Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
We are obliged to talk about the interdependencies across the globe in a planetary way, in which more or less everybody is in the swim of history and connected with one another. Of course, connected in deeply unequal ways (Hall 2008: 345).
Boxall contends that the twenty-first century novel ‘finds itself charged with the task of building worlds, of producing forms in which the globe might be seen entire, and in which the contradictions between residual and emergent forms might be reconciled’ (2013: 189). As if to answer this charge, Cloud Atlas constructs an inter-generational planetary community to escape the existing inequalities governing cultural relations, emphasising the necessity for a cognitive shift to viable alternate systems of global governance to meet the emerging post-millennial environ- ment.16 New configurations of communal integration are required which appreciate the interpenetrating nature of global communities and the solidarity required in facing the cosmopolitical threats of the globalised world, positioning planetary ethical concerns at their very core. Cloud Atlas therefore follows Hopper in perceiving the cosmopolitan individual as ‘a reflexive self-constituting subject, formed from numerous cultural experiences and allegiances’ (2006: 65). Further, the reconfiguration and relationality between diverse geographic narratives and historical epochs indicates how cosmopolitan virtues can assist in overcoming such cultural difference; as a result, Douzinas’s claim that the underlying principle of cosmopolitanism should concern how ‘common needs and aims are differently realised in different circumstances’ is thus realised in narrative form (2007: 175).
And yet, in the novel, Mitchell avoids creating a revolutionary model to overcome the inequalities ofthe contemporary global system; instead, both localised and transnational cooperation are suggested as a prerequisite for building a more progressive cosmopolitan community, inducing global solidarity and ensuring humanity’s survival. The transformed subjectivities and differing forms of cosmopolitan connectivity forged by Adam, Somni and Zachry, respectively, envision ways in which global change may be implemented individually, collaboratively and institutionally. The novel’s heterogeneous narrators therefore suggest the emergence of a cosmopolitan multitude which operates from within locally relational environments and can enact change from below. For this reason, several critics have noted that the collective assemblage of networked individuals in Cloud Atlas, contesting systems of power, bears resemblance to Hardt and Negri’s conceptualisation of the multitude.17 The connectivities of Cloud Atlas reflect the ‘constellations of singularities’ of the multitude, enabling a form of discursive power to emerge from the global organism of distinct subjectivities and engendering a social transformation of existing collectivities (2000: 60). For Hardt and Negri, the notion of the multitude is intrinsically linked to processes of globalisation. Ghostwritten also explores the emergence of the ‘new subjects’ of the global multitude, who are connected and united to unprecedented levels, and reflect a cultural nomadism strengthened by ‘new circuits of cooperation and collaboration that stretch across nations and continents [... ] for an unlimited number of encounters’ (2004: xiii). These collaborations are mobilised by their localised resistance to destructive globalising processes and work against hegemonic power-structures. More importantly, the phantasmagoric nature of the narrative unites all historical eras into a planetary community that transcends temporal or spatial embodiments. By connecting the protagonist of each chapter with the comet birthmark motif, Cloud Atlas ascribes to what Braidotti terms a ‘nomadic cosmopolitan philosophy’ which ‘enlists affec- tivity, memory and the imagination to the crucial task of inventing new figurations and new ways of representing the complex subjects we have become. The key method is an ethics of respect for diversity that procures mutually interdependent nomadic subjects’ (2013: 24). The novel’s narrators, as nomadic subjects, thus form a cosmopolitan community that transcends national and generational boundaries. As Braidotti emphasises, this
nomadic version of the subject as a time continuum and a collective assemblage implies a double commitment, on the one hand to processes to change and on the other to a strong sense of community [... ] Our copresence, that is to say the simultaneity of our being in the world together sets the tune for the ethics of our interaction. Our ethical relation requires us to synchronize the perception and anticipation of our shared, common condition. A transversal form of shared relational bonding emerges from this. (2013: 22)
Through such a ‘collectively distributed consciousness’ nomadic subjects thereby become ‘attuned to a shared planetary condition’ which actualises ‘new forms of cosmopolitan belonging’ and foregrounds the importance of ethicality (2013: 19).18
Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas ultimately reroute postmodern and postcolonial literary paradigms towards a more planetary state of interdependency. By contrasting the potential of the human project against the brutality of global inequality and the base nature of the human condition, Mitchell’s novels provide pragmatic realities for the threats facing postmillennial society. His visions of futuristic communities evince the benefits of both locally relational ties and emergent transnational networks, acknowledging that cultural identities are no longer singular, but reflect a multiplicity of global influences. Such cultural interplay reveals a world culture that requires a cosmopolitanism from below, involving the practice of active ethical agency at the individual level, and a cosmopolitanism from above, concerning the creation of cross-border systems to formulate collective solutions to global crises and to imagine the cosmopolitan futures that might be built from our fragile present. As Hall argues, if society fails to progress towards ‘the more open horizon pioneered by “cosmopolitanism from below”’, it will find itself ‘driven either to homogenisation from above or to the retreat into the bunker and the war of all against all’ - alternatives central to Cloud Atlas in particular (2008: 348). Further, Cloud Atlas emphasises that potential global futures do not necessitate utopian communities. While the trans-territorial narrative structures of the novels certainly point towards the inclusion and celebration of otherness and multiplicity that characterise transnational forms of life (creating new dynamics for transcending geographical and cultural divides), Mitchell retains an acute awareness of the unfeasibility of cultural harmony. The globe is imagined as a single space of co-existence, but one governed by deeply unequal relations and systems of power. Notably, despite both Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas exploring the transformative potential of cultural interconnection, both novels reveal the failure, rather than the success, of existing socio-political structures and institutions. In this sense, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas could be perceived as companion pieces due to their thematic similarity and their empathetic responses to the heterogeneity of human experience. Both novels certainly support Elisabeth Kirtsoglou’s conception of cosmopolitanism as ‘an alternative form of globalized thinking, produced by disenfranchised subjects who are concerned with political and ideological hegemony’, and which explores the ‘types of resistance that emerge from alternative cosmopolitan visions’ (2010: 170). However, cosmopolitan ethics in the novels are also activated by working through globalising processes. Global forms of interconnection provide the means for social actors to become emancipated from systems of exploitation and oppression, resulting in new configurations of cultural interdependence and a radical restructuring of global society. In Mitchell’s novels, then, globalisation operates as a catalyst to both encourage and obstruct the spread of cosmopolitan ideals. Likewise, Mitchell neither definitively endorses nor rejects the infringement of cosmopolitanisation on localised experience, he merely suggests that the resolution of global crises and conflicts must be addressed on a collective scale in a condition of cultural reflexivity - all localities are now glocalities open to and affected by the globalised world.
In an interview at the Royal Geographical Society in 2014, Mitchell agreed with my claim that global interconnectedness is a key theme in his fiction, but acknowledged how the theme of interconnection is equally evident in earlier periods of literature, and that his writing paid attention to the contemporary world as a ‘compost heap’ of differing influences and increased cultural presences (2014: n.pag.). Appropriately, the cosmopoli- tanisation of communities across historical eras in the novels is not simply the product and corollary of the contemporary moment. Rather, recent global developments merely contribute to its intensification. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas indicate that nineteenth-century imperialism and millennial globalisation (via American hegemony) adumbrate as one and the same disease. Cloud Atlas in particular interrogates the ties between imperialism and globalisation, perceiving both to be motivated by excesses of xenophobia, predacity and greed. Cosmopolitanism thus emerges as the preventative measure to the perpetuation of humanity’s tendency towards self-canniba- lisation. Moreover, both novels operate as narrative imaginings of Beck’s ‘world risk society’ in which ‘[g]lobal dangers set up global mutualities’, necessitating a ‘cosmopolitical realism’ founded on ‘the recognition of the legitimate interests of others’ (1996: 2). There are, however, clear differences between the imaginative spaces of the two novels. While the narrators in Ghostwritten simply find themselves connected by global forces beyond their control, in Cloud Atlas global interdependencies heighten an ethical awareness of otherness. In Ghostwritten especially, globalisation works against the related concept of cosmopolitanism, existing as the means by which cultural heterogeneity may be extinguished and local resistance to global forces may be overcome; cosmopolitanism consequently operates as a synonym for anti-globalisation. By heralding the dangers of a homogenised world culture, globalised discontent is responsible for engendering a consciousness of global interconnectedness and forging new configurations and collectivities, acknowledging the swirl of dissonant heterogeneity required for the emergence of a viable cosmopolitan society. Mitchell’s fictions envision world cultures that do not exist in a fully globalised state, but rather point towards the potential for a global future forged from national pasts. By combining a cosmopolitan narrative structure with an ethical perspective on cultural engagement, these novels reflect the emerging globality of the twenty-first century narrative. In the next chapter, the study assumes a more local perspective, examining the ways in which cultural connectivities and cosmopolitan values are played out in the London-based fiction of Zadie Smith.
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