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Social Text 19.1 (2001) 19-44

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Guru English

Srinivas Aravamudan

The disavowal of cosmopolitanism after 1968 could be explained in the context of the global Left's repudiation of Stalinism and the decline of internationalism following decolonization. The postcolonial state, from which the gospel of diverse collectivity could have been preached (whether universalism, nonsectarian uniformitarianism, or multiculturalism), was exposed as ideologically bankrupt. Hijacked by local elites for their financial betterment and ethnic domination, the postcolonial state survives as a homeostasis between global powers and internal contradictions.

Responses to the failure of modernization theses and developmental agendas took several routes. One tendency was the repudiation of cosmopolitanism itself as a bourgeois, Western, or delocalized aesthetic aspiration, outmoded and tone-deaf to contemporary realities. A more tolerant (if patronizing) downgrading of cosmopolitanism represented it as a noble but idealist goal that could not respond to, or correspond with, the rootedness of local politics, interests, cultures, and perturbations. Thus cosmopolitanism was seen as politically ineffective but nonetheless tolerable in manifestos, mission statements, and party congresses. However, after these reactions reached the dead end of extreme particularity with the fragmentary positions of subnationalisms, radical relativism, and the micropolitics of location, it appears that several thinkers have taken a step back in the direction of the general. This is not total retreat but a shuffle between globalization and localization that leads to a "glocalization" of uncertain consequence. Such a newly cautious cosmopolitanism attempts to rebuild and pluralize cosmopolitanism from below. Its theorists thereby describe the new cosmopolitanisms as "discrepant," "vernacular," and "actually existing" in place of the older forms, which were preformed, normative, and universalistic. This grassroots version of cosmopolitanism-- one that migrant workers, tourists, and refugees participate in as equally as transnational executives, academics, and diplomats--exists alongside die-hard cosmopolitanisms of the old kind, featuring Kantian projectors, World Bank economists, and religious universalists. For every James Clifford, Homi Bhabha, or Bruce Robbins, each of whom insists on the careful reconstruction of cosmopolitanism as an efficacious (but always provisional) lingua franca that dissolves the reifications of particularity, there are also apologists for the grand normative scaffolding of Western liberalism [End Page 19] and universalism, in the manner of Martha Nussbaum, Tzvetan Todorov, or Julia Kristeva. There are, of course, those philosophers such as Richard Rorty who are willing to eschew universalism and embrace the charge of being ethnocentric, thereby actively separating the tradition of Western liberalism from that of science, rationality, and universal truth, but such pragmatism sacrifices global scruples for a blinkered chauvinism. While these debates have not resolved sticky cultural differences into an all-encompassing identity, they increasingly suggest that we turn to the globalized particular, or to the particular generalization, with a heightened sense of relationality. 1

There is no easy answer to these debates, as Rabindranath Tagore realized in his lectures on nationalism: "Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship is the goal of human history." 2 In the spirit of identifying a discrepant cosmopolitanism, I turn to the global impact of South Asian English rather than the simple abstraction of English-in-general. Much has already been made of the various peculiarities of South Asian English, as a dialect and lingua franca with considerable cosmopolitan appeal. In terms of numbers of English speakers, South Asia now ranks third in the world, after the United States and the United Kingdom. In India alone, roughly 4 to 5 percent of the population speaks English (around 40 million speakers), an especially significant minority constituting most of the elite and the urban upper middle classes. While such class parameters suggest that the language is an acrolect, studying its iterations and performances leads to interesting discoveries. 3 Before positing a historical essence (whether colonial, bureaucratic, or technological) bound up with English's role, significance, and global outcome, it would be best to track the many anomalous refashionings of the language. 4

English as a South Asian vernacular first acquired recognition, paradoxically, when representatives of high Victorian imperialism dismissed it as a bureaucratic cant of the native functionaries of the Raj, a baboo English. As...


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pp. 19-44
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