ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology


Read a blog commenting on the conference

Deborah James, Department of Social Anthropology, the LSE

From the first day, the discussion was strung out between two opposing views of cosmopolitanism. Is the impulse to foreground "world citizenship" a liberal one? If so, is it liberal in its best sense, implying an openness to difference and a willingness to attend to and secure the equal rights of all? Or in its worst sense, with all the viciousness and negative qualities implied by neoliberalism? In the first plenary, Dick Werbner drew attention to the former; Richard Fardon to the latter. To associate cosmopolitanism with neoliberalism is relentlessly to seek for the dark underbelly. It is to sniff out, for example, the insidiousness of projects of intervention to better the lot of the poor: even apparently well-meaning ones, as Tania Li showed in her Foucauldian analysis of World Bank initiatives in Indonesia. To see it as a utopian vision implies, at worst, a naïve lack of attention to the way - as Johnny Parry's paper on steel workers in a state-owned plant in India clearly demonstrated - ideologies are underpinned by material considerations.

Is there, then, any way of moving beyond the divergence of these apparently irreconcilable views? Is one forced to take sides on the question of whether, on the one hand, ideologies are inevitably situated (in which case cosmopolitanism is no better than Marx thought it was: an expression of bourgeois material interest) or, on the other, they are free-floating and apparently limitless in their scope for unbridled encompassing openness (in which case cosmopolitanism is a utopian and optimistic phenomenon which is able to transcend existing socio/politically grounded identities and go beyond the material groundedness of culture)?

(Stefan Eck's paper illuminated this latter ideal by showing its origins in Stoic philosophy, but left one wondering such an ideal might be accomplished, or even aspired to, in any given modern socio-medical system. Ken Brown's paper showed how this stoic idea was transmuted over time, and how/why there was an attempt to reinstate it - during the Scottish/European enlightenment when it acquired its present-day "market" focus - long after it was originally formulated.)

The answer lies not simply in drawing attention to the irony of the disconnect: to the contradictions between, say - as Richard Wilson's paper showed - Marx's theories and his practices as a situated member of the German/Jewish exile cosmopolitan middle class, paying for his children's music lessons and the like. The answer also lies in recognising how these disconnections are mended, the barriers breached. Such ideas as "enlightened self interest" ... (which seemed to be the way that Stefan's paper was pointing)... or the power of paternalism (which has been a longstanding interest of my own: perhaps the only way I can see my way clear to living with my conscience as an individual who was caught up in the contradictions of apartheid while keen to avoid seeing myself as one of its beneficiaries). All these matters, and the methods of anthropologists as well - and specifically of those who feel they want to "do good" by either working in anthropology, or NGOs, or both: but who are ultimately pursuing their own careers and feathering their own nests in the process - are caught up in the contradiction between these two polarities.

Perhaps a resolution is possible if one focuses on the processes through which distinct and bounded groupings, and their cultural and ideological expressions, are mediated. To presume a simple equivalence of ideology with class would be to overlook, for example, the processes through which political expectations come to be enunciated and to take root and flourish even within settings where they did not originate. It would also be to ignore how far political elites' search for legitimacy leads them to phrase cosmopolitan aspirations, perhaps, in parochial terms. We need to look at brokerage and claims to representation; to see how individual agents, or groups of agents, operate to transform knowledge at the point where divergent worlds of knowledge intersect with one another.

‘Cosmopolitanism’: a partial view from three panels and all plenaries

Lisette Josephides, Queen's University Belfast

Right from the opening plenary of this packed conference, panellists began to question its organising concept in a way that other conference titles don’t provoke. Is it a sleight of hand? Richard Fardon asked. On the one hand, ‘there was a certain hubris’ in claiming to be a cosmopolitan. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism was suspected of being a trick of neo-liberal economy, another way of oppressing already disadvantaged people. In other words, it is either so noble that it would be immodest to claim we have attained it, or so nefarious, it would contaminate us. Too good or too bad, nothing in between. Contrasts were drawn between cosmopolitanism on the one side and cosmopolitics, globalisation, modernity, westernisation, imperialism, or even identity, on the other (Richard Fardon remarked that papers in his plenary were really about identity); and concern was expressed about lax definitions of the concept.

But is it definitions we need? I decided to conduct a different experiment, asking myself: Could all the papers in this conference have been written without the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ being used? So I began to edit the term out when listening to them.

