ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 16

Cosmopolitanism, Existentialism and Morality - Lisette Josephides and Alex Hall

Room: CBA 0.007x40

Panel abstract

If Bourdieu is right in his thesis that globalisation is a euphemism with which global capitalism masks the misery it creates, then it is high time to reclaim cosmopolitanism for other political philosophies, those that stress its moral and humanistic character. To this end, this session proposes to examine cosmopolitanism in a variety of milieus from two related perspectives: as part of the existential condition or impulse of human being and striving, and/or as a moral quality or imperative (and practice) arising out of the human condition of sociality. Furthermore, this cosmopolitanism is seen as rooted in ideas of shared humanity and empathy as a human capacity, linked through everyday practices to grounding experiences. At the core of cultural transformation is a tacit acknowledgment of this shared humanity, and cosmopolitanism is a conscious extending-out to such a commonality. A 'grass roots' cosmopolitanism is glimpsed when new behaviours, while being radically different from previous ones, suggest an inchoate cosmopolitanism produced locally.

A mix of ethnographic and theoretical papers will address (but not be limited to or necessarily in agreement with) the following questions: the power of demotic, grass-roots, village or individual cosmopolitanism focusing on the micro-levels of cultural transformation, individual choice, or conditions of social change; the nature of belonging and the perception of 'strangers' (eg asylum seekers) from the perspective of those whose experiences force them to confront the place of the other and thus the self; cosmopolitanism as an existential critique of a globalisation discourse which ignores lived experience or individual consciousness; the contradictory pulls of two commitments, to a universal anthropos and a relative polis (or ethnos); and the procedures or mechanisms that allow individual persons to adopt different worldviews in their re-creation of culture.


Lisette Josephides & Alex Hall


Cosmos and polis, past and present

Ronald Stade, Malmo University

The topic of cosmopolitanism has once again moved to the mainstream of political and scholarly debate. In its Hellenistic version, cosmopolitanism was meant to be a satirical comment on the state of society and human nature. The relationship between cosmos and polis, or between the natural order and the individual, was at the center of this version of cosmopolitism. This relationship changed dramatically over the centuries, which eventually led to a complete reevaluation of human nature, cosmos, and polis. What today is commonly understood as cosmopolitanism bears little resemblance to Hellenistic and other pre-modern conceptualizations of the cosmopolitan. The difference between pre-modern and modern forms of cosmopolitanism are explored by a discussion of historical examples. One conclusion is that, despite the fundamental differences between older and newer cosmopolitanisms, we yet may have something to learn from the inventors of cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism as the imperilling of the self? Yoruba kings, missionaries, and ethical choice in 1880s Oyo

Marc Schiltz, Queen’s University Belfast

In this paper I discuss cosmopolitanism in 1880s war ravaged Yorubaland (Nigeria) at a time when king Adeyemi, the Alaafin of Oyo, had invited French SMA priests to establish a Catholic mission right in the centre of his metropolis. On the face it, this royal gesture attested to king Adeyemi's cosmopolitan disposition; already some twenty five years earlier, he had welcomed English and American Protestant missionaries and given them land outside the town walls. Likewise, other Yoruba kings then and later have enhanced their cosmopolitan image by welcoming strangers.

The late arrival of the French priests in Oyo and their unprecedented intimacy with king Adeyemi does, however, prompt me to probe the moral and humanistic character of this friendship within the broader contexts of missionary agendas of Christian universality and late nineteenth century Yoruba realpolitik, under mounting pressure from Britain and France to impose colonial rule. Here, however, the early mission record also provides important insights into the dispositions of various missionary and Yoruba protagonists. Often their subtexts and anecdotes bespeak a grass roots cosmopolitanism, borne of the specific local conditions of shared humanity and empathy with their Yoruba hosts.

In following this line of equiry into a grass-roots cosmopolitanism, my attention focuses on the ethical choices that 'extending oneself out' demands, and how this process may confront the cosmopolitan as an imperilling of the self.

