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: