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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.


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May. 17th, 2007 05:31 am (UTC)
I haven't read SV yet--I keep meaning to, but I've only had a copy in my hands once, for a few minutes. I'm not nearly as proactive about such things as I, perhaps, should be. The first few pages were beautiful. :)

I enjoyed Midnight's Children, and Grimus most of all so far--it's not got the elegance of his other writing, but it's fun, fantastic, and I felt he had a lot of balls to do what he did with the ending. And what really amazed me was that I wasn't disappointed or pissed off about it. :)

Rushdie and Eco are my two top-recommended authors. :)
May. 17th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC)
i am, actually, reading my first eco book now--THE NAME OF THE ROSE. i quite like it, but it's a dense book, and it's taking me time to work through it (it doesn't help that i'm busy writing or tutoring these days, so i have less time to read). but i'm quite enjoying it.

i haven't read GRIMUS or MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, though i own a copy of it. i've just been saving it, for that moment when it strikes me. i have to admit, i am also a bit curious about GRIMUS--can't be much worse than FURY, i reckon :)
May. 17th, 2007 06:01 am (UTC)
THE NAME OF THE ROSE is beautiful, by me. I'm not much for re-reading things, but that I've read twice. What I'd steer you clear from is THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA. Maybe I missed something (hmm--now would be a great time to see what spoilers wikipedia has)... hmm, no, it has nothing beyond the obvious. And apparently it's going to be his last novel.

BAUDOLINO is my favorite romp of Eco's, but I have a thing for romps--almost as much as for dystopias. The other canonical work of his besides THE NAME OF THE ROSE is FAUCAULT'S PENDULUM, which I've tried to read three or four times--not that it's hard to read, but every time I get a few chapters in and the book disappears. I think two of the three instances I can blame on traveling, but...

I don't know FURY. Hmm. It's the barest stub of anything on wikipedia. ... glossed over Amazon's editorial review. Sounds sort of interesting. What did you hate most about it?
May. 17th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)
it's just very minor and sub par for rushdie. i didn't actually hate it--there are some nice moments in it--but we're talking a real minor book here.
May. 17th, 2007 06:06 am (UTC)
Ah, gotcha. Something to fill the moments, some day, perhaps.
May. 17th, 2007 06:11 am (UTC)
pretty much.
May. 17th, 2007 11:05 am (UTC)
GRIMUS was his first novel, I think, and not very good. MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN is one of the best novels I've ever read and is always one of the first I mention when someone asks me to recommend a novel to them. THE SATANIC VERSES was quite good too, though I think MC is Rushdie at the absolute top of his form.
May. 17th, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
yeah, GRIMUS is the first book, and i've heard it tanks, which i must admit, is why i'm curious to read it. if you've a first edition of it, it's reportedly worth a bit of cash.

they do say MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN is the best of rushdie.
May. 17th, 2007 06:56 am (UTC)
yeah, im a big fan of that term too. mongrel can pretty much be applied to any culture really..so any culture's claims to ontological purity are just patently mythical.

however, with respect to othering, i think you are damned if you do and you're damned if you don't, because it seems inevitable that you "other" no matter which way you approach "the other" (from the positive side of things, cultural respect so easily can become a weird kind of fetishism or paternalism, and from the negative side, ambivalence can so easily become ignorance and intolerance) so isn't recognising someone's difference (however respectful) from yourself, still othering them?
May. 17th, 2007 07:26 am (UTC)
yeah, pretty much. my way of figuring, though, is if you other everyone and everything, including yourself, it's better than pretending there's no differences whatsoever.
May. 17th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
Eco provides grand reading.

As far as names go the main thing is to explain what's intended.

---factory farmer
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