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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 802-818

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The Dream of Deracination:
The Uses of Cosmopolitanism

Ross Posnock

In Search of Africa By Manthia Diawara. Harvard University Press, 1998

Cosmopolitanism has never had an easy time of it. Greek for world citizen, the term cosmopolitan is rarely neutral and often pejorative because it usually involves a refusal to revere local or national authority and a desire to uphold multiple affiliations. The cosmopolitan possesses the power to unsettle, a power apparent, for instance, in a bit of verbal jousting in The Portrait of a Lady (1881). "He's what's called a cosmopolite," Isabel Archer says of Ralph Touchett, her expatriate cousin, to her journalist friend Henrietta Stackpole, who is impatient with Ralph's suave elusiveness in response to her demand of identity (does he consider himself American or English?). But Isabel's explanation only exacerbates Henrietta's qualms. Pondering cosmopolite, the stern American moralist Miss Stackpole replies: "[T]hat means he's a little of everything and not much of any," as if by definition the cosmopolite evades definition. And Ralph doesn't help matters when he answers with a question: "[W]here does home begin, Miss Stackpole?" (81). In The Portrait of a Lady James associates the cosmopolitan with an interrogative spirit that punctures certitudes. Ralph's query prefigures the novel's more famous ones posed later, by Madame Merle to Isabel: "[W]hat shall we call our 'self'? Where does it begin? Where does it end?" (175). In its determination to interrogate and unsettle conventional notions of boundary, limit, and identity, The Portrait of a Lady could be said to be imbued with a cosmopolitan spirit.

In a well-known 1867 letter, James suggests that for Americans a cosmopolitan attitude toward culture entails "deal[ing] freely with forms of civilization not our own" and requires the capacity "to pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically etc.) claim our property wherever we find it" (77). In sum, James construes cosmopolitanism as insouciant regarding claims of ownership and the drawing of boundaries, be they ontological [End Page 802] or national: cosmopolites, Ralph included, refuse to know their place. Less an identity than a practice, cosmopolitanism is a way to elude disciplinary social demands for legibility and to appropriate culture goods. 1

James's stress on individual will ("to pick and choose and assimilate") encourages an understanding of cultural appropriation as a democratic challenge to the insider-outsider hierarchy basic to assimilation, a hierarchy grounded in blood--the sense of entitlement to cultural riches assumed to repose in privileged birth or inheritance. Rewriting assimilation as appropriation, James in effect rids assimilation of its structure of inequality and sacrifice, whereby the alien is required to cast off old ways for new and submit to a culture assumed to possess a stable, homogenous core identity. The act of appropriation is a move toward leveling the playing field between alien and native. 2 Cosmopolitanism's neglected egalitarian dimension will concern us below but is worth remarking here to complicate from the start the usual assumption that it expresses a strictly leisure class dilettantism. This assumption is historically suspect. As historian Peter Brown has noted, as early as the second-century Roman Empire, cosmopolitanism flourished not among the aristocracy and governing classes, "who prided themselves on preserving the ancient particularities of their home-towns," but among the striving lower classes seeking "wider horizons," "humbler men" who welcomed "the erosion of local differences through trade and emigration, and the weakening of ancient barriers" (60).

The unsettling challenge of the cosmopolitan has historically incited the charge of deracination, especially by nationalists for whom blood and soil are sacred. In the US and elsewhere cosmopolitanism has often been attacked by both ends of the spectrum: the Right regards it as unpatriotic and hence suspect; the Left finds its detachment elitist, apolitical, and hence irresponsible. But the judgments of both Right and Left depend on the same (implicit) romantic premise: that nation (or ethnicity) and identity are one, a unity based in blood that constitutes the very frame...


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