Here was a house that had wind chimes and bird feeders and monk parakeets mobbing the trees.
For the past year or so, as I’ve been riding around on my bike, I’ve been wondering what it does to your psyche to see little old houses disappear every week. Even though I know in my cortex what’s going on — the real estate market, tech money, post-pandemic coastal fleeing, etc. — it’s still deeply unsettling.
There is no shortage of pieces about how much Austin has changed, but I’d been waiting for a piece of writing to help me understand the feeling I was getting from it all. This feeling, not of bewildering change, but creeping… dread? Disappearance? Loss?
I found it, unexpectedly, today in Jon Mooallem’s piece about the pandemic, sociology, and dipping into a Covid oral-history project, “What Happened To Us.”
I was particularly drawn to this bit, “What is normal life?”
In 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel took a long, hard look at life in big cities and concluded — I’m paraphrasing — that normal life is basically a continuous bombardment of irreconcilable psychic noise. “Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences,” Simmel explained in an essay called “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” We enter each moment expecting that it will resemble the last one, and if we find that continuity between past and present disrupted, it pays to perk up. This was true in rural life at least, Simmel argued, where certain natural rhythms blanketed people in a “steady equilibrium of unbroken customs.” But a city never stops throwing new stimuli at us, engaging our impulse to notice and differentiate. In a city, there’s simply too much newness for a human being to perceive without breaking. The psyche therefore “creates a protective organ for itself against the profound disruption,” Simmel wrote — a dispassionate crust he called “the blasé attitude.” The blasé attitude, he wrote, is “an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … The meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless.” So, extrapolating from Simmel: One way to describe normal life would be as an arrangement of circumstances that can be successfully ignored.
The other bit that spoke to me was Émile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie.”
Durkheim introduced his concept of anomie most fully in an 1897 book-length study, “Suicide.” Suicides, Durkheim contended, “express the mood of societies,” and he was keen to figure out why their rates increased not just during economic depressions but also during times of rapid economic growth and prosperity. He concluded that any dramatic swing within society, regardless of direction, leaves people unmoored, plunging them into a condition of “anomie.” Swidler told me that, while the word is often translated as “alienation,” it may more accurately be understood as “normlessness.” “He means that the underlying rules are just not clear,” she said. Anomie sets in when a society’s values, routines and customs are losing their validity but new norms have not yet solidified. “The scale is upset,” Durkheim wrote, “but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. …The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible.”
Anomie, Durkheim said, “begets a state of exasperation and irritated weariness.”
It’s not just all the teardowns — it’s the ice storms, the power outages, the literal shifting clay of the soil. You’re constantly being made aware, day after day, of how unstable everything is.
I think of a city as a big collage in several dimensions, which is one of the reasons I like to live in one. There’s always something new around, something to look at, something to spark my imagination. It’s good for what Rimbaud called the “derangement of the senses.”
But there are times when it goes too far and other times when one wants to cease being an artist and just feel like a normal human. Some of the ways I’ve made living in the city tolerable from a perspective of peace: observe the seasons (yes, we have seasons here, you just have to pay attention), help Meg in the garden, bike around with my friends, watch the owls, establish dumb rituals with the kids, etc. The sociologists in the piece call these strategies, meant to bring about some kind of normalcy, “repertoires of repair.”
I like that term and will continue to look for more practices to add to my repertoire.