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Our Unseen Choices
Probing the border between "what is" and "what could be"
We don’t see most of the choices that are available to us. Camouflaged by well-meaning life advice or the pace of contemporary existence, unexpected options are hard to perceive.
Even when we catch an appealing glimpse of another way to live, another way to work or love or raise children, we've learned to unsee those choices. It's easier to pretend the choice doesn’t exist than to experience the pain of not choosing something else.
The City & The City, by China Miéville, has an absurd premise. Two city-states exist in the same geographic area—Besźel and Ul Qoma. And just to be clear, because I certainly wasn't when I started reading, the cities overlap—with streets and even buildings existing and unexisting in both places.
The citizens of these city-states learn to unsee the citizens of the other as they walk by each other on "cross-hatched" streets. They learn to drive cars unseeing the foreign cars—but also not crashing into them—with which they share the road.
Even visitors to the cities must take a course to learn the art of unseeing:
After a two-week or however-long-it-was course, no one thought visitors would have metabolised the deep prediscursive instinct for our borders that Besź and Ul Qomans have, to have picked up real rudiments of unseeing. But we did insist that they acted as if they had. We, and the authorities of Ul Qoma, expected strict overt decorum, interacting with, and indeed obviously noticing, our crosshatched neighbouring city-state not at all.
Johan Schimanski relates the experience of seeing and unseeing to that of visiting a new place but, instead of being a tourist, taking on the role of anti-tourist. A tourist sees famous landmarks and seeks out notable locations. But the anti-tourist actively unsees what catches the tourist's eye (e.g., the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty). The anti-tourist, instead, attempts to see the culture and geography for what it is beyond its famous veneer (e.g., “living like a local”). Both ways of seeing are constructed and limited.
By the end of the novel (no spoilers, really), the main character learns more about the organization, called Breach, that polices both cities to ensure no one sees or interacts with the other territory, a crime also known as a breach. Schimanski notes that by naming both the enforcement organization and the crime the same word, Miéville creates a linguistic disorientation akin to the geographic disorientation of the cities.
Citizens of the two cities live with the specter of Breach (the organization) every day. Breach seems to hold a coercive power over everyone's lives. But, according to a Breach representative, the enforcement happens through different means:
It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.
The people make this absurd geopolitical construction a reality. Their actions (or unactions) uphold the system. Sure, some groups advocate for unification. Others aim for more disruptive methods of breach. And yes, Breach can and will intervene when someone makes a mistake. Even so, the habit of unseeing ultimately makes the impossible system not only possible but resilient.
Unseeing is a fiction. An internal compromise that allows for uncanny immersion in simultaneous realities. The Breach representative makes it clear: anyone at any time could choose to see everything around them. Yet it's a choice people fail to see for themselves.
The City & The City can be construed as about so many issues (geopolitical and otherwise) in the world. The premise could be a commentary on the ways we unsee poverty, racism, or the carceral system. It could be read as an analysis of apartheid, past and present.1 It could be about immigration or class. I would happily write an essay on each of those readings.
However, Miéville has expressed that the story isn't about any one issue or conflict in particular. Instead, it's an exploration of borders of all kinds.
I'm interested in reading The City & The City as exposing the border between “what is” and “what could have been” (or even “what could be”). We’re citizens of the choices we’ve made—and trained to unsee the choices that would result in a breach. We construct an arbitrary and invisible border between the status quo and choices we’ve written off as unwise or else deemed off-limits.
I’m keenly aware of the divide between “what is” and “what could have been” right now as my daughter eagerly sends college recruiters her field hockey highlight reel. When I was her age, I didn’t know how many options I had. Few teenagers do. I desperately want to expose her to the world beyond the border.
Growing up, I wasn’t trained so much to unsee as I had been coached to put one foot in front of the other, carefully walking a path that promised to bring me stability and meaning as an adult. What we’re trained to see—to focus on—is training to unsee all the same.
My world was bordered by knowledge of a certain set of choices. I existed in the same world as people who, for instance, studied anthropology or went to law school or lived abroad or partied every weekend. But I never acknowledged those as choices I could make. Never really acknowledged them as choices at all.
That's not so much a lament as it is simply an observation. And observation and a question: How does one learn to see beyond their borders?
I try to divert my daughter’s focus. I point out the borders between what's obvious and what's not whenever I spot them. I show her the choices that don’t look like the many good examples she already has of what a satisfying life could be (a mélange of white suburban upper-middle-class professionals). “Look at this weird major,” or “Check out this school you’ve never heard of,” or “Let me tell you about my friend’s quirky job!”
Honestly, I’ve been looking forward to these conversations her whole life. But I didn’t expect them to be so difficult. Not for her, for me. Each time we talk about The Future, I’m confronted by all the choices I didn’t make because I didn’t know I had them. I told Sean that I’ve been “feeling my class” lately. He said it’s probably just middle age. Perhaps what I’m experiencing is the all-too-predictable result of having breached constantly for the last 15 years: “But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”
Maybe not—but I know that I’d rather see than unsee.
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In her new book, Doppelganger, Naomi Klein cites The City & the City as part of her excellent exploration of Israel and the occupation of Palestine. I had just started this part of the book when the current hostilities started, and Klein’s writing provided much-needed context for the situation.has also been writing with depth, humility, and force on the conflict.