I saw a map at the national history museum in Zanzibar that sort of whipped my head around. It was a map of the region to which Zanzibar belongs, circa 1700. It included modern Indonesia (a couple thousand miles away) but not the Gr
eat Lakes (where I’d come from a scant 24-hour bus ride away) because the ocean is where the action was. Water was easy to travel on, and so port cities were ‘closer’ to Zanzibar than nearby inland cities — land divided people, oceans united them. People living in Zanzibar at that time were residents of the Indian Ocean, not residents of Africa, and people living in Karachi were their compatriots. It was the same, I think, for “residents of the Mediterranean” at that time — Nice had more in common with Tripoli than with Brittany.
Now this has changed completely. We are residents of land masses, and we are most easily connected to (and so associated with) people who share that land mass. It is lines across land that join us, not lines across the ocean.
That 180 degree shift is worldview is fascinating. Zanzibar was a liminal society and its residents could look one way or the other. They looked to the ocean. But while Zazibar was geographically liminal, and this shaped the collective identity in large ways, it is interesting to think about how we are all liminal. We all exist on edges between things. Everyone with at least two aspects to their identity — and we all have that — can choose if and when to look one way or another. It is up to each person to choose where to look, and that choice does a lot of work in defining identity.
We also do this collectively. I’m reading a fascinating book called The City & The City by China Mieville. It depicts two cities, from two separate states, that are physically intertwined. You might have one building that is part of city A, and the neighboring building is part of city B. The intertwining is too complicated for walls, so there is no physical boundary. Instead, a powerful taboo has developed, for unknown historical reasons, that forces residents of each city to “unsee” the areas and the people that are part of the other city.
Doesn’t this happen in every city? When you walk through New York aren’t you trained to “unsee” homeless people? It’s like there are two cities there that are entirely entangled but whose differences we work hard to maintain. It seems unnecessary to go into all the ways that the aid industry maintains parallel societies like that. The City & The City is a book in the best tradition of Fantasy: it takes an actual phenomenon and explodes it to an extreme that lets us better see ourselves. And it looks pretty bad.
A street in Hebron, Palestine, where the first floor is “Palestine Authority” and the upper floors are “Occupied Territory.” The settlers upstairs
throw their trash out the window onto Palestine, which they appear to be
throw their trash out the window onto Palestine, which they appear to beunseeing.
We don’t have to make that choice. We can choose to be very sensitive to the differences between identities, as in Hebron and in The City & The City. Or we can choose not to, as in San Antonio. San Antonio has always been such a great place because of the way that it embraces its combined identity. It’s why I like Al Jazeera English, too. It’s the most truly globalized media we have because it deliberately deconstructs barriers. Their “Playlist” program captures this: it is a music program that specifically seeks out fusion music, and fusion always makes the best music. Why not for everything else, too?
If you’ve ever read anything on this blog, you can see where I’m going with this. On the one hand, differences are arbitrary, and thinking categorically about differences is an exercise in power over others. On the other hand, claiming a facile solidarity with people whose lives are different in a very material way sets up situations where one group of people is making decisions for which they aren’t accountable, and that can be bad.
This isn’t a question to be raised only in the abstract. Categories have been good to me. In terms of nationality, gender, race, sexuality, and class, I live in a society where those identities protect me. To what extent have I protected those identities? Which is to say: on how many decisions of personal behavior and preferences of social policy have I erred on the side of conformity, because I feel I have something to lose by loosening my grip on those categories? In a broader sense, to what extent am I oversensitive to this whole question precisely because continuing to frame issues in this lens suits me?
The answer is: a little bit, at least. A couple nights ago Clara and I were talking about queerness. She said she is. And I was like, We are? ’Cause, you know, I thought… She ‘splained it for me. Queer identity is not (only) about personal behavior, it’s about refusal to recognize distinctions of sexuality. To identify as queer is to answer, to the question of what one’s sexuality is, “I reject the premise of the question.” My hesitation to see this means that I think the distinction does exist, a priori: one can choose one’s category, but the categories are there. That presumption must affect my behavior, somehow.
This would be the right time to wrap up this post with some synthesis, but I haven’t got one. Will have to wait for a later post. Much later, I bet.
Update: This guy seemed to have figured it out: The Plummer Professor Of Christian Morals, RIP. I heard him give a sermon once, and it was clear that he was broadcasting his complex personality while playing fearlessly with the content of the identities he associated himself with. But I never got to see him in his element, at his home, which is a missed opportunity I really regret.
The Update & The Update: Another interesting way that people cognitively separate themselves from others: across time.
“Now, nearly two centuries after Rio’s notorious Valongo wharf began operating, local archaeologists believe they may have located the slave port’s ruins during a multibillion-dollar, pre-Olympic renovation of the city’s harbour. ‘As soon as the discovery was made I went there,’ said Washington Fajardo, Rio’s secretary for cultural heritage. ‘It is a moving experience, seeing an existing city and then another city two metres below.”
Re-up date: it’s been said and blogged before, but it’s still worth reading every time:
Gender will be eliminated by the revolución.
Via the Island.