Desktop version

Home arrow Political science arrow Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction

What is Cosmopolitanism?

This first chapter will return to a more detailed statement on the chosen authors and novels discussed in the main body of the study, but first it is necessary to examine a number of key concepts. specifically, this chapter will scrutinise the ways in which the term cosmopolitanism has been understood, both historically and in the contemporary period. Cosmopolitan theory itself stretches back to the Greek stoics and is visibly apparent in Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment philosophy. The Stoic’s classical conception of the term introduced the idea that individuals may exist as citizens of the world, mediating between new and existing loyalties, and balancing local allegiances with an abstract commitment to global others. Kant, on the other hand, tried to combine the philosophical concept with democratic forms of governance; his work questioned the necessary institutional specifics responsible for allowing world citizens to share a common global occupancy. Earlier conceptions of cosmopolitanism possessed this purely normative edge, resulting in the term evoking connotations ofutopianism. The post-millennial environment requires a more critical investigation into usage of the term in order to confront the fragility and conflict of cosmo- political threats, as well as emphasising how the ethical ideals of cultural cooperation and empathy may possess a pragmatic function in addressing global inequalities. In recent years, cosmopolitan theory has re-emerged through the philosophical and sociological work of Martha Nussbaum, among others. Nussbaum’s claim that ‘we should give our first allegiance to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings’ demonstrates a turn away from localised forms of belonging and membership, neglecting the more realisable and everyday forms of cultural engagement (1996: 7). Nathan Glazer identifies that Nussbaum’s proposed application of a universal form of cosmopolitanism, reconfigured from Stoic philosophy, neglects the fact that the Stoics were citizens of ‘a nearuniversal state and civilization’ with ‘uniformity in rights and obligations’, whereas the contemporary world is ‘radically different’, not least with regards to cultural and socioeconomic inequalities (1996: 63).1 More importantly, due to the progressive interdependence of national systems, one cannot simply rely on a polarised binary between the spheres of locality and globality. Although transnational mobilities, globalisation and technological advancement have reconfigured the means by which attachments local or otherwise are fostered and developed, the Stoic model nevertheless provides the moral compass through which new conceptions of cosmopolitan theory can navigate the concerns of globalised life.

The major problem with universal forms of cosmopolitan thought is that they remain too utopian and abstract to be of any pragmatic use to the post-millennium. In literary studies, however, the feasibility or practical application of such frameworks is not restricted by the same reliance on pragmatism as other disciplines, allowing the tenets ofcosmopolitanism to be explored across imaginative fictional space while retaining the ethics of the theory itself. As Rosi Braidotti, Bolette Blaagaard and Patrick Hanafin identify, ‘the cosmopolitan perspective is not in fact one that is accessible through perception, only through imagination, because we cannot see the whole of humanity’, thus being appropriate for fictional analysis (2013: 5). Fiction provides the means by which we can identify with those different to ourselves, appreciate shared aims and aspirations, and also acknowledge common problems which need to be faced and overcome, making narrative concerns universal. This study will emphasise how fiction is a unique medium through which to imagine cosmopolitan reconfigurations not yet conceivable or accessible in the contemporary moment. In doing so, the following chapters will demonstrate the multiplicity of ways the globalised world may be imagined, transformed, remembered, transnationalised and deconstructed in literature. The main focus of this study, in spite of this approach, assumes a realistic stance towards cosmopolitan engagement, and draws heavily on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck. Beck recognises that the unique conditions of millennial society necessitate ‘a new historical reality [... ] a cosmopolitan outlook in which people view themselves simultaneously as part of a threatened world and as part of their local situations and histories’ (2006: 48). Accordingly, ‘we must reorient and reorganize our lives and actions, our organizations and institutions along a “local-global” axis’ (Beck 1999: 11). In an attempt to answer how a cosmopolitan outlook may serve a pragmatic function, in contrast to the empty platitudes of ethical idealism, his research marks a break away from more universal and utopian paradigms, paying attention to the cultural asymmetries that govern global relations. Beck was also one of the first theorists to recognise that a ‘cosmopolitan society means a cosmopolitan society and its enemies’, acknowledging that there will always be those who benefit less from globalising processes (2002a: 83 - emphasis added). With this in mind, the concept does not necessarily involve ‘consensus’ but often ‘conflict’, as global communities ‘enter into mutually confirming and correcting relations’ in an effort to mediate between diverse perspectives and heterogeneous cultures (2006: 60). Contemporary fiction is beginning to answer such reasoning, demonstrating how a networked culture of global flows opens up spaces of cooperation as well as conflict, as new potentialities for connectivity are tempered by a new awareness of global risk. It is therefore necessary to examine how the authors discussed in this study identify and tackle the present conditions of the emerging twenty-first century, and also how the future will be shaped by the shared consequences of cultural interdependence. Indeed, an increased awareness of global others emerges as contemporary cosmopolitanism’s dominant mode. Several of the fictions in this study, predominantly the works of Mitchell, consequently imagine coordinated strategies of collaboration that respond to the inherent common problems which cultural and cos- mopolitical interconnection brings.

