Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
The Spectre of 9/11: Transnational Risks
Urban disasters bring to the fore the astounding fragility of complex mobility systems (Hannam etal. 2006: 7).
Mountz claims that the September 11 attacks alone provoked ‘a stricter policing of the line between those with mobility and those without’ (2011: 255).5 As if to answer the cultural effects of 9/11, Cole directs Julius’s aimless meandering towards the transgressive space of Ground Zero, a visible reminder of the dangers of the increasingly interdependent present. Cole positions the site as an example of historical cyclicality, claiming that ‘catastrophic trauma is not new in this city’ (‘Immigrant’s Quest’ 2011: n.pag.). Julius muses that Ground Zero ‘was not the first erasure on the site’, imagining the forgotten transnational communities who inhabited this city-space before the World Trade Centre buildings: ‘the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s [... ] And, before that? What Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble?’ (58, 59). The forgotten history of these communities, for Julius, corresponds to the ‘neatness ofthe line we had drawn around the catastrophic events of 2001’, the innumerable dead being: ‘sectioned off, hidden in a crypt, and from this place of encryption they haunt the living’ (209). The novel therefore echoes Harvey’s argument that future constructions upon the site of Ground Zero must ‘say something about individual and collective memory’ yet must not ‘ignore the issue of relational spatial connectivity to the rest of the world’ (2009: 146, 147). By envisioning the site as ‘a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten’, Julius acknowledges Ground Zero to reflect a spatial continuation with earlier periods of history - intensification rather than transformation of the global city’s transnational demographic and structure (59).
New York functions in the narrative as a city of memory - mapping cultural history onto urban space and indicating that the city’s citizens are constantly subject to cosmopolitical forces. Julius’s personal and cultural identity in the city is mediated by and folded into the experiences of other transnational individuals, tracing routes others have walked before him. As Wood notes, the New York of the narrative is depicted as ‘a place of constant deposit and erasure’; by imbuing the narrative with ‘the collective weight of the past’, Julius is ‘drawn to the layers of sedimented historical suffering on which the city rests’ (2011: n.pag.).
And yet, his subjectivity as a ‘lone walker’ through cultural sites of communal experience such as Ground Zero indicates the relevance of individual perception to the collective memory of global events: ‘I, one of the still legible crowd [... ] wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories’ (57, 59). Although postcolonial texts often possess a deep empathy with transnational pasts and presents, Julius’s own psychological idiosyncrasies shape a very specific and restrictive form of aesthetic participation in cultural flows, which often fetishises or superficially concerns itself with transnational traumas. Part of Julius’s antipathy to ethnic or personal attachments undoubtedly stems from a desire to stabilise his place and identity within the changing topography and ephemerality of a global city. The site of Ground Zero encapsulates both local and global histories, layered upon each other as a palimpsest of interconnected memory, locally situated but shaped by transnational networks through the political contestation it signifies. Moreover, in placing Julius within sites and communities of memory, Open City indicates that global mobilities and connectivities operate along historical as well as geographical trajectories. Spaces of intercultural exchange in the narrative are often simultaneously spaces of tension and collision. Racial inequalities and cosmopolitical tensions persist from the late-twentieth century, suggesting a limitation to realistic cultural engagement. By positioning migration as a shared fate for all nationalities across history, Cole is able both to locate the experiences of contemporary immigrants as a continuation of the past, and to accentuate how the intensification of global movement creates new mobilities and questions of belonging. Through an exploration of cosmopolitan memories and disparate histories, the first-person narration results in more than merely an exploration of self (reflecting the historical construction of a transnational community in a global city) and weakens the argument that transnationalism is merely a contemporary phenomenon responsible for dismantling the nation-state paradigm.
In order to reconnect with his roots, Julius travels to Belgium, ostensibly to track down his grandmother who resides there. On arriving in Brussels, however, he immediately forgets his purpose in the capital, reverting to his aesthetic flaneurism. His characteristic remoteness is transported to the city and he merely replicates his usual solitary day-to-day activities. Brussels is effectively positioned as yet another site of displacement for Julius, with the European capital mirroring his absence of personal ties in New York. Moreover, in effortlessly transporting Julius to Belgium without any narratorial detail of the journey, Cole places further emphasis on the ways in which elite subjects pass through national borders in a very different fashion to the non-elite migrants Julius encounters, reflecting John Urry’s identification of the contrast in contemporary society between ‘the speed of the global and the slowness of the ontologically grounded’ (2004: 123). Although cosmopolitanism is not a synonym for transnational mobility, Weert Canzler, Vincent Kaufmann and Sven Kesselring identify that ‘[d] iscourses on globalization, transnationalisation and cosmopolitanism more and more refer quite directly to mobility issues’, often with regards to this dichotomy between elite and non-elite mobility (2008: 181). In comparison to the displacement suffered by some of his interlocutors, Julius merely exhibits an existential restlessness. He is a transnational subject who suffers neither asylum nor exile; an internal migrant with legal citizenship freely crossing the border controls his African ‘brothers’ are constantly detained by.
