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Between roots and routes

Cosmopolitanism and the claims of locality


Summary
The topics that I would like to discuss in this essay, dealt with from different perspectives by many other
researchers, revolve around the problematic of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and the
production of locality, the limits of what is known as globalization, and the crisis of transnationalism
after colonialism.

My position as I stroll the cities that I love, Nairobi, Accra and Johannesburg is that simultaneously
of the insider and the detached tourist. Although I walk as one with the crowd, Im also detached
from it. Im at the same time the passionate spectator and one of the other connoisseurs of
global culture, the cosmopolitans, natives who hold the cultural discourse of the intellectual class.

When I board the British Airways flight to London and New York, I find myself in the strange company
of Somali, Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees on their way for a new destiny in North America. Because
of my liberal sensibilities I find it difficult to countenance these people. I have nothing in
common with them. They share no common critical discourse or set of cultural values with me. They
are far from being the postcolonials with whom I spent the last weeks. They are strangers entangled in the
cracks of the failed states.

Refugees frighten me because they are the representatives of a disrupted locality, of that postcolonial
identity, which derives its legitimacy from the mastery of the culture of modern Europe. As rejects of the
failed states, these people do not fit with identities constituted across boundaries. They cannot be identified
with the intellectual class of cosmopolitans. Though they inhabit the spaces inscribed in the category of
global, they are far from being cosmopolitans.

Postcolonial criticism derives its authority from a certain claim to displacement as the essential condition of
modern subjectivity. For many postcolonial critics, displacement is a form of recognition; it is a point of
entry into what Appiah has called 'the global tribe'. The rejection of local or national loyalties presupposes a
journey towards ideas and institutions based upon on a set of universal moral obligations and loyalty to
a common humanity, not nation or ethne. All these forms of identity represent the triumph of plurality over
singularity.

This aspiration of becoming part of a common human humanity, informed by rights and responsibilities, no
matter what their cultural or other differences are, constantly comes up against a set of problems that are
inherent in the project of identity itself. First there is the question of aggregating difference: If identity is
based on the principle of differentiation of the self from the Other, how can some aspects of difference be
considered more legitimate than others? The invocation of difference is the foundation for the community-
building projects that have led to postmodern genocide across Africa and South-Eastern Europe

To transcend parochial loyalties and become transnational the would-be cosmopolitan subject must make a
specific journey. Appiah describes and celebrates the adventure and ideal of cosmopolitanism the
movement of self-willing subjects away from 'segregation and seclusion' to shared cultural conversations
as the only serious path to human civility and comity .

He recognizes that the problem of estrangement, the 'foreign-


ness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers' is real enough, but he resists those who exaggerate
the significance and order of magnitude of these problems. The journey he makes us understand
towards cosmopolitanism is not fraught with difficulty. He minimizes the painful nature of the routes
that takes subjects out of cultural otherness into the ideals and institutions of cosmopolitanism. In
striving to position ideals and institutions that are closely associated with Europe as the common goal of a
divided humanity, Appiah seems to identify the cosmopolitan as the privileged subject of cultural
goods and vocabularies that are only accessible to elites.

As far as to the politics or ethics of identity are concerned, a central idea of cosmopolitanism is that
we have obligations to others, obligations that go beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of
kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship';
A condition of cosmopolitanism is the `willingness to become involved with the Other, and to strive to
achieve competence in cultures which are initially alien';
Within this logic, the route to cosmopolitanism is structured by the desire and the need to
understand the Other and establish a set of common values. Routes and journeys however across
boundaries and encounters with others do not necessarily lead to a cosmopolitan attitude . The
journeys that lead refugees from the war zones of the global south, processes often prompted by the
collapse of those archaic, yet real, loyalties that make cultural elites uneasy, do not lead to freedom
from those loyalties but to their entrenchment. The actions of young Somalis established in the
comfort of American suburbs who choose to go and fight for Islam in a state, which is now a remnant
of the collapsed heap instead of the imagined to be the modern nation state is a concrete case in point.

Postcolonial cosmo-politans who have striven to master the institutions and ideals of modern Europe and
have assiduously cultivated their identities do condemn the actions of these people, actions which provoke
deep anxieties. I wonder why these people want to return to those places that now stand as empty shells of
modernity, the symbols of great disorder.
The desires and values of the young Burhan Hassan, like those of the Islamists he emulates, those who want to
return Somalia outside the tutelage of modernity and the infrastructure of colonialism, seem to be at odds
with the ideals of cosmopolitanisme. People who cling to this theory disturb the temporality of
postcolonialism and the terms of its routing.

What we see among the lower strata of migrant populations is not the facade of cosmopolitanism or
multicultural-ism advocated by postcolonial elites, but signs of a radical attachment to older cultural forms
at odds with postcolonial identity.

