Pollock, Sheldon, Bhabha, Breckenridge — Cosmopolitanisms

Work Cited 

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, 1-14. Durham, NC & London: A Millennial Quartet Book, 2002.

Cosmopolitanism as an object of study: practice and theory related in a necessarily open concept

Cosmopolitanism comprises some of today’s most challenging problems of academic analysis and political practice, especially when analysis and practice are seen… as a conjoint activity. For one thing, cosmopolitanism is not some known entity existing in the world, with a clear genealogy from the Stoics to Immanuel Kant, that simply awaits more detailed description at the hands of scholarship. We are not exactly certain what it is, and figuring out why this is so and what cosmopolitanism may be raises difficult conceptual issues. As a practice, too, cosmopolitanism is yet to come, something awaiting realization. Again, this is not because we already understand and can practice it but have not – [sic] a mode of action whose rules we are familiar with and need merely to apply. Cosmopolitanism may instead be a project whose conceptual content and pragmatic character are not only as yet unspecified but also must always escape positive and definite specification, precisely because specifying cosmopolitanism positively and definitely is an uncosmopolitan thing to do (Pollock, et al. 2002, 1)>.

The indeterminacy of how to achieve a cosmopolitan political practice feeds back into the problem of academic analysis. As a historical category, the cosmopolitan should be considered entirely open, and not pregiven or foreclosed by the definition of any particular society or discourse. Its various embodiments, including past embodiments, await discovery and explication. In this way, the components of the linked academic-political activity of cosmopolitanism become mutually reinforcing: new descriptions of cosmopolitanism as a historical phenomenon and theoretical object may suggest new practices, even [2] as better practices may offer a better understanding of the theory and history of cosmopolitanism (Pollock, et al. 2002, 1-2).

Cosmopolitanism as questioning “our time”

“Emergent discourses of cosmopolitanism are riven with deep historical ironies about what it means to live in our times. What defines our times? What times are ours?” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4)

Transition marks the questions of our times. And “Cosmopolitanism, in its wide and wavering nets, catches something of our need to ground our sense of mutuality in conditions of mutability, and to learn to live tenaciously in terrains of historic and cultural transition” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4).

In this interstice we are confronting old and new, past and present.

Cosmopolitanism as a critic of neoliberalism

Today’s times are marked by a “neoliberal emphasis [that] falls more on individualist aspirations and universalist norms” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 4-5). But this revenant late liberalism reveals, in a more exaggerated form, a struggle at the heart of liberal theory, where a genuine desire for equality as a universal norm is tethered to a tenacious ethnocentric provincialism in matters of cultural judgement and recognition(Pollock, et al. 2002, 5).

All the derring-do between the local and the global in the dialectic of worldly thinking should not conceal the fact that neoliberal cosmopolitan thought is founded on a conformist sense of what it means to be a “person” as an abstract unit of cultural exchange (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5).

A rights culture is essential. But “None of this should hide the fact that the fetishization of liberal individualism has, in the past few years, created a cosmopolitan imaginary signified by the icons of singular personhood” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5). World citizenship is personalised by Gates, Mother Theresa and Soros.

Cosmopolitanism as a critic of modernity: minoritarian modernity

“A cosmopolitanism grounded in the tenebrous moment of transition is distinct from other more triumphalist notions of cosmopolitical existence” (Pollock, et al. 2002, 5). Modernity has produced several universalist claims to world citizenship: capitalism (world connected of markets), communism (united workers of the world), late liberalism (humans as bearers of rights). Each of them is framed by the idea of national sovereignty. “… Nationhood is the social form that renders modernity self-conscious… so that the cosmopolitan spirit may inhabit a world that is ethically synchronous and politically symmetrical.” (6) However it has shown the terrible asymmetries of the idea of modernity itself. (6)

The cosmopolitanism of our times does not spring from the capitalized “virtues” of Rationality, Universality, and Progress; nor is it embodied in the myth of the nation writ large in the figure of the citizen of the world. Cosmopolitans today are often the victims of modernity, failed by capitalism’s upward mobility (Pollock, et al. 2002, 6).

These people are refugees, diaspora, migrants. Too often, in the West, these people are seen as a problem. Cultural pluralism is recognising difference only as long as the general category of people is understood in the national frame.

