Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Oscillating Adjective

Vibrant: characterized by or exhibiting vibration; pulsating or trembling; giving an impression of vigour and activity; caused by vibration, resonant; pulsating; energetic; (Linguistics / Phonetics) phonetics trilled or rolled; moving to and fro rapidly.

If you are one of those who, like me, quickly tires of the overuse or mis-use of words, words which become so ubiquitous in the culture of language that they become overburdened with associations and familiarity, applied willy-nilly to every situation and every opportunity, acquiring a politically correct significance far in excess of their value, then you'll understand my frustration with the word vibrant

In my opinion, vibrant has come to be a kind of shorthand adjective for the multi-cultural nonsense which we see expressed everywhere in the media these days. Originally, vibrant described a phenomenon of vibration, that is, literally a thing that vibrated or oscillated or trembled or buzzed. Electric motors operated on the oscillating current principle. The human voice box is a vibrant mechanism. As it has come to be employed, anything that involved a considerable amount of movement, such as a crowd, or a busy mass of molecules, was referred to as having a vibrant quality. 

Public relations people, searching for favorable adjectives to apply to events or circumstances or situations which they sought to characterize as attractive or desirable, began to use vibrancy as an ideal state or condition. A pedestrian mall, or a street fair, or a shopping district, or an ethnic neighborhood, might all signify vibrancy, by which was meant busyness, congestion, confused integration, chaotic activity. When city councils or mayors or business promoters or corporate planners or architects or city planners wanted to con the community or a permit department into approving some sweeping change in an urban or suburban context, they invariably described the new project or plan as producing vibrancy

The city planning revolution in post-War America was driven in large measure by the European medieval model of a vehicle-poor urban matrix, in which the general populace, limited to a narrow geographical range by a lack of portability and means of transport, were forced to carry out their trade and commerce in city plazas or squares. The American towns and cities of the 19th Century had grown up around the wagon, the train (or trolley), and the horse; in the 20th Century most American cities and towns were adapted to, or constructed to, accommodate cars and trucks. This priority led to various kinds of vehicular congestion, as the suburban, car-oriented paradigm developed in the post-War period. Suburbia tended to segregate people, drawing them away from the old urban centers. As the middle and upper classes fled the cities, the poor were left behind. The inner cities died. 

It wasn't so much that suburbia was bad, though some of the cookie-cutter "instant town" tract developments certainly were dehumanizing and dull, as that there had to be an antidote to the decay of the cities.  City planning theorists looked at the remnant inner city traditions and decided that the way to restore lively city life was to resist vehicles. Automobile dominated streets, parking and associated pollution were the problem. Suburbia had developed because of the car. The solution was to get people out of their cars, to prevent them from getting into the cities and towns via cars, to expand public transportation, and generally discourage private vehicular commerce altogether. 

Progress in the 19th and 20th Century was based on the rapidly expanding infrastructure of roads and transportation axes: Planes, trains and automobiles. Given a choice, the vast majority of people of even modest means will select the freedom and convenience of a private vehicle. America's industrial predominance was built on cheap transport and portability, and the universal access to a well-designed and constructed internal combustion-powered automobile. The city planning model of the post-War period was in direct contradiction to the very mechanisms which had made American prosperity possible. 

The new model required that we turn back the clock, to "force" people and businesses back into a pre-industrial condition in which people were trapped inside the inner city, made to conduct their affairs in a narrowly confined space, and limited in their access to the means of transport. That paradigm required that we restore our cities and towns to a condition of "vibrancy"--but at considerable sacrifice of all of the values people had chosen when they had fled the crowded, dirty, inconvenient, and expensive downtowns in the first place. 

With the coming of the multi-cultural revolution, racial and ethnic diversity was touted as the new social and political ideal. Since "minorities" and foreigners and immigrants were poorer and more likely to be trapped in the decaying ghettos of the inner cities, the new ideal urban matrix would be one in which integration, limited means and access, and simple pleasures should be encouraged. In preference to the balmy seclusion of the suburbs or country, vibrant centers of activity were preferred. It was difficult to see how comfortably situated families or individuals, living in relative peace and privacy in the suburbs, could be lured into this new teeming vibrancy.  

The whole trend of human desire and aspiration throughout history has been towards comfort, safety, prosperity and opportunity. The move away from the enforced crowding and inconvenience of the city was a natural process, which the suburban expansion of the American post-War prosperity facilitated. The socialist ideals of cooperation and common purpose dictated that people would willingly join together to obtain these universal ideals. But as we have seen in the 20th Century, attempts to impose such conditions from the top down, either as regulation or as voluntary option, have proven to be coercive and retrograde. 18th and 19th Century social and political theorists saw the old cities and towns as confining, unhealthy crucibles for disease, crime, hardship--virtual prisons of existence. They believed that escape would be an emancipation. 

Today, whenever I hear shills and press agents and developers pushing the "new, vibrant" possibilities of automobile-free urban "zones" I immediately get a vision of frenetic insects buzzing inside a vast hive, their antennae oscillating with Tweets and texts, scurrying about from kiosk to busstop, burdened with backpacks and product logos, searching vainly for a public restroom, clutching their purses and wallets against pickpockets. It's the new urban paradigm, vibrating and trembling and bouncing and jostling back and forth with desperate energy and confusion. 

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