Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent (De Certeau 1984: 103).
In the contemporary moment, transnational ways of life are now experienced on a daily basis without the necessity of border-crossing, as global flows operate through and within localised urban experience. Open City explores various forms of mobility through the phenomenological experience of walking. Julius assumes the role of a cosmopolitan flaneur of the post-millennial urban environment, possessing the freedom to wander the global city at will. His meandering walks around the cultural spaces of New York serve as a counterpoint to his shifts at the hospital where he is forced to conform to the spatial restrictions and temporal regimes of psychiatric work. In moments of human intimacy, Julius retreats into the measured disengagement of his psychiatric occupation, maintaining a psychological distance from the concerns of others and objectively presenting each interaction with apparent neutrality. This atomised state, for Pieter Vermeulen, is less reflective of an aversion to human or cultural connection, and more suggestive of a psychological condition that prevents engagement. Vermeulen argues that Julius’s staccato resistance to the fluid rhythms of the city means his aesthetic ‘posture as a cosmopolitan flaneur is shadowed by the contours of the more sinister [... ] figure of restless mobility: the fuguef , preventing cultural engagement (2013: 42).1 Julius’s urban mobility thereby fails to engender a sense of connectedness and instead suggests a problematic ‘shared isolation’ with his fellow citizens (‘figures of suspended agency’) that rests on an uneasy balance of cultural inequality and tension (2013: 47, 45). At the very least, his psychological alienation and unsociability destabilise ethical relationality, and emphasise the relevance of individual agency to the emergence of cosmopolitan dispositions. Urban mobility should root Julius in the everyday rhythms of his global city, entwining his experiences with the transnational subjectivities surrounding him - an engagement with place, rather than abstract cultural flows.
Julius falls into the habit of ‘watching bird migrations from [his] apartment’; he wonders if ‘the miracle of natural immigration’ is connected to his directionless wandering as he reproduces the patterns of migration which have characterised innumerable periods of history in New York (Cole 2012: 4). While the birds are continually in a state ofmotion, forging new ties and engendering an ever-shifting sense of home and belonging, Julius remains in a state of detachment. His freedom of movement functions in opposition to the restricted mobility of transnational migrants in the narrative, who are detained at border control and limited by their citizenship and geography of origin. Elite mobility in the novel equates to lines of flight amid a global environment of gridded boundaries. That being said, Julius himself is a marginalised figure with limited personal and emotional attachments. On leaving his apartment one morning, he notes: ‘[i]t was the day of the New York marathon. I hadn’t known’, acknowledging his disconnection from the city’s communal events (8). His atomisation is most evident in the city’s social spaces, which he finds stifling and restrictive. Julius perceives ‘the streets as an incessant loudness’, where the ‘impress of these countless faces’ fails to assuage his ‘feelings of isolation; if anything, it intensified them' (6). Fearing that his identity will be absorbed within the transnational multitude of the city, he remains a spectator who perceives contemporary diversity at a distance. He is instead ‘strangely comforted’ when alone ‘in the heart of the city’, perceiving ‘[t]he alley, no one’s preferred route to any destination’ as a space of refuge (52). By remaining free of cultural and historical inscription, the alley is a blank site in which he is sheltered from questions of racial solidarity or collective categorisation. In comparison, when using public transport such as ‘the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas’, he claims ‘the solitude intensified’ (7). In this sense, there are clear parallels between Julius and the Japanese religious fundamentalist of Ghostwritten who attempts to exit his subway car to avoid being subsumed by the Western globalisation of culture and individualism. Commuting, for both characters, fails to engender the experience of connectivity with one’s community, instead revealing their already- strained sense of exclusion from contemporary society. In contrast to Mitchell’s novel, the polyphony of voices in Open City never assimilates or coalesces into a harmonious whole, but rather remains a cacophony of contrasting tones, creating an uneasy balance between synchronicity and dissonance. Julius’s psychological detachment and aesthetic stance to cultural engagement therefore problematises any intercultural dialogue he enjoys with transnational migrants and citizens of his global city, bringing into question the limited merits of a cosmopolitan disposition.
Kurt Iveson argues that urban inhabitants should ‘commit to participation [... ] premised on a sense of shared fates and mutual estrangement rather than a sense of shared values’ - to this we may add shared cultural pasts (2006: 81). The transnational individuals of Cole’s novel, however, do not enjoy a shared culture in the city, based on traditional forms of community, but live in a state of tolerant co-existence, exhibiting the minimum requirement of sociability. Wood notes that the city of the narrative may indeed be ‘open’, but ‘only in a negative way: full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another’ (2011: n.pag.). Julius’s purposeful detachment is reflected by Cole’s sketching of his social history itself. Romantic partners are constantly mentioned yet never expanded upon, friends remembered but rarely named. Julius’s father is dead and he is estranged from both his grandmother and mother. His formative years are for the most part a mystery, uncovered only by the revelations of others. Although his decision to leave Nigeria and enter America (prior to the events of the narrative), suggests an act of cultural agency to interact with both distant others and global space, he subsequently fails to engage with the social aspects of New York beyond forming simple acquaintances. Social isolation ensures he remains an outsider on the inside (ironically perfectly placed to analyse the motivations of those on the outside looking in), enjoying ‘a cosmopolite’s detachment from his American experience’ (Messud 2013: n.pag.). In refusing to acknowledge both his ties to his current country and his ethnic origins, Julius denies both his past and present throughout the narrative, failing to engender a sense of belonging in America and Nigeria.
