a lot of the world left out
September 21, 2009, 5:23 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

This is an excerpt from David Byrne’s book Bicycle Diaries in which he discusses how the Chinese in Hong Kong tend to destroy anything that has been designed and built for the public realm.  I grew up in India and have occasionally thought about returning there to set up life, but hesitate when I remember that India, like China it seems, lacks a commitment to the pleasures of public life.

Cafe culture and street life are good indicators of robust commitment to the good – public – life.  They barely exist in America – almost exclusively in New York – but thrive in Europe, the Mediterranean and large cities in Asia.

I was just in London and Paris – four days in each city:  the street culture exists in Paris but London is in the dark ages.  Why?  I think Byrne is exactly right:  the prevailing philosophy of any culture is made manifest in the building of its cities:  if all that matters is the king and the family, then public life will wither and die – or more likely be willfully destroyed.

I am reading Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley who describes a sort of instrumentalist, get it done preponderance among 20th century English and American philosophers and contrasts this against the continental philosophers broader existential interest in what it means to live a fulfilled life.   If these are the – very different – preoccupations of the thinkers in the English and Continental traditions then I can see why their respective cities are so radically different.  And how the communist Chinese now running the British dependency Hong Kong, fall into step behind the instrumentalist Anglo world.

Here is David Byrne on Hong Kong:

I was recently in Hong Kong and a friend there commented that China doesn’t have a history of civic engagement.  Traditionally in China one had to accommodate two aspects of humanity — the emperor and his bureaucracy, and one’s own family.  And even though that family might be fairly extended it doesn’t include neighbors or coworkers, so a lot of the world is left out.  To hell with them.  As long as the emperor or his ministers aren’t after me and my family is okay then all’s right with the world.  I have been marveling at the rate of destruction of anything having to do with social pleasures and civic interaction in Hong Kong — funky markets, parks, waterfront promenades, bike lanes (of course) — I was amazed how anything designed for the common good is quickly bulldozed, privatized, or replaced by a condo or office tower.  According to my friend civic life is just not a part of the culture.  So in this case at least, the city is an accurate and physical reflection of how that culture views itself.  The city is a 3D manifestation of the social, and personal — and I’m suggesting that in turn, a city, its physical being, reinforces those ethics and recreates them in successive generations and in those who have immigrated to the city.  Cities self-perpetuate the mindset that made them.

-David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, Viking 2009

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What a thoughtful post. I’m also motivated by cafe culture and street life. Have you read much about the flaneur? The cities I am most happy walking around in are the ones where I feel most at home.

Comment by Carrie

Thanks for writing. I have read some of Guy Dubord’s writing on the flaneur and the situationists. Walkable cities are a good measure of healthy living. Sadly, many of our cities are still – with all of our knowledge – not built to make you feel at home.

Comment by peter rudd

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