Bonus Miles

The case for cosmopolitanism

“So now the Americans are coming over here to teach us how to be critical.” I was standing outside the US pavilion, featuring Fred Wilson, at the Venice Biennial 2003, talking to an arts theorist from Graz. Wilson had chosen to reveal the unacknowledged history of African slaves and migrants in Venice, and there was something sublime about my perspiring Austrian friend in his drenched Missy Elliott T-shirt and Diesel khakis, reprimanding Fred Wilson, of all people, for American expansionism — declaring him the flagship of the very US elite that would routinely mistake him for the porter at his openings.

I tried to defend the artist with some unadventurous and predictable postcolonial wisdom, saying art was always instrumentalized in some way or other, that there was no harm in rubbing Venice’s nose in its racist past, and so on, sounding like a Routledge textbook. I don’t think I was doing justice to the ironic subtlety of the situation. What exactly was it about Wilson’s pavilion that made him look like he was an uninvited guest “coming over here”? His race? Hardly. Geopolitics? With the enlightened European reacting strongly to the imperial superpower? But then, surely it would make a difference that Wilson was the outstandingly critical type, rather than your average US warmonger. So it may have been sheer populism, a reaction against established mouthpieces endorsing (supposedly) anti-establishment positions. Whether or not this is really what made my critical companion shudder in his clammy khakis — seeing as it is now increasingly common for all sorts of social hierarchies to be played down by transnational gestures of critical awareness — it is, I would argue, the most pertinent side of the situation.

Back in the mid eighties, Gayatri Spivak wrote her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” hoping to tease open fissures in the walls of Western academia for the subaltern voice to twitter through into the undergrad seminars and PhD programs. Over the twenty-odd years since her essay’s publication, Afro-Venetians and other subalterns have become more present in both academic research and contemporary arts production. Subalterns aside, scores of intellectuals with surnames as racy as a Bidoun editorial board started “coming over here,” straight into the epicenters of western “high culture” and “learning.” 9/11 hysteria notwithstanding, it is now significantly harder to argue that racist bias is still a career stumbling block, or that it is what makes Austrian art critics raise their voices in anger.

A magazine like Bidoun is relatively vulnerable as an obvious example of “coming over here,” and I’d like to take a brief look at the particular, latter-day brand of cosmopolitanism with which it will be associated. Although cosmopolitanism smacks of privilege and repose, it is easy to relate it to open-minded progressives who all agree on voting for Kerry as the lesser evil, and on deconstructing the western gaze, and on the fact that third world filmmakers are important political voices even though “third world” is, like, a really problematic concept if you think about it. The outright opponents of cosmopolitanism, however, go a step further, and consider it the common denominator between the proponents and the adversaries of US expansionism, as a symptom of deep-seated complicity with western economic interests, across party lines.

The use of the term “third world” plays an important part in Timothy Brennan’s monumental critique of cosmopolitanism (At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now, Harvard University Press, 1997). Seeing as, according to Brennan, most critical intellectuals of today have a distinctive tendency towards self-irony, subtlety, complexity, and shades of grey, a term such as “third world,” in all its glaring Manichaeism, is inappropriate. To name a second example, it’s not surprising that, during the 1990s, Homi Bhabha’s concept of “hybridity,” which plays down polarity, confrontation and conflict to the benefit of wit, negotiation and re-inscription, became something of an international hallmark throughout Euroamerican academia. Cosmopolitans — a “network of academic and governmental media” who uphold the ideal of “globalizing experience and outlook” (Brennan) — are of course critical of the West, but only as those “whose sympathies finally belong here.” The hand that feeds is not so much bitten as flirtatiously nibbled at.

Brennan’s At Home in the World traces a genealogy of cosmopolitan “murmurings of a world community of peace,” running from the pre-Socratics to early biblical sources, and on to early colonial travel writing, Immanuel Kant, the Jacobins, and various strands of the European Left of the nineteenth century, when it was reconceptualized to fit the collective demands of the politically marginalized. In the twentieth century, the term came to signify a dystopian urban culture bereft of authenticity, and was beset with antisemitic connotations playing on the “wandering Jew” cliché (the uprooted highbrow, not clearly discernible in terms of national affiliation), at one point becoming a vague synonym of “intellectual”. The latest chapter in the history of cosmopolitanism was ushered in with the discourses of globalization, when it gained a postnational, heroic touch, a herald of the impending ”global village.” Those who refused to partake in the cosmopolitan celebration of rhizomatic flow and hybridity came to be seen as difficult individuals who had yet to theorize their own role in a common global heritage.

Peer pressure aside, it is always tempting to cast oneself as a harbinger of a new age, and biennial catalogues, Routledge readers and conference introductions are now rife with announcements of epochal upheavals and historical thresholds. With globalization, we are, among many other things, (a) leaving the Neolithic age behind, and (b) realizing that the western intellectual heritage is so colonialist, we must, in fact, redefine art, theory, culture and criticism as know it.

