‘A Deeper Project’: Critical Cosmopolitanism and Cultural Connectivity in Teju Cole’s Open City
It is frightening to think how little progress has been made in turning invisibly determining and often exploitative connections into conscious and self-critical ones, how far we remain from mastering the sorts of allegiance, ethics and action that might go with our complex and multiple belonging.
Robbins 1998b: 3
A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration.
Hardt and Negri 2000: 213
Christian Moraru argues that the ‘historically unrivalled intensity and extensity’ of ‘being-in-relation, with an other, makes for the cornerstone’ of contemporary American literature: ‘not only are “others” becoming the master theme of the American Literature of the past twenty years, but this “theme” is also ethically explored’ (2011: 2, 313). Teju Cole’s 2011 novel, Open City, reflects these thematic concerns, considering forms of ethical relationality engendered by an engagement with cultural otherness in a global city. The narrative covers the period of a year, beginning in 2006, when the disaster of 9/11 is still a recent memory in the lives of New York City’s inhabitants. By upholding a politics of difference, as opposed to a multicultural paradigm of integration and togetherness, Open City questions notions of alterity, cultural liminality and cosmopolitan discourse. The ontological dimension of the narrative interrogates how individuals can feel at home in the world given the intensification and entanglement of global © The Author(s) 2017
K. Shaw, Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52524-2_4
flows and processes, influencing modes of understanding surrounding intercultural communication - the central concern for the actualisation of viable cosmopolitan engagement. Although cosmopolitanism in abstract terms refers to a philosophy of progressive interaction between global citizens, the narrative questions how such abstract connections may be both realised and destabilised in an urban cityscape, often concerning a movement away from ethno-cultural allegiances to voluntary and ever-shifting affiliations. As Stanton observes, as opposed to ‘world citizenship, cosmopolitanism now indicates a multiplicity or diversity of belongings’ (2013: 2). Open City also reflects the emergence of cosmopolitan mobilities generated by increasingly complex forms of socio-cultural movement - mobilities and transnational communities in the novel are demonstrated to be both an historical continuation and an intensification of global flows. This chapter will examine the inscription of otherness in Cole’s text, problematising the development of ethical dispositions in light of institutional and social exclusionary politics and inequalities. By interrogating the limits of ethical engagement in an era of global-cultural tension, and questioning whether transnational connections necessarily lead to cosmopolitan dispositions, Open City exhibits a critical cosmopolitanism that confronts the harsh cosmopolitical realities of the contemporary urban experience. Accordingly, the following analysis of Open City, with its US-centred narrative, operates in relation to the previous chapter on Smith, allowing for a transatlantic comparison of the practice of cosmopolitan values in urban environments.
Global cities such as New York contain the most culturally-diverse populations in the world, functioning as strategic sites of intense transnational dialogue and exchange, and often engendering new socio-cultural memberships, ties and solidarities. Leonie Sandercock suggests that the global city, as a ‘cosmopolis’, offers potential for ‘connection with, and respect and space for the cultural Other, and the possibility of working together’ through difference (1998: 125). In depicting New York as a site of cultural difference, Cole ensures the global city defies any multicultural simplification regarding questions of assimilation, homogenisation or integration, allowing for the exploration of socio-cultural identities and the discussion of global inequalities. The city reflects a transitional phase of mediation between national and transnational processes as citizens negotiate an uneasy co-existence in the urban environment. Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, bears several ethnic similarities to Julius, the novel’s half-German, half-Nigerian protagonist, being raised in Lagos, Nigeria and now residing in New York. In a radio interview following the release of the novel, Cole claimed Julius is ‘permeable’ and ‘porous’ to others and the events of the city, but admits personal and cultural isolation is the ‘central conflict’ of his narrative (‘Immigrant’s Quest’ 2011: n.pag.). Julius’s first-person narration is at once both decidedly personal and curiously absent, engendering a form of ethnic and cultural alienation that resonates throughout the narrative. And yet, despite his best attempts, Julius’s meditations on the polycentredness of life in a global city from an egocentric narrative perspective fails to isolate him from the multitude. The relentless singular perspective of the narrative discourse is decentred through transnational agencies ofother- ness which contradict the disassociated suspension of self and force engagement. An absence of speech markers in the text for intercultural exchanges reflects Shameem Black’s claim that narratives concerning the act of bordercrossing hold the capacity to create encounters in which ‘the borders of the self jostle against the edges of others, and [... ] the contours of each [... ] become more porous and flexible’ (2010: 47). The reader is therefore forced to discern Julius’s voice against the backdrop of his interlocutors and incorporate the reflections of those around him into a free-flowing cosmopolitan consciousness.