The Urban Dialectic

Johnson, in the beginning pages of the book, presents us with several different accounts of the cholera outbreak, each building on the changes the other has led to. He talks of institutional changes in London politics as prices for nightsoil-men services has gone up; he mentions how such changes led to cesspools being clogged, and to the new sewer renovations; the renovations then influence waste disposal to affect water at the Broad Street Pump, which leads to the Lewis baby getting infected…and so on and so forth.

A similar trend can be found even in the unraveling of the cholera outbreak. Snow’s findings lead to reactions from the government, which in turn pique Farr and Whitehead’s interests – they, in their efforts to disprove Snow, happen upon their own realizations of the truth, and the leading chain of actions again feeds off of one another.

In observing the narrative style that Johnson selects, the idea of the dialectic comes to mind. The idea of the Hegelian dialectic shows that when a thesis is proposed, it is met with an antithesis, and the interaction between them results in a synthesis – which then meets its own antithesis, and so forth. The idea of the dialectic ties into the what Johnson wants to deliver to us – the urban dialectic, or the idea of the city as an entity unto itself. The compilation of individual choices interacting with one another – the constant interaction between thesis and antithesis – morphs the city from a simple collection of individual decisions to a separate entity that seems to make its own decisions – the synthesis.

Johnson further extends the idea of the city as a living entity in showcasing a sort of temporal network. Decisions made by previous cities have an impact in the decisions of cities in the future, and a network is established between the past and present, between two living cities.

What other networks can we see in Johnson’s text that has been influenced by the idea of the dialectic? Do they reinforce the idea of living cities, or do they espouse different conceptions of urban life?

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  1. As I was finishing the book yesterday, many of these thoughts came to my mind but I had not thought of contextualizing them in this manner. I think implicit in your post is the cause and effect relationship that is evident in human interaction, especially between Snow and government officials. The problem does not necessarily fall in the contradictions of thesis and antithesis, but rather the unwillingness to consider another thought that is different from your own. Part of Johnson’s argument, which is touched on above, is the dilemma of teamwork: it is incredibly difficult yet crucial to building a ‘better’ future.

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