Conviviality – the Zeal of Autonomous Intercourse

Weekly reflections as I study urban policy in Asia

Based on the reading(s):

Peattie, Lisa (1998), “Convivial Cities,” in Mike Douglass and John Friedmann, eds. (1998), Cities for Citizens: Planning and the Rise of Civil Society in a Global Age (London: John Wiley), 247- 253.


Reading my reflections from a fortnight ago, I could still feel the zeal in me at the prospect of co-designing my urban environment with the public housing planners of HDB.

“While I do not doubt that HDB planners would have done their homework, I wonder too if there’s value in greater consultation or, if there’s already consultation being done, greater publicity for these consultation exercises, such that the future residents might see themselves less as consumers, more as co-designers and owners of these urban environments. I know I would love to be part of the process.”

And, I only made the link after I finished Peattie’s piece, that the zeal I feel can be largely attributed to the prospect of “autonomous and creative intercourse” among potential dwellers of this urban housing estate, and with the planners and expert authorities. Indeed, there’s something uniquely pleasurable about chipping in and, as a collective of individuals, finding ways to “make and remake [our] world”. I’m thankful, thus, for the term “conviviality”. For one, it helps encapsulate a phenomenon in one word. What’s more, due to its uncommon usage, I imagine that I’ll be asked to explain what it means when I introduce this term.

In preparation for that time, and also for my seminar and term papers this semester, let me try to pry a little deeper.

I quite like how conviviality is contrasted with industrial productivity. The imagery of a nondescript workplace, where employees respond to environmental stimuli and “demands made upon them by others” is useful as a start. Yet, I wonder if there’s something hinted at in Peattie’s contrast between conviviality’s “intercourse of persons with their environment” and “demands made upon them…by a man-made environment”. I suspect I might be overthinking it, but does the difference lie in the purposive-ness of a man-made environment, a space usually designed for a defined purpose? Might such a purposive-ness inhibit autonomous intercourse while facilitating demand-response interactions? If so, would designing for conviviality be possible? How can we go about providing the necessary ingredients for conviviality without losing the autonomous nature or limiting the creative responses of convivial interactions? I suspect, Sen’s and Nussbaum’s thoughts on the capabilities approach might be helpful. Perhaps, it isn’t focusing on the outcome (conviviality) but focusing on the elements (capabilities) that truly matters.

After all, what forests possess is merely latent potential, yet a spark could set the night sky burning vividly bright.

Next, Peattie proposed conviviality as an “alternative central concept” to civil society. She also wrote shortly (and poetically) on “community” as pointing to the “human need for roots”, on “conviviality” as pointing to the “human need to flower”. At this point of Peattie’s writing, I drew a tree with roots and flowers and it’s a compelling picture.

Community as “roots”, conviviality as “flowering”

I wonder, though, if she was serious about “community” as “roots” and “to be convivial” as “to flower”. If she was, conviviality and community would share an intimate relationship – the flowering process is important, as a form of self-expression, a sense of accomplishment, and for propagation; all these, while the roots (of presumably a single tree) provide a boundedness through social practices, norms and contexts. A meaningful endeavour might then be to reason how community and conviviality interact, and how they might, together, help us make sense of and cultivate our forests of civil society.

Necessary relationship between the commercial and convivial

On conviviality as meaningful both as an end in itself and as means to political and economic utility, I appreciate Peattie’s exposition of the “necessary and even mutually reinforcing” relationship between the commercial and the convivial, between effectiveness and conviviality. I find that helpful in grounding my thoughts on civil society and city living. As we include these interactions, we approach civil society and city living not simply as thought experiments but as practical realities that we want to influence and enjoy.

Conviviality as human energy

Another point that I found useful was to understand conviviality as “human energy, a resource that can be used, can be contested and can turn against its handlers.” Understanding conviviality as a resource lends itself to economic thinking, in terms of production factors, supply and demand considerations, and even externalities, which can be helpful. I am cautious, though, to apply economic thinking, not economics as a body of knowledge with its steeped norms and conventional conclusions. At the same time, I am curious, too, if frameworks used in understanding ecosystems (multiple causal pathways and feedback loops) or forest fires (threshold considerations) might be useful too in understanding social energy and how to collectively harness or handle it.

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