“What we are calling minoritarian modernity (as a source of cosmopolitan thinking) is visible in the new forms of transdisciplinary knowledges that we initiate in the “multicultural” academy” (6) It is a way to “provincialise” Europe and seek cosmopolitical genealogies from the non-Christian Sanskrit world. “Transdisciplinary knowledge, in the cosmopolitan cause, is more readily a translational process of culture’s inbetweenness than a transcendent knowledge of what lies beyond difference, in some common pursuit of the universality of the human experience.” (6-7)

Cosmopolitanism and feminism


Cosmopolitanism as diversity

… The nature of late-twentieth-century nationalism, multiculturalism, and the globalization of late liberalism has created a historical context for reconsidering concepts of cosmopolitanism (7).

Most discussions of cosmopolitanism as a historical concept and activity largely predetermine the outcome by their very choice of materials. If it is already clear that cosmopolitanism begins with the Stoics, who invented the term, or with Kant, who reinvented it, then philosophical reflection on these moments is going to enable us always to find what we are looking for. Yet what if we were to try to be archivally cosmopolitan and to say, “Let’s simply look at the world across time and space and see how people have thought and acted beyond the local.” We would then encounter an extravagant array of possibilities. (10)

Doing this in this volume shows that history of cosmopolitanism can be rewritten dramatically, and that the range of practices allow for new and alternative theoretisation.

The core project of modernity is to exclude the middle: an object is either x or not-x. In this sense modernity is an attempt to separate and purify realms that have never been separated nor pure and still are not (12). This holds true in particular for individuated and unique cultures.

What the new archives, geographies, and practices of different historical cosmopolitanisms might reveal is precisely a cultural illogic for modernity that makes perfectly good non-modern sense. They might help us see that cosmopolitanism is not a circle created by culture diffused from a center, but instead, that centers are everywhere and circumferences nowhere (12).

The essays attempt to expand the repertory of archives, geographies, histories and disciplines of cosmopolitanisms. Diversity becomes the force and the project.

Ottmar Ette (University of Potsdam) The Scientist as Weltbürger: Alexander von Humboldt and the Beginning of Cosmopolitics

Excellent article on Humboldt and cosmopolitanism, arguing that the ‘Weltbürger’ was a scientist and the scientist a ‘Weltbürger.’ This reminds me of my own research on the use of the term cosmopolitan and citizen of the world in eighteenth century France. Very often people would use it as a moniker to claim a position of universal truth, a certain neutrality of view in international debates, and certainly a position of positivity as a subject. Very sketchily this position was made possible — this is my contention — because of the central position that humanity took in the discourse, and the general belief in the universality of reason. Every person through reason could ponder the laws of universal truth, without any particularistic bias. This is the fundament of positivity and its connection to the cosmopolitan. However, I argue that cosmopolitan and cosmopolitanism are two different things, and cannot be equated to one another. The apparition of the word ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a late nineteenth century invention, contemporary with the social embeddedness of nationalism. Since nationalism claimed the particular, the fixed, the boundary, cosmopolitanism, based on the travelling cosmopolitan became the general, the world, the moving, the boundaryless. Some US/THEM differentiation.

Here is the link on Humboldt and cosmopolitanism:


Ulrich Beck: A New Cosmopolitanism is in the Air

Here is a link to an article by German sociologist Ulrich Beck published in November 2007, which is a translation of the original into English:


It is quite summing up the arguments developed in his three last books on cosmopolitanism — Power in the Global Age: A New Political Economy (2002/2006); Cosmopolitan Vision (2004/2006); ; Cosmopolitan Europe (2007) — from a sociological perspective — i.e. replacing ‘methodological nationalism’ with ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ in order to study the ‘cosmopolitanisation’ of societies and the global relations of power at stake. This theoretical approach is based on the meta-theory of ‘reflexive modernisation’ or ‘second modernisation’ in which we live in, developed in Risk society and extended in World Risk Society: On the Search for Lost Security (1999): we have moved from industrial society and nation-states thought in the paradigm of modern rationality, to a service-based society and undefined political entities in a paradigm of reflexiv identities, socially constructed.

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