Skholiast has an interesting riff on my recent post about happiness, and I’d like to riff right back. Skholiast quotes from Alain Finkielkraut‘s La défaite de la pensée – a book I read long ago while backpacking through France, in the hope of beefing up my philosophical French. And Skholiast’s quote from Finkielkraut got me thinking of a much more recent trip, my honeymoon in Zanzibar two months ago.
As well as spectacular beaches, Zanzibar has a tremendously atmospheric old Stone Town, and crumbling palaces built in the nineteenth century by Sultan Said. On a tour of these palace ruins, our guide spoke mournfully about how the government had destroyed and misused these palaces after independence and revolution in 1964. It is surely worth mourning when a beautiful object from the past is lost forever. In addition to this destruction, the revolutionary government built most of Ng’ambo, the “other side” of Zanzibar town – the part that is completely non-atmospheric, full of concrete blocks designed by East German engineers. It is in Ng’ambo that the majority of urban Zanzibaris live. The tourist guidebooks tend to scoff at Ng’ambo if they mention it at all, which they rarely do – and no surprise, since it is utterly charmless to look at, a generic site that could be anywhere.
And yet driving through Ng’ambo, I could also see what motivated the revolutionary government to build it that way; more than that, I was quite pleased to see it. For much of Zanzibar has little local wealth. It is not like Thailand or India, where local élites are everywhere, and often richer than the scruffy Western tourists who come there on a shoestring. In Stone Town there are the poor locals and the rich tourists. Most of Stone Town, for all its winding, medieval atmospheric charm, is in disrepair. After a while, when one sees a clean building in good condition, one comes to ask “What hotel is that?” – for one realizes that the only buildings maintained well are the hotels for the tourists.
Ng’ambo is a little different. There, unlike both Stone Town and the countryside, one finds modern shopping arcades catering to local residents. From those charmless Stalinist concrete blocks, decaying as they may be, one can see air-conditioning units poking out many of the windows: an expensive luxury, but one very welcome in the humid 35ºC heat of Zanzibar Town. The majority of tourist accommodations in Zanzibar, even huts with thatched roofs on the beach, had air conditioning; Ng’ambo was the only place I saw any local Zanzibaris having access to this delightful comfort when they were not working. Even though those buildings are themselves in disrepair, it seemed to me that for many Zanzibaris they would be a welcome step up.
Old and new Zanzibar Town, it seems to me, express something like Kierkegaard‘s contrast between the aesthetic and the ethical, which Skholiast refers to in his post: the search for beautiful things as opposed to the welfare of the community. (This is not how I prefer to use the term “ethics,” but it will do for the present discussion.) In his The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey perceptively links “ethics” with modernity and “aesthetics” with postmodernity, using the terms “ethics” and “aesthetics” in a sense that I think are similar to Kierkegaard’s. (So too, “postmodern” here refers not merely to relativist postmodernist intellectuals, but to the broader cultural trends of the 1970s and after.)
Harvey is concerned with the “aestheticization of politics,” where the personal appeal of a Reagan or an Obama can trump questions of policy, but even that is part of a broader point. Ethical moderns – Marxist, utilitarian, Rawlsian – favoured the new, replacing unruly traditional structures with efficient rational designs for universal benefit. Aesthetic postmoderns instead preferred the old, preserving authentic ways of living from the past. The Marxist Harvey is of course perceptively attuned to the class bias of all this: our love for the old-school privileges the aesthetic enjoyment of rich tourists over the enrichment of living standards for the human multitude. Harvey would have considerably more sympathy for Tanzania’s socialist revolutionary government than for those who want to preserve the palaces of its wealthy sultan.
Which brings me, finally, to Finkielkraut. In the English translation that Skholiast quotes, Finkielkraut says that postmoderns
do not dream of an authentic society, where people live comfortably in their cultural identities, but a polymorphous one, a multicolored, heterogeneous world in which individuals have many lifestyles to choose from. They have less interest in promoting the right to be different than the right to have access to the differences of others. For the multicultural means a storehouse of options.
Finkielkraut agrees with Harvey here, from a less Marxist perspective. When we rich élites value the old – and there’s nothing like a trip to Africa to make one realize what a rich élite one is, even if one’s means are very modest back home – it is in many ways for our own benefit, even for our own consumption. But I also think Finkielkraut is wrong in saying that this “storehouse of options” is not a “dream of an authentic society.” Rather, it is exactly that. A storehouse of options requires an authenticity that is always just beyond one’s reach, for one’s own choice of the option, one’s own participation in the option, itself makes it less authentic. For in many ways it is authenticity that creates difference. Americanized Thai food tastes an awful lot like Americanized Chinese food – very sweet, mild spice, soy and ginger. Authentic Thai food is much more different from both Americanized Chinese food and authentic Chinese food – a much better option to have in the storehouse. In the original French, Finkielkraut says something a bit different and at least as telling: “Multiculturel signifient pour eux abondamment garni” – for them, “multicultural” means “abundantly garnished.” And there’s no garnish like authenticity. At their worst, the advocates of authenticity effectively want to preserve a human zoo, where others are forced to remain traditional so that we can choose to consume their authentic products.
Where does this all leave us? Well: one of the conclusions that has persuaded me more and more over the years is that there is some truth in everything. As part of the global tourist class, it is very easy for me to see the beauty in the old-school, the authentic, the old and often unchosen ways of living and building that characterize Stone Town. That shouldn’t be neglected, the way it was by the mid-20th-century utilitarians and Stalinists. But there’s also something wrong when that beauty comes at the expense of those who created it or live in it. Sometimes they want a choice too, and they have good reasons for putting other priorities above their authentic ways of life. That, to me, is the lesson of Ng’ambo.