11.25.2006

"The" Problem with Dissoi Logoi

The New York Times has a pretty decent article (free subscription required) on the competition to attract talented young professionals to American cities.

Richard Florida's (author of Rise of the Creative Class) is prominently cited in this article, as he is the most visible proponent of the idea that attracting creatives to a region can help that region's economy. One of Florida's most vocal critics, Joel Kotkin, points out that amenities are not a particularly effective way of attracting these creatives. To be fair, Richard Florida does not call for amenities in either his research OR his popular books. Instead, he correlates creative class density to the three "Ts" of talent, techology, and tolerance. This final "tolerance" is where critics like Kotkin seize upon Mr. Florida's thesis (usually only hinting at "teh gays" meme in order to inflame while insisting on oblique ad hominem attacks and never quite laying out the logic of his argument). I have called Kotkin on this argument in his blog and in correspondence, but I think there is a deeper structural problem with the entire Creative Class Regional Economic development argument.

This excerpt from the NY Times article gets a little closer to the heart of the problematic either/or argument:

*snip*
Still, what works in one city will not work in others, Mr. Cortright said, and not all young people are looking for the same things. He cites Portland’s bike paths, which many point to as an amenity that has helped the city attract young people.

“I think that confuses a result with a cause,” Mr. Cortright said. Portland happened to have a group who wanted concessions for cyclists and was able to get them, he said.

“The real issue was, is your city open to a set of ideas from young people, and their wish to realize their dream or objective in your city,” he said. “You could go out and build bike paths, but if that’s not what your young people want, it’s not going to work.”
/*snip*

While the sophists were definitely onto something with their dissoi logoi method of argumentation (splitting any argument into two, opposed sides), a method that works well in an agonistic arena, it does some serious violence in situations where people must come together around a solution. The correlation/causation argument might be resolved in a vacuum, but when Richard Florida trots off to cities across the globe and gives the veneer of respectability to amenities projects and lifestyle solutions (like gay-friendly developments, etc.) it makes it tough to argue the "face value" of his stated premises of the three Ts. Furthermore, the correlation/causation argument hides the multiple issues that connect and divide cities. Some people want access to bike trails without having to deal with the dizzying display of non-normative behaviors and sexualities. Some urban professionals don't care about bicycles. The distortion of dissoi logoi is that somehow the opposition to a position (the "Creative Class" argument, say, or the amenity argument) can be usefully resolved. Kotkin's non-argument of the merits of the premises and Florida's willingness to endorse (at least in appearances) the amenities solutions he writes against in his book suggests that the major agons in this contest do not believe that the argument can be usefully resolved--a sort of cynical version of Gerald Graff's "teach that argument" (profit from the argument, really)

While there is a lot of money to be made with these endlessly proliferated "Fair and Balanced" arguments (see Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal, red/green, Ren/Stimpy), it polarizes communities. Which brings us back to the NY Times article, which posits what Michael Bérubé identifies as procedural liberalism as the way out of the binary opposition of dissoi logoi argumentation.

The NY Times article gives the last word to Mr. Kortner who emphasizes that a city must be "open to a set of ideas from young people, and their wish to realize their dream or objective in your city." That wish that citizens can not only dream unfettered, but also that these dreams can be discerned, discussed, culled, and ordered presupposes a forum (or more accurately, fora) that allows for this type of debate. Newspapers, talk radio, and television all opt for the horse-race description dependent upon dissoi logoi (a method, which the Kotkin and Florida reportage demostrates, destroys most of the dream/objective options available at a particular time).

More telling than the "last word" in the NY Times article is the discussion of the "winner" in the American talent contest, Atlanta. While it is certainly a model of tolerance that Florida discusses, it contains 25 universities, which, as Bérubé (and Florida) points out, provides a powerful set of fora for discussing dreams and objectives.

I think that New Media like blogs and podcasts could provide more distributed, organic, and incremental fora for capturing and working out the dreams of the community, but it will take more affectional ties to notions of geographic and spatial identity. More on that later...

1 comment:

tiny said...

The NYTimes article has another interesting tidbit. Demographers claim that people are highly unlikely to relocate after age 35. I've done so twice since 35 and I'm not 40. Hmmmm. Perhaps the standard for relocation is changing, or maybe I'm a mutant.