For an Anthropology of Cosmopolitanism
Some days ago I registered for the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology at Keele University (UK). As a preparation, here some notes on anthropology and cosmopolitanism.
After the controversis around the Mohammed-cartoons, media loved talking about culture and religion wars and Huntingtons clash of civilisation. But maybe we should have talked more about cosmopolitanism than culture war. Isn't cosmopolitanism more common than fundamentalism? In his article Anthropology as cosmopolitan practice? (subscription required) published in Anthropological Theory in 2003 (3):403–415, Joel Kahn writes:
I would suggest that a certain cosmopolitanism governs the practices of localized individuals and institutions, everyday interactions between individuals and groups, popular cultural activities, forms of economic relations, and institutions of village government.
Could one go further to argue that in instances where a breakdown of such cosmopolitan coalitions has taken place - in Aceh, West Papua, Kalimantan, the Moluccas more often than not this has been precisely a result of the imposition from above (by the Indonesian state, outside powers and institutions) of disembedded, supposedly universal, culturally neutral forms of power, jurisprudence and so on (that is, of liberal versions of the cosmopolitan ideal)?
In his paper he wants to recover "cosmopolitanism in recent social and political theory, a project to which according to him "surprisingly few anthropologists have so far contributed":
The world which anthropologists seek to study is a world not of discrete and isolatable other cultures and societies, but a world of ‘intercultural’ or ‘intercommunal’ relationships.
A quick internet-search revealed that many anthropologists and social scientists make similar points as Kahn.
In the book Cosmopolitanism, Identity and Authenticity in the Middle East, Roel Meijer writes, that the Middle East was, in the past, "an open undefined territory in which groups of different religious and ethnic backgrounds intermingled and exchanged ideas and lifestyles". In his review (source url-lost), Fred Halliday from London School of Economics concludes:
The main message of this collection of studies is that in the past the Middle East did embody certain forms of cosmopolitanism, but that modern forces - the modern state, anti-imperialism, the mass politics of secular and religious forces alike - have overwhelmed these forms. Globalisation now substitutes a different kind of superficial and consumerist, universalism.
As it turned out, those who defended cosmopolitan ideas often lived in small towns and villages where they hid refugees, saving them from ethnic cleansing and paving the way for continued co-existence. Many of them had never gone to university or even once left the place where they were born. In contrast, many of the most militant Croatian and Serbian nationalists had in many ways lead what we tend to think of as a cosmopolitan life: educated at foreign universities they felt at home in all of the major airports around the world and could converse in a relaxed manner with the global political and financial elite.
And in the anthology Cosmopolitics. Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (red: Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins), Wirten writes, a number of philosophers, anthropologists and cultural sociologists are inspired by the Dominican migrant, the Kurdish refugee, the stateless Palestinian, the indigenous propertyless of Chiapas.
The conference organizers introduce the concept of cosmopolitanism this way:
One tendency has been to think of cosmopolitanism as transgressing the parochialism or ethnicism of the nation-state. In this view, cosmopolitans are travellers who move beyond national boundaries, and hence a cosmopolitan social science must study these flows and movements, or reflect on issues of global justice, human rights and governmentality.
This apparently commonsensical view has been challenged, however, in a deservedly much cited article by Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Cosmopolitan Patriots’. (...) Appiah speaks of a ‘rooted’ cosmopolitanism, and proposes that cosmopolitans begin from membership in morally and emotionally significant communities (families, ethnic groups) while espousing notions of toleration and openness to the world, the transcendance of ethnic difference and the moral incorporation of the other. His vision opens up scope for a cosmopolitan anthropology which builds on anthropological strengths of fieldwork in particular locales.
While the prototype multicultural society is made up of enclosed cultural units with different but equal rights, the cultural flows do not stay within bounded groups, in a cosmopolitan society. Instead they intersect and mix in various ways in various individuals.
Doing cosmopolitan anthropology means questioning assumptions on "us" and "them", she writes:
It has been important for me to show that the world is interconnected; I did not only share subcultural preferences with my informants, but we reflected on identity formation in similar ways as well. (...) My aim has been to make use of these parallels between lived urban life and life as an urban researcher.
We all need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as 'us' and 'them'.
UPDATE: POSTS ABOUT THE CONFERENCE
What's the point of anthropology conferences? (general summary)
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