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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 577-589

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Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty

There must be some way out of here.

Cosmopolitanism comprises some of today's most challenging problems of academic analysis and political practice, especially when analysis and practice are seen--as they are seen in the essays that make up this collection--as a conjoint activity. For one thing, cosmopolitanism is not some known entity existing in the world, with a clear genealogy from the Stoics to Immanuel Kant, that simply awaits more detailed description at the hands of scholarship. We are not exactly certain what it is, and figuring out why this is so and what cosmopolitanism may be raises difficult conceptual issues. As a practice, too, cosmopolitanism is yet to come, something awaiting realization. Again, this is not because we already understand and can practice it but have not--a mode of action whose rules we are familiar with and need merely to apply. Cosmopolitanism may instead be a project whose conceptual content and pragmatic character are not only as yet unspecified but also must always escape positive and definite specification, precisely because specifying cosmopolitanism positively and definitely is an uncosmopolitan thing to do.

The indeterminacy of how to achieve a cosmopolitan political practice feeds back into the problem of academic analysis. As a historical category, the cosmopolitan should be considered entirely open, and not pregiven or foreclosed by [End Page 577] the definition of any particular society or discourse. Its various embodiments, including past embodiments, await discovery and explication. In this way, the components of the linked academic-political activity of cosmopolitanism become mutually reinforcing: new descriptions of cosmopolitanism as a historical phenomenon and theoretical object may suggest new practices, even as better practices may offer a better understanding of the theory and history of cosmopolitanism.

The foregoing assessment is not always acknowledged, let alone explicitly argued, in various recent contributions to the discussion of cosmopolitanism. 1 These texts do serve, however, to suggest that the sense of timeliness or even urgency about the question of cosmopolitanism that has motivated the editors of this special issue of Public Culture is widely shared. And it is worth pausing a moment, before exploring further the approaches adopted in the essays that follow, to consider what accounts for this renewed concern. Three closely related forces that are powerfully at work in the contemporary world seem especially pertinent: nationalism, globalization, and multiculturalism.

The twentieth century ended much as it began, convincingly demonstrating that nationalism, whether of an ethnic or religious or other stripe, has lost little of its power for producing evil in the world. In recognizing the harm that nationalism does in promoting territorially based identities, we do not suggest that it has been always and only a negative force. It is famously Janus-faced, and nowhere more so than in the non-West. The emphasis of anticolonial nationalisms on boundaries and territories has something to do with how European colonialism was experienced by the colonized. For many, colonialism was an acute experience of displacement. Some people were literally displaced (indigenous peoples, but also the so-called nomadic in many countries). Others, in particular those excited by and open to the newly introduced European knowledges, underwent a powerful cultural experience of being dislodged from "tradition." Think only of [End Page 578] the various culture wars, typical of many non-Western nationalisms, over the merits and demerits of Westernization.

These experiences gave meaning to nationalist emphases on a family of ideas all of which, in the end, connected identities to imaginations of place: home, boundary, territory, and roots. These imaginations were not always tied to fixed geographical places. Pakistan, for instance, while definitely imagined from as early as the 1920s as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, had only the vaguest geographical referent for a long time in its career as a concept. Yet it was powerful in its capacity to address the experience of cultural and political displacement that colonialism had meant for many Muslims in South...


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pp. 577-589
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Archived 2004
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