August 1st, 2005

operesque

Unspoiled Beach Syndrome

We live in a time when world travel is within the means of most, but when cultural differences are still quite significant. This certainly hasn't always been the case; although cultural differences before the age of global travel and global communication were undoubtedly greater than they are today, precisely the lack of communication and travel hid this fact from most people, who experienced reality in the form of a narrative dictated strictly locally.

Now we know about differences, and can experience them at first hand. But the global flows of knowledge about other ways of living do risk leveling difference, erasing specificity. That erasure hasn't happened yet, and it might never happen, but there is a "convergence model" which sees the whole world becoming one parking lot, one shopping mall. Let's call that vision "one world, one operating system".

What interests me is the fragile globalist period we're in just now, somewhere in between the "incommensurable differences" period of the past and a possible future with "one world, one operating system". In today's world, difference does exist, and you are able to experience it. I'm particularly interested in the use of this accessible system of cultural differences as an "elective affinities machine". Because it makes possible quite radically different life experiences for the individual.

Once upon a time the most you could do, if you were born in a small town, was drift to the big city. If there was no niche for you in a small place (no local paper to help you become a journalist, for instance, or no record label for you to send your demo tape to), you could head for the capital, where media systems existed. But now, in a global period when differences still mean something, you can drift to someone else's capital. A whole range of world cities opens up to you the way, once, the cities of your own nation did.

This matters because where cultures differ, criteria differ. You may be considered a duffer in your home town, but divine somewhere else. I remember the first time I went to Italy. I was at Rome airport. I saw old men dressed in incredibly sharp herringbone suits. "Here even the old men are groovy!" I thought. Later, on a holiday with my friend Babis in Rome, I was taken to the house of some Italian friends. I had zero confidence in my own looks, so I was astonished when a pretty Italian girl looked at me and said "E bello! He's handsome!" I didn't know how to react — no-one had ever said that in Scotland.

To this day, despite allegations that we live in a converging "world system" where everyone thinks the same way, I'm amazed by how an individual's fortunes in one city are totally different from his fortunes in another. In the last few years I've developed parallel careers as a journalist and an artist (what the French call un artiste plasticien contemporain) . But those doors have opened for me only in America, and specifically New York. Nobody in the other cities I've lived in—London, Paris, Berlin—has taken me seriously as either a writer or an artist. I've had hit records (my Kahimi Karie productions of the 90s) in the Japanese market, but never in the British market. I've been considered attractive in some cities (Tokyo, New York) and deeply unattractive in others (London, for instance, where a typical music press review would contain some line like "Momus makes Nosferatu look like a Chippendale"). If "location, location, location" makes all the difference in retail marketing, why wouldn't it make even more of a difference to your personal life?

One of the most important dates in my adult life is 1993, the year the Schengen Treaty lifted all boundary and visa restrictions for European citizens. I went immediately to live in Paris. In 1997 came The Amsterdam Treaty, designed to create within Europe "an area of freedom, security and justice without controls at internal borders for persons, whatever their nationality". Britain, Ireland and Denmark opted out of this treaty, and it has to be said that since 1997 the climate of opinion has turned against such free flows of people, especially when these people are seen as asylum seekers, migrant labourers, potential terrorists. The recent "no" votes in France and Holland in the Euro-constitution were widely interpreted as "fear of the Polish plumber" (not to mention the Turkish builder). Nevertheless, I still believe very strongly in the principle outlined in EEC Regulation 1612/68: "mobility of labour within the Community must be one of the means by which the worker is guaranteed the possibility of improving his living and working conditions and promoting his social advancement".

Trans-nationality has certainly worked for me. I don't see any downside, and I don't see why this basic privilege shouldn't be opened up to as many people as possible. One striking thing is that even when borders come down, the numbers of people who choose to move to countries other than their own is quite small. People from Britain didn't all rush to Paris when I did. Most chose to stay where they were.

Perhaps that's just as well, considering "unspoiled beach syndrome". Although I like the idea of Jamaicans and Bangladeshis defining what it means to be British just as much as Anglo-Saxons do, there's clearly a point after which the whole idea of Britishness would become vague and synthetic. That applies even to super-synthetic America after a certain point. What happens when America is mostly non-white, and mostly non-English-speaking? Is it still "America" if the President speaks Spanish? What makes America American? Its Middle Eastern religion, its German skyscrapers and hamburgers, its French jeans, its Australian-owned media, its Asian-financed budget deficit? Or some delicate association of all its cultural appropriations? Right now, that question isn't a critical one in America, but there might come a time when it is.

Do I consider that my presence in Germany is changing the definition of Germanness? Not really. I'm quite happy to let Germans define their own identity. On the other hand, on the level of cities (and really I'm much more comfortable thinking in terms of cities as slightly incongruous guests in the countries that host them) I do think that the Turkishness of Kreuzberg or the Bangladeshi feel of Brick Lane is an important part of the identities of cities like Berlin and London. It seems that cities have a much more flexible identity than nations do, to the extent that you can almost forget national identity when living in a big city. You can hang out in immigrant quarters, enjoying a different mindset from the national one. I like that feeling, it's one of the great things about big cities. In London I gravitated to South Kensington for its French feel, and Brick Lane for its Asian atmosphere. In New York my favourite place is Chinatown. Even in Tokyo, it's areas like Okubo, the pan-Asian district.

I'm absolutely the opposite of an assimilationist; I don't think people should be forced to speak in the language of the country they live in, or take lessons in its history, or pledge allegiance to its flag, or follow its dress codes. But in this, too, I seem to be out of step with the feeling of the times. Post 9/11, people equate difference with malevolence, with "the enemy within". Those "unspoiled beaches" we once thought would be spoiled by tourism ended up being spoiled by terrorism and neo-conservativism. We thought they'd be opened up to everyone, but instead they're private, hushed, patrolled 24/7 by paramilitary guards. Maybe what's happened is that "one world, one operating system" did arrive, but not in the form we expected. Instead of shopping and the free flow of goods and people we got the global operating system of war, "security" and internment; instead of "no borders" we got higher fences. What a disappointing 21st century it's turning out to be.