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Cosmopolitan Elites

Even within trading cities, cosmopolitanism depends on interconnection and engagement of some kind with other groups, rather than the simple co-presence of different cultural groups linked only by thin ties of commerce (Holton 2009: 101).

Arjun’s absorption into digital culture sustains the corporate media lifestyle of elite Westerners. Guy Swift, a marketing executive for a global advertising firm, serves as the novel’s elite subject - by travelling transnationally for corporate business, he functions as the Western manifestation of globalised culture (his surname itself evokes the immediacy and acceleration of networked globalisation). Guy practises a superficial form of social engagement, holding the world at a distance; though he admires the view from his skyscraper building, he desires to be even further removed from the masses below. By enjoying a privileged form of constant mobility he avoids forging an intimate connection or emotional attachment to his girlfriend, colleagues or friends, reflecting Holton’s claim that businessmen and internet users in contemporary society are at best ‘reluctant cosmopolitans’, connecting to the wider world via a superficial aesthetic (2009: 202). Guy consequently fails to establish personal connections, remaining estranged from intercultural or even national ties. For Johansen, he is the ‘most rootless of all the characters’; his lack of a back story or origins suggest ‘a complete disavowal of personal histories and all kinship connections’, and even his cultural interactions are merely ‘a process of consumption’ (2013: 424). This desire to be uprooted from the particularities of geographical space suits his corporate lifestyle and marks him as a detached figure of corporate excess: ‘Thailand or Mauritius or Zanzibar or Cancun or Sharm el Sheikh or Tunisia or Bali or the Gold Coast or Papeete or Gran Cayman or Malibu. So manyplaces for Guy. All the same’ (134). Guy leads a forward-thinking, global marketing agency named Tomorrow, adapted to reflect the fluidity and speed of the twenty-first century city. Like the Circle, the company allegedly promotes an ethos ofcultural tolerance and openness, designed to fit ‘the local needs of transnational clients’, yet is often incapable of doing so, relying on visuals rather than acknowledging the religious and cultural specifications of its customers. Both Guy and his company pursue a commercialised cosmopolitanism that exploits other cultures, drawing on their tastes and experiences for personal ends, but ultimately fails to engender true intercultural engagement.

Like the founders of the Circle, Guy is an unashamedly privileged subject, immersed in the global technoscapes that encompass the contemporary moment and complicit with digital culture’s dependence upon non-elite labour. Crucially, at no point in the narrative do Guy and Arjun encounter one another; his ignorance of Arjun’s presence is a direct critique of the Western world’s incognisance and indifference to cultural inequalities. Sitting in his airplane’s first-class compartment, Guy fails to sense any connection to ‘the boy on the bus 30,000 feet below’ (12). The sense of looking down on others raises Guy ‘beyond the trivial temporality of the unpersonalized masses of the earth’, and he only experiences contentment within the transitory spaces of airports due to their ‘status as non-destination space’ (22). Airplanes, flying far above national borders, are better equipped to transport ‘the message of himself from one point on the earth’s surface to another’ (13). By seamlessly shrinking the globe, linking nation-states and drawing them into a global network of movement, airports act as nodes in this mobile system, responsible for connecting citizens across trans-territorial space. According to Beck, networks of mobility such as the internet and airports ‘build the backbone of the cosmopolitan society and the process of globalization’ (2008: 33).11 These networks undoubtedly serve as a form of elite cosmopolitan transfer in the narrative, allowing Kunzru to parody the systems sustaining Western corporate lifestyles. Guy’s lifestyle suggests that transnational mobility predominantly remains the fortunate terrain of affluent Westerners alone. Business elites and exponents of global capitalism in the novel may operate across borders, but their presence in diverse geographical settings is for monetary gain, not cultural engagement, and in Guy’s case results in the entrenchment of negative parochialism. His presence in the narrative, therefore, serves as a critique of monetary inequalities in the contemporary financial system, which remain unacknowledged by so-called Western ‘cosmopolitans’. However, although cosmopolitanism has long been tied to the notion of elite mobility, technological advancement also transforms the framework of cosmopolitanism, allowing individuals to form intercultural relations without physically crossing borders at all. Regardless of differences in nationality, wealth or social class, both Arjun and Guy’s contrapuntal movements converge on the same global path, synthesised in a convergence culture without their knowledge. As a cosmopolitan elite, Guy experiences the ‘sublime mobility of those who travel without ever touching the ground’, whereas Arjun, through his role as a digital migrant, glimpses ‘what lies below, the other mobility, the forced motion’ of the globally displaced (47). Kunzru therefore disrupts the dichotomy between elite and non-elite experiences, questioning how geographically and culturally separate lifeworlds infringe upon one another through the interdependence of digital networks.

Guy’s major advertising contract involves working with ‘PEBA, the new Pan European Border Authority’, to rebrand Europe as a fortressed Western state of exclusivity of elite cultural capital, harmonising ‘the immigration and customs regimes of all the member states’ (130). The organisation protects the role of the nation-state as a dominant presence in the global system, limiting and dictating mobilities, data regulation, and border-crossing. The corporeality of physical geographical space acts in opposition to the imposition of digital flows, maintaining a top-down process of cultural regulation. Guy’s marketing pitch for his European border policy further encapsulates the tenets of superficial cosmopolitanism, seeking to provide hospitality and openness to a select group: ‘we have to promote Europe as somewhere you want to go, but somewhere that’s not for everyone. A continent that wants people, but only the best. An exclusive continent’ (257). In his pitch, he claims that ‘in the twenty-first century the border is not just a line on the earth any more’; the border is both ‘everywhere’ and ‘in your mind’ (252). In marketing an anti-cosmopolitan ‘mental border’ as ‘a value [... ] we can promote’, Guy exploits cultural fears of immigration and terrorism, and ensures the act of border-crossing itself becomes commercialised and condemned in the process: ‘the physical has been ruthlessly subordinated to the immaterial’ (253, 249). Such border planning not only directly rejects the notion of a cosmopolitan borderless world, but advocates the exclusion of non-elite others, reinforcing rather than removing the borders of nation-states. PEBA, like the eponymous company of The Circle, hides behind a false rhetoric of political transparency and social harmony. The organisation is dependent on surveillance and the collection of personal data in order to operate efficiently and exclude unwelcome others. PEBA manipulates the understanding that while privileged nationstates embrace the economic benefits of globalisation through the transfer of capital and digital technology, they often resist the human side of globalisation, policing their borders to limit immigration. The proposed European border authority advocates the need for the centralisation of digital data to enforce its immigration and customs regime, combining their database with biometrics in order to police transnational citizens. Transmission consequently echoes The Circle in warning against the centralisation of electronic data, which places cultural and political power in the hands of the cultural elite.

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