Beck notes that thinking exclusively in terms of abstract flows and networks neglects ‘the agency of the actors [... ] in shaping the flows themselves’ (2008: 33). Through a series of episodic encounters in the narrative, Julius employs intellectual theory and posturing to act as a buffer against cultural engagement and ethical agency. The American Folk Art Museum represents the cultural aestheticism behind which he can hide. By serving as a substitute for an acknowledgement of his ethnic heritage, the museum provides Julius with the sense of a forgotten past, losing track of time when confronted with the heritage of transnational life in the United States. It also supplies Julius with a mummified experience of transnationalism in contrast to the cultural heterogeneity he fails to perceive in everyday life. He leaves the museum ‘with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance’, forced to re-engage with a society in which he cannot assimilate (40).2 Julius hails a cab, still lost in his own thoughts. The cabdriver subsequently arraigns him for his lack of communal openness, protesting that Julius fails to greet a fellow African with sufficient friendliness: ‘[n]ot good, not good at all, you know, the way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad. Hey, I’m African just like you, why do you do this?’ (40). The verbal condemnation has no effect on Julius’s psyche, merely strengthening his resolve that he will resist ‘people who tried to lay claims on me’ (40). By rejecting a specifically ethnic sense of community, Julius demonstrates an internal conflict between bourgeois individualism and communal attachment. As Kaya Gen^ identifies, due to his education Julius possesses the ‘the intellectual means to analyze [his] exilic, marginal, postcolonial’ self through ‘the critical toolboxes of [his] first-world institutions’ (2014: n.pag.). His detached subjectivity not only suggests a politics of indifference to established cultural ties, but reveals a vulnerability in coming to terms with his own cultural identity. Moreover, the incident points to cosmopolitanism’s ability to draw on a multiplicity of discursive meanings, reformulating questions of identity and repertoires of ethnic allegiance, rather than being delimited by cultural grouping.
According to Bryan S. Turner, ethnic and personal detachment may even be key ingredients in the formation of a cosmopolitan disposition, entailing a freedom from cultural rootedness: ‘[cosmopolitanism does not mean that one does not have a country or a homeland, but one has to have a certain reflexive distance from that homeland’ (2002: 57).
The transnational individuals Julius encounters endeavour to impose an ethnic heritage onto his identity, but he is able to resist the attempts to define him culturally. For example, Julius is later approached by a guard from the museum, Kenneth, who recognises Julius from his visits. He immediately engages Julius on the subject of African culture, causing him to recall the tense confrontation with the cabdriver. The encounters reflect Gilroy’s conception of race ‘as a process of relation, imaginary kinship [... ] rather than some badge worn on or lodged deep within the body’ (2005: 148). Despite his refusal to acknowledge this African heritage, Julius avoids de-ethnicising himself. His detachment indicates a personal fear that engagement in social practices and negotiation of cultural differences will result in his identity becoming ethnically homogenised. However, that is not to say Julius assumes an anti-cosmopolitan stance; rather, he appropriates what Victor Roudometof terms a ‘cool’ cosmopolitanism, characterised by ‘an ironic form of distance from current cultural attachments’, which allows citizens to transcend ‘the boundaries of one’s culture’ (2005: 122, 113). By possessing a different personal history (evident by his German roots and cultural status in the US) he is at odds with large swathes of other transnational communities who attempt to associate with him. Their story is not his story, their history not his history - the cosmopolitan ideals of shared urbanity and imagined citizenship, for Julius, fail to override personal expressions of cultural difference. Appropriately, Sandercock claims that to some extent, ‘one’s own cultural identity is and will always be defined in relation to degrees of difference from others’ (2006: 47). The narrative of Open City oscillates between this dialectic of identity and difference, with the urban setting of New York engendering a compression and intensification of ethno-cultural ties. Rather than webs of solidarity being organised around a country of origin, commonality is constructed around the vaguer identifiers of colour or race, fostering exclusivity and discrimination. The novel thereby moves beyond multicultural paradigms in favour of a critical cosmopolitan stance. In so doing, it offers an alternative model of cultural and racial belonging based on cultural positioning that both recognises the benefits of communal identification and grouping, but simultaneously remains sensitive to the possible absorption of individual identity and agency to the collective. Open City, then, draws attention to the tensions involved in negotiating cultural identity in the face of an emergent cosmopolitanisation of global space.
As Ayse Caglar argues, although transnationalism can be responsible for fostering and developing cosmopolitan dispositions, it can also inhibit its emergence ‘if the attachments forged within transnationalism fail to go beyond the topos of the ethno-cultural’ (2002: 180). Bearing this in mind, the incident with Kenneth mirrors a dinner party Julius attended, a few years before the events of the narrative, being held by an Indian-Ugandan doctor who fled the regime of Idi Amin. The surgeon, Dr Gupta, had been psychologically scarred by his forced exile, declaring: ‘when I think about Africans I want to spit’; a statement Julius perceives to be ‘partly directed at me, the only other African in the room’ (30). Once again, the issue of ‘colour’ causes individuals to create imaginary ethnic links and conceptions of shared history: ‘[t]he detail of my background, that I was Nigerian, made no difference, for Dr Gupta had spoken of Africans, had sidestepped the specific and spoken in the general’ (31). Notably, the recollection of the dinner party is the first indication in the narrative that Julius is Nigerian - his ethnicity has, to this point, meant so little to his sense of self that it is considered unimportant. Paul White argues that transnational individuals are often caught in these situations where ‘they are confronted by an alternative ethnic awareness that labels them and confines them to a stereotyped “otherness” from which there appears little chance of escape’ (1995: 3). Julius’s resistance displays a consciousness of the hegemonic constructions which seek to classify and categorise him as a transnational other, and the general means by which cultural identities are interpreted and transformed by transnationalisation.
That being said, even disregarding his rejection of an African heritage, Julius neglects daily interactions with his own neighbours. Bumping into a fellow tenant in his building, he is shocked to discover that he failed to notice the man’s wife had passed away: ‘she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it. I had known nothing in the weeks when her husband mourned’ (21). As Magdalena Nowicka and Maria Rovisco suggest, cosmopolitanism requires ‘a constant effort to overcome one’s emotional distance towards “others” despite the reality of their bodily co-presence’ (2009: 8). Although he briefly feels ashamed for his lack of empathy or sociability, Julius admits that ‘even that feeling subsided; much too quickly, now that I think of it’ (21). The durability of Julius’s connections is also questionable. Fleeting attachments are glossed over and quickly forgotten, while intermittent meetings masquerade as social engagement causing disjuncture rather than true communal attachment. If cosmopolitanism does indeed require ‘a mode of practice’, as Vertovec and Cohen argue, then Julius’s cosmopolitan disposition is not readily identifiable (2002: 9). Open City reveals that in a highly fluid cityscape, subject to the accelerated pace of contemporary life, individuals have little time for building empathetic connections or forming obligations to one another. Simple matters of differing work schedules or personal understandings of privacy ensure that mutual engagement with neighbours leads to mutual estrangement in general.
According to Caglar, the contemporary global city is not conducive to ethical engagement, functioning as: ‘alienation institutionalized, immortalized, fixed. At the individual, psychological level, the stranger experiences the torment of his denial by others in his mind [... ] the dark side of cosmopolitan encounters’ (2002: 206). The New York of Open City is not a progressive transnational environment in which divides are bridged through cultural cooperation, but remains hostile, violent and isolating. Given the racial tensions and ethnic stereotyping throughout the narrative, perhaps Julius’s remoteness is to be expected. While walking at night he is repeatedly passed by two young black men. On the first occasion, Julius optimistically imagines there had been ‘the most tenuous of connections between us, [... ] a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being “brothers”’, musing that these brief glances of mutuality ‘were exchanged between black men all over the city every minute of the day, a quick solidarity worked into the weave of each man’s mundane pursuits’ (212). However, the men subsequently attack Julius from behind, with the event conveying the brutal realities of the contemporary urban experience and going some way towards validating Julius’s retreat from cosmopolitan engagement. In this sense, the narrative reflects the need for a re-evaluation of traditional cosmopolitan dispositions and echoes Beck’s realisable cosmopolitan vision for a contemporary environment: it ‘is no longer a matter of solidarity or obligation but of a conflict-laden coexistence side by side in a transnationally neutralized space’ (2002a: 75). Julius perceives in his self- imposed segregation a form of protection against the anxieties of community - concerns which can be avoided ‘by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties’ (107). As a result, he remains largely untransformed by intercultural encounters, failing to assume an affinity with his interlocutors and maintaining a state of disassociation from himself and others. Notions of cross-cultural harmony in general often neglect the actually existing cosmopolitics of the globalised world. That being said, for the values of contemporary cosmopolitanism to confront cultural disharmony, the concept needs to acknowledge that local sites are contested spaces of coexistence built upon socioeconomic differentiation and often marginalisation, not utopian spaces of idealised conviviality. A realistic construction of cosmopolitan communities should endorse this antagonism and opposition as a means of preserving cultural heterogeneity. The intercultural conflict and the strained relations of contemporary urban life in the narrative, evident in Julius’s attack, function as an analogy for wider cultural tensions created by globalising processes and movements.
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