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May 17th, 2007

The Mongrel City

In the comments of yesterday's post, there was some talk about race portrayals in film. In a round about way, I mentioned Salman Rushdie's fine novel, The Satanic Verses, and the use of the word mongrel, which was picked up by Leonie Sandercock, later, and turned into the concept of the Mongrel City (though without capitalisation). I was hugely caught up in that word 'mongrel' a while back, and I've come to view it as a way to describe the modern life, which may or may not seem strange to people. At any rate, I thought it might be interesting to drop a couple of paragraphs that I wrote during my thesis on this, just to give you all a look at what was going through my mind as I was writing A Year in the City, and also because this is what I think of when I think of The Satanic Verses and if you haven't read the book, you should. Consider it today's retro recommendation. Ignore the shit about religion: to me, the book has always been about race, about culture, and about the hybridised nature of modern life.

First, however, a quote from Leonie Sandercock's Cosmopolis 2:

I will use the metaphor of the mongrel city to characterize this new urban condition in which difference, otherness, fragmentation, splintering, multiplicity, heterogeneity, diversity, plurality prevail. For some this is to be feared, signifying the decline of civilization as we know it in the West. For others (like Rushdie and myself) it is to be celebrated as a great possibility: the possibility of living alongside others who are different, learning from them, creating new worlds with them, instead of fearing them.


The term “Mongrel City” is deliberately confronting. It attacks the idea of purity, focusing in particular on white purity, and gives it an undesirable status, elevating the mongrel to the preferred status of being. The mongrel, a term associated with dogs, is used to define a dog who has bred outside the watchful gaze of a breeder and has lost its singular bloodline. The mongrel is, to the eye of those who assign worth, an ugly creature, the wrong combination of colours and shapes. It is an unwanted animal, found roaming the streets; a stray that could turn wild. By removing the term from its negative connotations, the word “mongrel” questions the value of white purity. The term thus has particular resonance for whites as it challenges white supremacy. To deny association with the Mongrel City is to align oneself with the Monoculture City, which is built upon the ideas of singularity and white racial purity. To align yourself with such an agenda is to look backwards to the White Australia policies and laws that attempted to shore up the white nation and protect its British heritage and bloodlines. To support the Monoculture City, then, is to subscribe to the phobia of racism.

The term “Mongrel City” is more evocative, for my purposes, than Sandercock’s original 1998 term, “Cosmopolis”. The latter was coined to define a utopian goal, an imagined environment in which “there is a genuine connection with, and respect and space for, the cultural Other, and the possibility of working together on matters of common destiny, a recognition of intertwined fates.” The term “Cosmopolis” has been formed from the word “cosmopolitan”, a word that is used to describe a person (or people) who are knowledgeable about, and experienced in, different cultures in the world. It is, however, a word that has always struck me as being one that also implies a certain amount of middle class mobility: to be cosmopolitan, the individual must have the means to move around the globe and, to my mind, this person is well educated, and with financial means. Cosmopolis is the perfect word for Sandercock’s utopia, for it is a bloodless, polite word, born out of the upper-middle class, and completely impractical and unachievable, as many utopian goals are. The multicultural city is not a refined lifestyle choice. It is, instead, a dirty, sometimes physically violent, other times emotionally bloody city. It is a city of power asymmetries and social injustice. It is a city that is fractured, scarred, and stitched back together as if Dr Frankenstein were creating the world, hovering over us as he did his monster, building it from pieces that twitched and moaned beneath his needle and thread, with the mismatched eyes watching his labours intently.



The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.