (La Catarata, 2018), Teoría del súbdito (Herder, 2016) and Misión del ágrafo (La Uña Rota, 2016).