The rhetoric of rupture begs the question of how globalized things are really. Depressing statistics on the number of phone lines in Ghana and Bolivia notwithstanding, even if we reduced globalization to its most banal characteristic — that of unmistakable traces of western culture in metropoles worldwide, whether in art exhibitions, restaurants, fashion collections, government policies, medical facilities, transport technologies or university curricula — such traces have been noticed in most parts of the world, for a century or more. In some places, Muslims listening to Mambo, or concept art in Calcutta, simply isn’t the same scintillating globalization fetish that it is in others. In other words, at one point, globalization itself needed to be globalized, and the breathless enthusiasm for a new era had to be disseminated somehow. This is where, in Brennan’s view, the cosmopolitans come in.

Today, provided you equip your project with the fitting theoretical armature, your standard, voyeurist game of show and tell — DAKAR DESIGNERS! RANGOON REVOLUTIONARIES! — can become a daring approach to bridging intercultural gaps in the global infoscape; the bridging of which, by the way, remains unquestioned and unquestionable as a moral imperative. The sheer romance of exploration aside, Body Shop hermeneutics and the cushy sense of ideological superiority through critical consumption, is now an integral part of our everyday culture, both high and lowbrow. As Brennan points out, the difference between painful political struggles in faraway places, and the consumption of representations thereof — research, journalism, art installations, video clips, consumer goods and fundraising festivals — is increasingly blurred. This, he argues, is a further, decisive danger inherent to the spread of cosmopolitanism as we know it.

And yet, I’m sure even Brennan would admit that the cosmopolitan tenor, in our present context of hardnosed imperialism, is the most potent key to penetrating the “center of the real,” to working it from within, and that it would be risky to abandon such tools in the name of lofty ideological credentials. If Brennan is arguing for the aggressive use of concepts that are as embarrassing and alienating as “third world,” and other terminological Birkenstocks, then he should embrace the term “cosmopolitan,” wholeheartedly. Let’s face it: who would call themselves “cosmopolitan” at, say, the Venice Biennial opening dinner, and keep a straight face while they’re at it? As an agenda, the blue-eyed buoyancy of cosmopolitanism is widely shunned; which is precisely what shows its potential as an analytical utensil. The alternative, that of simply jumping over our own ideological shadow and returning to anti-spectacular, localized grassroots parameters, is as boring as it is strategically ineffective — and impractical.

Precisely like my own, Brennan’s take on cosmopolitanism as a global phenomenon already partakes in that pipe dream of epochal, planetary rifts. Can cosmopolitanism be the same in Venice and DC? In Dakkar and Rangoon? The fact that it obviously cannot is one of the challenges not only for Brennan, but also for a magazine like Bidoun. If a quarterly is distributed in Europe, the US, North Africa and the Gulf, the definition of its clientele implies awkward and repeated leaps of faith. It assumes that there really is a transcontinental mainstream of some form, a horizon of expectation that all metropolitan areas share in — like, for example, the notion that Kerry may have been the lesser evil or that “third world” is, like, a problematic concept, and more. At first glance, Brennan would define this awkward “reaching out” as a pernicious form of “taking in,” the sort of thing that ultimately buttresses America’s interventions beyond its borders with impunity. But other passages in his book are decidedly less paranoid, implying that the two may be symptoms of some common problem, rather than related in terms of cause and effect: “Trends in book markets are not equitable with decisions made in corporate boardrooms or with speeches by a US president on world order. But it is important, I think, to sketch out the atmosphere in which all three are simultaneously happening.”

Indeed, latter-day cosmopolitanism can be set up as an “effect” of the globalization of globalization, i.e. a new self-image of a global community of middle class, bourgeois-bohemian culture workers. But it could just as well be staged as the very motor of these mechanisms, a prescriptive, middle class, bourgeois-bohemian ideal that has no clear existing referent a priori. As even Brennan appears to be suggesting — despite himself — instead of indulging in chicken-and-the-egg speculations regarding cause and effect, we could, rather, be considering common roots in matters such as colonialism and class privilege.

As far as the former is concerned, since the appearance of Gayatri Spivak on the academic stage, colonialism has been established as a critical cause célèbre in many university departments, while the class issue, by contrast (despite Spivak’s own efforts in this regard), has not. Considering the frequent flyer biennial crowd, the Third Text aficionados with G4 Powerbooks and Paul Smith jackets who speak fluent English, hold double or triple nationalities, and diplomas composed not in Arabic or Farsi or Hindi but in French or German or English, analyses like Brennan’s could prompt a useful and rigorous discussion of the economic parameters of cosmopolitanism. It would also entail a more incisive definition of what one stands to gain from a cosmopolitan agenda. Why exactly must any gap be bridged in the first place? Hasn’t the enthusiasm for bridging been part of the problem in recent years? Who stands to gain from all this bridging?

Arguably, the best we stand to gain from cosmopolitanism itself is a forceful reminder that expectations shouldn’t be raised to a point where they’re hopelessly overheated, or channeled towards objectives which the middle class, social democratic, bourgeois-bohemian romanticism can never fulfill. If consumer ideologies and other sympathies and self-interests could be presented as such, and not as selfless tributes to momentous ruptures in the history of humankind, then that would make the likes of us, and of Fred Wilson, a lot more simpatico already.