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The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life Paperback – August 17, 1992

4.2 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"'The issues Sennett raises are fundamental and profound. The book is utopian in the best sense - it tries to define a radically different future and to show that it could be constructed from the materials at hand.' New York Times Book Review 'We are prompted to think and dream and question old and tired cliches and some more recent ones, too, by an author whose mind is rich, wide-ranging, and, best of all, not afraid of life's ambiguities, not tempted to banish them all with ideological rhetoric' Robert Coles" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Richard Sennett’s books include The Corrosion of Character, Flesh and Stone, and Respect. He was the founding director of the New York Institute for the Humanities and now teaches sociology at New York University and at the London School of Economics.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (August 17, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393309096
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393309096
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #335,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Vince Kenyon on January 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
An intriguing and convincing argument: modern affluent societies suffer from a malaise. People are tending to isolate themselves into communities of other people whom they judge to be just like themselves. But the homogeneity of these "purified communities" is as much a myth as the threat from outsiders who are different. These myths are in fact convenient excuses for not undertaking the difficult and painful process of really getting to know each other. The capacity for developing such myths arises during adolescence; the ability to persist in believing them derives from affluence; and a peculiarly modern intensification of family life propagates them into the society at large. The design of our communities has come to reflect and to reinforce these myths. The model for a community so afflicted can be found in American suburbia.

The result: people in affluent, technological societies are frozen in an adolescent stage of development, unable to see each other as individuals behind the preconceived abstractions of that stage. They are disinclined to get involved in their communities, except to lash out in violent reaction against feared outsiders.

Equally intriguing, but less convincing, is the proposed solution: destroy the myths of purified community. Destroy them by designing our cities in such a way that they force diverse people to encounter one another under conditions of conflict. Reduce the municipal bureaucracy's control of schooling and zoning. Stop central planning of land use in advance. Increase the density of urban environments; integrate socioeconomic and racial groups.
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Format: Paperback
Sennett brings his great erudition and keen insight to bear on the social psychology of life in wealthy suburbs. In the book's first half, he argues convincingly that the general prosperity that blossomed in America after WWII permitted people to retreat into 'counterfeit communities' in the suburbs, in which fear of the overwhelming diversity and disorder of urban life stunts suburbanites at an adolescent phase of personal growth, resulting in stultifying conformity, and confounding the possibility of personal growth and real communal life.

In the second part, he comes up with a muddy and rather conflicted vision of a rebirth of city life based on a sort of half-anarchism not worthy of the name. His proposals, while showing a healthy respect for diversity and local control, would have benefited from a clearer understanding of the history of utopian anarchist thought. As it is, his description of anarchism as purely nihilistic and anti-urban is spotty and misleading, and his proposals lack clarity in their outcomes and implementations.

For a more practical reformist proposal for the re-invigoration of urban community based partly on Sennett's critiques of suburbia, see Gerald Frug's excellent recent book 'City Making'. For clearer visions of possible anarchist societies, see the works of Kropotkin, Pannekoek, Murray Bookchin and Ken Knabb.
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Amazing text. I only wish I had read it sooner. To me, the leap from individual psychology to city formation was hasty and limited in scope. That aside, Sennett has found the words to frame what I have been grasping at in terms of his critique on rigid, modern urban planning. In our current transition into digital data-based planning, this powerful voice on the importance of complexity over reduction still holds relevant and is worthy of careful consideration.
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This somewhat outdated (1970) book is written in the spirit of the sixties. Somebody could, at that particular time, at least stir up some idealism (a commodity which is pretty rare these days). Living in the protected and sterile environment of the suburbs is not recommended by Sennett. One has to be right in the middle, where the action is. His goal is a nonroutine life consisting of multiple contacts with different cultures. Nothing wrong with that and I cannot agree more. I like the well-written book because its message is still relevant today. The term 'anarchy' is tricky. Social unrest - like it now happens in Syria and Egypt - is a multifaceted monster. The results are in the eyes of the beholder. I would like to bring back Sennett's message to a modern interpretation: aim for a widening of division thinking. Purity (predictability) - Sennett's horror quality - is lower division, while his 'anarchy' (leaving room for the unexpected) is higher division thinking. His book is great reading in this modern awareness (Marten Kuilman, Heemstede (Holland).
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I read the Uses of Disorder as a college student in 1973 for an urban studies course. It enunciated and clarified what was only a feeling when I was in my early 20's. Now when I sit on my stoop in Brooklyn and watch the colorful and dramatic parade of humanity go by, I pity those who are stuck in the suburbs. Thank you, Richard Sennett.
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