Beyond the family structure imposed on us, the school is
generally the first instrument of social repression a child meets in life. To
the school is assigned the task of breaking the will to individuation, of
"channeling the mind," of incapacitating the child with the rules that hold this
society together: "This is the way things will be because this is the way they
are." The classroom serves to impress through the medium of daily routine that
life is essentially following orders, that the choices are always among the
given, that control of your life is, and always will be, somewhere else.
Passivity is the rule, and all "activity" is planned (except for the frills: the
extracurricular, and then some). It is not accidental that the newest school
buildings are indistinguishable from the newest prisons or the newest industrial
All the talk around the New York City "school crisis" misses this
"The Newest School Buildings Are Indistinguishable
From The Newest Prisons And The Newest Industrial Complexes"
Council for the Liberation of Daily Life
September 22, 1968
My... defect is that I am an artist and fundamentally
unpolitical. I don't (timidly) bestir myself to oppose anything or try to
change it unless I first have imagined a simpler and more artistic way to do it,
neater, making use of available and cheap materials, less senseless, less
Paul Goodman, 1972
"Lies Lies Literature Is Lies!" shouts the first chapter of American author
and critic Paul Goodman's monumental work The Empire City. From the narrative
standpoint, this statement can undoubtedly be applied to The Empire City itself;
suspension of disbelief cannot make the animals being released from the Bronx
Zoo or people flying of their own volition realistic scenarios. Such a
perspective, however, would miss the main thrust of Goodman's book: The Empire
City is a book of grand ideas, where the characters not only espouse or propose
them, but put them into action.
This book, in a nutshell, is about a community of people united by their
opposition to the social order presented to them by twentieth-century urban
capitalism. In part, it is a coming-of-age novel: the protagonist, Horatio
Alger (named after a famous nineteenth-century author of rags-to-riches fables),
goes through a personal evolution that includes moving from simple rejection of
society to an active praxis of opposition. The plot is impossible to summarize
in a general fashion; indeed, there is no single plotline, but only a long and
convoluted network of intersecting ones. Each of these is inseparable from the
sociological ideas of the book. Every character is affected by these ideas.
The book is not only a novel: it is a work of sociological, political, and
economic theory. Its main focus, aside from a general opposition to the
regimentation and repression of capitalist society, is on building healthy urban
Here, I will attempt to trace some of the discursive foundations of this
focus. As we shall see, concepts such as the "New Urbanism" of the European
avant-garde, Charles Fourier's Utopian Socialist theories of education and
community organization, and Gestalt Therapy's ideas of psychological and social
health all find their reflection in The Empire City.
"New Urbanism" and The Empire City
This state of affairs, arising out of a struggle
against poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal — the liberation of humanity
from material cares — and become an omnipresent obsessive image. Presented with
the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all
countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.
The birth of avant-garde notions of "New Urbanism," the revolutionizing of
urban geography, was contemporary to the writing of The Empire City. Although
mutual influence cannot be assured, the ideas come from the same source: a deep
dissatisfaction with modern society. In both cases, the idea is to destroy or
hijack the structure of the city, which has been created by the society (or, as
Goodman calls it, the Sociolatry), and thus reclaim the city for the people.
In October of 1953, Frenchman Gilles Ivain published "Formulary for a New
Urbanism" (this New Urbanism not to be confused with that of the 1980s and 90s).
This short manifesto was to become one of the most important documents of the
revolutionary European avant-garde of the fifties and sixties, including
organizations such as the Lettrist and, later, Situationist International. One
of the primary members of the latter, Guy Debord, followed up in 1955 with
"Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography."
"We are bored in the city," writes Ivain. This is his main point: to
propose an architecture for the city of the future, an architecture with
"evocative power." He puts forth the idea that the city should be divided into
"quarters," which together "correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings
that one encounters ... in everyday life." Debord proposes a study,
"psychogeography," of the feelings evoked by the geography of existing cities,
with a view to revolutionizing it.
Paul Goodman puts forth a critique of New York that in many ways resembles
the ideas of Ivain and Debord. Ivain writes, attacking with bitter irony the
profusion of advertising in the streets: "The poetry of the billboards lasted
twenty years. We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still
discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards, the latest state of humor and
poetry." One of Goodman's characters writes a letter to the New York Herald
Tribune, complaining about the "act of vandalism" perpetrated by "a monstrous
sign, advertising the roadhouse of one Luis Mendoza ... illuminated a baleful
In both cases, the idea of constructive use of negative architectural space
is highlighted. Ivain proposes an idea for a "future architecture" where an
"empty space creates a richly filled time" and "the absence of &91;an&93; object
becomes a presence one can feel." As if adopting his program, Goodman's
Committee for Constructive Bombardment aims "to see that the right little items
are razed to the ground ... to expose to constructive bombardment the slums that
interest us" (169).
The main thrust of Ivain's New Urbanism is the affirmation of the
relationship between emotion and movement through a city. Lamenting this
relationship's loss, Goodman's Lothair cries that the people of New York "have
alienated themselves from the natural generation... They have forgotten the
continuous association between their hearts and the way they move about the
streets.... Their architects are crazy" (205).
