Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
To prevent this study simply becoming a sociological review of emergent cultural processes, the following chapters provide a close reading of selected fictions which actively engage with, and assume widely diverse stances to, the concerns of cosmopolitanism (making the structure of this study a cosmopolitan enterprise in itself). After all, literature is suited to exploring the values and ideals of cosmopolitan thought. As Nussbaum argues, ‘[n]arratives, especially novels [... ] speak to the reader as a human being, not simply as a member of some local culture; and works of literature frequently cross cultural boundaries far more easily than works of religion and philosophy’ (1990: 391). The various forms of cosmopolitanism explored in the chosen novels reveal the multidimensionality of the concept, reactive and sensitive to geographical and cultural idiosyncrasies. Despite this, the following chapters do not exist in isolation, but interrelate with one another, fostering a unity in diversity and allowing a clear commonality to run throughout this study. Attention will be paid to the role of ethical agency in activating global discourses and facilitating crosscultural dialogue. Rather than responding to a classical conception of universalism, the chosen novels demonstrate a sense of urgency in reacting to the contemporary moment and foreground the interplay between local and global contexts as the basis for a critical cosmopolitan commentary. As Boxall emphasises, in the post-millennium local contexts continue to ‘persist stubbornly and violently within the global hegemon’ (2013: 188). However, Dominic Head identifies that it is this very ‘tension between the local and the global implied in those opposed perspectives on cosmopolitanism [that] reveals the potential of the concept in the historical moment of globalization’ (2009: 147). The majority of the works examined in the following chapters are twenty-first century novels, with a minor exception.8 Despite their intrinsic diversity, the fictions are united in their response to the cultural interconnectedness and globalising processes that have come to define post-millennial life. Notably, their diverse subject matter reflects the intrinsic heterogeneity of contemporary British and American fiction, tackling issues as wide-ranging as deterritorialisation, racial solidarity, digital migrant labour and posthuman futures.
Robert Eaglestone identifies that ‘the communities of which each of us feels a part, is central to understanding the contemporary novel’; as a result, this mayrequirea ‘general rethinking ofwhat “we” means’ (2013:4,105). The chosen fictions not only demonstrate a willingness to engage with intensified dialogues between local experience and global concerns, but imagine new modes of belonging and the development of an emergent planetary consciousness founded on the cross-cultural interdependencies of the increasingly interconnected world. In order to demonstrate the multidimensionality of the term, this study examines narrative spatialities that range from the local to the universal - from the London suburbs of Zadie Smith to the border-crossings of Kunzru and Mitchell. In so doing, the disparate fictions cohere in addressing how the contemporary moment requires a critical cosmopolitanism that operates as ‘an ethos of macrointerdependencies, with an acute consciousness [... ] of the inescapabilities and particularities of places, characters, historical trajectories, and fates’ (Rabinow 1986: 258).
Chapter 2 sets the tone for the remainder of this study by interrogating the planetary fiction of David Mitchell. As the introduction has theorised, the globalised condition requires an entirely novel form of narrative representation, accurately reflecting the experience of individuals existing as constituent members of an interdependent community. Mitchell goes further than the other authors examined in this study by incorporating these concerns into the very structural and aesthetic fabric of his fiction, and thereby offering a new direction for the twenty-first century novel. Rita Barnard categorises such fictions that involve ‘human interconnection, causality, temporality, social space’ as ‘global’ novels, which may ‘provide the conceptual preconditions for a cosmopolitan society’ (2009: 208). The convergence culture of globalisation has led Mitchell to explore the synergy of narrative identities, in which individuals’ lives are bound up and integrated into the lives of others. His novels demonstrate the everyday conflict, fluidity and dialectics between self and others that are subject to diverse and crossed readings - often leading to contradictory interpretations of narrative events.
While Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, explores the cosmopoli- tanisation of global space, it simultaneously avoids positioning the world as an illusory and unified whole. As Eaglestone notes, the ‘risk of globalization is that it makes people feel not connected to each other in a cosmopolitan world, but, instead, feel redundant as human beings in the face of huge impersonal global forces’ (2013: 68). Ghostwritten is constructed around this very paradox. The inexorable interpenetration of transnational lives threatens the progressive potential of interconnection itself - globalisation begins to actively dismantle localised forms of territorial belonging. The interlinked narratives question the extent to which globalisation emerges ‘from the centers ofthe West, pushing other alternatives out of existence’ and proves to be increasingly responsible for the erosion of cultural diversity and territorial heterogeneity (Hannerz 1996: 24). Although the twenty-first century is increasingly characterised by what Held would term overlapping cultures and communities, enabling actions in one part of the world have direct consequences on other cultures and communities, that is not to say that globalisation has reached an end-point. Rather, globalisation continues to shape and infringe upon separate localities to differing degrees of influence, resulting in some cultures and communities becoming implicated in the spread of Western homogenisation, while others become disenfranchised as external forces infiltrate and destabilise localised territorial belonging. As Schoene argues, Mitchell’s fiction depicts contemporary life as being ‘marked by global connectivity and virtual proximity as much as psychogeographical detachment and xenophobic segregation’ (2010a: 98). By acknowledging an inherent anti-globalisation critique in the narrative,
Chapter 2 will argue that the interrelated threats of terrorism, ecological disaster and cultural homogeneity both engender and restrict the emergence of a cosmopolitan outlook among world citizens.
