On Morality and the City: a Response to Abdoumaliq Simone

# A Talk at Serambi Salihara, November 11, 2010

I have to confess that in this conservative time, I am not completely comfortable sitting here to speak of “morality.” The question Abdoumaliq Simone poses in his summary may become a good start for our discussion (“Does morality in the city now mean people leaving each other alone, even as globalization and Facebook brings us all together?”). Yet, morality, to me, is a politically loaded word. My problem is that I see it as a normative order, normally reinforced by the discourse of faith and social cohesion, while I am aware of the incommensurability of such an order with its very claim of universality. I am of the opinion that society, especially in its urban setting, is shaped by a partially settled and historically contingent system of regularities.

Hence there is a perpetual contention. No Hegelian Sittligkeit, or norms of morality operating inside a community generating a natural sense of coherence, is without conflict or exclusion. I am in full agreement with Simone when he quotes James Tully suggesting that today “cultures are continuously contested, imagined, and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through their interaction with others”.

It is interesting that Tully, as Simone quotes him, speaks of the other way of looking at cultures (or other identities like cities, for that matter) which is “a panopticon of fixed, independent and incommensurable worldviews in which we are either prisoners or cosmopolitan spectators in the central tower.” Tully speaks of it negatively. This brings me to what I believe to be an antithesis of the “panoptical” perspective. Being a writer, I find it in works of literature touching upon urban lives and landscapes. These are the kind of modality that articulates, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s description, a “poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning.”

Let me begin with a story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his collection, Cerita dari Jakarta, written in the early 1950s. In the story, Aminah, a prostitute, lies down, near death, on a Fromberg Park bench. Suddenly, the past and the present, things distant and near, appear to her simultaneously.

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