The Cosmopolitan Identity
Tony Judt and Reinaldo Arenas
A Reading Group plan and some questions
“Globalization itself — the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies — will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.” [Tony Judt, Edge People, 2010]
Reading #1: Tony Judt’s short essay “Edge People”, originally published in the New York Review of Books in early 2010, and subsequently in his memoirs, The Memory Chalet, a magnificent book published posthumously later that year.
Reading #2: Ann Tashi Slater’s interview with Reinaldo Arenas, published in The New Yorker in December 2013.
Both Judt and Arenas talk quite extensively about their own identity and how they struggle to identify with one particular space/community.
How would you describe yourself? Pick the 5–10 identity labels that you feel describe you most accurately, and 5–10 identity labels that others might assign you but that you don’t identify with.
· What do you notice? What does the blend of identities tells us/you about you? And what does it tell us about the society and culture we currently live in?
· Do you make an effort to resist the labels assigned to you by other people? Do you care? Why should you?
· What is the function of identity? What are the differences between our own personal identity (sense of self) and identity as a membership of a particular community (political, social, economic, religious, gender etc)?
(2) Identity politics
Tony Judt: “The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves — thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine”.
What are the limitations and risks of identity politics?
What are ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’? How are these reinforced online and why is this bad? What are the pros and cons of minority- or identity- oriented curricula?
How can we facilitate dialogue and understanding not just within minority communities and identity groups but amongst them and across the public sphere at large?
(3) Boastful victimhood
Tony Judt: “These programs are byproducts of communitarian solipsism: today we are all hyphenated — Irish-Americans, Native Americans, African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered”.
What does “communitarian solipsism” mean?
What does “boastful victimhood” mean?
Why is victimhood a popular mindframe in contemporary culture?
How is victimhood linked to populism and extremism?
How does victimhood affect freedom of speech, public debate and social organisation?
Tony Judt: “As an English-born student of European history teaching in the US; as a Jew somewhat uncomfortable with much that passes for “Jewishness” in contemporary America; as a social democrat frequently at odds with my self-described radical colleagues, I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of “rootless cosmopolitan”. But that seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages”.
Judt speaks of the “familiar insult” of rootless cosmopolitanism. In a recent speech, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.
Why does the cosmopolitan identity — being a citizen of the world — carry negative connotations for some? What are the pros and cons of being cosmopolitan?
Being a cosmopolitan person — a citizen of the world — poses challenges for others and for the self. You may feel that you don’t belong anywhere (which raises the question: Why is belonging important? Why do we need to belong?). Each of the communities associated with your identity may treat you as an outsider. You may face discrimination, marginalisation, persecution.
Societies have developed legal and moral frameworks — rules, regulations, conventions, customs — so that they can function and survive. People who have experienced different cultural frameworks may deviate from these boundaries. Stepping outside of your community means that your eyes open, your horizons get broadened — that you acquire a critical distance from your original community. That distance can provide you with valuable insights — wisdom. But it can also mean that you are now challenging social conventions. Cosmopolitanism poses a threat for ethnocentric frameworks. Identity is about control, i.e. power.
Furthermore, humans need simple frameworks to be able to easily “read” people — i.e. consciously or subconsciously evaluate whether the other person is a friend or a foe; whether they pose a threat or whether they come bearing gifts; what unites and divides us (after all, we define ourselves through looking at and learning from others). When someone does not easily fit into preexisting frames — when it is hard or impossible to put someone into identity or behavioural boxes — that is inherently disconcerting. Identity is about control, i.e. power.
Reinaldo Arenas: “Every person who lives outside his context is always a bit of a ghost, because I am here, but at the same time I remember a person who walked those streets, who is there, and that same person is me. So sometimes I really don’t know if I am here or there. And at times, the longing to be there is greater than the necessity of being here. […] In truth, this isn’t a personal calamity but a universal one, because the world is full of people who aren’t living where they should be, and if they are they have to run away. All the literature of this century is somewhat burdened by the theme of uprootedness.”
In what ways is Arenas’ experience and description of uprootedness similar and at the same time different to Judt’s?
(6) Global Centre v. Ethnic Peripheries
Reinaldo Arenas: “I’ve been to Puerto Rico, Spain, other places where there’s Spanish of one kind or another and, up to a certain point, the tropical sun. But I don’t know if I could live in those places, because the Spanish is Spanish in a frightening way and, in the end, they’re too specific. The Puerto Rican is alarmingly Puerto Rican, with his concept of nationalism and a range of things that are practically nineteenth-century but, O.K., maybe valid. For someone who’s been through so much, though, those things aren’t very important. It doesn’t interest me at all that the E.T.A. terrorists think Catalonia should separate from Spain. Those things have such little universal relevance, since freedom is more than a sense of nationality.”
What are the common themes in Arenas’ and Judt’s critiques of localised communities? Are “universal themes” of superior importance to “local issues”? Or are all issues grounded in geography? Couldn’t the allegation of parochialism be directed against Arenas’ own accounts of the problems facing Cuba? Is there an element of hubris in distancing oneself from the local, or is that a necessary condition in order to gain a deeper perspective?
Arenas’ point touches upon something fundamentally important and very current here: a widening divide between, on the one hand, a globalised, hyperconnected urban centre — an upper and middle class of well-educated, mobile, culturally-literate professionals- and, on the other hand, an ethnocentric, supposedly close-minded periphery that is obsessed with local, provincial, parochial even, issues and historical baggage. That social cleavage has become increasingly salient — and electorally potent — in most of Europe and the United States.
Tony Judt: “The privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand ‘tests’ — of knowledge, of language, of attitude — to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French ‘identity’.”
What are the benefits and risks of living in a borderless world? Is that even possible or desirable? Given the global hyperconnectivity facilitated by digital media — and the interdependent nature of emerging global challenges — are national identities and state borders even meaningful and relevant anymore? What are the criteria we should use to decide whether someone is a member of a political community or not? And who sets these?
(7) Edge Spaces and the Urban Condition
Tony Judt: “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another — where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded”.
Even if cosmopolitanism is “the normal condition of life” does it not still remain a lifestyle choice, and an identity?
What are the fundamental features of cities and urban spaces? How do they differ from those of rural or suburban spaces?
Can you think of any “edge spaces” in your own community? What happens there? What distinguishes those places from more mainstream spaces?
Anderson, B. (1991), Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso
Archibugi, D. and Held, D. (1995), Cosmopolitan Democracy: An Agenda for a New World Order, Cambridge: Polity Press
Bawer B. (2012), The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, Broadside Books
Benhabib S. (2006), Another Cosmopolitanism, Oxford University Press
Bernal V. (2014), Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace and Citizenship, University of Chicago Press
Glaeser E. (2012), Triumph of the City, Pan
Held, D. and McGrew, A. (2007), Globalization / Anti-Globalization: Beyond the Great Divide (2nd ed), Cambridge: Polity Press
Simmel G. (1903), The Metropolis and Mental Life
Main photo: The Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City [Roman Gerodimos]
Thank you to the participants of the Salzburg Academy 2017 Reading Group on the Cosmopolitan Identity.