Rana Dasgupta on Thu, 23 Mar 2006 09:39:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Sudden Stardom of the Third-World City

Dear All

A recent essay, deliberately sweeping and polemical, on the sudden prominen
ce of the Third-World city in Hollywood and big publishing.



Why is the Third-World metropolis suddenly taking over western culture?

Tsotsi, a film about Johannesburg gangs released in the UK this month, took the
2006 Oscar for best foreign-language film. Another Oscar went to The C onstant
Gardener, an account of the dark forces at work in Nairobi, whose d irector,
Fernando Meirelles, shot to international fame in 2002 with his po rtrait of a Rio
favela, City of God. The Raindance Film Festival last Octob er climaxed with a
screening of Secuestro Express, a film about abduction g angs in Caracas. And at
the end of 2004, two best-selling books explored th e fiercely competitive under-
and over-worlds of Mumbai: Suketu Mehta's M aximum City and Gregory David
Roberts's Shantaram, which will be released next year as a major Hollywood motion
picture directed by Peter Weir.

My feeling is that these are early symptoms of a huge shift in the west's picture
of the world: the Third-World metropolis is becoming the symbol of the "new".
This is all the more thrilling for its utter improbability: surely those
suffocating piles of slums and desperation are too exhausted, too moribund, to
bring forth futures? But it seems to me this is exactly w hat is happening. If,
for the better part of the 20th century, it was New Y ork and its glistening
imitations that symbolised the future, it is now the stacked-up, sprawling,
impromptu city-countries of the third world. The id ea of the total, centralised,
maximally efficient city plan has long since lost its futuristic appeal: its
confidence and ambition have turned to anxi ety and besiegement, its homogenising
obsession has constricted the horizon s of spiritual possibility and induced
counter-fantasies of insubordination , excess, and life-forms in chaotic variety.
Such desires flee the West's surveillance cameras and bureaucratised consumption
to find in the Third W orld metropolis a scope, a speed, a more fecund ecology.

Why would it be so? For a start, the rumours crackling in from the Third Wo rld
have ceased to be quaint. Indian and Chinese business people rattle ass umptions
by buying up major corporate assets in America and Europe; there a re stories of
Asian billionaires buying houses at record-breaking prices in Belgravia. There is
a dim awareness of something monumental happening far away, of extraordinary
wealth creation that goes beyond mere imitation. More perceptive observers see
something awe-inspiring in outsourcing: for a western, metropolitan outlook could
not have imagined a world so devoid of centre, so unsentimentally flattened out,
with no cultural boundaries to stand in the way of absolute technology and
capital. They see other histories coming to the fore, they remember those
networks of Asian families spread out over four continents, patiently comparing
prices and moving goods across the globe from where they are cheap to where they
are expensive. Some have heard rumours of "medical tourists" flocking from the
UK to Delhi and M umbai to get operations that the National Health Service could
not provide; and, simultaneously awed and appalled, they wonder what kind of
minds, wha t kind of scale must exist in those places for such plans to be dreamed
up. All that was "backward" swings round to the front, full of vast and un canny

But the stories do not just come from far away, for even the most intimate and
secure of western refuges is now fully infiltrated by the Third-World city.
Dismissive talk of Chinese "sweatshops" that would never meet EU regulations
does nothing to dispel the sense of a stupendous fertility, for the contents of
every western household are "Made in China", and most Europeans and Americans
are so entirely ignorant about how things are made that the production of the
objects in their lives seems a kind of Asian alchemy. There is more: the
Third-World city has many economies, not just one, and even this they are
exporting. Large parts of western cities are now gleefully given over to an
international pirate economy of CDs, DVDs, computer software and branded goods
manufactured in Lagos or Shenzhen at almost the same time as the Parisian and
Californian originals, and almost to the sam e quality.