What stuck in my mind were images. Dick Werbner talking about his friend Mannathoko’s daughters, almost (in their learning) an incarnation of their father’s cosmopolitanism; the quest for further horizons, involving risk and daring, imperilling of moral decentering, humanity without frontiers. Or in Joel Kahn’s words, cosmopolitanism as a continuous openness to the world. Or else, as in Aref Abu Rabi’a’s portrayal of A Native Anthropologist in Palestinian Israeli Cosmopolitanism, cosmopolitanism as a series of wonderful confusions - empathies, sympathies, suspicion, all alternating in almost surreal fashion; of a humanity ready to embrace or rebuff, depending on a reading or interpretation, always changing, of the situation and the other (or interlocutor). Or in a somewhat different register, in Owen Sichone’s paper on Xenophobia and Xenophilia in South Africa, cosmopolitanism experienced as a micro-level phenomenon of mobile Africans, when the humanity of the stranger is either challenged or acknowledged.

What I heard in the panels I attended were thoughtful papers based on sensitive fieldwork. In all cases, cosmopolitanism was something that arose from that grassroots investigation, and imputed to the peopled studied, not the anthropologist (so anthropological hubris disappears). While listening to a paper in the panel on Religious and Moral Frameworks for Cosmopolitan Relations, I suddenly had a revelation: it’s ghosts who are cosmopolitans, or rather they make us into cosmopolitans. Ghosts or ancestors, at least in Vietnam (as discussed by Hoenik Kwon) are worshipped in different shrines, as strangers and kin. Thus Kant and Hegel are brought together in the cosmopolitan concept - Kant and his ideas of hospitality to strangers, Hegel and his law of kinship. Using these German philosophers in the analysis of Vietnamese materials did not, for most of us, appear forced.

Another panel (Cosmopolitanism and its Discontents) raised the provocative and paradoxical possibility of anti-cosmopolitan empathy. A paper by Dimitrios Theodossopoulos and Elizabeth Kirtsoglou described Greeks and Turks as making common cause in condemnation of an aloof and orientalising Europe. But this phenomenon should not perplex us, as cosmopolitanism doesn’t imply total acceptance of everyone and everything; it can, and should, be critical of fat cats. This may be a case of cosmopolitan alliances against what is seen as a common enemy; humanitarian fellow-feeling among the dispossessed. A paper in the same panel discussed limited-term cosmopolitanism in Japan, where foreigners are welcomed as strangers only for a certain period of time. This is because, as Angels trias i Valls so beautifully put it, ‘an element of self must be renounced in meeting foreigners’. As in the previous case, this does not so much question ‘cosmopolitanism’ as outline the conventions of affiliation and status-change, the practical basis on which people are incorporated or excluded from social arrangements. But in so far as personal encounters involved in fieldwork are concerned, in this example and others, there is a debate still to be had about the phenomenology of knowing others.

In my own panel (co-convened with Alex Hall) on Cosmopolitanism, Existentialism and Morality, our abstract right away introduced a distinction between globalisation (citing Bourdieu, a euphemism with which global capitalism masks the misery it creates) and cosmopolitanism (to be reclaimed as the impulse of human being and striving, rooted in ideas of shared humanity and empathy). The first paper (‘Cosmos and polis, past and present’, Ronald Stade) grounded the concept historically, in what can be called an etymological archaeology, which did better than define it; and uncovered associations to help our understanding today (a road also mapped by Ken Brown’s final plenary paper, lovingly read by Keith Hart). Originating with the Cynics as ‘a satirical comment on the state of society and human nature’, cosmopolitanism has undergone a modern makeover to emerge out of the movement of citizenship rights. Yet to understand by ‘cosmopolitan’ a citizen of the world, not a particular lifestyle, may simply transfer disquiet about definitions to the latter term.

As if in response to the plenary question whether cosmopolitanism was a quality of individuals or groups, there was a stress in this panel (and in others I attended) on personal participation, showing (in Keith Hart’s words in the Moral Frameworks panel) that participation in society must be personally meaningful. Some papers described cosmopolitanism as very much an individual quest, a life project, or a grudging acknowledgment of common humanity. The second paper in our panel saw it as dependent on the relationships and charisma of historically placed individuals. ‘Cosmopolitanism as the imperilling of the self? Yoruba kings, missionaries, and ethical choice in 1880s Oyo’ (Marc Schiltz) found Dick Werbner’s ‘risk and daring’ in a historical example, when Yoruba kings and French missionaries imperilled themselves in forging new kinds of relations, beyond old frontiers. Though such friendships blossomed out of intellectual and moral dispositions, empathy and sociality (not even entailing the king’s conversion), merely interacting with the other does not make one into cosmopolitan; contradictory impulses were also to be found, and success in the project was not reducible to trustworthiness of the other.

Perhaps another reason why a precise definition of cosmopolitanism eluded us was because, in this panel, we tied it so much into personal experience. The third paper (‘Everyone: A cosmopolitan morality for the universal actor’, Nigel Rapport) individualises but also generalises this personal experience in the figure of Everyman (or Everyone). This global individual evinces an existentialist morality, characterised by the life project of a specific experience. In a world appallingly full of people (the phrase is E M Forster’s), it becomes imperative to have social arrangements for safeguarding space for individuals to come into themselves. This invests identity in the physical finitude of one’s being. Cosmopolitan space is a personal and private preserve in this perception, which argues that in a world where the invented group is taken for actual reality, it may be important for individuality (carefully distinguished from individualism) to remain an ongoing process. It is not for nothing that Kant wrote that the whole universe is destroyed whenever someone dies.

