Friday, November 11, 2011

Seeing the Unseen: The Cultural Significance of China Mieville’s “The City & the City”

(Be warned: this essay assumes you have read The City & the City.  Look here for my review.)

What do Berlin and Jerusalem, Rome and Nicosia, Kirkuk and Shanghai have in common?   The answer is that all are or were divided cities; Berlin into east and west districts after the Allies could not come to terms following WWII; Palestinians and Israelis share the holy city of Jerusalem; Kirkuk falls on the border of Iraq and Kurdistan; Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century saw large chunks of land conceded to a host of Western countries taking advantage of China’s political and economic weakness.  Such political and geographical combinations beg questions, such as: with another group so different yet so close, what would life be like in these cities?  In an everyday routine, would one even be aware of the other side?  Or perhaps, would a person be all too aware, the threat looming?  The enmity anti-Catholic Italians direct toward the Vatican is certainly limited compared to the open warfare that seems a perpetual part of life in Jerusalem.  And what of perception?  How would living so close to another group affect a person’s mindset regarding the other?  Minor in comparison to the yet-to-cool relationship among the Balkan states, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall prejudices still exist between former East and West Germans.  Thus, the idea of divided cities seems to remain as alive as ever.

Such questions regarding the cultural mindset of people living in divided cities are not often asked by the average Westerner today.  This is despite that in an ever globalizing world—a world growing in closer contact everyday—the subject would seem to gain poignancy.  It is interesting, therefore, that China Mieville’s 2009 The City & the City has taken the divided city as its main plot device.  By examining the nature of cultural norms and stereotypes embedded deeply in the regard we hold for our neighbors, a vision emerges from Mieville’s text, one which explores the idea not only at the individual level, but is keen to address the degree to which cultures and societies are indirectly taught to see the people and groups beyond.  It is this aspect of perceiving—the subjective nature of human vision—which warrants further unpacking and is the subject of this essay.

Taking full advantage of the real world, Mieville uses examples from contemporary reality to create his own urban amalgam of The City & the City: the more archaic Beszel alongside the progressive Ul Qoma.  Not purely analogous, shading and minor details hint at the wide variety of source data for these two cities.  Michael Moorcock, in his review for The Guardian, describes Beszel as “Balkan” in flavor, “the featureless concrete, rattling trams and antiquated office equipment invoke[ing] Greene's The Third Man and Vienna's zones of occupation. You can almost hear a zither twanging somewhere in an echoing sewer.”1  At the same time, Ul Qoma is more economically open-minded, the streets tinted in neon, rendering the city, as Andrew McKie describes in his review for The Spectator, “a more prosperous metropolis reminiscent, perhaps, of the modern sections of Istanbul.”2  Each side has their own government, legal system, social infrastructure, and culture with a single international border crossing restricting flow between.  The nature of the actual division between the cities, however, is where Mieveille earns top points for originality.  Utilizing the literary canvas to eschew the physical approach of building a concrete wall to separate the two halves, Mieville instead constructs a mental wall within the minds of the populace.  Barriers that does not exist in reality are instead superimposed by the mind’s eye.  And Mieville uses this premise to examine the interrelationship of two cultural groups who quite literally live aside one another yet remain separate by perception only.  

Called “crosshatching,” the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma do not see each other in their daily lives much the same as the average Westerner walking down a city street ignores homelessness and poverty.  Despite that the two cities often share the same avenues, buildings, and parkland, the denizens of each walk the streets intentionally ignoring the other.  Taught from birth to “unsee” the foreign clothes, places, people, etc., both exist in a self-enforced oblivion, even if walking at arm’s length or even driving the same road.  While seeming far-fetched, the idea nonetheless raises numerous issues.  What features of Western life are we trained to “unsee”?  What aspects of our daily lives go intentionally ignored?  And more generally speaking, what exists in our familiarity but remains unseen?  Upon closer examination, an few important answers to these questions arise.  

By stereotyping at a cultural level or profiling on racial terms, the details that define a person or group are missed.  The characteristics we should identify with have been rendered irrelevant by the intimations and teachings—intentional and unintentional—of the educators.  More than the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, however, the aspects of others we are “taught” to see derive from a force that operates at a much deeper level within culture than pedagogy.  Beyond dichotomies of living spaces, let us examine some of these larger forces at work within what seems homogenous culture on the surface.

Depending on the decade, a corollary can be made between current American political/economic interest and the “enemy.”  For many years it was the Russians, but as the Cold War broke, enmity was directed for a short time at the other large enclave of communism, China.  The Chinese economy fizzling in the late 80’s, a new enemy was needed, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait served as a welcome opportunity.  Though North Korea appears in the media as a spot of concern, the Middle East and terrorism have since received the lion’s share of political glare, especially after 9-11.  (Interestingly, the same corollary can be made in Hollywood, many formulaic action films portraying the antagonist as operating in the interest of the enemy of the moment.)  Questions too arise from this observation.  Are Middle Easterners really the enemy of Americans?  Does the life of the average person—the shop owners and taxi drivers—in Beirut negatively affect the lives of their New York counterparts?  Through what channels and under what authority are we made to perceive them as the enemy?  Beyond geography, looking at the most commons modes available, mass media, government propaganda, and entertainment interests would seem the strongest points of influence on American opinion.  

