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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 529-564

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Cosmopolitanism and the Banality of Geographical Evils

David Harvey *

The revival of the science of geography . . . should create that unity of knowledge without which all learning remains only piece-work.

Immanuel Kant

Without a knowledge of geography gentlemen could not understand a [newspaper].

John Locke

Cosmopolitanism is back. For some that is the good news. Shaking off the negative connotations of its past (when Jews, communists, and cosmopolitans were so frequently cast as traitors to national solidarities), it is now portrayed by many (most eloquently by Held [1995]) as a unifying vision for democracy and governance in a world so dominated by a globalizing capitalism that it seems there is no viable political-economic alternative for the next millennium. The bad news is that cosmopolitanism has acquired so many nuances and meanings as to negate its putative role as a unifying ethic around which to build the requisite international regulatory institutions that would ensure global economic, ecological, and political security in the face of an out-of-control free-market liberalism.

Some broad-brush divisions of opinion immediately stand out. There are those, like Nussbaum (1996, 1997), whose vision is constructed in opposition to [End Page 529] local loyalties in general and nationalism in particular. Inspired by the Stoics and Kant, Nussbaum presents cosmopolitanism as an ethos, "a habit of mind," a set of loyalties to humanity as a whole, to be inculcated through a distinctive educational program emphasising the commonalities and responsibilities of global citizenship. Against this are ranged all manner of hyphenated versions of cosmopolitanism, variously described as rooted, situated, vernacular, Christian, bourgeois, discrepant, actually existing, postcolonial, feminist, ecological, socialist, and so on and so forth. Cosmopolitanism here gets particularized and pluralized in the belief that detached loyalty to the abstract category of "the human" is incapable in theory, let alone in practice, of providing any kind of political purchase even in the face of the strong currents of globalization that swirl around us.

Some of these "countercosmopolitanisms" were formulated in reaction to Nussbaum's claims. She was accused by some of her respondents (see Nussbaum 1996), for example, of merely articulating an appropriate ideology for the "global village" of the new liberal managerial class. The famous line in the Manifesto--"the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country" (Marx and Engels 1952: 42)--could easily be used to undermine her stance of neutrality. And it is indeed hard to differentiate her arguments from those rooted in Adam Smith's neoliberal moral subject cheerfully riding market forces wherever they go or, worse still, those embedded in the globalizing geopolitics of U.S. national and international interests (Brennan 1997: 25). There is in any case something oppressive, her respondents noted, about the ethereal and abstracted universalism that lies at the heart of her cosmopolitan discourse. How can it account for, let alone be sympathetic to, a world characterized by multiculturalism, movements for national or ethnic liberation, and all manner of other differences? What Cheah and Robbins (1998) call "cosmopolitics" then emerges as a quest "to introduce intellectual order and accountability into this newly dynamic space . . . for which no adequately discriminating lexicon has had time to develop."

The widely held belief that such a new lexicon is needed may well propel us onto new intellectual terrain in the millennium to come. The material conditions that give rise to the need are also widely understood to be those of "globalization" (see Held 1995: 267). These same forces have led other commentators such as Readings (1996) and Miyoshi (1997, 1998) to question prevailing structures of knowledge entirely, and to ask what kinds of scholarly knowledge production will be necessary to sustain or transform a world in which millennial capitalism seemingly reigns triumphant. Readings, for example, argues compellingly that [End Page 530] the traditional university has outlived its purpose. In Europe, the kind of university founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in Berlin two centuries ago helped guard and solidify national cultures. In the United States, the...


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