Appiah, cosmopolitanism, & “contamination”

I mentioned in class today Anthony Appiah’s effort to rehabilitate the notion of “contamination,” to use it without negative connotation. Some of you are probably familiar with his book Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but here’s a nice concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

The point about culture and “contamination” has to do with how futile it is, in Appiah’s view, to “preserve” something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

He brings the term up again in conclusion:

The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”

Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:

Belize: Hell or heaven?

[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]

Belize: Like San Francisco.

Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.

Roy Cohn: Isaiah.

Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.

Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.

Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.

Roy Cohn: And Heaven?

Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.

Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance?

Speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play:



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  1. Belize’s description of heaven is a fitting alternative example for the cosmopolitanism Appiah describes. The natural mixing and changing of peoples and culture is a positive contamination akin to cosmopolitanism. The other elements of the play celebrate this constant mixing and “exchange of perspectives” by near confusion of characters, actors, and stage setups. With one actor playing multiple characters, two scenes of lovers sharing the stage at the same time, and the muddled dream realm where people argue about whose imagination they are in, Angels in America creates an atmosphere that constantly reaffirms the beauty of the interconnected and shared human experience. Through this confusion, the emphasis on individual identity is lessened, and the shared qualities among all the characters are emphasized. With shared qualities emphasized, perspectives are more readily exchanged and accepted from person to person.

  2. Maybe, with an eye to the discussion we had in the other day about the cultural placement of the text – whether it is was inaccessible for those who did not live through the period in New York – it actually serves this purpose of confusion Diana is talking about. The chaos of the play is thus only heightened for the outside reader, which is a disorienting experience. These references and the chaos of the play as it moves from coherent dialogue to overwhelming apocalyptic, celestial scenes and back again invite the audience to feel a sense of understanding one moment and then the next, completely disoriented. In understanding the references that Kushner makes they feel a sense of belonging and in not understanding they feel excluded from the reference/joke. All audience members then have a completely different, unique experience when they see/read the play, where they are tossed between understanding and confusion, belonging and being external to the action. Maybe.

  3. I like the idea that there are different circles of belonging/exclusion to be navigated here, related to the problem of whether you “get” a joke, an “inside joke,” or a reference to some other text. The feeling of being excluded is something the play takes very seriously, which may be one reason Joe is exiled in the end — something Kushner has apparently felt some guilt about over time.

  4. I will try to fill in the gaps between Belize’s heaven and Appiah’s cosmopolitanism, since in the given ‘pure’ form this comparison very much, yet unfairly reminds me of a particular case of the Kuleshov effect. So, try to be Belize for a moment: in order to create a heaven in the imagination, you need to live in the hell in the reality. Should we perhaps define hell first through one of the previous Belize’s quotes then:

    “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.”

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