- Violent Places: Three Years in Europe and the Question of William Wells Brown’s Cosmopolitanism
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This essay aims to unfix William Wells Brown from what has become his accustomed critical role as an under-examined nineteenth-century avatar of the democratic and integrationist aspirations of liberal cosmopolitanism. It argues instead for reinterpreting Brown as a dialectical thinker of the limitations of a cosmopolitanism that would equate the transcendence of place with the transcendence of race. Taking as my subject what would seem to be the least promising of Brown’s works for such an inquiry, his formally rough but intellectually germinal second autobiography Three Years in Europe: Places I have Seen and People I have Met (1852), I consider the means by which Brown transforms the acts of “seeing” and “meeting” into a productive critique of the kind of political imaginary that would wish to elevate the pleasures of circulation over the challenges of solidarity.
In a recent account of the resurgence of cosmopolitanism in cultural studies, Amanda Anderson offers the following general definition: “cosmopolitanism endorses reflective distance from one’s cultural affiliations, a broad understanding of other cultures and customs, and a belief in universal humanity.” “In the twentieth century,” she continues, “I think we can fairly say that it is defined against those parochialisms emanating from extreme allegiances to nation, race, and ethnos. In very recent defenses of cosmopolitanism, the ethnos rhetorically reaches [End Page 1] to include any identity politics conceived along the model of the ethnic enclave.”1 In other words, cosmopolitanism today is best apprehended in spatial terms as “endorsing” a geography of identity cast as a geography of selective disidentification. To be cosmopolitan, that is, means to cultivate a broader frame of reference than the place or people of one’s origin—to view in relative and even ironic terms what one’s purported fellows deem natural and unworthy of comment.
This interest in cosmopolitanism both as a contemporary critical stance to be assumed and a past critical stance to be recovered has surfaced across fields and periods, from Anderson’s Victorian studies, to British literary modernism, to political philosophy, to African and South Asian studies, to name a few prominent examples.2 However, critics have differed about whether to consider the cosmopolitan position as necessarily elite or popular, Western or non-Western, flowing with or against capital, or by definition spanning or even obviating such binary distinctions. In U.S. American studies of the last decade or so, however, it is the African American intellectual of the pre-Civil Rights era who has emerged as the category-spanning cosmopolitan figure par excellence. Making in essence a cultual virtue of a political tragedy—of deracination, of limited access to citizenship and national belonging—the African American intellectual finds forms of detachment, reflection, and higher cultural synthesis that out of choice or out of necessity transcend local attachments, whether such attachments be defined in relation to the plantation, the neighborhood, the region, the nation, or the race.
In its most salient current critical formulation, African American cosmopolitanism shares the characteristic North Atlantic geography of elite cosmopolitanism. Drawing inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, U.S. critics Ross Posnock and Elisa Tamarkin have treated the transcendence of the local as generally synonymous with transit from the ethnic enclaves of the U.S. to the cosmopolitan cities of Europe. In Europe, Gilroy argues, the African American artist discovers the broader frame of black identity as figuratively oceanic rather than parochial, and learns to embrace the Enlightenment intellectual tradition as a common rather than exclusively [End Page 2] white inheritance.3 Taking as emblematic W. E. B. Du Bois’s presence in France during the Dreyfus Affair, Posnock traces the development within African American letters of the Europeanized cosmopolitan category of the intellectual as a figure able to transcend racial identity and overcome the “segregation” of aesthetics from politics imposed on the more conventional figure of the “race man.”4...