Sunday, 23 September 2012

Do You Think Culture is Order?

There is a tendency in western thought towards categorisation as the default mode for understanding reality that is, I think, inescapable. I certainly know I'm guilty of it; in fact, I greatly enjoy categorising and sorting things; making playlists of songs based on genre, for example, or identifying and discussing movements in art, which inevitably becomes a discussion, at least in part, of which artists should be included under a certain heading, which typify it, and so on. What is not as often acknowledged is that this mania for classification grows out of, and is related to, a more sinister fetish for dualism.

This may seem to be a bit absurd. After all, dualism is by definition the idea that if something is either one of two things, so how does it relate to situations where we have a whole range of choices about how to categorise something? What it is key to remember here is that an object or an idea isn't merely affected by one dualism. Deconstructing a categorisation choice into a range of binary dualisms is pretty easy. Say we have a ball that can be either red, blue or yellow. What we have to remember is that we can also say that the ball is not red, not blue or not yellow. That is to say, rather than think of a triple choice, we can also choose to say that it is affected by three dualisms, that of red/not red, blue/not blue, yellow/not yellow.

Of course, in the real world, things are a little more difficult. For a start, real world dualisms are generally not constructed logically. They impose a structure on the world, rather than arising out of the existing structure of the world. In a mathemetical or logical model, our above example works, but in reality there are an astonishing range of percievable colours, and perception of colour is bounded by different cultural and scientific models, not to mention differences in human biology. To call a certain range of hues 'red' or 'yellow' is a social construction, nothing more. This is the danger of categories. At their best, they can give us a linguistic or scientific model for discussing the world. At their worst, they offer a form of pantomime rationality, an attempt to crudely hammer the fabulous complexity of world into a preconcieved model. Dualisms, with their starkness, are particularly terrible at this.

One particularly malignant, but also very interesting, thing about dualisms is the way they intersect. First, let us acknowledge the clear fact, sometimes denied, that all dualisms contain a value judgement. One side of the dualism is positive, one is negative. Good/Evil. Order/Chaos. Life/Death. Sanity/Insanity. 

All those are false dichotomies of course; and some are rather problematic, but the real unpleasantness comes when we get into some other dualisms, like Male/Female, Black/White, Straight/Queer, Culture/Nature, and so on. To say that people who think dualistically associate all negative sides of dualisms together and all positive sides together is not an idle or lazy supposition. Certain associations (like that of men with culture and women with nature) have been widely discussed. The Harvard Implicit Association test, a psychological test that attempts to measure implicit racist, sexist and other attittudes by measuring how closely people associate, say, white faces and positive words vs. black faces and negative words, seems to give some empirical credence to the idea. Often, it is possible to understand a certain trend in thought or political movement by how it organises it's dualisms, by which sides it chooses as positive and which as negative. Many of these dualistic beliefs, like the bigotries revealed in the Harvard test, are of course unconscious, or perhaps reactionary. It is common, for example, to adopt opposite stances on many of these dualisms to your sworn political or cultural opponents. This can easily lead in to ideological traps.

Now we are going to see how this all relates to the matter at hand. What I'm trying to do here is return (once more) to the ideas explored in the introduction; the idea of urbanism. What this has all been building up to is the status of ubarnism on the political left, and how the championing of the city is the result of a complex of dualisms that appear at the heart of the theory of a cultural divide or culture war, both in the UK and the US (and from what I know, much of the rest of Europe as well). What we're dealing with here, basically, has it's roots in the enlightenment and the counter-enlightenment, which is typified by romanticism. Romanticism tends to be concerned with the natural environment, and the enlightenment is heavily concerned with the built environment; this much is true. On top of this, however, we have layers of meaning, re-organised periodically as the fault line of this supposed culture war shifts; from enlightenment vs. romanticism, to traditionalism vs. modernism, post-modernism vs. empiricism, and so on.  Enlightenment thinkers (including Bentham, he of the panopticon) conceptualised their ideas by thinking of bright, airy, open buildings, often designed to control and influence the people using them in rather sinister ways. Romanticists opposed this with the symbol of the forest; opaque, unknowable, labyrinthine, a space where all revelations would be a personal gnosis, sun coming suddenly through the canopy. This leads to association upon association. We can build up what I would like to call a 'table of positions', thus: 