Debord's essay, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography," discusses
the social background behind the urban geography he hates. Debord writes:
Illusions of privilege are linked to a general idea of happiness prevalent among
the bourgeoisie and maintained by a system of publicity that includes Malraux’s
aesthetics as well as ads for Coca-Cola.
Satirically attacking capitalism's illusions of benefit, Goodman describes
capitalist society: "The great society
... will be organized for the good of
all, and will coordinate unchanged its wonderful productive capacities to
heighten continually the Standard of Living
. You will buy many expensive things
that you do not ... need" (277).
To fight the spread of these illusions and to provide people with alternative
motivations, Debord suggests "the systematic provocative dissemination of a host
of proposals tending to turn the whole of life into an exciting game."
Goodman's characters develop just that: "There was to be a pentathlon of
dangerous social games.... These were to occur by surprise in moments of
expected ease" (220).
Goodman and Debord concur with regard to the notion of the city as a psychic
landscape to be studied. Debord tentatively describes psychogeography as "the
study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment,
whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of
individuals," and proposes that "research" be undertaken on the subject.
Goodman presents a "lesson plan," wherein students learn by experiencing the
city and observing passersby─part of this lesson consists of looking at
buildings and their associations with style and fashion, and another part of
contrasting people's reactions to the environment of the subway at different
times (126-127). This is a psychogeographical tour of New York City.
Goodman was certainly not alone in attacking the capitalist urban environment.
Examining the ideas of some of his overseas counterparts helps to show that New
York or the United States is not the only such environment; with respect to New
Urbanistic ideas, this may as well be The Empire City: A Novel of Paris instead
of New York.
Charles Fourier and The Empire City
It is clear that civilization has changed its character, and that monopoly and
stockjobbing, which are two commercial characteristics, have overthrown the old
order of things. Is this a subject of congratulation or of alarm? What is the
final result foreshadowed by this monstrous irruption of the mercantile power,
whose encroachments are constantly on the increase?
Charles Fourier (164)
Goodman not only uses ideas from his contemporaries. He also uses, consciously
or not, the ideas of classical socialists such as Charles Fourier. This
underscores the fact that Goodman's theories are not simply made up on the spur
of the moment, but reflect the work of many thinkers before him.
Charles Fourier was an 18th-19th century political philosopher. He believed
that people had dominant "passions" (which he developed a hierarchy of), and
that society was to be organized based on the various combinations of these
passions. He believed in an ideal society─something called the "phalanstery,"
where labor was meaningful and the distribution of passions ensured harmony.
Many of his ideas are represented in The Empire City, most notably his ideas of
education and social organization.
Goodman agrees with Fourier on the subject of education. Fourier believes that
"the first object" of education should be "to develop in earliest childhood
those vocations for which there is a natural aptitude, a natural instinct, and
to guide each individual to those functions to which nature designed him" (290).
Goodman's Minetta proposes a similar philosophy: "I am pushing a little
alteration in our method of ... guidance. We have to find the vocation, the
Furthermore, Fourier disapproves of schools. He writes, "What relation is
there between health and the training of our schools? In them the child is shut
up ... to plod over obstruse subjects in which it feels no interest. The mind
is dulled, while the growth of the body is injured. Our systems of education are
then contrary to nature" (295). Goodman expresses this opposition on many
occasions throughout the book. His protagonist feels it on an instinctive
level: "Horatio visited the school.... The prisoners were chained to their
desks, the angry voices thundered from the mountains.... In a very few minutes
the scene had Horatio by the throat. And when ... there rang ... the bell of
doom that declared that still another hour of springtime life had been sealed in
perdition, Horatio became panicky" (551).
Even with regard to the harmful consequences of the traditional family order,
Goodman follows Fourier. Fourier notes, "The family bond in the civilizee
regime causes fathers to desire the death of their children" (281). Goodman's
Horatio realizes this, and tells the mothers at his PTA meeting, "Ladies! When I
listen to you ... I get a distinct impression that you ... really want to murder
the children" (541).
Goodman's ideas of community organization seem to draw much from Fourier.
Fourier describes his passions, then writes, "When the 810 &91;possible
combinations of passions&93; are brought together and fully developed ... the
poorest individual may develop and satisfy many more of the passions of the soul
than the richest potentate can do in the present day" (117). Goodman, similarly,
advocates a "Community of Human Relations to provide for the formation of a
child's personality" (307)─one which consists of fixed ratios of personality
types, much like Fourier's passions.
Both also decry the present organization of society, which seems to have
changed little in a century and a half. Fourier writes, "The sovereigns, the
notables, and the financial tycoons will always have more than enough; it is
thus the masses and not the notables who must be enriched. Such is the problem
that eludes the learned: they pacify us ... to mask ... the absurdity of our
system of distribution" (156). Goodman echoes this classic sentiment: "Our
society had seemed to be organized as a factory and market, in which the
majority of ultimate consumers worked hard and accumulated nothing but years,
but a small number of enterprisers protected what they had and accumulated more
and more money" (149).
