Keith Hart on Thu, 30 Mar 2006 18:55:21 +0200 (CEST)

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


Thank you for bringing up again the fundamental issues raised by Rana's 
essay. My own immediate response to her exchange with Ben was 
intemperate; so you have given me another chance to be more reasoned.

The main demographic event of the last half-century was the rise of 
Third World cities. These have been seen in fairly pathological terms as 
having created a "planet of slums" (Mike Davis). Black Africa, which 
began the twentieth century with only about 1% of its people living in 
cities, ended it with half of them living there. It is a matter of some 
interest what social and cultural forms are emerging under these 
conditions, but we know at least of a religious revival, an explosion of 
the modern arts and a proliferating urban commerce, usually referred to 
as 'informal'.

Rana raised the question of how these seismic shifts in the size, 
location and character of the human population might be manifested in 
the cultural representations of the West. A century ago, as Sven 
Lindqvist makes clear in Exterminate All The Brutes, the answer would 
have taken the form of a genocidal impulse rooted in centuries of 
colonial exploitation. Today it is more likely to take the form of a 
vision of Africa as a dying continent (Stephen Smith's Negrologie: 
pourquoi l'Afrique meurt, Hubert Sauper's movie, Darwin's Nightmare or 
just the endless reporting of disease, war, hunger and death). In 2005 
this vision was linked to a rescue mission (at least at the propaganda 
level) launched by a bunch of cynical politicians and fronted by ageing 
rock stars).

How long is it since the main threat to planetary ecology was an excess 
of black babies? Now we are told that Africa is dying, even though its 
population is still increasing at 2.5% and the continent has just 
reached a share of the world's population equal to its share of the land 
mass, a seventh. Meanwhile Europe cannot reproduce itself and goes into 
paroxysms of nationalism and xenophobia when faced with the prospect of 
having to replace its working-age population from abroad.

It is not as if the threat posed by proliferating poor masses is new to 
the western imagination. In the present case, we are witnessing also the 
prospect of a decisive shift of production and capital accumulation to 
countries like China, India and Brazil. The West's grip on a world 
economy designed to generate substantial unearned income for us is 
slipping. This surely explains the Americans' resort to military 
imperialsim as a last ditch attempt to hold on by force and Blair's 
decision to go down with thier guns blazing rather than work for a 
European alternative. And the Europeans, what is their global strategy? 
Myopia and withdrawal.

Somehow all of this must be registering in people's minds. The French, 
as usual, give prominent expression to their sense of a deep malaise, 
even if the solutions on offer seem equally introspective. I live in 
Paris which has become the middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow 
shopping capital of the world. I like it here, because it is so 
unexciting. Andreas's Berlin must be more exciting, especially if it has 
moved on from being the building site it was when I last visited. I 
doubt if there would be many Indians ready to vote for Mumbai as the 
city of the future. It would be good to have a discussion about what 
cities offer promising social possibilities. But there is this unspoken 
undercurrent. Has the West finally hit the slippery slope of its 
long-advertised decline?

Some people would say that we are not only dying, but committing 
suicide. London's Institute of the Contemporary Arts is putting on a 
'discussion' next month. (Can't you imagine it? I think we have lost it. 
Well, there are still signs of greatness...).

The Suicide of the West?

The success of Western civilisation can be attributed to just six 
factors, according to Chris Smith and Richard Koch: Christianity, 
optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism and individualism.

These principles, however, have been increasingly eroded over the past 
century so that where once citizens of the West felt a collective 
confidence and pride, they instead appear to be heading for collective 
suicide. Should the West try and save the concepts on which it was based 
or replace them with new ones? Speakers: Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, 
UK MP and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in Tony 
Blair's cabinet; Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle; Roger 
Osborne, author of Civilization: A New History of the Western World and 
Jeremy Stangroom, co-founder, The Philosophers' Magazine.

Wed 19 Apr      19:00 Nash Room

And on that suicide note,


Keith Hart

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