Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
The Limits of Openness
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore (Lazarus 2007: 270).
The narrative of Open City reveals how an individual’s ethnic and ethical identity is shaped and defined by the cosmopolitics of the wider world. Critiquing the socio-cultural engagement of New York through the eyes of a transnational subject, the novel problematises Moraru’s claim that twenty-first century fiction involves a ‘drama of with-ness’, providing the ‘rationale and vehicle for a new togetherness, for a solidarity across political, ethnic, racial, religious and other boundaries’ (2011: 75, 5). By establishing a critical cosmopolitanism which deconstructs the progressive nature of transnational engagement (questioning whether cosmopolitan ideals are practical and achievable given the vast inequality and processes of inclusion and exclusion still existing even in Western global cities), Open City interrogates the effort required in establishing cultural connections. In doing so, the novel critiques idealised cultural connectivity, deviates from multicultural paradigms of integration, and reveals cosmopolitanism to be a fragile project easily destabilised by individual agency. The narrative consequently echoes the sentiments of NW in acknowledging the limitations of intercultural tolerance and integration to cosmopolitanism. By positioning cosmopolitan practices to operate on an individual level, subject to personal idiosyncrasies and reliant on active agency, Open City argues against the contention that individuals subject to transnational processes are subsequently ‘cosmopolitan’.
Julius’s encounters with New York’s citizenry, many immigrants themselves, reveal the city to be a culturally shared site which is, nevertheless, unequally inhabited. Although Julius seemingly adopts a literary cosmopolitan stance, exhibiting a global knowledge of world history, art and literature, the global inequalities and cosmopolitan memories of suffering that exist around him expose his aesthetic elitism as mere spectatorship. Despite the definitively local scale of the interactions, the narrative is ultimately transnational in scope, combining the diverse experiences of re-situated migrants with the intensification of cultural connectivities and forcing a re-examination of the relationship of immigrants to cosmopolitan theory. The characters of Farouq and Saidu specifically represent the significance of non-elite migrants to contemporary cosmopolitan paradigms, demonstrating the complexity of their lives in learning multiple languages, establishing roots in other nations, and adapting to new cultures, either through free will or as a result of global disjuncture. The various encounters are therefore suggestive of the cosmopolitanisation of global cityscapes, concerning an erosion of clear boundaries separating diverse cultures and leading to confrontation with ethnic others. Contemporary cosmopolitanism requires engagement with the unprivileged sectors of global society who account for the vast majority of transnational movements. Richard Fardon terms such individuals the ‘flotsam and jetsam of globalisation’, encapsulating the extent to which the lives of non-elite groups are coerced and disrupted by globalising processes, and exposing the brutal reality of cultural flows (2008: 252). To escape the charge of elitism, cosmopolitanism must separate itself from Western dispositions alone and interrogate the migratory experiences that naturally follow from the networking of globalisation and the interdependencies of transnational mobilities. It remains questionable whether Julius’s encounters reveal an openness to these transnational others, or more possibly a form of fake, aesthetic flaneurism which fails to display true engagement or empathy.
Through his detached subjectivity, the text serves to critique the forms of cosmopolitan connection that typify global narratives - the elitist mobilities and cosmopolitanisation of cultures that neglect an engagement with global inequalities. Cultural mobility fails to develop cosmopolitan dispositions a priori. Open City thereby points to the importance of Beck’s ‘cosmopolitan fallacy’, which tempers the progressive, utopian connotations of the term and highlights ‘a growing sensitivity to other unfamiliar, legitimate geographies of living and coexistence’, which ‘need not necessarily stimulate a feeling of cosmopolitan responsibility’ (2002b: 29). The novel fails to function exclusively through Western elite paradigms or accentuate only those who are incommensurable to global flows and processes. Rather, the novel interrogates the cosmopo- litical realities of transnational engagement from both elite and non-elite perspectives, positioning individual agency as central to the implementation of cosmopolitan ideals.
