Part of the conference poster.

Conference reports Cosmopolitanism outside the comfort zone

The critical review of cosmopolitanism as a historical, philosophical, and moral concept was afforded a special place on the agenda, but presentations oriented towards practical policy applications of cosmopolitan ideas were also represented, at the conference arranged by CBEES at Södertörn University November 24—26 "Cosmopolitanism in a Wider Context: Conceptualizing Past and Present".

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1 2012, page 46
Published on on April 12, 2012

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How was cosmopolitanism faring in Europe at the end of 2011? A press photograph illustrates the situation better than most political analyses. Posters showing Angela Merkel in an SS uniform were pasted on building facades in Athens last October, in a visceral response to the EU’s stringent demands for cutbacks in Greece imposed by EU leaders, including the German chancellor. The swastika on Merkel’s arm is crowned by the stars of the emblem of the European Union. The picture is, of course, extraordinarily provocative, but it nonetheless shines an unforgiving spotlight on the current failure of the European project, at least if one chooses to interpret the construction of the EU as a political and economic peace project explicitly aimed at preventing future conflicts among the nation-states of Europe. Large segments of the populations of indebted member states obviously have strong misgivings about the transnational body, which is for all practical purposes asking ordinary citizens to pay the bill for the carnage wrought by global capital — or so goes, at any rate, a widely held belief among the rank and file of Europe, ordinary people who are struggling to pay their own bills. Xenophobic parties with nationalist agendas have lost no time in exploiting widespread discontent and thus strengthening their positions in several member states. The question then becomes: What place does the idea of world citizenship have in a Europe informed by mutual distrust between population groups and nations?

Against this backdrop, many of the discussions at the conference arranged by CBEES at Södertörn University November 24—26 seemed particularly relevant and urgent. The critical review of cosmopolitanism as a historical, philosophical, and moral concept was afforded a special place on the agenda, but presentations oriented towards practical policy applications of cosmopolitan ideas were also represented. In his keynote address with the expressive title “A Reluctant Cosmopolitan: The Problems of Cosmopolitanism”, Andre Vincent, professor of political theory at Sheffield University, outlined the evolution of the concept from Kant’s Perpetual Peace of 1795 to the renaissance of political theory in Western European academia in the 1990s. At that point, cosmopolitanism began to be studied as a concept in its own right and various disciplines fought for their respective definitions of the c-word, from the transnational ethical pathos of moral philosophy, to the focus of jurisprudence on international law aimed explicitly at transcending national borders by drafting laws that spoke to the individual rather than the nation-state. In his historical overview, Vincent argued that academics have had a strong tendency to idealize Kantian cosmopolitanism and that both Rawlsians and neo-Kantians have painted the philosopher from Königsberg as more of a cosmopolitan than he actually was. Instead of regarding Kant as the “Godfather of Cosmopolitanism”, we should instead read him as a cautious proponent of certain cosmopolitan ideas, according to Vincent. Despite his open skepticism towards cosmopolitanism as a normative political and moral program, Vincent found fault with post-colonial critique of cosmopolitanism as Eurocentric. As Vincent interprets it, many post-colonial critics argue that the universalist pretensions of cosmopolitanism ignore the “situatedness of human beings”, and therefore ethical principles and laws must instead be rooted in this particularity. Vincent rejected this criticism by referring to how people the world over do in fact manage to communicate with each other, which would not be possible if universally applicable human beliefs — that injustice is wrong, that murder is wrong, and so on — did not exist. Vincent himself argued for a kind of golden mean of pragmatic cosmopolitanism oriented towards resolving current and pressing problems rather than rationalizing our way to universal, normative solutions.

One of the twelve conference sessions emphasized the period after the fall of the Iron Curtain under the heading “The Legacy of 1989: Methods, Concepts, Controversies”. All of the contributions evinced an ideology-critical attitude towards cosmopolitanism as philosophical abstraction. The speakers’ various concrete, geographical-historical examples often illustrated the fluid and contradictory nature of the concept. Sociology researcher Michael Skey from the University of East London argued that cosmopolitanism is in danger of becoming a “dumping ground for different approaches”. A general definition of cosmopolitanism as “engagement with others” must therefore be scrutinized critically and filled with substance, according to Skey, who maintained that trafficking and international crime could be included in such a definition — after all, they are both phenomena characterized by transnational relationships and genuine encounters with people from diverse ethnic and national settings.

Under the heading, “Patriotic Cosmopolitanism?”, sociology researcher Ksenija Vidmar Horvat of the University of Ljubljana stressed the importance of reevaluating the cosmopolitan project in light of the nationalist backlash after 1989. Her example was the western Balkans, which, after the breakup of the socialist multinational and multicultural federal state of Yugoslavia, were characterized by violent nationalism and ethnic reengineering. But cosmopolitanism as described by Martha Nussbaum or Julia Kristeva is not a panacea against recent nationalist currents, according to Vidmar Horvat, because these scholars ignore the spatial dimension in human identity creation. She criticized Kristeva and other theorists of cosmopolitanism shaped by Eurocentrism for giving rise to the “fetishization and idealization of the ‘alien’”, which does not take into account whether the choice to give up territorial affiliation was voluntary or forced. The groups of people compelled to leave their homes and live a migrant life in the true sense, deprived of the social and cultural safety nets that the nation-state once could offer them, were at risk of being equated in the idealized cosmopolitan discourse with the ideal of liberation from ethnic and cultural origins. She also argued that the oft-repeated link between nationalism and territory on the one hand and cosmopolitanism and deterritorialization on the other is a false and unfortunate antagonism. Instead of regarding nationalism and cosmopolitanism as incompatible quantities in their relationship to territory, Vidmar Horvat posited that, on the contrary, the destructive dominance of nationalism could be challenged by incorporating the spatial dimension into cosmopolitan thinking. According to her, the post-Yugoslavian area is an interesting example of a process of this kind, which does not permit itself to be translated into the nationalism-cosmopolitanism dichotomy. She referred to ethnographic studies by Stef Jansen and Ivana Spasić, who identified a kind of “everyday cosmopolitanism” among people in Belgrade and Zagreb. By recalling the memory of the Yugoslavian era’s officially proclaimed cosmopolitan society, many Belgradians and Zagrebians have created a counterweight to Serbian and Croatian national hegemonic claims upon identity-creation and historiography in the post-Yugoslavian region. This everyday cosmopolitan resistance of the memory is, however, more of a nostalgic look back at a former national identity than it is “orthodox” cosmopolitanism in the traditional sense.

Overall, the majority of conference participants seemed to be calling for a reevaluation of the concept of cosmopolitanism, from philosophical abstraction to concrete manifestation — in short, various attempts to pull the concept down from cosmos to polis, from the world of ideas to the ground level of cities and states. Considering the delicate political and economic situation in Europe and the rest of the world, the conference was an important step towards a more nuanced understanding of cosmopolitanism — and maybe, just maybe, towards a world inhabited by firmly rooted cosmopolitans.

  • by Markus Huss

    Assistant Professor of German at the Department of Slavic and Baltic Studies, Finnish, Dutch and German, Stockholm University. Chair of the Scientific Advisory Council of Baltic Worlds.

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