Refugees and migrants should take advantage of the benefits of cultural goods offered by the modern west.
These people do not meet the primary criteria and necessary requirements of cosmopolitanism ; Their one
dimensioned view of things has imprisoned them in narrow structures of identity; the ties they cultivate
are defined by kith and kin, not others. Their dogmatism and adherence to deeply rooted and entrenched
cultural or religious beliefs negates the dictum that true cosmopolitanism is necessarily based upon the belief in
the valuation of differences and obligations to others.

In other words, adherence to local loyalties should not nullify the sense of obligation or even
understanding of others. The engagement of elites with metropolitan cultures begins even before their
arrival in Europe or North America,. For many refugees, on the contrary the concept of cultural difference
acquires reality or value in their eyes only when they arrive at the holding centres in their new countries. Quite
often, what appears to be the refugees' refusal or inability to take advantage of the cultural goods of
cosmopolitanism reflects anxieties and fears in the face of radical alterity. To put it bluntly:

- Refugees do not want to be cosmopolitan because they have no idiom for this experience; instead
they set out to demarcate a zone of ethnicity and locality,
- They are global because they cannot return to their old spaces of identity and must somehow
learn to live outside both the nations that have rejected them and those that have adopted
them.
- Refugees fear to be of the rootless crowd, and avoid the temptation to turn into a free
floating signi-fier of the moment of postcolonial arrival.

For some of the most distinguished thinkers of the modern period, from Hannah Arendt to Edward Said, the
characteristic figure of the twentieth century was the refugee and exile. Both represented the
underside of modernity and the failure of a discourse of reason and rights.

Arendt posited the stateless as the most obvious symptom of the decline of the culture of human
rights. For her the stateless persons crossing the boundaries of Europe after the treaty of Versailles repre-
sented the limit of modernity and formed 'the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.

Social theory however has not always considered homelessness to be the tragic fate of the stateless.
Indeed, in the period after the Second World War, the question of statelessness came to be transformed,
especially in the thinking of European intellectuals in exile, as a new and better condition of being, outside
the prison house of nation., philology and tradition.
Adorno insisted that the predicament of private life was evident in the fact that the place of dwelling, the
house as the arena of subjectivity, was an impossibility. Confronted with an expansive map of displacement
and 'an imper-
sonal setting', exile could not be made to 'serve notions of humanism'; on the contrary,
invocations of the aura of exile could not mask the horrors that enabled it:

The views of exile in literature and in reli-


gion obscure what is truly horrendous: that exile is irremediably secular and unbearably historical; that
it is produced by human beings for other human beings; it has torn millions of people from the
nourishment of tradition, family and geography.

Quite often, the new discourse of cosmopolitanism emerges in the process of differentiating the
order of refugees from those of autonomous migrating subjects. Thus Appiah draws sharp
distinctions between 'the old migrants' and `older diasporas' that 'began in an involuntary exile'.
Global cultural flows are still dominated by those coerced migrants rather than the free-willing
cosmopolitan subjects. The figure of the refugee may not be as visible as that of the postcolonial
flaneur. , but the refugee's presence in the heart of the metropolis challenges the redemptive narrative of
postcolonial arrival. At the centre of this challenge are two issues: First, there is the growth in scale of
violence and statelessness as conditions of postcolonial identities. Second, there is the cultural blockage
that refugees face as they try to enter the orbit of cosmopolitanism.

Ultimately, there is an inherent tension between the self-identity of postco-lonial elites and the
people they claim to represent. For one thing, postcolonial elites are, by virtue of their class, position or
education, the major beneficiar-ies of the project of decolonization. The common reasons why
postcolonial elites end up in the American or European metropolis is because they were beneficiaries of the
nationalism they would later come to scorn. Indeed, quite often, these elites profited (directly or
indirectly) from the inequalities and corruption of the postcolonial state.

It is this claim to autonomy and independence that makes cosmopolitanism an important term for
mediating the relationship between the roots that are denied or repressed and the routes that are
taken. From its very beginnings in the eighteenth century to the present, cosmopolitanism has been
pegged on the autonomy that is, the independence of the intellectual elite from the ruling class,
especially in moments of crisis. One of the distinguish-ing characteristics of the cosmopolitan ideal in the
eighteenth century was 'an attitude of mind that attempted to transcend chauvinistic national
loyalties or parochial prejudices in its intellectual interests and pursuits'. The desire to be a citizen of the
world, the hallmark of cosmopolitanism since Diogenes, was prompted not by the love of the Other but by
a negative imperative, what Moses Hadas aptly termed 'a rebellious reaction against every kind of
coercion imposed by the community upon the individual'.

