Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
Rootless Cosmopolitans and Aesthetic Spectatorship
The cosmopolitan form of openness is not about mere curiosity or touristic voyeurism, though these may certainly be precursor dimensions and traits of openness. What the cosmopolitan identity institutionalises is a reflexive relationship to difference, refracted through global dimensions of belonging and the embrace of otherness (Skrbis and Woodward 2013: 16).
The following chapter set in Mongolia answers Padmaja Challakere’s call for contemporary fiction to articulate a ‘cosmopolitan subjectivity which is “at home everywhere in the world”’ (2010: 220). In critiquing the superficial cosmopolitan engagement of transnational tourism through the transmigratory perspective of a rootless non-corporeal ‘soul’ (which inhabited a tree by the old woman’s tea shack in the previous chapter), Mitchell exposes transnational mobility as an elite practice, mobilised by economic capital and cultural privilege.6 Caspar, a Danish traveller the soul has transmigrated into, performs the boundary-crossing journeys indicative of the elite cosmopolitan subject. Caspar’s shared dialogue with other transnational individuals in his Mongolian train compartment initially suggests a purposeful engagement in the lives of cultural others. Significantly, the transmigratory non-corpum considers its existence to parallel that of the transnational backpackers: ‘I have a lot in common with them. We live nowhere, and we are strangers everywhere [... ] live in a host country that is never [our] own, and use its culture and landscape to learn’ (160). As Childs and Green identify, however, although the non-corpum’s movement seemingly mirrors the peripatetic wanderings of the tourists as a ‘dis/embodied nomad, drifting between different mental terrains as the travellers it rides move across geo-national boundaries’, such movement more accurately reflects the rootless nature of transnational migrancy rather than superficial Western spectatorship, mimicking ‘the contemporary dislocation of identities buffeted by the turbulent currents of globalization’ (2011: 28, 29). Further, the soul only performs the act of transmigration in an effort to discover its origins and forge some sense of geographical stability. In comparison, by failing to engage genuinely with parochial settings and customs and voyeur- istically consuming local landscapes, tourists draw global forces into localised experience and undermine the construction of local communities through intense cultural displacement, ensuring destructive forms of globalisation continue to impinge upon territorial belonging.
Tourism operates in the narrative as a Westernised form of privilege and affluence, critiqued by the bleak monotonous environment and lives of the local Mongolian inhabitants; as Caspar realises, economically impoverished Mongolians are restricted by fixed patterns of mobility that prevents more extensive forms of wordly belonging. The Mongolia chapter visualises a cultural dichotomy between the borderless and privileged spaces inhabited by mobile Western elites and the static, remote locales to which disadvantaged cultural others are consigned. The dichotomy brings back into play the decidedly unequal ‘power geometry’ of globalisation reflected in the novel as a whole: ‘some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement [... ] some are effectively imprisoned by it’ (Massey 1994: 149). The soul soon distinguishes between the aesthetic superficiality of a ‘westernised head’ which is more affected by society, filled with ‘some pop song or a friend’s internet home page the next’, and an eastern mind which ‘patrols a more intimate neighbourhood’ of locally relational attachments, and is more reflective of cosmopolitan values, being concerned with ‘getting enough food and money’ or worrying over ‘ailing relatives’ (166). The chapter therefore positions tourism as a destructive side-effect of globalisation, engendering an aesthetic spectatorship that is unconducive to productive change and resulting in a superficial form of cultural engagement with global others. The exaggerated contrast of seemingly diametrically-opposed Western and Eastern minds serves as a sustained critique of the rampant Western consumerism and hyper-commercialisation of millennial globalised culture; accordingly, the non-corpum comes to assume an ethical humanist stance to combat humanity’s propensity for self-destruction. By ultimately deciding to end its nomadic existence, transmigrating into a dying newborn girl and saving her from certain death (and discovering its geographical origins in the process), the non-corpum finally proves its capacity for active ethical agency. The act of cosmopolitan empathy, taking place in a ger - the Mongolian familial home which offers protection and love effectively ends the transmigratory soul’s life of itineracy and acknowledges the necessity for locally relational roots in a globalised world of progressive cultural and territorial displacement.
Childs and Green identify that the non-corpum serves as a ‘potent symbol for the advent of a historically unprecedented mode of planetary subjectivity’ constituted and created by the conditions of the globalised world (2013: 36). By literally inhabiting the lives of others, appreciating the differing cultural positions of its transnational hosts and creating imaginative forms of cross-cultural empathy, the multi-perspectival narration of the transmigratory non-corpum assumes a cosmopolitan stance, functioning as a translator in confrontations between global others. Translators themselves, as Holton notes, ‘may be seen very much as agents of cosmopolitanism’ (2009: 201). In this sense, the non-corpum embodies Rosi Braidotti’s ‘translational’ form of cosmopolitanism in which ‘a unitary and “home-bound” subject gets redefined in terms of multiple belongings, non-unitary selfhood and constant flows of transformation’, suggesting cosmopolitanism to be a progressive form of becoming (2006: 17). The non-corpum enjoys a literal form of ekstasis - a moving away from the self to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others (and perceiving the self in the other). Admittedly, narratives exploring a global imaginary of border-crossings and the threatening imposition of Western globalising practices are already persistent discursive cultural themes in postcolonial literature. Ghostwritten, however, breaks away from such literature by interrogating how the contemporary moment concerns a more extensive intensification of millennial cosmopolitanisation, avoiding a simplistic cultural asymmetry between the ‘West and the rest’. Childs and Green recognise that the non-corpum’s ‘potentially endless process of transit, transformation and translation’ simultaneously provides ‘a metafictional analogy for the larger design of the novel’ through the subjectivity of interconnected transnational narrators (2011: 28, 29). As a result, they claim that the non-Western chapters, set in Japan, Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, despite being ‘refracted through a prism of Eurocentric discourse’, avoid the ‘familiar postcolonial trope of the former empire “writing back” to the centre, but rather seem to be an alternative recognition of planetary con-temporality and dynamic synchronicity where people and places are inextricably linked regardless of distance’ (2011: 26, 26-7). Mitchell thus employs a mutually reciprocal outlook through the focalisation of several transnational narrators, forcing the novel’s architecture to weave a global narrative from multiple strands.
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