We are back to the stranger in the fourth paper (‘Empathy and the stranger: cosmopolitanism in the British immigration and asylum system’, Alex Hall). Not so much the kindness of strangers alluded to in some plenary papers, which exemplify so well Rousseau’s pitié, but a real grassroots cosmopolitanism, when workers in the British immigration and asylum system are almost surprised by feelings of empathy that creep up on them in the mundane exchanges they have with their wards. But though this case describes a mundane existing cosmopolitanism, when empathy is linked with common humanity, the paper also suggests that empathy can be a promiscuous feeling - it is also linked with claims of radical alterity, thus exposing the two sides of shared mutual vulnerability. This and other papers raised the question of how to legislate for the human without foreclosing on the human.

The last paper (‘The cartoon controversy and the possibility of cosmopolitanism’, Thomas Hylland Eriksen) kept its options open until the topic pounced on the presenter. Unfortunately the airline opted not to deliver him in person, but luckily his paper had arrived some weeks before. Engaging the recent Muhammad cartoon controversy, it positioned cosmopolitanism in the middle ground between relativism (anguished by indecisiveness) and liberalism (sporting certainty) - a position that entailed acceptance of a diversity of values but rejection of the fiction that different lifeworlds can coexist without contact or friction. The argument struck a cautious note, reminding us of the uneven command of means of communication and leading to a practical and even salutary consideration of the possibilities of a minimal cosmopolitanism.

The discussant to this session (Bruce Kapferer) added his own doubts to the breviary of suspicions against the cosmopolitan concept. As a romantic anthropologist, he always thought anthropologists were inherently cosmopolitan. Why make a big deal of it now? Is it simply an attempt to be modish? Anthropologists are enduringly critical, though their attempts to take the view of the other have always failed. Just as in South Asia, humans in ancient Greece are subject to the play of the gods. But there is a radical break between ancient Greece and post-revolutionary France. (The contrast between cosmology and cosmopolitanism is used to good effect here, but with South Asians - following the comparison with ancient Greece - appearing to remain outside time and outside history.) In that break society becomes human-centred, replacing the centrality of god. Henceforth (or so I deduced) human beings become concerned with an uncertainty they themselves create. Where Stade sets his conceptual paper neatly in a historical context, Rapport argues for universal ethics in a paper apparently outside this historical space. ‘The body is always his’ - but what about (asks Kapferer) love and the body of the beloved other, and Hegel’s point about love being the right of the world? To Rapport’s response that a loveless life is theoretically possible, a heckler pointed out that, as Nietzsche had said of life without music, it would be a mistake.

General discussion returned to problems with individuality, even when distinguished from individualism. It’s all very well for Iris Murdoch to argue that one should abstain from visiting one’s desire on others (her own success in this endeavour might be gleaned from her husband’s account), but what happens when some individuals claim the right to larger spaces (recalling ideologies of Lebensraum) than others? Another problem was the perceived relative weight given to structures as opposed to relations. But while not ignoring such structures, the remit of the panel was to look beyond them, to the personal risks of everyday existence, entailed in our need of others and our being thrown in a world with others whose being might mirror or determine ours. In these papers empathy with others was not a question of ‘doing cosmopolitanism’. These are stories about how people in the course of their lives and work responded as a result of the relations they found themselves in. Yoruba kings forged friendships, and immigration workers attempted to express/interpret the idea of care in responding to (the opaqueness and incompleteness of) structural order. Four positions emerged from this panel, showing the richness even of a handful of papers: a concern with relations with others; a concern with individuality; a concern with historical change; and a concern with the inevitable conflicts in the coexistence of diverse lifeworlds.

In sum, what I heard in this conference were papers that might have been written without ‘cosmopolitanism’ appearing in them - after all, they were on topics we had all been working on before Pnina came up with the conference topic. But bringing them together under this rubric did generate productive exchanges. For me, it bolstered my view that though morality and forms of cosmopolitanism are culturally rooted, they are not necessarily culturally relative. Nor is this a western discourse - to claim it is would be the real hubris, ignoring the admixtures and contributions. It’s high time, then, to reclaim the term for other political philosophies, those that stress its moral and humanistic character, as part of the existential condition or impulse of human being arising out of the human condition. It’s part of an opening out to the world, not a closing in. It has been good to think.

The jury’s still out on Richard Wilson’s statement that social being does not determine consciousness. That apostasy need more reflection before it can be stated so starkly.