Everyone: A cosmopolitan morality for the universal actor

Nigel Rapport, Concordia University

‘Everyman’ was the title of a Christian morality play written in English around 1500 (and closely related to a Flemish production ‘Elckerlijk’). In an allegorical dramatization of what was taken to be a global moral struggle, the play portrays Death visiting a character called Everyman, informing him of his impending demise. The audience witnesses the individual protagonist’s emotional journey from despair and fear to the resignation that is a prelude to Christian redemption. We witness his social journey as he is deserted by his false friends: Kindred, Cousin, Fellowship and Worldly Goods. He falls back on his own resources: Knowledge, Strength, Intelligence, Beauty and Good Deeds. Knowledge delivers the celebrated lines: ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, / In thy most need to go by thy side’. Together Everyman and his resources proceed to draw up a Book of Accounts for his meeting with God and the adjudication of his eternal fate. In extremis, however, when Everyman must go to his grave, his resources too all but desert him. We witness an intellectual journey that leads Everyman to a realization that only Good Deeds remain a faithful accompaniment to his soul. Under Christian dispensation, the universal truth is that the individual may progress from mundane life to the divine accounting equipped with nothing that he has taken or received from the world, only what he has given.

500 years of more steadfast accompaniment by Knowledge has perhaps put us in a position to be more enlightened regarding the human condition, to distinguish, for instance, between actual universals and Christian relativities. But the project of a global morality remains a current one in the case of humanity, as does the inscription in an everyday rule of law of the duties and dues, the humane norms and spaces, of the fulfilled individual life.2 We are engaged still in seeking out how best to allow for the emotional and intellectual journey of the individual actor in social milieux: his or her mortal embodiment. How might it be to inscribe a morality for a global ego whose capabilities and liabilities were construed by way of an anthropology not Christian in provenance but existentialist? The drama of ‘Everyone’.

Drawing on notions of the existential that are ethnographic as well as philosophical, this paper explores answers along three avenues: (i) the capacities of the mortal individual, of Everyone; (ii) an understanding of goodness that relates to a humane space: to refraining from visiting one’s desires on others such that Everyone might come into their own; (iii) a mathematics of morality tied to one: to the absolute value of Everyone’s individual life.

Empathy and the stranger: cosmopolitanism in the British immigration and asylum system

Alex Hall, University of Sheffield

The British immigration and asylum system makes distinctions between national insiders and outsiders, and also moral distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ immigration applicants. Prison officers in custody of a diverse group of immigration detainees in a Removal Centre at the ‘grass roots’ of this system see national belonging to straightforwardly delineate moral obligation. The detainees, as an ‘undeserving’ and reprehensible category of outsiders, are seen to be beyond the sphere of proper moral concern. Resentful of their job and engaged in de-individualising working practices, the officers occupy a milieu that actively encourages a view of the detainees as ‘other’. The everyday working interaction between the officers and detainees maintains and re-creates this ‘otherness’. On occasion, however, the officers inadvertently find themselves in contexts of mutuality with the detainees, and they are given cause to reflect on what is shared across the hierarchies in which they invest so heavily. On these occasions, the officers extend a fragile empathy to ‘the stranger’ and respond to the detainees in a way that recognises a shared vulnerability and commonality: a cosmopolitan morality. Rather than being an abstract deliberation, however, the officers draw on local and personal moral discourses and experiences to think about what is shared by all people, and what is worthy of respect, admiration and recognition in human life and action. Using ethnographic examples, this paper argues for an appreciation of cosmopolitanism as a moral practice that can be mundane and pragmatic in nature, grounded in people’s everyday concerns and moral understandings.

Leaving the options open: Possibilities for a minimal cosmopolitanism

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Univesity of Oslo

Cosmopolitanism, seen as a 'middle ground' between liberalism and relativism, entails an acceptance of a diversity of values but rejects the fiction that discrete life-worlds can coexist without friction or contact. Quite clearly, cosmopolitanism has a special relevance today, not least in the anthropology of so-called complex societies. Using the recent cartoons affair as the main case, the paper discusses the various positions in the global debate over the Muhammad cartoons and indicates which positions (of which there is a finite number) satisfy the requirements of cosmopolitanism, and which ones are either liberal in their certainty or relativist in their indecisiveness. The uneven command of the means of communication, resulting in skewed media coverage, is also analysed. Finally, a minimal cosmopolitanism is proposed, with intended relevance both for ethnographic method and for social/political thought not least in the domain of globalisation.

Discussant: Bruce Kapferer, University of Bergen

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