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Reviewed by:
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Eric Gable
Cosmopolitanism. Edited by Carol Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Cosmopolitanism is emerging as a hot topic in the humanities and social sciences because it is the cultural analogue to globalization. If globalization entails the unprecedented movement of people from the country to the city, from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern along with an equally profound migration of discourses and images, then scholars can ask a host of questions about globalization’s cultural repercussions. Does the movement of people and the mass consumption of ideas and images entail a new kind of worldliness? And is this worldliness a good thing or not? Does it enable a disenfranchising cultural homogeneity or does it engender a moral community with the clout to solve the planet’s big problems: war, poverty, disease, environmental degradation? Finally, scholars ask (just as they ask of globalization which is, often as not, merely the latest label for what used to be called modernization or westernization) whether cosmopolitanism has a single moment and place of origin (the West, and that peculiarly timeless present that began sometime in the late nineteenth century) or multiple origins and moments.

The authors of the essays in this collection generally assume that cosmopolitanism is a good thing and that it has multiple origins. Their goal is to show us non-western worldliness, and, in the bargain, “provincialize Europe” (6). As such they retain an allegiance to (post-Marxian but nevertheless leftist) multiculturalist critiques of globalization, while distancing themselves from the sometimes slavish celebrations of the local that are multiculturalism’s corollary. Celebrations of the local can be dangerous because, as the editors note in the Introduction, one form of resistance to the disruptions of globalization has been a cultural politics of recognition that metastasizes into a kind of hyper-nationalism. “It is not,” the editors aver, “a very good way to organize human life” (3) when the inhabitants of every little valley, every wrinkle on the map, decide that the best way to get their rightful piece of the world’s pie is to forge a nation-state out of local cultural affinities and kill or banish anyone who does not seem to fit. Who would quibble with that? Or who would quibble with a program of scholarship and advocacy that amplifies the voices of “refugees, peoples of the diaspora, and migrants and exiles”? (6). But when one reads (all too often) statements like “cosmopolitanism is infinite ways of being,” or that it is more accurate to see that “cosmopolitanism is not a circle created by a culture diffused from a center, but instead that centers are everywhere and circumferences nowhere”(12), this is academic autopilot—the same kind of Big Tent sloganeering that makes multiculturalism so boring.

The essays are, for the most part, far more exciting. The best take us in interesting directions by introducing us to particular cosmopolitans, rather than by attempting to make large pronouncements about the nature of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans, in the vernacular understanding of the term, are worldly because they travel. The Murids—a Muslim brotherhood centered in Senegal—are worldly in this sense, as Diouf shows in one of the most compelling of the chapters in the collection. Murids buy cheap and sell dear (in New York, in Marseilles, in Hamburg) in order to save. They practice the kind of mercantile capitalism Weber attributed to the Protestant ethic, while, retaining, even reinforcing communitarian sectarianism with the Senegalese shrine city of Touba at its center. Murids are “always in transit” (125). But they travel in order to be able to afford to return to Touba on annual pilgrimages, to buy land and retire there, and above all to be buried there.

Cosmopolitans travel or they live in cities. Nothing is more generically citified than an appreciation for heritage—that longing for long gone locations, coupled with a desire to make money out of the past. So, Abbas offers us contrasting portraits of urban planning in Hong Kong and Shanghai to show that in both cases efforts are being made to preserve, as touristic space, something of the historicity of these cities. In sketching...

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