Correspondingly, the generational-spanning narratives of Cloud Atlas serve to contradict Held’s lament that there is ‘no simple common global pool of memories, no common global way of thinking, and no “universal history” in and through which people can unite’ (2002: 56). Instead, the novel imagines a cosmopolitan consciousness that exists across temporal and spatial divides in order to suggest the human potential for active cooperation and collaboration. By forging transnational attachments across history, Mitchell imbues globalisation with an historical dimension, linking its destructive processes to earlier periods of imperialism and colonial rule. This sense of global history in the novel supports Robert J. Holton’s rejection of the claim that ‘cosmopolitanization and the cosmopolitan outlook are essentially very recent phenomena’ (and thus strengthens the argument that cosmopolitanism should not be perceived as either a contemporary literary genre or unique to any historical period) (2009: 81). The transtemporal narratives position the cosmopolitan outlook and active ethical agency to operate in opposition to humanity’s inherent capacity for predacity and rapaciousness. In this way, Cloud Atlas interrogates whether the global multitude may resist an approaching planetary finitude and reimagine a more progressive future. The novel emphasises that the importance of the cosmo- politanised world lies in its imagination for ethical practices to be a catalyst for socio-cultural progression. The chapter will consequently follow Nigel Rapport and Vered Amit in arguing that cosmopolitanism remains distinct from related models of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘globalism’ by both ‘inscribing the human’ and indicating ‘a future project’ (2012: xi). And yet, neither Cloud Atlas nor Ghostwritten suggest a global borderless future or a dismantling of the nation-state system. Instead, the novels suggest that planetary connectivity may lead to, or provoke, the re-emergence of national frameworks as the specificity of local concerns and histories proves incompatible with the brute force of latticed global networks. The novels thereby reflect James Clifford’s notion of ‘discrepant cosmopolitanisms’ by which an individual enjoys a ‘continuum of sociospatial attachments’, which can ‘extend from local valleys and neighborhoods to denser urban sites’ and from ‘national communities tied to a territory to affiliations across borders and oceans’; in such diverse environments, disparate individuals attempt to survive and ‘articulate locally meaningful, relational futures’ (1998: 367). By demonstrating an acute sensitivity to the positive and negative effects of globalisation, Mitchell interrogates the feasibility of fashioning realistic cosmopolitan futures from fragmentary pasts. The chapter will therefore conclude by acknowledging how ‘global risks can sharpen normative consciousness, generate global publics and promote a cosmopolitan outlook’, while also acknowledging that unprecedented levels of connectivity and awareness of socioeconomic inequalities are tempered by an exacerbated cultural homogeneity (Beck and Sznaider 2010: 391).
Chapters 3 and 4 introduce the notion of a localised cosmopolitanism, suggesting that cross-cultural engagement should not necessarily be restricted to cross-border processes or concern transnational relations with the wider world. The works of Smith and Cole contradict the assumption that transnational mobility is a direct facilitator of cosmopolitanism itself. As Owen B. Sichone identifies, to claim that transnational mobility alone should be a prime indicator of cosmopolitanism neglects ‘the immobile 97 per cent of the global population that never leaves home’ (2008: 313). It is therefore necessary to examine how the cosmopolitanisation of space both affects localised experience and corrects the erroneous distinction between ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘locals’. By emphasising the importance of territorial belonging over cultural detachment in a borderless world, the two interrelated chapters suggest the cautious pragmatism and realisable designs of contemporary cosmopolitanism.
