The Conscience of the Eye

Sennett begins with a polemical assertion: Modern cities are bland, neutralized spaces that wall off the differences between people, that reflect our fear of exposure to the Other. Cities are “spaces which remove the threat of social contact: street walls faced in sheets of plate glass, highways that cut off poor neighborhoods from the rest of the city, dormitory housing development.”

Why are cities such negative spaces? Sennett’s answer is that the negative experience of the city is rooted in Christianity’s privileging the inner space of consciousness over the external space of the physical world. The origin of the blandness and neutrality of urban space can “be traced back to the belief that the outside world of things is unreal.” The first half of the book is an elaboration of this obviously controversial thesis.

Sennett not only diagnoses the problem of the modern city but also offers a solution. The issue is how to “revive the reality of the outside as a dimension of human experience.” His proposal: a creative art of exposure. We need to expose ourselves to the diversity of city life and develop the conscience of the eye—an empathetic eye that clearly sees differences, affirms and even celebrates them.

THE CONSCIENCE OF THE EYE offers many provocative insights into the design of modern cities but is too much given to sweeping generalizations about complex historical and cultural issues. It does, however, force us to take a second look at how we view our lives in the city.