Arguably, due to the narrative emphasis on cultural relations in the Belgian capital, Brussels (rather than New York) may serve as the ‘open city’ of the title, referring to the capital’s decision during the Second World War to open its borders in order to escape German aggression: ‘[h]ad Brussels’s rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment [... ] it might have been reduced to rubble’
Dropping into an internet cafe to check his email while in Brussels, Julius meets Farouq, a Masters student working in the cafe while he finishes his degree. Interestingly, he hails Farouq as his ‘brother’, and quickly questions why he did so: ‘[a] false note, I decided’ (102). The incident once again betrays Julius’s sporadic emotional duality with regards to cultural affiliation. By reasoning that he would be frequenting the cafe for several weeks, the show of solidarity can be interpreted as a practical necessity, rather than a genuine attempt at mutuality and affinity. Although cosmopolitanism involves an engagement with cultural others, Julius often exploits his ethnic heritage for tactical or strategic means, possessing ulterior motives when assuming his inauthentic ethnic demeanour. His narration serves as a discordant note against the multilingual harmony of Farouq, who ‘slipped seamlessly into French, and back again into English’, demonstrating the value of transnational exchanges in fostering commonality (103). Berman argues that acts of translation reflect an ability and competence in engaging with difference: ‘in translating one seeks not to represent in one’s own language the ideas of another but to expand one’s own language so as to be able to speak the other’s thoughts’ (2001: 19). The limits of Julius’s linguistic diversity is therefore suggestive of his failure to engage with others in general. On first meeting Farouq, Julius attempts to converse in French, but soon has to either resort to his native English in order to socialise, or have Farouq act as a translator between himself and others, enabling him to engage in communication with those of differing ideologies. Further, by reading Walter Benjamin’s On The Concept of History, Farouq not only reveals that contemporary migrants possess transnational literacies, but indicates that literature offers the potential for identification with cultural others: ‘it was books that made me aware of the variety of the world. This is why I don’t view America as monolithic [... ] I know that there are different people there, with different ideas’ (125-6).6 Farouq consequently expects a form of reciprocity from Western nations - an acknowledgement that his cultural experiences are equally valid: ‘what is important to me is that the world realizes that we are not monolithic either, in what they call the Arab world, that we are all individuals. We disagree with each other’ (124).
Admittedly, migration and subsequent transnational connections are hardly new developments in global society. Through the internet cafe, however, Open City emphasises the facilitation of technological transformations that contribute to novel forms of cultural engagement, namely the interconnection of communities through digital communication: ‘a log of the calls ongoing in all twelve booths: Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Brazil, France, Germany. It looked like fiction, that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places’ (112). The cosmopolitan dialogues forged in Farouq’s internet cafe not only enable cultural and political agency to come to the fore, but reflect a communal process in which transnational subjects negotiate cultural positions and mutually reconstruct contemporary forms of global connectivity through both physical and virtual domains. Farouq claims the cosmopolitan composition of the internet cafe is ‘a test case of what I believe; people can live together but still keep their own values intact. Seeing this crowd of individuals from different places, it appeals to the human side of me’ (112). Although the internet cafe reflects that transnational connectivity is determined by forms of physical and virtual forms of mobility (seemingly limiting the potential for engagement), it is nevertheless largely frequented by non-elite migrants from outside Europe, allowing them to sustain and create links across national borders. This linking of marginalised subjects to a wider global circuit in the narrative offers an escape from delimiting localities and an engagement with cosmopolitical and cultural flows from which they have been excluded. Technology thereby engenders a new migrant condition to confront the contemporary global environment. By incorporating themselves (and by extension their culture) into networks of technological connectivity, non-Western communities may utilise Farouq’s cafe to pass for members of an elite global community. Farouq’s openness and sociability, coupled with his role as an entrepreneur, facilitates his participation in the acceleration of global flows and connections. His cosmopolitan disposition and development of transnational networks is equally apparent in his private life as he graciously invites Julius to dinner at Casa Botelho. Even the mundane and banal activity of sharing food suggests that acts of individual ethical agency are conducive to the formation of more tolerant communities and foster intercultural commensality.
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