Chapter 3 examines notions of localised engagement and the ethics of hospitality in Zadie Smith’s NW. In comparison to the multicultural optimism and millennial naivety of her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), the chapter will suggest that NW is an affirming work which captures the new realities of urban life in London following the terrorist atrocities of 7/7. Drawing on Smith’s own comments regarding race, community and transnationalism, the chapter will reveal autobiographical tendencies in her fictional experiences of urban space. NW questions shared local belonging in an environment of intense ethnic diversity, and promotes a concentration on social capital as a means of fostering tolerance and cohesion within society. The transnational nature of this fictional London places Smith in line with a wider movement of contemporary novelists who, as Philip Tew claims, are envisioning the ‘British scene [as] a globalized locality’ (2007: x). The novel consequently evokes Paul Gilroy’s notion of cosmopolitan conviviality, concerning ‘the process of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities everywhere’ (2004: xi). The analysis of Smith’s fiction will initially concentrate on the characters of Leah Hanwell and Felix
Cooper, interrogating the feasibility of practising cosmopolitan empathy in a contemporary urban environment. Smith offers a critical commentary on fragmentary atomised life in the capital and points towards a more erudite form of community that moves beyond merely ethnic or territorial concerns. She emerges a member of a new generation of novelists who map out ‘more local, more empowering connections’, detailing ‘those rare, fragile moments of contact - those brief human intersections that remind us that while we are all each desperately unknowable and alone we are also in this together’ (Marcus 2013: n.pag.). The chapter will then proceed to examine the self- imposed emotionless detachment of Natalie Blake, a high-powered lawyer, demonstrating how easily communal attachments may be destabilised by individual attempts at disassociation. Natalie’s personal trajectory will be said to complement Smith’s own reading of her novel: ‘to get ahead somebody else has to lose’ (2013a: n.pag.). By entwining the complementary concerns of global and local forms of belonging, the novel acknowledges the wider racial and socioeconomic tensions existing in the capital, suggesting the cosmopolitan values of empathy and hospitality to be a productive form of social capital in overcoming these tensions.
Chapter 4 will continue a specific focus on localised engagement and alternative forms of cultural agency in Teju Cole’s Open City. The chapter will also explore questions of racial solidarity and the subversion of cultural identification, arguing that the novel offers a more complex vision of multicultural community based on negotiation and compromise. Open City revolves around the day-to-day experiences of the Nigerian-German protagonist Julius, who leads a detached and isolated life in his New York neighbourhood. Through a series of frequent walks across the social spaces of the city, Julius encounters various characters who have developed homogenising strategies to construct a form of ethnic solidarity in light of their non-elite status. Their attempts to generalise Julius’s ethnicity and identity (and assimilate it with their own), cause him to reject any form of cultural categorisation, demonstrating how empathetic responses to inequality or racial labelling are often easily destabilised by personal antipathy or idiosyncratic reasoning. Yet cosmopolitan bonds need not be defined by racial or ethnic categorisation. Julius’s urban flaneurism symbolises his resistance to ethnicity as a marker of individuality, and reflects how cosmopolitanism differs from multiculturalism through this freedom from group identification. Moving away from Smith’s concentration on an urban locality, the novel explores the emergent pathways by which non-elite citizens are enveloped by the processes of globalisation. The cosmopolitical commentary of
Open City specifically demonstrates how, in the wake of 9/11, immigrants and other marginalised subjects negotiate their identities and allegiances in the West, while acknowledging the means by which processes of globalisation force a confrontation with the unassailable concerns ofrace and cultural difference. More than any other work in this study, Open City problematises the practice of racial solidarity in a post-9/11 context, suggesting that human rights inequalities and the persistence of cultural exclusion are setbacks (or at least regressive tendencies) to the implementation of active ethical agency. In doing so, the novel interrogates the geopolitics and power relations surrounding migration, revealing who belongs and who is excluded from Western life. Julius’s exploration of the sites of Ground Zero and Ellis Island force an inescapable confrontation with his ethnic identity, and indicate that cultural interdependence and cross-border movements operate along historical trajectories. The negotiation ofthese tensions necessitates a critical commentary on cosmopolitan theory in general that acknowledges the limitations in forging ethical connections with others in a radically unequal world. The fictions of Smith and Cole both ground cosmopolitanism in realistic urban environments, and reveal visible traces of cultural connection in global cities and their locales. They demonstrate how ethical ideals can arise at the most micro-levels of society, and detail the strategies of ordinary citizens to bridge divides with cultural others. The two related chapters therefore suggest that a cosmopolitan approach does not necessarily operate in opposition to local experiences or local landscapes, and in this sense deviate away from more universalist paradigms.
