Back to top

Public Culture


Public Culture 12.3: Special Issue on Cosmopolitanism

Breckenridge, Carol A., Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. 217 p, softcover. ISBN 08992363.

For those engaged in any dimension of the vastly complex and highly contentious network of ideas, theories, and interdisciplinary projects under the rubric "Cultural Studies," <<Public Culture>> is a valuable, if not essential, journal. Since its inception some fourteen years ago, <<Public Culture>> has maintained its mandate of intervention, creating a valuable and much needed space to publish politically charged and critically engaged work, often by unknown and marginalized scholars. Today these names read like a virtual "who's who" of the cultural studies world -- Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Jurgen Habermas, Michael Taussig, Dipesh Chakrabarty to name but a few. This of course is not to mention founding editors Carol Breckenridge and the formidable Arjun Appadurai whose recent edited volume of essays <<Globalization>> (Duke University Press, 2001), published as a part of <<Public Culture's>> "Millenial Quartet" series, appears headed for staple reading status across the disciplines.

It is with this sense of reverence and respect for the founding principles of the journal I approached the task of reviewing <<Public Culture's>> special issue on "Cosmpolitanism." I say this only to underscore my tentative thoughts, perhaps out of frustration or even sadness, that this collection of essays already appeared in 2000 to sound the end of something -- something almost intangible to express but which many of us in the West today may recognize as we find ourselves in a world where ideas around nationalism, boundaries, identities, and claims to legitimacy take on new (or perhaps forgotten) currency post September 11.

This sense of melancholy is first signaled with the opening editor's note "On the Transition" where Carol Breckenridge announces her decision to conclude her editorship of the journal. What follows is Breckenridge's lengthy yet moving account of her engagement with <<Public Culture>>, including her own admission that the journal "required more stamina" than she had originally envisioned and that the journal's role of intervention needed "deepening" in order to remain viable (x). Her farewell ends with a series of provocative questions which I continued to think about as I moved through the articles -- this one in particular: "How does one conceptualize the emergent, the not yet visible, the as yet unformed and perhaps ungraspable, while also problematizing it?" Perhaps Breckenridge's sense of foreboding is well-echoed in the opening essay "Cosmopolitanisms" where the authors (and guest editors) Sheldon Pollock, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Breckenridge herself, write of the concept as comprising "some of the most challenging problems of academic analysis and political practice" (577). Epigraphs from Bob Dylan's <<All Along the Watchtower>> intersect the text: "There must be someway out of here…." Some readers may find the cliché sixties reference altogether predictable, but underlying it is the odd and paradoxical sense of exhaustion coupled with the urgency to act which I would argue is a prevailing sentiment within certain sectors of academia today. The authors point towards this paralysis in their discussions of the politics of cosmopolitanism, citing the problem of universality and the lack of theoretical engagement with feminism and postcolonial discourses in the construction of a cosmopolitan "practice."

The essays that follow take up certain aspects of the problematics raised in the opening text. Sheldon Pollock, in perhaps the most upbeat of all contributions, provides a very useful discussion of the vernacular, offering an engaging historical account of the spread of Latin and Sanskrit as a way to think through an actual practice of cosmopolitanism. As Pollock argues, "These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smaller place" (591). This piece provides an interesting juxtaposition to Walter Mignolo's essay "The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism" where he looks at cosmopolitan projects within the framework of modernity. Here we are faced-head on with the troubled roots of cosmopolitanism, as many think of it today, emerging out of the Enlightenment project. Dipesh Chakrabarty picks up on key aspects of this theme in his discussion of "Universalism and Belonging in the Logic of Capital" by locating the problem of cosmopolitanism when conceived as yet another modern political philosophy. Here Chakrabarty argues that "…many postcolonial debates on political philosophies such as Marxism or liberalism often try to work out a middle ground between the two options of universalism and relativism" (653). He goes on to show how these debates are shaped and to what ends. In a related yet far more material piece, Arjun Appadurai poses the question "What killed Bombay?" providing a case study of the "decosmopolitanization" of Mumbai. I especially enjoyed this dynamic essay because of the opportunity to see Appadurai apply his theory of "flows." Ackbar Abbas's essay "Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong" also looks at very site-specific forms of cosmopolitanism, raising still further complexities and ambiguities around the kinds of spatial relationships emerging outside of strictly Western contexts.

While the essays I outlined above constitute the most theory-laden and densely-packed of the collection, the remaining works provide something more of the ephemeral and shifting nature of cosmopolitanism. Mamadou Diouf's analysis of the Murid Brotherhood in "The Senegalese Murid Trade Diaspora and the Making of Vernacular Cosmopolitanism" is among the most fascinating in this regard. Diouf describes the Brotherhood's diaspora into Europe and the network of global traders built up over the past half-century arguing that "Modernity, globalization, and cosmopolitanism are concepts whose meanings and projects… largely overlap and coincide at the level of procedures and operational modes" (679). These modes and their specific microcontexts appear to hold some promise for what Diouf terms the "pluralization of cosmopolitan forms" (702). This potential for multiple forms is examined in a slightly different manner in Wu Hung's photo essay of performance artist Zhang Dali's graffiti project <<Dialogues>>. Here, one artist's self-portrait (in the form of a spray-painted human profile) repeatedly appears and occupies multiple sites and spatial arrangements around Beijing, documenting what Hung argues is "an intense negotiation between a public-minded artist and a rapidly changing city…" (751). This struggle over representation of the body works itself out through a configuration of the erotic in T.K. Biaya's essay on the art of Ousmane Ndiaye Dago. Biaya, through an engaging and nuanced analysis of Dago's photo collages, shows that "the eroticized body is a place where the spirit of Islam and the spirit of classical modernity challenge each other, enter into competition, and express the inclusion of the Senegalese subject, male and female, in the contemporary world" (719). It is difficult, however, to envision how these ideas translate outside the confines of an artistic practice often tightly hemmed in by a predatory global art market, and I find myself returning to my tentative thoughts on this collection of essays.

I was expecting to find, admittedly out of my own naïveté, something other than what presented itself -- perhaps something a little more charged and a little less tenebrous. Maybe it was the thought that something published two years ago could still hold some residual faith in a concept as seemingly promising as cosmopolitanism. Maybe it was my location in the postcommunist spaces of a changing Budapest, where I reviewed these essays, which made me search for something more tangible. Whatever it is, I do agree with the authors that action is needed and that time appears to be running out in a world where public spaces for debate are receding. Yet, recalling the words of Bob Dylan echoed in the opening essay, I want to feel something other than the paralysis and frustration pervading these texts….. "There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief."

Dorothy Barenscott