The remarkable commonality of ideas between Paul Goodman and Charles Fourier
highlights the fact that opposition to capitalist society (whether nascent or
mature) is not a new idea. The concept of formation of utopian communities such
as that which Goodman illustrates was begun with Fourier and his contemporaries.
This shows the continuity and universality of these ideas.
Gestalt Therapy and The Empire City
Well before he had made much of a mark as a social critic, Goodman contributed
his lengthy theoretical section to the textbook Gestalt Therapy ... it is
Gestalt psychiatry which provides the skeletal structure of any "system"
Goodman's thought possesses.
Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, p. 186
One of the primary, and demonstrable, influences on Goodman as a writer and
human being were the theories of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a
psychiatric movement (and the eponymous textbook, its founding text, to which
Goodman contributed an entire volume) focused around the notion of "Gestalt" ─
mentally-created "Wholenesses" or "structural relationships" of various forms
(Perls viii-ix). It holds that Gestalten are integral to awareness and human
understanding; an example of Gestalt formation is the automatic connections the
brain makes between three points, visualizing a triangle. According to the
Gestaltists, "The formation of complete and comprehensive Gestalten is the
condition of mental health and growth." Incompleteness results in "stagnation
and regression" (Perls ix).
An outgrowth of this focus on completeness and wholeness is a "mystical
'wholism.'" It extends not only to human psychology but also to sociology and
ecology; problems in the environment or society only arise when "psychic
factionalism ... segregates from the ecological whole a unit of defensive
consciousness that must be pitted against an 'external' reality understood to
be alien and ... hostile" (Roszak 187).
Book 4 of The Empire City begins with a lengthy epigraph from Gestalt Therapy.
This epigraph describes the impossibility, in present society, of using certain
"powers of human nature," and, as a result, these powers' association with
"irrelevant" other needs (426). This is well demonstrated in the book. For
example, Lothair's sense of justice and being right remains unused, and so
someone suggests that he change his focus. He realizes that "to be happy, he
only needed many human beings engaged in our common enterprise," and he sees
that this enterprise can be music. In this way, his sense of right and working
for a common cause is used at concerts instead, and he is satisfied (445).
One important feature of Gestalt therapy is its belief that "annihilating,
destroying ... and anger are essential to growth," and that "given rational
objects, they are always 'healthy'" (Perls 340). This belief is reflected in
The Empire City. During the formation of the "community of human relations,"
the community, first. agrees that a life must be sacrificed. Space is given for
everyone to express their litany of hatreds. Finally, the children are
described beating each other as a group, in turn (311-315). The community that
they create embraces natural aggressiveness; in the words of Mynheer, "In my
opinion there's enough hatred left here to inaugurate community relations.
Nothing to found empires on, no spectacular ... curses, parricide and
blasphemy─only the ... annoyances ... of 1948; but enough, enough to cement the
human relations" (316).
The basic conflict of Gestalt therapy is the question of the origin of
unnatural conditions in the "organism/environment field." How does this natural
order become suddenly unnatural? Gestalt Therapy acknowledges this problem:
The question may quite seriously be asked, by what criterion does one prefer to
regard "human nature" as what is actual in the spontaneity of children, in the
works of heroes, the culture of classic eras, the community of simple folk, the
feeling of lovers, the sharp awareness and miraculous skill of some people in
emergencies? Neurosis is also a response of human nature and is now epidemic and
normal, and perhaps has a viable social future.
We cannot answer the question (319).
The Empire City confronts this issue also. When Arthur and his committee meet
to find a "moral equivalent for war" (one that would fit within Gestalt's
criterion of naturalness), the result does not satisfy: "They burst out
laughing. For indeed, when it was all added up, they found that their peacable
equivalent for the war turned out to be precisely─the war.... It was the solid
laughter of comedy, that greets the moment when the great expectation comes to
precisely nothing" (220). Although war is unnatural and what they develop is
natural, the end result is the same─thus, the criterion turns out to be
The relationship of Gestalt ideas to The Empire City helps to give the latter a
solid theoretical footing. The novel's concepts of social and psychological
health are grounded in actual research. This serves to emphasize further The
Empire City's status as a non-trivial work of social theory, over and above its
credentials as a novel.
The Empire City brings out and defends a number of radical and unusual
concepts. However, it is not alone in doing so. Its anti-capitalist,
anti-statist, and holistic ideas of urban communitarianism fit like a piece of a
puzzle into a wide network of similar and related theories stretching back
hundreds of years. Analyzing some components of this contextual network helps
the reader of The Empire City to appreciate Goodman's work on a deeper level, if
not necessarily to agree with him.
Goodman, Paul. The Empire City. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001.
Fourier, Charles. Harmonian Man: Selected Writings of Charles Fourier. New
York: Anchor Books, 1971.
Perls, Frederick, Ralph F. Hefferline, Paul Goodman. Gestalt Therapy:
Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Dell, 1951.
Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture. New York: Anchor Books,
Ivain, Gilles. "Formulary For A New Urbanism." June 1, 2004.
Debord, Guy. "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography." June 1, 2004.
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