By examining the contemporary state of cultural relations in an urban environment, Open City reveals how transnational interactions operate and develop, detailing the practices and dialogues that establish and sustain such relationships. Specific points of origin, cultural and personal histories determine the facilitation or impediments to the development of ethical relationality in the novel. Fostering cosmopolitanism is far more complex than merely constructing a multicultural environment where ethnically diverse individuals come together to inhabit a localised space. On the one hand, Julius’s rejection of established cultural ties is reflective of cosmopolitanism’s ideals, namely the development of relationships with cultural others. On the other hand, however, Julius fails to establish any ties, cultural or otherwise. The novel suggests a mediation between the two outlooks, echoing Sara Ahmed’s call for an almost- paradoxical ‘community of strangers’ in which connectivity is formed not on the basis of commonality but instead generated through the realisable practice of intercultural engagement to understand ‘what it is they might yet have in common’ (2000: 84, 94). That being said, the engendering of such a society runs the risk that cosmopolitanism is once again unbound by ethnic or national considerations, being based on individual agency and resisting definition.
The narrative not only demonstrates how transnational engagement is articulated, grounded and spatialised in a contemporary urban environment, but acknowledges how the values of cosmopolitanism may differ in specific geographical and temporal contexts. As Jon Binnie et al. argue,
‘national imaginaries and histories are central to the realisation of cosmopolitan geographies’ leading not to ‘transversality, but rather local spaces of realisation’ (2006: 248). Julius’s New York is a product of its own specific history, and the cultural processes within its urban spaces cannot be generalised globally. The cosmopolitan ethos, once untethered from the particularities of place and history, merely results in an abstract universalism and cultural detachment. Accordingly, Dalley notes that Julius possesses a ‘cosmopolitan persona unbounded by a proximate locale’ and resists assuming ‘a stable spatio-temporal location’ in which he can be categorised or assimilated (2013: 26,19). The act ofwalking in the text can thus be understood in various ways: the means of embedding and grounding Julius in his ever-shifting locality; exposing Julius to the transnational subjectivities shaping New York as a global city; and positioning Julius as the continuation in the history of transnational mobilities that have come to define the city. By rejecting the notion that such mobilities are reflective of an emerging cosmopolitan citizenship, Open City avoids polarising the national and the global. Individuals and practices remain resolutely grounded in the specificities of place, and nationstate paradigms remain central to the definition and construction of transnational identities. The narrative instead indicates that through both mobility and migration individuals are caught up in the fluid social practice of reformulating and reshaping socio-cultural affiliations, and that intercultural communication should always be in a process of negotiation.
At the same time, the narrative opposes Hannerz’s false dichotomy between ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘locals’ that suggests cosmopolitanism involves citizens who occupy a state of ‘in-betweenness’ (1992: 200). The proposed dichotomy leads to fixity in identity - a differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ - sustaining postcolonial notions of otherness that neglect the diversity and hybridity of identities in contemporary urban environments. While it is no longer sufficient to define cultural inequalities through centre-periphery paradigms as Hannerz claims, or to argue that ethnicity constitutes otherness (regardless of racialised discourses), there are prevailing signs that exclusionary practices remain subject to state and institutional infrastructures. Inclusionary practices in Open City are the purview of transnationalism from below, revealing the extent to which relations occur without institutional involvement - the state instead being a barrier to such processes of exchange. Julius’s interactions, however, often reaffirm cultural hierarchies enforced institutionally. Employing Anderson’s terms, Julius mediates between a superficial ‘exclusionary cosmopolitanism’, which relies on an abstract universalism to cultural differentiation, and an ‘inclusionary cosmopolitanism’ that sporadically develops through intercultural dialogue and exchange (1998: 268). By refusing to challenge or transform existing hegemonic distinctions, evident in his disregard and lack of empathy towards Saidu, he merely functions as a spectator to the transnationalism from below occurring all around him.
According to Featherstone, contemporary global culture reflects: ‘aggregates of cultural particularities juxtaposed together on the same field’ and occupying ‘the same bounded space, in which the fact that they are different and do not fit together, or want to fit together, becomes noticeable and a source ofpractical problems’ (1996: 70). The narrative of Open City engages with the intricacies and complexities of global culture in a localised urban setting, and interrogates the day-to-day experience of the globalised world, ensuring the local is effectively conditioned by the global. The title itself seems to suggest how global cities are increasingly subject to transnational mobilities across borders fostering socio-cultural and ethnic solidarities across territorial divides. New mobilities thus engender new subjectivities to reflect the circulation of global migration and memory. In an interview following the release of the novel, Cole revealed the title has a double meaning, not only referring to a sense of openness, but an act of cultural ‘invasion’ (‘Immigrant’s Quest’ 2011: n. pag.). On this basis, the processes of transnationalism and globalisation in the narrative have not produced an integrated culture unified by the ideals of cosmopolitanism. The novel instead demonstrates that the modern world is still in the process of coming to terms with what Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake term the ‘ as-yet-unfigured horizon of contemporary cultural production’, and questions whether the resulting ‘global/local synergy’ can generate cosmopolitan dispositions (1996: 6, 2).
