My thinking, now, has turned to the eBooks and Storycubes I will develop for Proboscis’ Transformation series. These inquiries will tease out some of the threads from Placing, hopefully in a more narrative driven way. I am concerned that not enough attention is paid to the cultural dimensions of urban life, development and change. In these works, I aim to be attentive to the recurring responses for change. Two expressions have settled in my mind: ‘protecting our way of life’ (which I have written about elsewhere) and ‘out of character’ (which has implications of belonging). I encounter these expressions commonly in the community consultation work I have done as well as in media reports about resident responses to development and change. Our life in cities is inherently about the way we develop land, the uses to which it is put in shaping/making a city.
I’m endeavouring to explore and present a cultural response to such claims and concerns as they are not only embedded in a basic and foundational idea of culture and community, but present, as a shorthand, an argument that ‘things’ should not change and that the way of life and the character should be preserved. In my research, I expect to find other commonly used expressions that are rallying cries against change, but often can stop thinking about change.
In thinking about this, I stumbled upon some essays by Kenan Malik titled Mistaken Identity and Identity is that which is Given in which he interrogates liberal and conservative presumptions about cultural identity and discourses of cultural rights. This is indeed fraught territory and it is not my intention to step into the field of complexity arising from ethnic and racial cultural identity. However, what caught my attention is his postulation about the relationship between ‘character’ and ‘culture’. Urban and suburban environments are indeed cultural constructs – they are a form of meaning, they are formative of meaning. Cultural identity is often grounded and ‘fixed’ in place or locale and people do zealously guard their staked out territories. People can tell and share stories about their locality and their community – that is indeed a very compelling experience especially in terms of affirming local identity and local values.
In Malik’s essays, he simply proposes that humans have the capacity for change and that the character of a culture can change. These things are fluid and negotiable. When the idea of something being ‘out of character’ (whether that something is the introduction of social housing, a new building height or a set of traffic lights), there is both an assertion of a non-negotiable identity or character, and the rejection of the possibility of change (or difference). In the words of Malik, “is defines ought”. That is, just because something is, that somehow means it is right and ought to be retained, continued or preserved. It involves the normative. When someone says that something is ‘out of character’ they are saying that it is not consistent with what is. It does not belong and therefore is not permissible or desirable. Conflicts over values are not readily settled, particularly given claims about rightness and rights which are particularly hardening in their presence. The clashing of rightness might make the newspapers but it tends to make such an ugly sound. So this has me wondering whether our ideas or memes about change, culturally embedded as they are, need to change.
I am thinking the trajectory for exploring this may be concerned with memetics.