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  • Upward Mobility in the Postcolonial Era: Kincaid, Mukherjee, and the Cosmopolitan Au Pair
  • Bruce Robbins (bio)

Défiez-vous de ces cosmopolites qui vont chercher au loin...des devoirs qu’ils dédaignent de remplir autour d’eux.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I was not a man; I was a young woman from the fringes of the world, and when I left my home I had wrapped around my shoulders the mantle of a servant.

—Jamaica Kincaid

E. J. Hobsbawm opens his book Nations and Nationalism since 1780 with an anecdote about “an intergalactic historian” who lands after a nuclear war and, going through the archives, concludes that “the last two centuries of the human history of planet Earth are incomprehensible without some understanding of the term ‘nation’ and the vocabulary derived from it.” 1 I take Hobsbawm’s appeal to this not otherwise very entertaining anecdote as an illustration of how contradictory the general understanding of nationalism has become. If he has to ascend into outer space in search of an observer who will look at nations and nationalism with an alien eye, it is presumably because everyone on earth during these two centuries has been so much inside them, incapable of breaking free from their categories and assumptions. So ubiquitous and deep-rooted is the nation, Hobsbawm implies, that no perspective that is truly alien to it could be discovered any closer to home. [End Page 133]

The central argument of Nations and Nationalism, however, would seem to suggest just the opposite. Appearances to the contrary, nationalism is in fact no longer nearly as important as it once was, Hobsbawm argues, for—to speak schematically—the globalization of multinational capitalism in the postmodern era has undermined it. 2 Nationhood can now be bestowed on even the tiniest, unlikeliest claimants, in much the same way that (as Wlad Godzich has remarked) 3 the status of “culture” can suddenly be shared equally between the “high” and the “low,” because neither term is crucial any longer to the projects of capitalist development. It would seem to follow, then, that a skeptical, distanced view of nationalism, something like Hobsbawm’s own Olympian perspective—a perspective for which the “intergalactic historian” is a rather transparent disguise—would be common to a great many observers all over the planet. (Empirically, this seems indeed to be very much the case.) But if so, then why does the extra-nationalist perspective have to be incarnated by an extraterrestrial? Why does Hobsbawm imply on the one hand that nearly everyone stands outside nationalism, and on the other that nearly no one does?

If this paradox can be reformulated as a riddle—who is it that represents nearly everyone and nearly no one?—then its answer may lie unexpectedly near to hand: in that figure of modernity whose self-appointed mission has been to speak for the many, but whose social situation has been that of a privileged few. Taking our cue from the suspicious redundancy of the space-traveling researcher, that is, we can perhaps read Hobsbawm’s hesitation between a ubiquitous and a nonexistent supra-nationalist perspective as a report on the structural contradictions of the metropolitan intellectual. Intellectuals, Hobsbawm seems to suggest, must be and yet cannot be, cannot be and yet must be, cosmopolitans.

The Dreyfus Affair, which is often cited as the origin of the term intellectual, exposed the category’s immediate vulnerability to charges both of class pride and privilege vis-à-vis “ordinary people” and of treason to the fatherland. The latter charge has more frequently been reversed since the era of national liberation struggles and decolonization: while cosmopolitan intellectuals are still accused of serving their own self-interest, they are now accused not of betraying their nation, but of serving their nation, and the West, all too well. But intellectuals themselves are often the first to make both of these accusations—and this fact offers striking evidence of their contradictory relation to nationalism. For where do such accusations originate if not in an implicit claim to cosmopolitan detachment from the nation?

Linked both to social hierarchy and to the guilty history of Eurocentric universalizing, cosmopolitanism has been out of fashion. Metropolitan intellectuals...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 133-151
Launched on MUSE
1994-04-01
Open Access
No
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