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Dark Age Ahead

technical practice - Jane Jacobs. Random House, 2004. 241pp. £16.95

Aged 88 when this book was published, Jane Jacobs is certainly the grande dame of urbanism and it must be worrying for this book to be described on the dust jacket as 'the crowning achievement' of her career. While its title sounds like yet another millenarian offering - in the spirit of Sir Martin Rees' Our Final Century: Will The Human Race Survive the 21st Century? - it proves to be much more upbeat, engaging and intelligent than that.

However, while this book has clear intent, each chapter portrays a hurried urgency and a curious lack of concentration, typical perhaps of a woman in touch with her own mortality. As the structure collapses somewhat, the positive intent of the 'cautionary message' suffers greatly. That said, it is a very rewarding read.

A Dark Age is the dead-end of culture.

Essentially, Jacobs' premise is that cultures have tended historically to die out as a result of external forces invading and destroying the memories of the subjugated peoples or countries, whereas this is not the danger today. Today, more than at any time in history, Culture with a capital 'C' is in danger of imploding; of being destroyed from within.

This is a profound pronouncement, which leads Jacobs to examine the five key pillars of culture that have become 'ruined and irrelevant', and she uses each chapter of the book to explore why this has happened and what can be done to rescue them (rather than simply shore them up). Her five pillars are:

community and family; education (specifically higher education); scientific research; governmental patronage and tax-raising;

and 'self-policing by the learned professions.' These five, she suggests, are central to the further breakdown in societal and personal values, judgements and integrity. From the toppling of the five pillars springs racism, delinquency, electoral abstentionism, envirocrime, etc.

Her chapter on the family, which begins with a healthy assertion that families, extended families and communities are essential socialising influences on children, turns into a rant against the car as the principal cause of community fragmentation. The chapter on education has a very important thesis about the creeping 'credentialising' that has resulted in education being seen as a route to a job rather than valuable in its own terms.

'A degree, ' she says, 'and an education are not necessarily synonymous.' Her thesis about the malaise affecting education is cleverly allied to the experience of the Great Depression when, she argues, financial and physical hardships affected the US employability psyche.

The cult of the job expresses itself, for Jacobs, in a situation where 'even the threat of global warming is not considered as important as a threat of job loss'. A rather anodyne conclusion - and one which panders to the anti-Bushite mood of the times. Rather than situating the fall of decisiveness, a collapse of reason, a failure of self-confidence in the specific historic moment symbolised by the death of ideological clarity (the end of progress and the culture of fear, etc), Jacobs prefers an ahistorical approach.

In general, though, her insightfulness shines through and she suggests that a cultural renaissance depends on 'educated peoples, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding.' Unfortunately, because her critique lacks political depth, she often panders unintentionally to the prevailing reactionary moment - elevating the importance of antisocial behaviour, US consumer culture, business intentions, unaccountablity and localism, for example. However, her defence of critical thinking (in the true sense of the phrase), her demand for more scientific rigour and her belief in judgemental standards are refreshing rejoinders to the prevailing cultural relativism.

At the heart of the book is a circular argument: the idea that culture collapses because of a cultural collapse; but nonetheless, it is a positive contribution to the debate about the future. It is a rare example of a contemporary book that tries to look at the essence of the societal malaise in its broadest terms. My final gripe, stemming from the awful Notes and Comments 'chapter', is that if the sub-editor and editor are unwilling to edit, maybe Jacobs herself should exercise some of that self-policing that she advocates so well in the book. Hopefully, this is not the culmination of Jacobs' life's work but possibly it is with the current publisher.

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