Moving from the political to the commercial, another aspect of subtle influence on the American societal mindset would seem corporate maneuvering for economic interests.  The result is that a scenario has been created wherein material gain is an acceptable and worthy goal, “keeping up with the Jones’” a priority.  The commercial advancement of a business, and thus the individual, are related as extreme importance.  Spoon fed the latest goods and products, people are left half-ignorant of the mechanisms operating their economic system.  Who benefits from the money I earn and spend?  What are the business practices of the companies from whom I purchase?  Are they acting in my future interest?   Is it acceptable not to have the most advanced products?  What are the indirect effects of the manufacture of these products?  The answers to these questions are the “unseen.”  What is “seen,” however, are the advertising campaigns, media statements as well as corporate decisions.  These set a standard the populace observes as acceptable to follow.  It would not be an overstatement to write that most corporate media serves to confuse the eye as to the real social, moral, and economic issues laying at the heart of modern commercial endeavors.  Thus, the meaning of “crosshatching” has never taken on such profound symbolism before.

Mieville’s use of this artistic technique—perpendicular lines up close but solid shape at a distance—serves as a metaphor for the blurring of realities.  It is a veiling of truth that highlights the subjective manner in which we view “the other.”  The City & the City divided into three parts, it is the second which finds Detective Borlu, the protagonist of the novel, leaving his native Beszel and crossing over into Ul Qoma to continue a murder investigation.  He goes into the “other.”  Despite dutifully attempting to reverse his mindset—to “unsee” his home city—Borlu finds himself unable to ignore all of the familiar places and people.  Greeted with hostility by the Ul Qoman police, he likewise finds it difficult to adapt, and as a result feels isolated.  His mind is telling him he’s lines in a solid area.  Such an outcome is to be expected given the setting, but where Mieville advances the point to a more profound level is in the third and final section of the novel when Borlu moves to “Breach.” 
A constant threat looming over the citizens of Beszel and Ul Qoma, Breach is the third active group in the novel.  Appearing only when a citizen crosses the line into the other city illegally, Breach remains a mysterious political entity hanging like a dark cloud over the action of every person.  An interesting concept considering no physical wall exists to separate the two cities, Breach monitors all the crosshatched areas, watching for people who either physically cross the virtual line, or even look at something for more than a few seconds on the other side.  Breach offenders are quickly snapped up, some never to be seen again.  The action which leads Borlu to be taken in by Breach is of significance.  Tracking an assassin who has recently killed a person seeking political asylum, Borlu is on the wrong side of the street and cannot apprehend the man lest he move through the crosshatching and evoke Breach, which would effectively end the pursuit.  Running in parallel, Borlu pursues until the two reach a point where the assassin can is about to diverge out of sight and out of reach.  Borlu is faced with a decision: shoot the man and evoke Breach, or do nothing and allow the man to escape?  That Borlu chooses the former is of utmost significance to the theme of the novel.  After seeing the assassin drop dead from his gunshots, a man wearing black sweeps in from nowhere and takes Borlu away, forcing him to face the mysterious unknown: Breach.  

The reader expecting something from 1984—the likes of Smith being brainwashed by the Thought Police—Borlu faces a similar, though less harrying series of questions.  More interested in factual information and peace-keeping than brainwashing, Borlu eventually ends up in the employ of the mysterious entity, helping seek out the root cause of the violence incited by rebel political factions haunting both cities.  By doing so, Mieville subverts our expectations of Breach.  It is not an evil entity concerned with harming those who cross the line.  Rather, its concerns are larger, the protection of an existing situation from spiraling downward into a bloodbath of foremost concern.  What if the Israelis and Palestinians had a political entity like Breach ensuring peace?   What if the Berlin wall had been monitored by a neutral third party rather than the Russian military?  
The weight of this idea rests on the idea that Breach is impregnable.  Beyond political and economic interests, the presumption is that influence would be impossible from either side.  But the idea of having a mediator, a group to keep the cultural, political, and economic interests of two sides at bay, is a worthy and inspirational goal.  Perhaps it is one the United Nations aspires to?  That Borlu ends the novel, one foot in the proverbial shoe of each culture, seems the point Mieville was making.  Differences can and do exist, but nothing is gained by ignoring, fighting, or enabling them.  By taking the overview position, better decisions can be made regarding the relative interests of each group involved.

If China’s Cultural Evolution or Hitler’s brainwashing of Germans have taught us anything it’s that thoughts are malleable.  Humans can be made to believe and act on any principle, up to and including genocide.  But war and revolution are extreme situations.  What of our everyday lives?  What beliefs do we have that are the result of the sublime rather than the overt?  Beyond obvious historical or cultural divides, in what prejudices and discriminations do we unwittingly collude?  It is digging deeper, seeing through the shaded solid to the lines of crosshatching that the message of The City & the City strikes home: what we perceive in our daily lives is worthy of re-examination from varying levels.  Anyone can exist in Breach, simultaneously appreciating, respecting, and acting on the differences to the benefit of both sides. 


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