It's easy to see from this how a set of dualistic, oppositional opinions begin to form a cohesive worldview. These are opinions that underpin a lot of modern urbanist thinking, although many would deny the further implicit associations that might be assumed by members of our kyriarchal society:

The narrative of the savage, barbaric countryside, full of ill-bred, unwashed, incestuous, ignorant, insular weirdos, is omnipresent. It is a staple of films: Straw Dogs, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance are straight-forward iconic examples, but it also invoked or played with in more sophisitcated works (classic British examples: The Wicker Man, Equus). It crops up again and again in television comedy, books, songs and other narratives. The countryside is opaque, unreasonable, badly sign-posted and incomprehensible. Its denizens  If the countryside is not portrayed as a place of terror, then it is instead a cultural backwater, a place to be made fun of, where people don't understand any of the finer or more interesting things in life. The justification for the bigotry and reactionism inherent in writing off a whole swathe of people because of where they were born is, in the minds of many people, the almost opposite, and much more explicitly oppressive, positional table constructed by many traditionalists and 'middle englanders' (who, it should be noted, generally don't actually live in the countryside or the city proper, but in the transitional suburban space between), which looks something like this:

It may feel instinctively right to oppose such an obviously reactionary worldview, but actually it's just as logically fallacious. Plenty of people will tell you that anyone who prefers the countryside to the city as a place to live must do so because they are afraid of ethnic minorities, homosexuals, modern culture. etc. It is an orthodoxy that all cultural activity must take place in cities, and that because of this the city must be not merely endured, but celebrated. People begin to construct counter-intuitive arguments; cities are apparently the greenest way to live, the fairest way to live.
Where exactly does this leave people like me? I can't live in cities; I'm psychologically incapable of it. Being in London for more than a few days actually causes me to become ill, whether it's through stress or bad air or exposure to a million people's germs or some psychosomatic factor I don't know. Whilst I appreciate the pro-urban arguments, my personal calculus comes down firmly against them. They seem to me to be self-fulfilling. Why not try to make the countryside more plural and multi-cultural? Actually, of course, many parts of the country are far more plural and multi-cultural than many city-dwellers would guess, but that's another matter. What I want to do here is take apart the association of anti-urbanism as being a right wing concept. Actually, I'd like to salvage romanticism as well, but maybe that's a fight for another post. The idea of the ubran as the ideal isn't necessarily an idea of the left, certainly not the socially liberal left. Perhaps the idea of 'left wing' embodied by the surveillance and ID card mad New Labour. The fact that the city is inherently malign is an elephant in the room in the works of many of the London psychogeographers. They criticise again and again, but they are too strongly wedded to the almost unspoken belief that the city should be a good place, so they are always intent on isolating the particular physical, legal and culutural developments that are to blame for its malady. Never do they feel comfortable admitting that maybe it is the city itself which causes the problem, which, as we have seen, is the belief that I personally hold. This betrays a more fundamental difference of opinion, in whether the city is seen as an active or a passive thing. We're retreading old ground here, of course, and yes, in practical terms, it is far more reasonable to think of altering the city than destroying it. The flipside of my critique of the city is not, I should like to hastily add, an uncritical love for the countryside. The Isle of Wight has an enormous number of problems, not all of them imposed by external forces. This is part of rejecting ideologies based on dualisms. You must also reject the idea that any place or state can be perfectly positive, and thus those other two great staples of western thought: utopianism and nostalgia. That sounds like a great title for a future post, so I'll end it there.

As an aside note, as I believe this things are of some importance, the title for this post comes from a sample in the song 'Sympathy for the Devil (Who Killed the Kennedy's Mix)' by Slovenian industrial supremos Laibach, which is, I believe from Jean-Luc Godard's film 'Sympathy for the Devil'.


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