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Cloud Atlas

If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being (Cloud Atlas, 528).

Cloud Atlas consists of six interconnected narratives that mirror Ghostwritten in their reflection of the networked world. The palindromic structure of the novel stretches from a nineteenth-century South Pacific island to a dystopian post-apocalyptic future, before revisiting each narrative in reverse chronological order. Mitchell introduces differing ontological levels and collages embedded narratives upon one another, ensuring the narratives require continual reassessment and recontextua- lisation. By suggesting the means by which society may escape predatory cyclicality, the novel constructs a counter-factual cosmopolitanism founded on acts of ethical revision. While the first half of Cloud Atlas imitates the postmodern narrative structure of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979), which Mitchell admits influenced the novel, the second half utilises cultural connectivity and active agency to work against the fragmentation associated with postmodern fiction. As Childs and Green identify, the second half of the novel indicates the ‘possibility of sympathetic reciprocity, which acknowledges co-dependency’ (2011: 34). The novel specifically foregrounds the relevance of performative ethical agency to social cohesion, putting the abstract notion of cosmopolitanism into practice. The interconnectedness of Cloud Atlas is compounded by a comet-shaped birthmark which circulates through the networked narrative and singles out the novel’s historical agents as ethical connectors who possess the innate capacity to effect meaningful change and define future human progress. Subsequent cosmopolitan communication between narrators, on both a thematic and structural level, serves as a physical reminder that cosmopolitan dispositions hold the potential to prevent an apocalyptic predatory future from emerging. In analysing the interlocking structure of Cloud Atlas, it is important to pay attention to the intratextuality of the narrators, who are responsible for the ethical legacy they leave to future manifestations of their shared transmigratory soul.9 The interdependent narratives knit together mutually relational experiences of torment, suffering, dispossession and self-preservation suffered under globalising practices; these trans-temporal crises consequently engender the emergence of ethical ideals to combat global discontent, creating a planetary cosmopolitanism of resistance and empathy which transcends spatio-temporal planes.

Rather than limiting cosmopolitan engagement, cultural discontent, for Victoria Goddard, serves as a catalyst for ‘new allegiances and identities, which may span local and global contexts and create the conditions of possibility for the emergence of new understandings of what constitutes lived reality’ (2010: 131). Cloud Atlas envisions speculative futures in which a cultural model of viable cosmopolitan connectivity may emerge - conducive to the revision of global inequalities. Through a global structure, the novel reflects the unprecedented interconnectivity of networks, processes, nations, communities and individuals in the contemporary global system. This chapter will now interrogate how Cloud Atlas both interrogates the predatory nature of socio-cultural interaction throughout periods of history, while simultaneously envisioning the transformative potential of transnational (and posthuman) cooperation. The chapter will also address how the spread of cultural connectivity across time and space, rather than across situated contemporary networks, leads to new forms of interconnection. Cultural memory thus possesses a cosmopolitan function, guiding and shaping ethical progress. For Beck and Sznaider, the cosmopolitanisation of historical memory involves mixing ‘the local and the national with the global’ in order to ‘potentially create new solidarities and support global-political and global-cultural norms for the effective spread of human rights: cosmopolitanized memory as practical enlightenment’ (2010: 392). Following this argument, the osmosis of cosmopolitan memory in Cloud Atlas will be shown to destabilise temporal boundaries and project an interconnected historical memory reflective of the diversity of the global multitude.

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