Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
Locating Literary Cosmopolitanism
This study draws on the work of literary critics who have identified the relevance of cosmopolitan theory to literary studies and the humanities in general. Recent works by Amanda Anderson, Jessica Berman and Rebecca Walkowitz have examined the presence of philosophical cosmopolitanism within nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.6 However, none of these works confront aspects of cosmopolitanism that are unique to the globalised present. Anderson, for instance, explores a critical detachment unique to Victorian literature, while Berman concentrates on alternative forms of community in modernist fiction, engendered by shared experience and resistance to dominant patriarchal discourses. Walkowitz, on the other hand, argues that late-twentieth century literary cosmopolitanism relies on ‘emphasizing detachment from local cultures and the interests of the nation’ (9). This study will instead retain a focused analysis on contemporary fictions that reflect the increasingly networked structure of the globalised world. The intensification of social interconnectedness, transnational mobility and digital communication ensures globalised life infringes upon, but does not remove the importance of, local experience. Imbuing cosmopolitanism with these parochial, local and quotidian connotations is not antithetical to use of the term itself - all spaces are now subject to, and offer the potential for, cultural engagement.
In this sense the study builds upon the work of Berthold Schoene and Fiona McCulloch, whose works assume a more modern approach, interrogating how British fictions respond to the contemporary moment. Schoene’s The Cosmopolitan Novel, for instance, argues that the nation’s historical complicity in imperialism and colonialism marks Britain as a prime example of cosmopolitan cultural relations. He identifies authors as diverse as Jon McGregor, Arundhati Roy and Ian McEwan to be indicative of this trend. Concentrating on the importance of cosmopolitanism to nation-state paradigms, Schoene recognises that narrative imaginings of global community in British fiction are increasingly localised and pragmatic, tending away from a reliance on utopian naiveties. His approach consequently avoids the postcolonial scepticism of more global forms of cosmopolitan belonging.
McCulloch, on the other hand, perceives globalisation as strengthening ethical calls for a planetary togetherness that operates in opposition to ethnic, feminist and environmental inequalities. She also provides a response to Schoene’s work, criticising his ‘phallocratic’ attempts to ‘pin down and fix a definition to a concept that should remain open to dynamic synergies’ (going so far as to accuse both his authorial choices and even his book cover of pandering to masculinity and anthropocentricism) (2012: 7). McCulloch acknowledges that ‘there is a glocal impetus to cosmopolitanism as each localized community creates empathetic links beyond its own borders’, marking a movement away from more rootless forms of classical cosmopolitanism (2012: 8). While both these critics concentrate on contemporary British fiction alone, this study assumes a wider perspective, highlighting unique and emergent formulations of identity and community in American fiction. Unlike Schoene, the following chapters avoid the suggestion that the ‘cosmopolitan novel’ is a defined genre and simply identify fictions in which cosmopolitan sentiments or philosophies are evident. This study will, however, concur with Schoene’s analysis in favouring a concentration on contemporary forms of cosmopolitanism that are rooted in the pragmatic realities of day-to-day existence, rather than the construction of a future utopian dream. Positioning cosmopolitanism in such a way ensures the term remains sensitive to the decidedly unequal power-structures governing cultural relations and the implausible notion of global cosmopolitical harmony.
In attempting to situate cosmopolitanism outside of merely one literary framework, such as modernism, this study definitively rejects Walkowitz’s supposition of a supposed literary cosmopolitan ‘style’, which allegedly involves a certain ‘attitude, stance, posture, and consciousness’ (2006: 2). Instead, cosmopolitan ideals and theory are readily identifiable in texts that could be classified as postcolonial or postmodern or even fantasy literature. As outlined earlier, cosmopolitanism is identifiable in several academic disciplines, yet in literary studies it is paradoxically considered as either the latest movement to capture the post-millennial mood, or merely the offspring of postmodern and postcolonial thought. Yet Childs and Green argue that ‘new patterns of human interaction, interconnectedness and awareness’ affect the ‘form and content’ of contemporary works marking ‘a shift away from the preoccupations of postmodernism and the concerns raised by postcolonialism’ (2013:4).These literary fields reveal themselves to be insufficient in capturing the radical changes shaping global society.7 Literature, like other academic disciplines, must move beyond established paradigms and frameworks to find answers for the post-millennial state. Accordingly, Rob Wilson calls for an ‘end of millennium [... ] cosmopolitanism disgusted with legacies of imperialism and delusions of free-floating irony’ (1998: 359). With this in mind, the positive etymological construction of cosmopolitanism becomes all the more essential and beneficial.
Postcolonialism, specifically, is too exclusive and narrow to encompass the cosmopolitan perspective - we are not merely dealing with the domination of ethnic groups within a cultural or national context. The emergent forces of globalisation alone induce a ‘complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot any longer by understood in terms of existing center-periphery models’ (Appadurai 1996: 32). Globalisation should certainly not be perceived as a mere continuation or expansion of colonialism, but as an unprecedented change in planetary connections through cultural interconnectedness and technological change, bringing an inherent restructuring of existing relations and hierarchies. That being said, it would be a mistake to ignore how contemporary forms of cosmopolitanism involve some imitation of postmodern and postcolonial theory and often borrow from their critical vocabulary. It is more accurate to position the concept as a reformulation of late-twentieth century postcolonial and postmodern schools of thought that explores new modes of interconnection to face the post-millennial world.
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