Chapter 5 focuses on the relevance of digital technology to new frameworks of cosmopolitan theory and its effects on twenty-first century life. Although the proliferation of digital technology possesses the unprecedented potential to activate awareness of the lives of global others, it is easily manipulated and abused for corporate gain. Digital technology is often responsible for the closing down, rather than the spread, of cosmopolitan communication. The first half of the chapter concerns dystopic visions of the near-future in Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Eggers emphasises the need for cultural empathy to combat the insidious nature of digital communication, positioning technology as merely the newest form of Western imperialism. The novel questions whether the unbounded nature of digital networks encourages the spread of ethical values, or simply hinders their development by mediating intercultural communication. The desire for global interconnectedness is exploited by the Circle, the world’s largest technology company, as the means of implementing dangerous forms of social control. Although the Circle seemingly advocates the cosmopolitan ideals of diversity and openness, through the creation of a ‘Unified Operating System’, the company begins to exploit the participatory culture of digital engagement. The unprecedented power of the internet is harnessed by corporate forces to pursue a totalitarian form of surveillance, while governmental structures are progressively weakened by Western imperialism. Eggers interrogates the cosmopolitical battles of the digital realm, and suggests that humanity’s awareness of global otherness does not necessarily increase its capacity for empathy or tolerance. Drawing on current debates regarding the emancipatory potential of digital communication, the chapter will demonstrate how Eggers confronts the emerging challenges to a global society governed by hegemonic corporate forces and questions the potential for cosmopolitan ideals in a world of digital flows.
The second half of Chapter 5 strengthens this fear of cultural homogeneity, focusing on the global inequalities arising from digital connectivity in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. Whereas in The Circle digital technology operates as the tool of the elite, enforcing the dominant ideology of Western globalisation, in Transmission a digital virus subverts and disrupts Western systems as an instrument of the marginalised protagonist, Arjun Mehta. Arjun’s virus, operating as ‘the revenge of the uncontrollable world’, demonstrates the emancipatory potential of digital technology as a form of cultural resistance (Kunzru 2004: 159). Like David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Transmission presents a vision of millenarian society under unprecedented globalisation, spanning transnational borders and interrogating the limits of technological networking. Kunzru acknowledges the continued importance of racial and national identities to the contemporary moment as the narrative charts the dislocation of migrants by the globalising power-structure of a transnational digital corporation. The exploitation of Arjun as a form of disposable labour suggests that heightened awareness of global others has not resulted in a weakening of cultural asymmetry; rather, global discrimination has merely been transferred into the digital realm. The convergence culture in the twenty-first century may be increasingly interdependent, yet vast inequalities persist. Digital corporations and their online practices emerge as a form of Western domination, being blind or merely insensitive to the external constraints of non-Western others. The second half of the chapter will therefore question to what extent contemporary forms of cosmopolitanism remain Western elite paradigms, and demonstrate how Transmission provides a contrast to The Circle by offering an outsider perspective of American globalisation. Although global communication channels now penetrate nearly all communities, from the largest metropolis to the remotest village, Transmission suggests such digital connections do not render geographical territories obsolete. Digital communication should ideally empower localities, welcoming them into an interconnected and interdependent network, but Kunzru’s narrative emphasises that instead it can often lead to cultural dislocation, personal isolation, and homogenisation of local concerns and values. The chapter will conclude by emphasising that the digital merely underscores the borders between those world citizens who belong and those who are excluded from elite cultural spaces. In this sense, parallels may be drawn between the fictions of Kunzru and Cole, who recognise how non-elite transnational migrants negotiate new identities and develop new models for cosmopolitanism that tend away from the focus on Western mobile elites. Open City and Transmission also indicate the persistence of diaspora nationalism, concerning the maintenance of localised ethnic attachments in the face of hegemonising globalisation, and suggest that the study ofcosmopolitanism needs to acknowledge non-Western, discrepant, unprivileged cosmopolitanisms that operate against, and exist independently of, Western discourses of elite global power.
This critical approach to contemporary fiction acknowledges that the rise of global risks, within a climate of xenophobic tension and nationalism, weakens calls for more progressive and productive forms of harmonious global interconnectedness while naturally remaining sceptical of the more utopian cosmopolitan paradigms and political naiveties surrounding global discourse. Working through cosmopolitanism’s shortcomings and connotations of Western elitism, the following chapters display how the chosen authors reconfigure the term in various ways and demonstrate its functionality in responding to present socio-cultural and ethno-political realities. The chosen authors also construct new critical frameworks for identifying connections between local cultures and the globalised world at large, forming a stance towards ethical relationality and cultural diversity. Mitchell’s fiction, the starting point for this study of British and American fiction, displays an awareness of complex globality while simultaneously emphasising the continuing relevance of locally relational attachments. In so doing, his novels demonstrate literature’s capacity to explore alternative reconfigurations of planetary community and indicate how contemporary cosmopolitanism can emerge as more than ‘an end point, a hallelujah moment for social scientists trying to conceptualise a better society’ and instead become a ‘process’ of pragmatic engagement in responding to individual and collective threats confronting the twenty- first century (Skrbis and Woodward 2013: x). Through a close reading of these diverse and complementary fictions, then, this study demonstrates how the chosen authors confront the cosmopolitical interconnectedness of a globalised world. The next chapter will now begin by examining the fiction of Mitchell, to demonstrate his attentiveness to the cultural connectivity of the contemporary moment.
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