Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence by Bruce Robbins
Ever since Bruce Robbins published Cosmopolitics with Pheng Cheah in 1998, he has been at the forefront of showing us the urgency of thinking cosmopolitanism as a paradigm for the Humanities in general, and for cultural and literary studies more particularly. His new contribution to this discussion, Perpetual War, continues in this line. Robbins argues for a “strong culturalist program” (3) that would assume as a “priority” “the problem of transnational aggression” (2), or, in other words, “the prospect that cosmopolitanism will interfere with the perpetrating of violence” (2). The point here is not only to encourage literary and cultural scholars to understand their scholarly and pedagogical work politically. Also, Robbins wants us to reappropriate two principle ideas that philosophies of cosmopolitanism offer to thinking the possibility of the end of war: 1) that detachment or “disinterestedness” as a cosmopolitan positioning must connect back to a belonging to the nation, an ethical standard; and 2) that the new cosmopolitan “non-elitism” (which Robbins approves of and has himself fostered, he says) that celebrates multiple border crossings as the underpinnings of a new global democracy tends to shy away from making such normative ethical claims, while such normative claims are essential to an ethical political practice that would allow for such a democracy. These premises are fundamental, for Robbins, if we, as teachers and intellectuals want to challenge a U.S. hegemony that claims national superiority by justifying the nation’s inflicting of pain (through military as well as economic might) outside of U.S. borders. Paradoxically, such national actions reflect a national state of mind where U.S. citizens are taught to understand the U.S. as a moral giant detached from a nationhood that can be judged.
Robbins’ close readings of primary texts successfully perform a very careful balancing act. They are penetrating, dazzling, absorbing, even masterful, while also respectful, as the targets of his analyses are very often his loved and admired intellectual forbearers. For example, after a very personal and moving tribute to his teacher Edward Said, where he admits his indebtedness and praises Said’s dedication to the politics of Palestine, Robbins delves into Said’s stance on secularism, connected to his Humanism, as a separation from belonging: the figure of exile. Robbins counters this version of detachment with Said’s less recognized interest in the idea of “effort,” a term that Robbins picks up from Said’s son’s eulogy but then follows into the written texts. Robbins first suggests that Said’s descriptions of the intellectual as exilic borrow from a religious understanding of a mysterious and transcendent judge, so that the various moves towards isolation and idealism are constantly betraying themselves as religiously and therefore nationally [End Page 393] affiliated, constantly belonging. Said, says Robbins, models the secularism of intellectual work on an idea of power derived from Foucault, where the systematicity of power (of the Western canon, Orientalism, or Humanism) makes it impossible to speak outside of it, thereby linking powerlessness to homelessness. Said, though, adds in “effort,” or a certain freedom to resist through forming an intention directly against power, to intervene and open up the micro-networks of power through praising or blaming national acts: effort is “the display of a power within that is in some way comparable or commensurate to the power without that it confronts” (124). Even as the secular critic takes on some of the features of non-affiliation and impartiality in the imperialist ideology that he opposes, the promise of “effort” shares the attachment to ethics and action negotiated through the domain of the political, or nationhood.
Robbins doesn’t stop with this portrait of Said as a cosmopolitan intellectual whose brand of politics is constituted ultimately as a national belonging. He also includes other intellectuals, from Noam Chomsky to Immanuel Wallerstein, Anthony Appiah, John Dewey, and Louis Menand, movements such as pragmatism, ideas like the public intellectual, and political commitments such as anti-sweatshop activism and human rights. Robbins subjects these foundational left commitments to his rigorous readings where an initial alienation from national interestedness lands right back in the messiness of political engagement, ethical judgment, and, therefore, national affiliation. Robbins astutely shows how his philosophical conclusions embedded in cosmopolitan ideologies matter to real world contexts as well as literary analysis. He applies, for example, Chomsky’s idea of the moral power of cosmopolitan comparison—that comparison allows the rational thinker to rise above the particular assumptions that favor homeland loyalties, granting detached observation as through an alien’s eye—to the fiction of W. G. Sebald, who suggests the Allies’ bombing of German cities at the end of World War II was an act equally as deserving of moral indignation and memory as the Holocaust. He then interprets Sebald as qualifying this suggestion, saying that not all nations are equal in a moral comparison of acts, that the moral position of the nation behind the act (in this case, Nazi Germany) should matter, as should the national position of the observer (for Chomsky, this allows him to give harsher judgments to atrocities, even genocidal ones, committed by the U.S.).
Though Robbins’ erudition and interpretive finesse in Perpetual War are nothing short of mind-boggling, I still wonder if the terminologies and traditions of cosmopolitanism aren’t closing out some important considerations, particularly in two areas. First, Robbins espouses a Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism, where governance inside nations is irrelevant to governance between nations, and the nation itself is the formal basis of international relations. Robbins’ observation that cosmopolitanism’s detachment needs the nation is an observation already in Kant, and Robbins carries it into the present with dexterity and shows its continued relevance. [End Page 394] However, the emphasis on Kant seems to block out Marx’s challenge to Kant. Marx links cosmopolitanism to the literary form of the bourgeois revolution and to the development of the world market and predicts that the possibility of cosmopolitanism opened up by the bourgeois age will lead to international class solidarity among workers and the end of nations altogether. The culturalist orientation that Robbins adapts from the Kantian paradigm seems to diminish the importance of an attachment to class that would intersect in some ways with and differentiate in others from a belonging to nation. Second, I’m wondering if the Derridian interplay of presence and absence—that every detachment from the nation is also an attachment—envisions the endpoints of a spectrum of interpretative possibilities that locks out vital questions and actually cancels out certain types of ethical reasoning beyond the nation, despite Robbins’ very serious commitment to ethical critique. Unlike his former editorial partner Pheng Cheah, for example, who in his most recent book Inhuman Conditions addresses cosmopolitanism in the context of the United Nations Beijing Conference, and others who have recognized feminism on equal cosmopolitical terms to human rights, Robbins gives no place to feminism. As I have no doubt that Robbins had to have foreseen these criticisms, I wonder why he did not explain such omissions. I wonder if the focus on the presence and absence of the nation has to detach the critique from a broad and various reading of the politics of the present, that is, if the politics of the present or even challenges to international aggression can find their explanatory home completely within questions of the nation.