One of the key concerns in clarifying the usage of cosmopolitanism is identifying the ethical ideals associated with the concept. Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen attempt to both pin down its meaning and acknowledge its multiplicity, defining it as: ‘a socio-cultural condition’ arising as a result of contemporary globalising processes; ‘a kind of philosophy or worldview’ that acknowledges the common values existing between all humans regardless of race or affiliation; a project aimed towards ‘building transnational institutions’ that override the potency of the nation-state; a ‘political project for recognizing multiple identities’ and the multiple allegiances a citizen feels with regards to local, national and global concerns; ‘an attitu- dinal or dispositional orientation’ that demonstrates an openness to cultural experience and otherness; or simply ‘a mode of practice’ that acknowledges and embraces the internal effects ofglobalisation on cultures and communities (2002: 9). The following chapters will draw upon these definitions, as well as those of other theorists, in attempting to identify the various manifestations of the term operating in the selected fictions. Crucially, while much research has predominantly focused on cosmopolitanism as the purview of nation-states and governmental organisations, this study shall suggest that the term is the purview of ethical agency.2 Literary fiction, because of its ability to present characters’ points of view and subjective experiences of the world, is a particularly appropriate medium for conveying the individual’s relationship towards the lived experience of different environments and cultures. In this way, cosmopolitanism involves an active ethical agency and emphasises the importance of affective practice towards establishing cultural attachments. As Zlatko Skrbis and Ian Woodward emphasise, a socio-cultural disposition of openness is particularly important and requires a ‘performative dimension’ that reveals the empathetic outlook of global actors (2013: 27). Pnina Werbner complements this approach, considering cosmopolitanism to involve ‘reaching out across cultural differences through dialogue, aesthetic enjoyment, and respect’, and necessitates ‘living together with difference’ (2008b: 2). In the search for a term that simultaneously reflects both the diversity and cultural interdependence of the globalised world, cosmopolitanism seems to be an exceptionally fecund appellation. Following this reasoning, the use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’ in this study will be twofold, referring to both culturally-diverse societies and the practice of ethical values traditionally associated with the term in general. Defining cosmopolitanism in this fashion allows for dialogue and overlap with the usage of the term across the social sciences and complements existing approaches towards unpacking its specific ethical ideals and values.

That being said, no matter how the concept and its ideals are defined, when confronting the deeply unequal cultural and political systems in the age of globalisation it becomes clear that ‘cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge’ (Appiah 2006: xiii). More realisable and pragmatic forms of cultural engagement are necessary in facing the challenges of an increasingly interconnected world. With this in mind, Appiah correctly adopts a partial cosmopolitanism which rejects the ‘exalted attainment’ of classical models, instead simply positing that ‘in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence’ (2006: xvii). Gerard Delanty furthers this pragmatic modern conception of the concept, claiming it provides ‘a normative critique of globalization’ which accepts that while the contemporary world ‘may be becoming more and more globally linked by powerful global forces [... ] this does not make the world more cosmopolitan’ (2012a: 41; 2012b: 2). He goes on to argue that the concept offers social theory a means of engaging with emergent forms of belonging ranging from ‘soft forms of multiculturalism to major re-orientations in self-understanding in light of global principles or re-evaluations of cultural heritage and identity as a result of inter-cultural encounters’ (2012a: 42). On this basis, it should be emphasised that cosmopolitanism is not simply a condition of rootlessness or hybridity (as it is so often perceived in literary studies especially), but rather a process of creative engagement between peoples and cultures in developing an openness to forms of alterity and the negotiation of a more interdependent world.

