Cosmopolitanisms, edited by Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta

In this collection, cosmopolitanism is a leviathan, housing contradiction and dispute

January 18, 2018
Japanese quarter Sao Paulo
Source: Alamy
Commitment and distance: the Japanese quarter in São Paulo is an exemplar of the cosmopolitanism that is now global

A note on a colleague’s door proclaims “CITIZEN OF NOWHERE”. Theresa May’s jibe at those who claim multiple, instead of merely national, belonging has become a rallying cry for those opposing Brexit, and the Brexiteers’ suffocating monistic nationalism. The populist political right in the UK and the US, whose heavy-breathing about sovereignty and “the people” is almost deafening, might seem to have killed cosmopolitanism as a workable civic or ethical aspiration. 

Cappuccino-sippers of the world, unite: Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta’s collection of essays, Cosmopolitanisms, excavates the history of the concept and speculates about its future. I find the academic tic of pluralising nouns – globalisms, modernisms – rather tiresome, as if we’re so worried about not being inclusive that we’ll brook any contradiction. But recognising that cosmopolitanism is riven with contradiction and ambivalence helps describe its limits, tempering any temptation to idealise the concept. 

This plurality and openness are an opportunity too. “We are connected, but incompletely,” Craig Calhoun notes in his contribution, and this tenet of the cosmopolitan worldview underpins the ambitious intellectual work of this book, where 19 essays describe conceptual connection, divergence and difficulty. 

An impressive gamut of contributors represent the major disciplines of the humanities, reflecting the seduction of cosmopolitanism within contemporary theory over the past few decades. It should be noted, however, that only seven of the 21 writers are women, a little ironic given that two of the key theorists in the area – Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib – are women. 

Cosmopolitanism is neither to be uncritically embraced nor thrown out as defunct. The Eurocentric, capitalist and (neo)imperialist appropriation of the cosmopolitan is here replaced by the cities and lives of the global south. The Paris of James Joyce, or the Davos of Tony Blair, becomes the Johannesburg, São Paulo or Shanghai of the migrant worker. Silviano Santiago calls for “the cosmopolitanism of the poor”, gesturing both to the “clandestine” existence of exploited migrant workers and to an affirmative vision of the solidarities possible for these under-represented groups. And the form of cosmopolitanism particular to African postcolonial nations is given special attention in essays on “Afropolitanism” by Achille Mbembe and Ashleigh Harris. 

One of the most provocative arguments for the ethical importance of cosmopolitanism imagines it as a transformative mode of experience that unsettles us. “Cosmopolitanism is not seeking universal commensurability,” writes Thomas Bender. Rather, “the cosmopolitanism must cultivate a doubleness that allows both commitment and distance”, disturbing the familiar and the known. This is counterintuitive cosmopolitanism: not the feeling of being at home in the world but of finding it ever estranging. Cosmopolitanism as the uncanny exhorts us to remember that we are strangers to ourselves as well as others.

Those who work in universities are proud of their being rather cosmopolitan spaces. But cosmopolitanism in this book is a leviathan, housing contradiction and dispute. In the context of the contemporary university, one wonders how healthy this ambivalence is. The book was funded by the NYU Abu Dhabi Foundation, whose campus was constructed by a migrant workforce whose working conditions were heavily criticised. Students and staff at NYU campaigned, forcing the university to intervene. But it goes to show that one kind of cosmopolitanism still gets paid for by another.

Benjamin Poore teaches English literature at Queen Mary University of London. His book on psychoanalysis, Making Masud Khan, will be published in 2019.

Edited by Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta
New York University Press, 272pp, £24.99
ISBN 9781479863235
Published 18 July 2017 

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