Certainly, Open City fails to support the argument for the superior value of community. The narrative, rather like Julius’s wanderings, not only suffers from an absence of belonging, but an absence of destination. Episodic encounters fail to imbue the novel with a narrative trajectory or a sense of purpose, as Julius remains adrift in a global city of connectivity. While Farouq forges links to new networks, Julius often rejects cultural classifications when it suits his purposes, emphasising the central role of individual agency in the performance of cosmopolitan ideals or cultural engagement. By sporadically mediating between assuming a shared ethnic heritage and denying any shared allegiance to his African-American interlocutors, Julius ensures ethnic ambivalence is central to his cultural identity. Throughout the text he regularly attempts to ‘pass’ for African (as if putting on a mask) and adapts his linguistic repertoire accordingly. And yet, Julius’s subjective fluidity with regards to heritage and ethnicity arguably reflects a cosmopolitan stance. After all, as Walkowitz argues, ‘the willingness to test and change allegiances’ is ‘a principle of critical cosmopolitanism’ (2006: 131). However, Julius refuses to afford the same privilege to others, constantly criticising his interlocutors for their cultural stance while failing to recognise his own hypocrisy. Julius seems to register his resistance to be defined and delimited by cultural and ethnic attachments, but is more than happy to place others in cultural categories that appeal to him. In hailing Farouq as his brother, he contradicts his denouncement of a similar overfamiliarity offered by both the cabdriver and the museum guard. There is an argument that Julius considers his professional position within society, as a well-educated psychiatrist, to allow him to delimit interaction with ethnic minorities of lower standing; his detachment an insinuation that his fluid cultural assimilation allows for this privilege. Through Julius, Open City reveals cosmopolitanism’s inherent vice - an individual may choose or reject their own cultural ties and networks. The narrative therefore exhibits a state of agential synchronicity, with all individuals having the potential to engage with global processes and assume cosmopolitan dispositions to differing degrees. Vertovec and Cohen argue that cosmopolitanism supercedes ‘the old foci of loyalty’, making ‘a decisive break with the celebration of “communities of descent”’ by assuming ‘complex, overlapping, changing and often highly individualistic choices of identity and belonging’ (2002: 20, 18). Open City, then, suggests a more realistic system of cosmopolitan relations in which ethnic allegiances and solidarity can generate exclusionary barriers in addition to inclusionary forms of belonging.
Rather than examining the worldview of a cosmopolitan subject secure of their place in the world, Cole employs Julius to question how an individual may form a sense of belonging when they are unable to come to terms with their past. Through a critique of Julius, Cole emphasises the necessity for ethical engagement with non-elite citizens as opposed to the aesthetic stance of a cosmopolitan flaneur. In this way, Open City reflects a clear thematic continuation from late-twentieth century texts such as The Satanic Verses (1988), which suggest a form of ‘disjuncture’ through the ‘migrant condition’ and demonstrate through Julius and his interlocutors a form of displaced subjectivity at a distance (Rushdie 1992: 394). The cityscapes of Cole’s New York have as much potential for alienation, atomisation and anonymity as they do for liberation, interaction and cosmopolitan dialogue. As with Zadie Smith’s NW, Open City becomes a reconstruction and reimagining of the author’s own experience in a global capital, converting the cultural spaces of New York into sites where social commentary on global-cultural processes can be examined. While Natalie’s walk through London mirrored Smith’s own meditation on the localised spaces of her childhood and adolescence, Julius traces a more heterogeneous route through the urban sites of New York - sites which act as magnetic spaces drawing in diverse assemblages of transnational individuals and communities. While it is not clear that Cole himself claims any specific cultural identity, it remains impossible to sever the novel from its biographical context, or more specifically, to sever Cole from his emotionally detached protagonist Julius. However, although Dalley correctly identifies that Julius embodies ‘a selfhood not in place in the world’, it does not naturally follow that ‘a disinterested cosmopolitan ethos is an attitude belonging to the subject who belongs to nowhere’ (2013: 26, 29). Regardless of his psychological antipathy, Julius as a decentred subject fails to achieve a state of (un)belonging within the global multitude. Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, his individual movement complements larger collective patterns that contribute to the rhythms of the global city. Through the indifferent agency of Julius, Cole brings into question literature’s capacity to formulate productive forms of cross-cultural dialogue. In doing so, Open City offers a detached and troubled perspective on cosmopolitanism’s requirement of empathetic identification with the lives of others. Julius therefore remains a privileged mobile citizen who is able to traverse transnational spaces from within his own locality, transforming the local into the site for lived experience of cultural engagement and trauma.
