What is Cosmopolitanism?

I presented sections of this work at the University of Sheffield/National University of Singapore workshop: Decentring Knowledge (10-11 September 2012).  Other material is drawn from a lecture on Cosmopolitanism that I gave at Hong Kong University in 2012 to my students taking Geog3414: Cultures, Social Justice and Urban Space.  

What is Cosmopolitanism?

Although not a new term, the idea of cosmopolitanism has experienced a recent revival and has gained currency in theoretical debate.   Much of this revival comes from a concern with the persistence of conflicts based on preserving or expanding territorial borders and the narratives and discourses that are used to police those borders.  These borders are both real and conceptual distinctions which separate and produce a particular form of others  that is rooted in an essentialist nation state.


From the Wall Street Journal. Full report available here

Guytari Spivak, among others points to certain technologies of law and rhetoric that are drawn upon by the state to reinforce and institutionalise the outside and the inside.  This includes legal technologies such as immigration law, which confers rights on to some but not others and produces categories that are more or less likely to access the privileges of national belonging.  Likewise there  are the rhetorical technologies that dehumanise or construct those beyond the nation as also beyond similarity. Examples are the ways that the Nazi’s described the Jews as mice or vermine, the Poles as swine and so forth. More recent examples of this type of rhetorical dehumanisation include the publication of an advertisement in Hong Kong depicting mainland Chinese visitors to the SAR as locusts. Indeed, while perhaps less specifically dehumanizing, but dehumanizing none the less, is the threat used in immigration debates such as “they will take over if we let them in” or  “We want to return our country back to traditional American Values.” which implies a proclivity by outsiders to behave as something akin to vermin, cockroaches, locusts or mould.

These legal and rhetorical technologies conspire to create an other that is also always diminished and outside; subaltern. Spivak argues that within our nationalist ontological perspective, subaltern subjects are rendered voiceless because they have no legitimate place from which to speak their circumstance. This is a particular non-positionality that is distinguishable from that of the marginal subject as the marginal, who despite the disadvantages of marginality, are still granted rights of participation through, for example immigration law. The margin is a location while the subaltern is placeless.  Thus our ontological nationalisms produce boundaries of not just insiders and outsiders or us and them, but also of here and nowhere.

Cosmopolitanism, it is argued, through is de-territorial manoeuvres offers a way of reconfiguring geopolitics in light of the critique that that our western conceptions of society are always already national and therefore territorialised.  Ulrich Beck, one of the key proponents of this critique, argues the over emphasis on national distinctions closes down the possibility of finding new solutions to old problems and he highlights those in the Middle East as an example of where national epistemologies constrain the possibilities for peace to such an extent that it becomes impossible. A cosmopolitan sensibility, on the other hand, Beck argues, allows the possibility of a two state system with shared territory.  It does this by doing away with the prioritization of national rights and opts instead on human rights.

While the abstract potential of cosmopolitanism is alluring, it is a concept that has been critiqued specifically because its lack of location makes it also difficult to see on the ground.  What are the actually existing cosmopolitanisms?  If it is about a perspective, does cosmopolitanism reside in subjects or is it located in places?

Indeed there is research that seeks to identify and describe cosmopolitan subjects or those with a cosmopolitan sensibility and perspective.  According to Ulf Hannerz, cosmopolitanism is a political disposition or “an orientation or willingness to engage with the other; an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness toward divergent cultural experience. The often emergent figure is the cosmopolite who travels to other lands and engages with the locals “on their own terms”. A truly skilled cosmopolite is able to adapt to the local culture and trade productively on the acquired cultural capitals that have value in place.   As such, the cosmopolite is neither parochial nor inward looking, colonial or imperialistic in relation to others.  It is a developed, and some would also argue cultivated positionality based on experience of the unfamiliar and an ability to be at home elsewhere.  It is a voluntary disassociation from ones history and national context.

The traveller or expat, which is often cast as the cosmopolitan participant is an identity position set against that which it is not, parochial, fixed, immovable.  Thus practices of cosmopolitanism that are fixed to travel also constrains and compartmentalises the visited into a homogeneous other, another way to think about this is to invoke Said’s concept of Orientalism.  Always beyond, exotic, somewhere else and having limited agency in the production of that space. Recalling the voiceless that Spivak argues cosmopolitanism should resolve.

