Thursday, 25 June 2009

Demolition of Kashgar

One of the best memories of my trip to China in 2004 was a two-week stay in Kashgar, a city well known for its location along the Silk Road. Chinese authorities are now planning to demolish the old Uighur part of the town (See this New York Times article or this post on Frog in the Well ).

Authorities claim that the demolition is a safety measure against earthquakes and that the town will be rebuilt in a local "Islamic" style. They also state that since the old parts of town are too densely populated, the reconstruction will involve the transfer of many inhabitants to new dwellings elsewhere.

The concern for earthquakes is understandable in wiew of the Sichuan disaster, but I fear that the demolition also has political motives. Isn't it intented as a blow against Uighur culture and the milieus in which this culture has thrived? Hasn't Kashgar been singled out because of its role as a center of that culture and of Uighur separatism? The top-down process of the reconstruction will ensure that the old part of Kashgar will from now on be Sinicized, if not in appearance, then through the process of its construction. A resurrected town in "Islamic" style would not be the creation of local historical circumstances, but a gift from benevolent authorities - a symbol not of autonomy but of heteronomy.

I am happy to have been able to travel in China. To have seen the hutongs in Beijing before the Olympics wiped them away, to travel along the Sanxia (three gorges) before they were inundated by the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. Just as glad as to have been able, during my lifetime, to have seen and walked through these dusty but hospitable alleys in Kashgar, so full of surprises, playing kids and tea-houses with beautiful wooden balconies.

How much say did the people affected by all these changes have in any of the decisions? Is progress that silences the voices of dissidents really progress?

Unnamed individualities

This won't be a long note. I just read a few pages in Eric Paras' book Foucault 2:0: Beyond Power and Knowledge. Interesting presentation of the turn to the subject in Foucault's later writings and lectures. Fascinating quotes, some with an existentialist ring. For instance, in 1981 he describes "the art of living" as the "art of killing psychoanalysis, of creating with oneself and with others unnamed individualities, beings, relations, qualitites. If one can't manage to do that in one's life, that life is not worth living" (quoted in Paras, p129). Stunning, isn't it? This (admittedly somewhat hackneyed) imperative takes on a seductive quality when one considers the sea-change in thought Foucault must have gone through in order to arrive at it.

Here's another seductive sentence: a task for study, he writes, is "research into styles of existence as different from one another as possible" in order to help us rethink how we might live (p131). Not bad as a task for sociology. The general relevance, combined with a focus on the singular way of living of people, on their ways of reaching their "unnamed individualities"?

Paras' book is well written. Lucid. It makes Foucault easily understandable, especially how his endorsement of the tradition of the Enlightenment, his enthusiastic support of the Iranian revolution, the advocacy of rights and other concerns, themes and interventions in his later years hang together with his new ideas of the subject and the care of the self. For me personally, it's been a wonderful read during moments when I've felt tired and in need of some relaxation. So, that's it for today.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Puritans and ranters

Salman Rushdie says in an interview I read today that puritans are people who suspect that someone somewhere is having a good time. Today I also happen to be reading Christopher Hill's book on radical ideas during the English revolution. It's stunning to see this flora of rebellious ideas, often millenaristic and pantheistic, affirmative of life and earthly desires – and totally alien to the ascetic puritanism that went victorious out of the civil war and paved the way and provided the legitimation for the profits of a misantropic and intolerant bourgeoisie. I find a wonderful quote by Abiezer Coppe, a ”ranter” who after having handed over all the money he was carrying to a beggar - not much, he was poor himself - rides away with joy and amazement, and on the spur of a sudden impulse decides to ride back to ”the poor wretch” and exclaims: ”Because I am a King I did this...”!

I hate to draw lessons, but here is one anyway: You won't live for ever. Be kind while you can.
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