Visceral Cosmopolitanism

January 24, 2008

Mica Nava's significant study of cosmopolitanism traces its marginal status at the beginning of the 20th century to its relative normalisation today.

It focuses particularly on English cultural history, in a case study of London, the city that Nava's own migrant family now calls home. Through various contexts, and within a partly autobiographical frame, Nava extricates a historical thread of desire that weaves through the century, accruing evidence for two critical standpoints that should alter the way cosmopolitanism has been understood as a cultural trend. By critically engaging with and challenging traditional (rather masculinist) views, she instead offers the reader an innovative vision of feminist and anti-racist social practices that have gradually informed perceptions of cosmopolitanism as a positive cultural force. This is a book that has a sense of a long generation - of thought, but also of family origin. It is considered and careful, the result of a slow and self-reflective authorship that maintains a valuable custom, perhaps principle, of cultural studies research.

The last chapter, "A Love Song to Our Mongrel Selves", is the one I read first, and I would advise other readers to do the same, not least because Nava's personal narrative of cosmopolitanism is a voice that holds together the rest of the study. We have come a long way since rather aggrandising attempts by feminist authors at personal criticism in the 1980s that were so often gratingly indulgent, so constrained by the limitations of identity politics of the era.

Kindly, we may view those attempts as necessary experimentations in a critique of objectivity and reason. A later trend of feminist writing has emerged - admittedly largely from middle-class women with a ready self to divulge - that is self-ish, but "-ish" in the sense of qualified, wiser and less tempted to trumpet its cultural capital. Nava's research, in that spirit of crossing, of integrating questions of "otherness" that are not purely racial, tries to reach towards a more generous view of our social selves, and her starting point is women.

Focusing on the vernacular, perhaps the "visceral" of her title, Nava emphasises the domestic structure of feeling that embraced "difference", literally and figuratively, and evolved into a cosmopolitan surge that has come today to signify modernity/ urbanity. She gives many examples, including Selfridges, dancing the tango, desert romance fiction, American film of the 1940s and 1950s, "kitchen sink" novels of the 1950s and 1960s, racialist sociology, and the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed (in the one chapter that was disappointingly short).

Taking multiple examples, she draws out the same theme: that "throughout the century, empathy, hospitality, inclusivity, conviviality and allure of difference in English culture have always co-existed with the most hostile manifestations of racialisation", and that resistance to racism most often came from women. In the book's most memorable image, Nava tells of the hundreds of white, mainly young working-class English women who besieged the Army barracks in Bristol in 1945, protesting at the departure of their black GI boyfriends; the women were singing Bing Crosby's hit Don't Fence Me In and shouting: "We want our coloured sweethearts!" Nava cites Barbara Cartland, speaking in her capacity as "moral welfare adviser" at the end of the war: "It was the white women who ran after the black troops, not vice versa ... They would queue outside the camps."

Methodologically, Nava's monograph is highly recommended for students, providing historical specificity, insight and argument. But Visceral Cosmopolitanism is also a very ethical study, offering the reader a real sense of hope in a field notorious for its tricky questions.

Visceral Cosmopolitanism: Gender, Culture and the Normalisation of Difference

By Mica Nava
Berg
224pp
£55.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781845202422 and 2439
Published 1 September 2007

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