This disassociation from that which is solid, is also, of course at the same time a denial of history and the context of human sociality that produces the view in the first instance.  The metaphor of cosmos also conjures images of Donna Haraway’s God Trick or all seeing eye.  Indeed we could argue that this manoeuvre is, rather than a liberating move, a way of producing an all knowing ocular subjectivity based upon privilege.  By discarding the past we also discard the roots of privilege in the analysis. We discard the body.  There is little discussion of how the cosmopolite got there in the first place.  But it is privilege that enables much of what is understood as real and existing cosmopolitanism.  Capitals are required to escape ones boundaries. Acknowledging history and context that produces the capitals of the cosmopolite also reveals that being a cosmopolite is tied to the privilege of being able to return home once the adventure is over.  Never truly the disconnected traveller, the cosmopolite is always rooted somewhere in the world and privilege allows the elasticity of travel.  Home remains and the other is still subjected to a form of territorialization.

Alternatives have been suggested.  Brenda Yeoh suggests that there are multiple cosmopolitanisms and that rather than considering the term as an orientation toward the world, cosmopolitanism is instead a strategy of engagement with the world, which is enabled by or is perhaps an imperative of neoliberalism. Brenda Yeoh and others such as Melanie Budiantanta have considered how cosmopolitanism is a strategy utilized by not just the wealthy but also the poor as a way to remake what is possible at home.  They call on an idea of involuntary or structural cosmopolitanisms that contrast the experiences of the elite with the cosmopolitanism experienced by a refugee or a guest labourer.  Unlike the voluntary cosmopolite, the refugee has no home to return to, while the home of the guest worker becomes parasitic at best and more often fractured. These cosmopolites must make a new home and learn new customs in the place that renders them cosmopolitan.  Living with the other, indeed living as the other, is a dislocation that creates anxiety and a longing to return, just as it requires skill. Living across borders is not an easy task when return is not an option.

This cosmopolitanism from below is highly evident in neoliberal places where there are extreme separations between who is rich and who is poor. Where the porosity of borders is such that things, people and money are required to move  in and out  freely, but the privilege of dwelling is granted only to the few.  A clear example of these necessarily mobile people are the maids who come from Indonesia and the Philippians; thousands of women who live within places like Singapore and Hong Kong, indeed who live within the houses of the elite, but yet who are always on the move as they are denied citizenship rights.  These women live cosmopolitan lives, and indeed perform the acts of being the cosmopolite better than the wealthy elite who represent the term in the popular imaginary.  The maids do this by cooking and often eating food that appeals to their employer’s tastes, but which may not be their own.  They are frequently responsible for raising their employers children according to specific cultural dictates of parenting without the advantage of generational learning.  At the same time the must maintain class boundaries even as they transvers class practices in their daily reproduction of households and homes that are not their own.

For these women, cosmopolitanism isn’t a political position born out of privilege, it is a skilled survival strategy; it is a way of being in the world that enables their continued being in the world and requires that they grab opportunities for rooting when and where they can.  Unlike Singapore, in Hong Kong the maids have some rights. One of these is a statutory day off on Sunday. This right enables them to create temporary visibility in Hong Kong and gives them the opportunity to gather collectively.  For many it means an opportunity to recreate home temporarily in the public spaces of the city and it allows a specifically Filipina and Indonesian public to emerge.  Only by creating these public spaces are these women able to produce a voice. Without the collective emplacement that Sunday offers, they remain subaltern and voiceless as is the case for those maids who go to Singapore and the Middle East.

For Yeoh, recognition of these cosmopolitanisms from below is a decentring move. It allows us (mostly academics) to call into question and provide a critique of the utopianism implied in the term. A utopianism that allows those of privilege to feel good about themselves for being culturally adept. While this is a critique of privilege, it is also important to consider what work casting maids as cosmopolitan does for them?  Is calling them cosmopolitan another way of denying them the right to make their own name, to speak? Does it deny them the privilege of being located?

Food Scholar, Interdisciplinary Thinker, Social Justice Researcher, and Excellent University Teacher

For more in the Mainlanders as Locust v. Hong Kongers as Dogs controversy see this Economist article.

The Maus graphic novels by Art Spiegelman play with notions of animalization as a way to re-humanize that which was de-humanised by the Nazis.

From Al Jazeera a video of an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah concerning the geopolitical possibilities of cosmopolitanism can be found here.

On 25 March 2013 the SCMP reported that on ongoing legal battle that sought to enable foreign domestic helpers to be able to apply for permanent residency under the same conditions as other immigrants living in Hong Kong on work visa’s was denied. You can find that report here.

Blake, M (2013) What is Cosmopolitanism? Geofoodie.org https://geofoodie.org/2013/03/23/what-is-cosmopolitanism/ ‎23 March 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)

5 thoughts on “What is Cosmopolitanism?

  1. Hi, very interesting read. Which Spivak work did you reference? Would great if you including a bibliography for all the thinkers you’ve cited. Thanks

      • Thanks for making the comments. When I have some time I will find the references. I wrote the original talk for a conference over a year ago, so will need to dig a little to find them. Thanks also for pointing out the typo. I shall fix that right away!

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