010413 the second

April 1, 2013 § 3 Comments

i posted some quick thoughts on Anne Norton’s new book at AUFS, here. In the weeks since it has been growing on me, once i realized it is not meant to be a monograph and that the shape of its argument is different from what i first anticipated. It has been growing on me for its capacious imagination, the generosity of the vision it offers. This can be gleaned by the following quote she discusses from al-Farabi (d. 339/950) describing the democratic city, which also serves as epigraph to the book. What it means, in short, is that the questions of democracy and the future are held in common if answered variously, and that the anxieties that coalesce and congeal around the figure of the Muslim simply need not. And the relief this offers is immense, as it replaces the current frame of politics with another. The quote:

On the surface, it looks like an embroidered garment, full of colored figures and dyes. Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it, and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages…. Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents. All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it…. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses. (133)

And i found myself reminded of this quote and this book an afternoon last week, when i dropped off a shoulder bag to be mended (i tore off its strap a couple of weekends ago while wandering a maritime city). The soft-spoken, middle-aged tailor squinting at his sewing machine was playing a recording of Qur’an recitation in his shop as the raucous throngs of foul-mouthed teenagers off from school jostled each other as they passed the corner outside. He had pictures up in his shop of his daughter smiling surrounded by flowers in front of a snowy mountain peak in Iran. And as i left the shop for campus a few minutes later (a seven minute bus ride from this neighbourhood of rich white families then a half-hour subway ride from a station marking the boundary of a strongly immigrant-Bengali stretch of a thoroughfare on the other side of the tracks) i was reminded of what struck me about this city when my sister and i first visited for a week in February 2008. It was its plenitude, the fact that among the grime and recycled air of any subway trip you will hear multiple languages. Of course English is the imperial medium and there are a host of racialized class politics that structure this plenitude, but they do not determine it. “In the diversity of your tongues and hues…,” recites the Qur’an (30:22), and also “and We have made you tribes and families…” (49:13). This inspires that vision.

The counterpoint to this image and promise of the cosmopolis, which Norman O. Brown argues is essentially a theocratic structure and prophecy the response to its corruption, is glimpsed in these pictures a friend shared on FaceBook recently. They are pictures of the teeming skies above cold dark cities. They ask: what if the city is not the vital site of plenitude and forms of life? What if the city is not illuminating? For as in these lines of a poem by Jan Zwicky, lines that have stayed with me in the years since Lara first showed me them, “evil is not darkness, / it is noise. It crowds out possibility, / which is to say / it crowds out silence.” What if the languages of the city are only so much noise? This is a matter neither of light pollution nor some organicist concept of community corrupted nor a phonocentric resentment of mediation. These pictures are an instance of prophetic critique.

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