The point I want to underline is that the larger universal claims of cosmopolitanism only make sense as
an 'abstract faith' which becomes, in turn, 'a compromise with nationalism, race conscious-ness, professional
interests, caste feeling, family prude, and even with egotism'. This compromise, nevertheless is an important
conduit for understanding the tension between roots and routes that characterize the lives of
postcolonial elites; Considered in a structural sense, the cosmo-politan ideal is caught between the desire to
valorize one's culture, home, and social position as essentially good, while at the same time trying to
perform one's ability to be tolerant of the strange and different. After all, even when we find the cultural
practices of others repelling, our performance of understanding and tolerance is essential to our identity as
liberal cultural subjects.

An intellectual or aesthetic stance is crucial to understanding the degrees of global identities for it leads to the final
question that interests me. Who qualifies for the term cosmopolitan?
There are two processes involved in the series of entanglements that I have been working with: those between
roots and routes, refugees and elites, and globalization and cosmo-politanism. The first process involves the
differentiation of globalization from cosmopolitanism/

Globalization emerges out of networks of trade, of culture, and experiences, in which the distant
is assimilated into the familiar and local to facilitate exchange,
Globalization does not demand that we engage with the Other in any substantive sense.
Cosmopolitanism is inscribed as a state of mind and an aesthetic practice, a cultivated
sensibility which involves one's detachment from the local and ethnic and a willingness to engage
with the Other. It is a stance toward diversity as Hannerz has described it,
Cosmopolitans are the flaneurs of our age, walking the cities of the world, convinced that their
identity can only be mirrored through their engagement with others, sure of their mastery of global
cultural flows and their secure place within it. As Hannerz has pointed out the cosmopolitans'
Engagement with the Other is enabled by their own privileged position within global culture. Unlike
the refugees, cosmopolitans are not stateless; they move freely across boundaries; they are
autonomous subjects,
Cosmopolitans function within a discursive formation. They are those who share a critical
discourse that is aesthetic. In this aesthetic sense, cosmopolitanism becomes a form of phenomenalism
in which members of a certain class can share tastes and competences across national boundaries.

Where does the local fit into all this? It is a mistake to equate and identify the local with parochialism
and funda-mentalism and thus to see it as a form of retreat from global cultural flows or to seek its
meanings or value codings in phenomenological rather than episte-mological terms. To cite one famous
example, Arjun Appadurai views locality `as primarily relational and contextual rather than as scalar or
spatial'. It important to note that cosmopolitanism, too, is defined by phenomenological proper-
ties, what Appadurai would call 'a structure of feelings that is produced by particular forms of
intentional activity and that yields particular sorts of material affects.
It is important to notice as well that one of the most perplexing and intriguing phenomenological aspects of
global movements is the survival of locality outside national or ethnic boundaries. Locality is no longer simply
produced through rituals of kinship or the production of endogamous identities contained within narrow
boundaries. On the contrary, locality itself has been globalized, its boundaries dilated by the mass
migrants that initiated my discussion. Locali-ties functioning side by side with the insignia of globalization
such as cell phones and televisions, or, alternatively, localities produced and reproduced in the metropolitan
centres is a frequent phenomenon in the European and American metropolis.

If the production of locality is always surrounded by anxiety and entropy, how does one explain its
attraction in an age of globalization? Why are people in failed states retreating from the centre to the region?
Why are migrants recreating or simulating localities

There is an even more troubling question: Why do we now confront the production of localities
within metropolitan, urban centres, neighbourhoods that have been produced by refugees and others within
the most cosmopolitan cities in the world? The first thing to notice when one encounters neighbourhoods of
Somali refugees is how they have sought to produce Somaliness and to reproduce a Somalia identity
abroad. Logic would seem to go against this reconstruction of locality. How do we explain the persistence of
the ethne where one expects it to collapse in the face of cosmopolitanism?
We could argue, with Appadurai, that it is precisely because of their displace- ment that Somali refugees
seek ontological mooring in an imagined Somali ethne. They reconstruct a 'local teleology and ethos' in the
metropolis in order to deal with rootlessness.

For the same reasons, attempts to cultivate a cosmopolitan necessitates a deployment of the
resources of intellectual culture liable to produce and reproduce a subjectivity that is reliable and
recognizable. The postcolonial elite has become a major component of American and European high culture,
precisely because of his mastery of this culture as a tool for cultivating a reli-able postcolonial identity. To
invoke postcoloniality is to claim to be a citizen of many cultures and nations; but it is to claim rootlessness
in order to position oneself in multiple cultural spaces and to have access to the goods that come with
them.

Postcolonial cosmopolitanism, by positioning itself as the stand-in for both metropolis and ex-colony
conceals its own peculiar, particular and often privileged entry into the world cultural system . By claiming to
speak for others, postcolonial elites elide the circumstances by which the majority of the ex-colonial enters the
world system, as refugees or illegal aliens, and how the process of entry and its terms of engagement generate a
different narrative of global cultural flows.