I got off the airplane at the Schipol airport, which was packed with people. I took the cab through overly crowded streets to my new home. As I walked around the city in the following days, I could hardly help but feel intimidated by the suffocating presence of other anonymous human beings, surrounding me everywhere I went. They were inescapable. The smell of people, the constant and unavoidable physical contact with strangers – strangers who all look and sound alike. I felt the city as a mass of indistinguishable beings, where “everyone [amounted] only to those qualities by which he or she can replace everyone else.”  The city was to me a perfect embodiment of Horkheimer and Adorno’s description of Enlightenment culture: that fascist society where the individual is universalized; where personal identity and freedom are murdered by the culture industry and by the other barbaric forms that have sprung from the “tendency toward self-destruction [that] has been inherent in rationality from the first.”  I felt as if I had been snatched up and flung mercilessly into “the crowd” of Baudelaire’s poems, and the shock was, at first, overwhelming. 
Eventually the shock began to wear off as I grew accustomed to the masses and began to understand them as an inevitable part of city life. However, just as I had begun to resign myself to the fact that Amsterdam was just as barbaric and indifferent as any other city, I experienced a moment of realization similar to that which one finds in Baudelaire’s poem, “A Une Passante.” As I stood outside a shop on Damrak, waiting for a friend inside, I began to look around me – to really look at the masses filing past me. And I began to see more than just a mass. In the poem, the narrator finds himself in a similar position: “The darkening street was howling round me when a woman passed on her way, so tall and slender, all in black mourning, majestical in her grief… And I, tense as a man out of his wits, drank from her eye.”  Individuals began to stand out from the crowd – two Muslim women with faces covered, a Dutch mother with her three kids hanging off the bike, a young couple with hemp clothing and dread-locked hair, a businessman, some slick-looking twenty-year-olds.
Suddenly I understood the mass to be more than just a barbaric incarnation of cultural regression, for these people were unique! (In fact, they were far more unique and various than the people from my hometown, who dress the same, listen to the same music, share the same friends, and even look essentially the same.) Just as Baudelaire’s narrator thinks to the woman, “Oh you whom I could have loved, Oh you who knew it,”  I suddenly felt overcome by a feeling of potentiality in the crowd. I suddenly understood that these people were not just anonymous objects in my way, these were my neighbors. These were people from whom I could potentially learn; whom I could potentially befriend; with whom I could potentially experiment.
Foucault describes (and agrees with) Baudelaire’s ideal modern man as “not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets, and his hidden truth; [but] he is the man who tries to invent himself.”  It is this self-invention, obvious in the very physical uniqueness of every single person who walked by me at that moment on the street, that made me so aware of Amsterdam as a center of modernity. Living here, I am more than just another member of the masses; I am an active individual among a multitude of actively self-inventing individuals. I thought about my roommate who had just gotten her nose pierced, and my other friend who had gotten her first tattoo, and I suddenly understood that here in this city I possess a freedom in my limitless possibilities of self-invention and experimentation – possibilities which had never really been open to me before. This awareness of possibility and drive to invent oneself exemplify Foucault’s definition of modernity as an ethos, “a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving.”  Modernity is the very understanding and embracing of personal possibility, and I had never felt this ethos so much as in this city.
Nevertheless, as I began to reflect further upon these possibilities of self-invention, I began to feel a bit overwhelmed. What would I do in my remaining time here? What had I already done? What should I do? Questions like these, which nearly everyone who comes to Amsterdam finds himself asking, made me realize that perhaps this freedom is more than a mere privilege, but also a responsibility. I found myself faced with the fundamental challenge of Foucault’s limit-attitude, “both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take.”  Sure, I could try all the drugs in the city that I cannot find at home, and spend time with prostitutes which are illegal in the United States, or even go out to clubs every night and party like I could never even imagine in my rural university setting; but perhaps I shouldn’t. I could not ignore the fact that the new decisions I make here, insofar as they contribute to my own self-invention, require a critical preconsideration – a critique similar to that found in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
As I began to wonder about ways I could take advantage of this new modern life in the city, I found myself thinking back on my life leading up to Amsterdam. The question, “what should I do here?” necessarily raised another question: “what have I done before?” Only through a critical examination of my past could I even begin to think about changing myself in the present, and this is precisely the attitude that Nietzsche adopts in his genealogical inquiries about morality. Nietzsche initially states the goal of his work, “we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined,” but he then goes on to explain that in order to achieve this critique “we need to know about the conditions and circumstances under which the values grew up, developed and changed.”  This idea of continuous critique is a fundamental characteristic of the ethos of modernity (as Foucault, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche all agree); but, even more importantly, a continuous critique of history is the only true method of affecting positive change in the present. Whether that be on a personal or universal level.
One might conclude that this permanent critique of history leaves us in a state of perpetual skepticism – a nihilistic attitude in which we are left with nothing but atheism, moral insecurity, historical futility, and an impossibility of truth (consequences which Jacobi argues are the only results of nihilism). But where Jacobi finds hopelessness, I find only opportunity. Sure, a consequence of the freedom in the city is a kind of disappearance of a universal morality; but is this really a bad thing? Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, in his The Gay Science, raises these very issues. After accusing the crowd of murdering God, the madman goes on to ask of them, “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”  Through the madman, Nietzsche admits that modern man is left without a God; but in this regard, modern man has essentially enabled himself to take God’s place. No longer are we subject to a strict universal code of morality, but we have a new freedom to create our own present and future through critiquing our past and inventing our own moralities. This is precisely the freedom of modernity that I and so many others have found in the city, where the individual is able to decide what is right and wrong for himself, and may in this way invent himself.
Having arrived at this understanding of the ethos of modernity, I find myself not just critically examining my own past, but beginning to draw a kind of broader comparison between Amsterdam and my hometown. What is it about the city that so fosters this attitude of modernity, and is it present in my hometown? Will my sense of freedom disappear when I return to the smaller, more socially controlled environment? Do I feel as though I have been given a privilege to live in the city, or is it a fundamental right that all individuals ought to demand? As David Harvey puts it, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city… The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”  By considering the city in these terms, Harvey unites the individual with the mass in a common goal of inventing not only personal identities, but also collective urban identities; in other words, it is a common goal of furthering human culture in general. It seems to me that Walter Benjamin shares Harvey’s ideal, and believes that the potential victory of the ethos of modernity that is so clearly offered by the city is a “redemption” of the failures of our previous generations (the kind of redemption that Nietzsche’s madman prophesized). 
Thus I find myself and my neighbors in the city not only offered the freedom of self-invention, but also charged with the responsibility of historical and moral critique. From this critique we as individuals invent ourselves, construct ourselves; and since we all share in this same freedom, we are all contributors to a broader cultural construction. Insofar as the city of Amsterdam fosters this ethos of modernity, and provides a favorable setting for real cultural and moral progress – and perhaps even redemption – can it truly be called a modern city.
 Adorno, Max, and Theodor Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: SUP, 2002, pp. 116-117.
 Adorno, Max, and Theodor Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: SUP, 2002, p. xix.
 Benjamin, Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations. London: Pinlico, 1999, p. 162.
 Baudelaire, Charles. “A Une Passante.” The Complete Verse. Edited and Translated by Francis Scarte. London: Anvile Press Poetry, 1986, p. 186.
 Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 42.
 Ibid, p. 39.
 Ibid, p. 47.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Preface.” On the Genealogy of Morality. Edited by Keith Ansell-Pearton. Translated by Carol Diethe. GM Preface 6, p. 8.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974, pp. 181-82.
 Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review 53 (September/October 2008): p. 23.
 Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. London: Pinlico, 1999, p. 245.