There are other, less delightful, infiltrations. While "Louis Vuitton" bags have
obvious charms, who can say the same of illegal immigrants? Or terrorists? Was
there not a time when the West seemed to enjoy total im munity from the violence
of the Third World, and is that absolute division not becoming a trifle blurred?
Did not the fascination of Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears' 2002 drama about
illegal immigrants in London, rest on our troubling sense that the Third World
organ stealing industry might pl ausibly interface, now, with the cool order of
western healthcare systems?  Good or bad, however, it is all the same: the image
of the Third-World city floats insistently behind the most startling new
formations in the life of the west, and the secret of everything "we" are turning
into seems inc reasingly to be held not "here", but "there".

All of this would be less disruptive to thought if Third-World cities had g ot to
such a place by following the rules. According to the time-honoured p rocess of
91development', cities and states attain maturity only when th ey have
standardised the population into one language and cosmology, contai ned poverty,
made clear divisions between different kinds of land use 96 h umans and animals,
factories and residences 96 and imposed a unified code of law. Clearly, these
things have not happened in Mumbai or Shanghai, and even so those places are
producing things that anyone can look up to. Weste rn tourists have been
commenting for decades on the ingenuity they find on third-world streets 96 "I
never knew there were so many ways of making m oney" 96 but now they see the
improvisational ethos of these bricolage c ities elevated into a form of global
ambition, and realise that the unlikel y potential of the third-world city was
never unlikely at all. It is concei vable, in fact, that the cities from which the
grand thoughts of the future will flow may look entirely unfamiliar to Americans
and Europeans.

This seems more likely still when you contrast the intense vulnerability of
western, especially European, cities to blasphemy and difference with the radical
variety of third-world cities. The happy fiction of Europe's robu st liberalism is
in severe doubt as it fails even to accommodate a single g roup of dissenters:
politically articulate Muslims who wish to assert a dif ferent vision of social
life and law. Compared to this, my adopted city of Delhi, which has its own
disputes and violence, seems positively tranquil w hen one reflects that it must
balance the life demands of 15 million people with so many languages and
cosmologies, and such varied notions of commerc e, law, healthcare and education,
that they are not a "population" in t he European sense at all. "When will all the
camels and cows depart, when will all these strange human varieties finally be
banished and India becom e modern?" tourists ask. They forget two crucial truths
96 first, that E urope's centuries-long project to banish all life forms it could
not unde rstand or empathise with was a destructively violent process; second, and
m ost importantly, that Delhi already is modern, and this 96 all this 96 is what
it looks like. It is an alternative kind of modernity: a swirling, ag glomerative
kind that seems, at this point in history, to be more capable t han the western
version of sustaining radical diversity 96 to be better eq uipped, perhaps, for
the principle of globalisation.

This brings us to the most perverse suspicion of all. Perhaps the Third-Wor ld
city is more than simply the source of the things that will define the f uture,
but actually is the future of the western city. Perhaps some of thos e tourists
who look to the Third World for an image of their own past are r eflecting
uneasily on how all the basic realities of the Third-World city a re already
becoming more pronounced in their own cities: vast gulfs between sectors of the
population across which almost no sympathetic intelligence can flow, gleaming
gated communities, parallel economies and legal systems, growing numbers of people
who have almost no desire or ability to particip ate in official systems,
innovations in residential housing involving corru gated iron and tarpaulin. Is it
going too far to suggest that our sudden in terest in books and films about the
Third-World city stems from the sense t hat they may provide effective preparation
for our future survival in Londo n, New York or Paris?

Our fast-moving media culture, groping always for any image of the "new " that
can be used to produce more astonishment, operates in a zone slightly ahead of
knowledge. The "rise of China" may remain for many a fantastical rumour, but as
the blind sense of such large-scale shifts accumulates, it becomes possible for
the media to peddle a new form of futurism: a st range and dazzling hypermodernity
that bewilders western understanding but that seems to harbour the plenitude of
ideas and aspiration that the west n o longer finds within itself.

But the images we see in these books and films are not uniformly pretty. Fa r from
it. The media's grandest and most successful spectacles are invari ably full of
danger; and this one is no different. In the erotic delectatio n of these yawning
life forms, which rise up with such titanic ambition, wi th such indifference to
the history of western ethics and aesthetics, is th e terror, the exhilaration of
a death wish.

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