Cosmopolitanisms: the past, the future and the potential

REVOLUTIONARY: Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's keynote address was the highlight of the recent `Lived Cosmopolitanisms: Identities, Languages, and Literatures in Littoral Asia' conference hosted by Universiti Malaya. Samantha Joseph reports.

JUST before Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak walks into the room, all eyes are on the door. When the petite, sari-clad University Professor from Columbia finally makes an appearance, a collective sigh of what seems to be relief - or perhaps awe - flows from the crowd. Finally, she is here, in the flesh. For many, this is an opportunity that was once deemed greatly unlikely to happen in their lifetime.

It is a pleasure to hear the vocalisation of this great mind as she speaks to an audience, her ideas falling off her tongue into the minds of the attendant academic intelligentsia like manna. It is unnecessary to recount her achievements, but they will be recounted here, the earliest of which being the translation of the philosopher Derrida's Of Grammatology, and later, the seminal work Can the Subaltern Speak? Her works precede her, as does her reputation as a charismatic, complex speaker.

At the Lived Cosmopolitanisms conference, Professor Spivak did not disappoint as a keynote speaker. Delving almost immediately into the meat of the question of what is cosmopolitanism, what it should be in our terms as a former colony and in terms that are separate from the common Eurocentric definition, she calls attention to what it could not be as well.

"Today, and here, I think I will offer a semi-critique-ish we-can-work-together-on supplement; today we cannot just remain regionalist and say, `Hey, let's not just look at the Europeans, let's show that there were lived cosmopolitanisms in Asia'," she says, her voice engaging and authoritative, with no hint of fatigue despite the fact she had barely come off a long flight from New York. "Here is all this European stuff that everybody's reading, and so instead we will do our region."

Professor Spivak suggests a more encompassing route, that instead of defining the lived cosmopolitanisms of Asia as what the cosmopolitanisms of Eurocentric studies is not, we should prescribe to a borderlessness that is inclusive rather that exclusionary. Creating an other to be the opposite of would defeat the idea of cosmopolitanism itself.

"I want to go beyond this (the suggestion of regional cosmopolitanism)," explains Professor Spivak.

"What I want to suggest here is that we must correct the tradition of the enlightenment. We must not just propose an alternative and say that there are people living cosmopolitanism in Asia. Because that still brings with it the idea of we live it, they think it. That's not what we are really about."

DEFINING Professor Spivak draws attention to the word cosmopolitan itself, referencing the second part of the word to Plato's Republic. "Sadly it was translated during the Renaissance and no one corrected it," she laments dryly. "Plato's book actually was called Politheia (which means constitution)." And so, that is a part of cosmopolitanism - translated here as a constitution for the globe. A unity, in a sense, of all the world.

Professor Spivak disputes claims that Ghana is cosmopolitan because of the variety of people there - a description that no doubt resonates in the Malaysian national consciousness. "It is not a question of syncretism, or tolerance. It is a question of an organisation of global governance, which is what cosmos means at this point. And so, to an extent we should correct and take forward from another perspective altogether now that globalisation makes north and south fluid. That is where I think our task lies."

The existence of a capital-intensive world government system is particularly detrimental to the idea of cosmopolitanism, and she pulls no punches in calling out corrupt economic institutions and irresponsible nation-state governance for how they have adulterated the notion of world governance. "The stake of claiming lived cosmopolitanisms relates to the de facto existence of a capital intensive world government system. These exist now: the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court, and more important, the international banking system anchored by central banks of various nations. This is our active cosmopolitheia.

"What I am suggesting is to remove interest and involvement with these cosmopolitical instruments."

This, she says, raises the interesting idea of rediscovering worldliness in unlooked-for places historically.

IDENTITY "When we talk about cosmopolitism, we have to really try to change desires a little so that it is not just a nice polite citing of identity politics," Professor Spivak urges. She maintains that to consider immigrants as a symbol of cosmopolitanism is to ignore the inequality and situation in which they are forced to operate. "When people suggest that there is a vernacular cosmopolitanism among immigrants situated in various places, either paperless or papered, I think there is something questionable about it.

"To suggest now that global minorities, labour export, or paperless immigrant women have achieved cosmopolitanism is to forget that they must exist in race-class divided situations where it is impossible to feel or exercise the sense of general equality that must be the definitive of epistemic cosmopolitanism.

"The restricted solidarity, disregarding of national origins in immigrant oppression cannot be called cosmopolitanism."

With immigrants also come the languages that they bring with them. She posits that rather than proof of cosmopolitanism, languages are a supplement to the achievement of it. Language, perhaps, has too much power to occlude a people, both by being spoken, and also by being discounted. "The idea of learning the language of others, this will never be cosmopolitan. What this will do is supplement cosmopolitical engagement, multidisciplinary change coming perhaps from the humanities and radiating out into the social sciences, even the hard sciences," hopes Professor Spivak.

A succinct look at what cosmopolitanism is thought to be, what it is not and what it should be in terms of academia, Professor Spivak's suggestions and arguments serve as a strong point from which further academic activity can radiate from.

By Samantha Joseph