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Janet Lyon, Review of Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation

Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

The long history of cosmopolitanism is a history of disputes–sometimes academic, sometimes bloody and catastrophic–over competing imperatives and seemingly irreconcilable values. What else could come of a normative project that depends upon universalist conceptions (however modified or self-aware) of human mutuality? The cosmopolitan imperatives of the Stoics and the early Christians (to recognize human attachment over local attachment; to help other humans in the best way possible) undoubtedly stemmed from ethical fellow-feeling, and yet it is difficult to disagree with the spirit (at least) of Scott Malcomson’s judgement that they “took their universal citizenship as a license either to withdraw from the world or to master it.” No matter that this constitutive feeling of universal belonging was cultivated over and against the intellectual restrictions of the polis, or, later, the violence of class, or religion, or the fealty demanded by the absolutist state, or, still later, the many incoherent claims on subjectivity emanating from the modern nation state. The world-historical record is such that everything said about cosmopolitanism–good, bad, ugly, banal, or inscrutable–turns out to have been true. Thus the “view from nowhere” claimed by anti-parochial cosmopolites is in fact, in Peter Van der Veer’s words, “a view from somewhere and from sometime, namely from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century”; indeed, for Christopher Lasch, cosmopolitanism is itself merely “a higher form of parochialism.” But the same charges of cultural elitism and political inefficacy routinely leveled against cosmopolitans are themselves instances of Eurocentric parochialism, if you ask, say, Latin American queer modernists desperate to write their way out of the trifecta of U.S. imperialism, Spanish colonialism, and heteronormative nativism (according to Camilla Fojas). Cosmopolitanism is an elaborate ruse for U.S. cultural domination; it is the leading edge of imperialism; it is nationalism in sheep’s clothing. Cosmopolitanism defends against wolfish nationalism; it justifies cities of refuge in a world of refugees; it is a disciplined, self-reflexive praxis of mutual recognition in a world increasingly populated by homo sacer; it is a zone of salutary contact; it is an avant-garde unto itself. It is consumption that changes you from the inside; it is consumption that reinforces your limited world view. It is aesthetics; it is the museum. It is ethics; it is bullshit.

We can’t seem to live with or without the concept (and “we” of the western academy have only lately begun to ask what it means and has meant for not-“we”). Recent modifications of the term have effected a sea change in the latest round of pitched discussions about cosmopolitanism– which, by my estimation, occur approximately twice per century and last for 17.3 years. As has been the case with so many other conceptual universalisms (including universalism itself), these recent lexical qualifications are aimed chiefly at toning down the universal and foregrounding the local, or at undoing hierarchies of center and periphery. Thus “cosmopolitanism” has been modified by such terms as: rooted, situated, discrepant, vernacular, critical, postcolonial, planetary, limited, actually existing. Some of these involve complicated schematic revisions. Walter Mignolo, for instance, distinguishes between cosmopolitanism and “global designs,” and then between “cosmopolitan projects” and “critical cosmopolitanism” – the latter of which he champions for the fact that it “comprises projects located in the exteriority [of modernity] and issuing forth from the colonial difference.” With provisos like these, some critics worry about an incipient death-by-prefix (e.g., David Harvey), but it may in fact be the case that the sheer energy spent on finding ways to reframe cosmopolitanism references a widespread attempt to “add more theory” (in Kant’s words) to a putatively workable theory that hasn’t yet worked out in practice. Kant discusses his commitment to the “duty” of theory, and to theory’s primacy over evidence-based practice, in “On the Old Saw, ‘That may be right in theory but it won’t work in practice’,” an occasional essay in which he revisits the territory of cosmopolitanism (as he does in other more famous short pieces, including “Perpetual Peace” and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”).   The view expressed in “Old Saw” that human nature nowhere appears “less lovable than in the relations of whole nations to each other” is crucial to the urgency with which Kant links principles of justice to world citizenship; indeed, the third and final article of “Perpetual Peace” holds that “The Law of World Citizenship Shall be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality,” where “limited” both intensifies and elevates the function of hospitality to a responsibility of nations. Derrida, characteristically enough, fastens onto the indeterminacy of hospitality in his meditation on contemporary Europe-as-nation(s), but what I sense in much of the new scholarship on cosmopolitanism is an attempt to work through the principle of hospitality – and the theory of cosmopolitanism – from angles that correct for Kant’s futural faith in a particular model of nations (and leagues thereof) that has never been tenable. On the whole, the focus of today’s scholarship on the difficulties and possibilities of cosmopolitan practice suggest that the theory survives in spite of its long history of failed practices (though we may always need to “add more theory”), and also that some of “we” have been looking for models of practice in all the wrong places.

While the new scholarship speaks to and from many fields, both inside and outside of the academy, it should come as no surprise that a lot of it has been produced by scholars of literary and cultural study. Who better to find in the micro-breaths of textuality the evidence or absence of the world spirit? Modernist literary study, in particular, which for the past decade or two has been reconfiguring itself as a global (rather than international) field, has demonstrated the need for a substantive way of accounting for the coextensive concerns of modernism and cosmopolitanism. As usual, literary thematics are of limited use here: in modernism’s barely-rendered world of early twentieth-century globalization and imperial crisis, some characters are bad instrumental cosmopolitans, a few are (sort of) good; a few attempts at intercultural contact prove to be laudably self-reflective (if short-lived), while most founder on the rocks of irony. But the fact is that modernism is almost always about cosmopolitanism, even if it rarely conveys a picture of cosmopolitanism. So what has been wanting, and what is now appearing, are cosmo-driven studies of modernism’s most salient and most political feature: style. To that end, Jessica Berman’s 2001 monograph deals primarily with modernist cosmopolitan community as a narrative process; Tom Lutz argues that American regionalist/modernist fiction deliberately presents characters whose very incompleteness problematizes identification and so works to anti-parochial ends; Kobena Mercer’s edited collection of art/lit/culture essays offers political discussions of the cosmo aesthetics of decadence, surrealism, negritude, and Indian modernism; Camilla Fojas’s wonderful monograph tracks the sex/gender tactics of modernist cosmopolitans and modernistas through Caracas, Buenos Aires, Paris and Chicago; and Rebecca Walkowitz’s Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation aligns works by three canonical European modernist novelists (Woolf, Conrad, Joyce) with three late-twentieth-century immigrant novelists in England (Ishiguro, Rushdie, Sewald), in order to demonstr
e modernism

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