Open City suggests that the post-millennial United States is not quite at the stage where Julia Kristeva’s ‘new sort’ of cosmopolitanism can emerge, based on the contention that: ‘[t]he foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners’ (1991: 192). The novel avoids promoting a desirable multicultural vision of the future for New York - a city anchored in its solitariness, not solidarity. In exposing the hypocrisies and inequalities of racialised structures, Open City instead questions how society may move beyond spaces of inclusion and exclusion in a contemporary environment, without resorting to cosmopolitanism’s idealism. Despite Caren Irr’s claim that the multi-layered approach to both his own history and that of others endows Julius with ‘a new kind of global consciousness focused on the creative potential of the cosmopolitan African-origin subject’, the interwoven histories of diverse cultures in the narrative fail to engender a sense of inclusivity (2014: 58). After all, not much holds transnational connectivities together in the narrative other than a vague togetherness of strangers. Open City subsequently insinuates an ironic openness, channelling the inequalities and continuing inaccessibility of globally mobile subjects. Through Julius’s perspective, social encounters are experienced then swiftly forgotten, while ethnic histories and racial allegiances are destabilised by an idiosyncratic movement away from established forms of cultural belonging. In failing to demonstrate an ethical trajectory with regards to otherness, Julius remains an alienated, unsociable, and psychologically troubled individual whose attempts at engagement expose the limitations of the cosmopolitan disposition: ‘[o]thers are not like us, I thought to myself, their forms are different to ours’ (215).
As the introduction theorised, the twenty-first century era of globalisation and transnational mobility involves the increasing interdependence of individuals, nations and cultures. Contemporary forms of cosmopolitanism suggest that such developments necessitate the harmonisation of diverse socio-cultural and ethno-political beliefs to develop more progressive communal relations. By reflecting a realistic vision of cultural engagement in an urban cityscape, however, Cole’s narrative exhibits a more critical cosmopolitanism of openness to difference and detachment, rather than resorting to consonance and conformity. Further, Julius’s specific detachment from both personal and cultural ties in the narrative rejects the notion that transnational associations naturally engender cosmopolitan dispositions. Open City consequently functions as a critique of multiculturalism for the twenty-first century, interrogating and emphasising the continuing prevalence of identity politics, race and global inequalities. Cole’s novel, a narrative of unfixed positions, disjunctures and contradictions, offers a post-millennial interrogation of the concepts of nation and identity from within the entanglement of global flows and mobilities. In linking these concepts to the practice and awareness of ethical obligations and cosmopolitan dispositions, the novel demonstrates the limits of empathy and cultural connection in an unequal world, and indeed Cole echoes Smith in drawing attention to the inequalities prevalent within Western cityscapes and localities. In comparison to the bleak urban realities evident in NW and
Open City, the next chapter will attempt to expand the cosmopolitan framework to account for the role of digital technologies in either ameliorating or exacerbating cultural inequality. As Holton claims, the interplay between ‘inter-cultural engagement and cosmopolitanism [ ... ] connected with the mediating role of communications processes and technologies’ is yet to be explored (2009: 128). The following chapter will therefore examine the relationship between digital connectivity in the twenty-first century and its corresponding fictional representation in Dave Eggers’s The Circle and Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. By comparing the two texts, the chapter will subsequently determine whether a relationship exists between digital networks and cosmopolitanism, and answer ‘whether it is possible to be a physically immobile virtual cosmopolitan through new communication technology’ (Holton 2009: 24).
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