Cosmopolitanism, then, offers new forms of identification aside from merely communal or ethnic allegiances, and becomes a ‘project of citizenship that can cope with subjects’ multiple affiliations [... ] as an alternative to “tired” models of multiculturalism’ (Germain and Radice 2006: 112). By the same reasoning, the concept should not suggest an emergent nomadism, devoid of connectivity or belonging to territorial space; instead, this study follows Bruce Robbins in emphasising the situatedness of cosmopolitanism, dependent on ‘a density of overlapping allegiances rather than the abstract emptiness of non-allegiance’ (1998a: 250). The pragmatic approach proposed in this study acknowledges the necessity for discord and antagonism in cross-cultural community-building (whereby cultural mingling rejects definitive assimilation) and echoes Beck’s assessment that the ‘everyday experience of cosmopolitan interdependence is not a love affair of everyone with everyone. It arises in a climate of heightened global threats, which create an unavoidable pressure to cooperate’ (2006: 23). Ethical agency regarding openness to the world and hospitality to otherness should avoid the need for homogeneity, while retaining the positive ideology at the heart of the concept. Given cosmopolitanism’s multidisciplinary nature, the chapters engage with sociological, political, anthropological and literary theory to reveal the pluralistic frameworks surrounding its usage. The imaginative representations of the globalised world articulated in the fictions will be argued to provide a direct response to new developments confronting the contemporary moment.

In spite of cosmopolitanism’s more optimistic connotations, it must be acknowledged that the cultural interconnectedness of global interdependencies fails to naturally engender a resultant ethical response to radical inequalities of access. As Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo argue, the world is not ‘a seamless whole without boundaries. Rather, it is a space of structured circulations, of mobility and immobility. It is a space of dense interconnections and black holes’ (2008: 35). Developing this thought, this study will interrogate who exactly may be termed a ‘cosmopolitan’ in these selected fictions. In Ulf Hannerz’s pioneering essay, ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture’, he proposes that ‘cosmopolitans’ are an elite sector of society who possess the means to enjoy global mobility. Through a sustained concentration on localised engagement and belonging, the following chapters will argue against Hannerz’s false dichotomy between so- called ‘cosmopolitans’, whose affluence permits a freedom unhindered by national borders or geographical distance, and ‘locals’, who remain restricted by socioeconomic or cultural immobility (1990: 238). Hannerz’s reasoning accounts for the mobile practices of Western elites, but fails to address the day-to-day cultural practices of global others. Instead, the fiction of Mitchell, Smith and Cole will demonstrate that cultural convergence and deterritorialisation of territory can result in an individual’s life becoming subject to global forces without even leaving their locality. Mitchell and Smith in particular imagine ‘glocal’ spaces in which the dynamic tension and creative interplay of global and local systems complicate existing forms of belonging and questions of cultural identity, demonstrating how cosmopolitanism can be integral to parochial cultural encounters and can operate within localities.3

Moreover, cosmopolitanism should concern itself with non-elite citizens and unprivileged positions, in order to prove its inherent value as a pragmatic and applicable social concept. Tellingly, Hannerz’s positioning of cosmopolitanism as an elite practice contradicts his statement that the concept ‘is first of all an orientation’ that one can assume (1996: 103). His proposed binary (of cosmopolitans and locals) fails to acknowledge both the emergence of non-elite agencies arising from the progressive empowerment of immigrants and refugees, and, more importantly, the centrality of ethical agency that makes cosmopolitanism so much more than a condition of transnational mobility. Nor should we agree with Hannerz’s reasoning that cosmopolitanism ‘has to do with a sense of the world as one’ (2007: 83). He begins his seminal essaywiththe bold claim that ‘there is now a world culture’, neglecting the very multiplicity and heterogeneity of cultures that remain marginalised by Western hegemonic structures (1990: 237). Such optimism perceives the world to already exist in a fully globalised state, rather than in the process of coming to terms with progressive global interconnectedness. Cosmopolitanism is vital to such progressive interaction, involving the mediation between diverse lifeworlds and cultures, while proposing that a potential cross-cultural dialogue may be established that moves beyond hegemonic discourses. Accordingly, David Held argues that only by adopting a cosmopolitan outlook may we accommodate ourselves to ‘a more global era, marked by overlapping communities of fate’ (57). Proposing a unified global culture merely strengthens the criticism that cosmopolitan theory envisions an unrealistic (if well-intentioned) form of universal harmony that glosses over socioeconomic inequalities in favour of a Western vision of cultural homogenisation or assimilation. For this reason, many still perceive cosmopolitanism to remain a Western elitist paradigm, sustaining and replicating ideals first espoused in colonial projects. The study will show that the works of Mitchell, Cole and Kunzru are fundamentally at odds with Western or idealised visions of a harmonious global culture, and challenge the cultural discrepancies governing the contemporary moment.

 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics