Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
The Legacy of Migration
The globe shrinks for those who own it; [but] for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders of frontiers (Bhabha 1992: 88).
Following his encounter with the cabdriver, Julius wanders down to the Hudson River, espying Ellis Island in the distance. Crucially, this textual reference to Ellis Island allows Cole to develop a broader reflection on the history of immigration (both free and forced) to the US. According to Hector R. Cordero-Guzman, Robert C. Smith and Ramon Grosfoguel, New York is ‘the oldest immigrant city in the United States’ and its ‘most important port of entry’ for immigration (2001: 3). The physical fortification of Ellis Island functions as a gateway for immigrants, giving rise to transnational forms of mobility and serving as a tourist site for New York’s citizens: ‘SHOW YOUR KIDS WHERE THE ALIENS LANDED’ (58). It is the threshold across which cultural interaction is permitted to be experienced and codified, enforcing distinctions between US nationals and cultural others. The irony being that this receiving point for the world’s citizens is simultaneously a very tangible barrier reinforcing spaces of exclusion and restriction of movement - imposing immobility on mobility. Despite operating as a detention centre, Gareth Hoskins and Jo Frances Maddern argue that Ellis Island is revered as ‘an almost mythological site where multicultural America was formed’, a commemorative space which codifies ‘that history of mobility as full of promise, as something to celebrate, something that unites and establishes a national identity’ (2011: 152, 162). Julius, however, perceives the Ellis Island of the narrative, ‘the focus of so many myths’, to be ‘a symbol mostly for European refugees. Blacks, “we blacks,” had known rougher ports of entry’ (54, 55). He realises this was the acknowledgement the cabdriver was seeking from ‘every “brother” he met’, observing that this required indication of some vague cultural heritage disregards the fact that Ellis Island ‘closed too soon to mean anything to the later Africans like Kenneth, or the cabdriver, or me’ (55). The narrative’s focus on national institutions once again emphasises the means by which potential cultural connections are often offset by bleak cosmopolitical realities.
The ethico-political discourse within the novel overall highlights that an awareness of human rights is integral to the implementation of cosmopolitan values. As Patrick Hayden argues, a ‘cosmopolitan morality is best articulated through the concept of human rights’ via an acknowledgement of moral and socio-cultural obligation, thus providing ‘the basis for a global ethic’ (2005: 100). Julius’s ex-girlfriend, Nadege, organises a group visit to another detention facility in Queens that holds undocumented immigrants, with the purpose ofproviding comfort and support to those detained. Tim Cresswell and Peter Merriman propose that detention centres function in a similar manner to Ellis Island, being ‘designed to arrest and control movement, processing people according to their past and potential future mobilities’ (2011: 8). The centres consequently become spaces of movement for some and spaces of fixity for others. Julius seemingly befriends a Liberian immigrant at the facility, Saidu, who divulges his own brutal migration history. Saidu explains he has been detained in the US for over two years but is being sent back, having been told that 9/11 was a key factor in his fortunes. The conversation between the pair highlights the widely divergent forms transnational mobility may assume. While Julius enjoys a privileged form of Western mobility across all spaces of the global city, Saidu is a member of the non-elite global citizenry dislocated between territorialities and marginalised by the continuing imposition of national borders. In the contemporary world there is often a disparity between privileged citizens who are free to form social networks and non-elite migrants who are manipulated by Western globalising processes. The weakening of borders due to the transnational mobility of non-elite citizens arguably necessitates the development of cosmopolitan dispositions to engage with these transformations. And yet, through asymmetrical institutional barriers, systems of inclusion and exclusion in the narrative remain intact, ensuring the maintenance of a cultural binary of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
At the very least, the cosmopolitan empathy of Nadege and her group ensure the exclusionary systems of border control unintentionally actualise and foster forms of transnational engagement, rather than the brutal isolation of excluded others. The same cannot be said of Julius; he avoids subsequent visits to the facility, despite promising to visit Saidu in the future. The migrant is not asking Julius to commit to any supererogatory actions, merely to maintain a semblance of sociability, which would limit Saidu’s loneliness, increase solidarity and go some way to resolving his feelings of exclusion. Julius nevertheless utilises the encounter to paint himself as ‘the compassionate African who paid attention to the details of someone else’s life and struggle. I had fallen in love with that idea myself (70). His arrogant delusion leads Kate Hallemeier to claim that Saidu becomes merely ‘the abject cosmopolitan [... ] a literary, potentially erotic resource for the economically privileged cosmopolitan intellectual, Julius’ (2013: 242-3). The encounter highlights the absence of Julius’s cosmopolitan outlook in engaging with these global inequalities of marginalisation and dislocation. As Greg Noble emphasises, openness ‘can only begin an encounter, it is not the encounter itself (2009: 49). Attempts by marginalised subjects in the novel (such as Saidu) to forge some form of affinity or communication reflect Robbins’s argument that cosmopolitanism should be extended to ‘transnational experiences that are particular rather than universal and that are unprivileged - indeed, often coerced’ (1998b: 1). Crucially, the contemporary form of cosmopolitanism evident in the novel, by adhering to the pragmatic implementation of ethical considerations and cross-cultural encounters on a localised scale through reflexive engagement with fellow neighbours or marginalised citizens of the city, avoids conforming to the celebratory nature of universalism. The conversation therefore vindicates the criticisms directed at Western cosmopolitan paradigms, which are often perceived as merely aesthetic posturing ignorant of, and standing in contrast to, the delimited mobility of global migrants. The asymmetrical relationship between Julius and Saidu supports the argument that cosmopolitanism remains the purview of those secure within a nation-state or enjoying a form of territorial belonging. By assuming a superficial and banal stance to cultural engagement, Julius fails to demonstrate a desire to alter systems of global inequality, retaining a spectatorial and ineffectual worldview.
According to Alison Mountz, in order to counter the intensification of transnational mobility, the ‘immigrant-receiving states of the global
North police borders and exacerbate differences between themselves and “others” who struggle to land on sovereign territory’ (2011: 255). The ubiquitous discourse surrounding immigrants and national security in the novel certainly suggests that the cosmopolitical life of global cities is increasingly organised and influenced by transnational considerations. However, this is not to say that immigrants like Saidu are entirely disconnected from globalising processes; they are still undeniably linked to the transnational flows defining the contemporary environment, exercising agency in their mobility. Although global migrants often represent a state of rootlessness and constant movement, Saidu is a voluntary migrant, harbouring a desire to participate in the cultural freedoms of the US.3 Inderpal Grewal argues that becoming a ‘citizen’ of the US has ‘both a hegemonic and a heterogeneous meaning articulated within and through forms of transnational consumption and struggles for rights’ (2005: 8). Yet nationalism itself is not central to identity in Open City, with transnational communities in global cities proving the norm, not the exception. As the novel displays, the protean nature of nationalism now comfortably encompasses both local and more global subjectivities. Despite Robbins’s assessment that the US operates as ‘cosmopolitanism’s source’ due to its origins as a ‘nation of immigrants’, migrants undoubtedly proble- matise cosmopolitan paradigms (1999: 32). The marginalisation of immigrants tempers any form of celebratory cosmopolitanism and simply exposes the inequalities that prevent a more cosmopolitan society from emerging.
Open City may avoid challenging the systems of global inequality, but through a sustained critique of Julius’s unethical subjectivity, it suggests that a critical awareness of cultural discrimination (and active individual agency to lessen marginalisation) are apposite goals for the globalised world. Nonetheless, cultural-spatial divisions and national citizenship remain the means of determining who belongs and who is excluded from the US. Restrictive, yet necessary, border controls remain in place to regulate mobility, revealing how transnational flows and migratory dia- sporas function against the fixity of nation-states. The idea of the nation remains central to both the public imagination and government policy. These barriers to cultural engagement fail to contradict the core values of contemporary cosmopolitan paradigms. Moderating flows is not the same as obstructing flows, and interaction does not require a structure of equivalence. Despite asymmetric rights to movement, and the fact that
‘differentiated inclusion’ may transform into ‘differentiated exclusion’, Ewald Engelen argues it is a pragmatic reality that ‘too much mobility is simply incompatible with a sustainable framework of rights [and] thresholds are needed to ensure durable rights’ (2003: 510). Borders simply emphasise that ‘place’, as opposed to some abstract global space of flows, is politically and socio-culturally contested, and bound up with issues of identity and belonging. Open City reinforces a counter-argument to the idealistic assumption that contemporary society is becoming a world without borders, in which individuals are free to move at will across global spaces. Rather, territorial borders are not so much eroded by cosmpolita- nisation, as transformed by the process; cosmopolitanisation now occurs in localised environments contested by transnational forces, demonstrating the importance of locality in grounding and shaping the practice of cosmopolitan ideals.
Derrida claims that issues of asylum call for ‘a duty to hospitality’ by the ‘cities of refuge’ (2001: 4). By interrogating the difficulty in offering unconditional hospitality to displaced subjects like Saidu, Open City merely problematises, at an institutional level, the outdated Kantian cosmopolitan ethic that border-crossing should naturally involve a right to hospitality.4 Classical cosmopolitan paradigms, such as the Kantian model, rely on abstract moral philosophies rather than addressing the political realities of putting cosmopolitanism into practice, and are therefore theoretically insufficient in addressing the concerns of the contemporary environment. Unprecedented levels of migration and the need for novel forms of transnational security serve as further difficulties in formulating a means of living together in an increasingly interdependent society. As Greg M. Nielsen identifies, ‘[unconditional cosmopolitan intent’ would seek an ideal global culture that embraced the ‘right to refuge, a duty towards hospitality, and acceptance of strangers’, but doing so fails to accommodate ‘domestic rules of residence and rights to security’, affirming the ‘impossibility of complete tolerance towards difference’ (2008: 279). The presence of the detention facility in Open City reveals the historical maintenance of fears of the cultural other, spatialising a desire to limit cultural integration. Increased transnational mobility, serving as the catalyst for Julius’s forced engagement with cultural others, consequently challenges the limits of hospitality. By proceeding to forge strong links between global security discourses and the implied threat of terrorism in the narrative, the novel provides a rationale for the maintenance of existing immigration regulation systems.
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