Contagion and Cosmopolitanism

As I mentioned in an earlier post about Welcome to Our Hillbrow, one way to think about contagion is to view it as a potential interpersonal connection. In many ways you can think of it as materializing our interpersonal connections. Tony Sampson, in our earliest readings of the semester, pointed to a “too much connectivity” thesis in contemporary discourse about contagion, network society, and globalization:

The proliferation of global transport networks makes this model of society susceptible to the spreading of biological diseases. Digital networks become volatile under the destructive potential of computer viruses and worms. Enhanced by the rapidity and extensity of technological networks, the spread of social conformity, political rumor, fads, fashions, gossip, and hype threatens to destabilize established political order. Likewise, financial contagions cascade through the capitalist economy, inspiring speculative bubbles, crashes, and aperiodic recessions. (Virality, 1)

Sampson resists this fear-based notion of “too much connectivity,” choosing to focus instead on the political operations of the affect (fear) that travels alongside the meme that connection places us in peril. His effort reminds me of Anthony Appiah’s work Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but it especially brings to mind a more concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006. Appiah offers his version of cosmopolitanism as akin to “contamination,” but without the negative meanings we typically assign that word. When it comes to culture, Appiah writes, the real problem is the reflex to “preserve” or police 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? My colleague Cyrus Patell thinks so. In a post he wrote for a course we used to teach together in New York, he offered this take on Kushner’s resonance with Appiah’s thought:

What stymies cosmopolitanism? Fundamentalism of any kind, because the fundamentalist believes that he or she has all the answers and isn’t interested in conversation. The cosmopolitan believes in the necessity of talking and being willing to have your mind changed: what is the cosmopolitan to do then when faced with someone who won’t talk and whose mind is completely made up?

But cosmopolitans need to come clean: they tend to despise the provincials as much as the provincials despite them.

The test of the true cosmopolitan is the willingness to learn from everyone: even from the fundamentalist and even from the provincial.

For me that’s the significance of Kushner’s use of Mormonism in Angels in America: they’re both fundamentalists and provincial. Kushner’s Roy Cohn insults his erstwhile protege Joe Pitt by calling him “Dumb Utah Mormon Hick Shit,” but as anti-liberal is Cohn is, I’m sure it’s a sentiment that many good liberals share despite themselves.

Joe remains a provincial at the end of the play, but his mother, Hannah, who enters the play as the archetypal out-of-towner, dragging two suitcases and lost in an outer borough — she changes. She becomes a New Yorker, a process that the film version dramatizes effectively. (Check out Meryl Streep’s fashionable hairdo above.)

But the longtime New Yorkers learn something from her as well: it’s Hannah who tells Prior about the significance of the angel of Bethesda, and Prior invokes this knowledge in the closing moments of the play — in yet another affirmation of the play’s commitment to cosmopolitanism.

Speaking of Roy Cohn, there’s a new movie out about him. And speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.