A Visit to the Cosmopolis
June 2, 2008
Editor’s Note: Today is the first day of a new format here at Yesterday’s Salad. From now on, each week will have a theme, with 3-4 posts addressing the topic at hand. This should make YS slightly more coherent–but only slightly. After all, we’re all going to continue reading the topic at hand with our own unique biases with our interests intact. So expect my posts to keep talking about language, theory, transit, and movies while Notwithabang continues the AGS pursuits, the Ciceronian declaims, and so forth. That brings me to this weeks topic: Cosmopolitanism.
Lo, the inconsistency that is Cosmopolitanism! Just look at these conflicting definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:
1) Cosmopolitan character; adherence to cosmopolitan principles (Belonging to all parts of the world; not restricted to any one country or its inhabitants)
2) Disparagement of Russian traditions and culture (equated with disloyalty)
What should we make of this antagonym? (More a feature of Semitic languages as in Hebrew where the same root means both “heresy” and “atone” or in Arabic than it is of English). Is it possible to construct an actual philosophy, humanistic or political, that belongs to all parts of the world equally, yet regularly disparages Russian traditions and culture? Or could it be that Cosmopolitanism, one of the great hopes for moving the world into a post-War, post-National era is simply a repackaged, hidden form of the Reagan Revolution? Maybe the only thing the world, even educated liberals, can agree on is “Russia bad, us good.”
Of course its unfair, even in a post-Deconstruction world to burden a word with contradictory meanings simultaneously. Though Deconstruction teaches that a word always bears all of its meanings, some meanings are, in great Soviet style, more equal than others. So even though “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” disparages Soviets, its orientalist faux archeology (naturally the best kind) disqualifies it from being Cosmopolitan. So too one does not confuse the legendary blogtrix Rootless Cosmopolitan with the cosmopolitan (oed draft entry 12/07: A cocktail made with vodka, orange-flavoured liqueur, cranberry juice, and lime juice.), even if that beverage can be variously spelled with a capital C, nor does one suspect that Cosmopolitanism is a philosophy of drunkhead (though it would, no doubt, rally more people to the cause).
Indeed, the greatest problem with Cosmopolitanism as a political philosophy is that it makes no sense as an electoral strategy. Martha Nussbaum has called for allegiance to humanity as a whole, while Bruce Robbins opens one of his many pieces on the topic with this terrific quote: “‘In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian; but man I have never met.‘” (source) And therein lies the rub: politics is local, and appealing to internationalism rarely fixes your drainage problems.
Harvard may be a bastion of multiculturalism, but that doesn’t seem to help in a downpour.
But if there is one place where multiculturalism might work as a political philosophy, its the Cosmopolis (either the (capital) city of the world or a cosmopolitan city or community). Indeed, in such a city, politics could be both local and cosmopolitan, both inclusive and unique. Walter Benjamin famously declared Paris the capital of the 19th century, but today another city best represents global trends, better serves as an example of the cosmopolitan society. That’s right, the Elm City, New Haven, Connecticut.
Why New Haven and not its predecessor, the Atlantis/El Dorado-like lost city of Old Haven? Here are but three reasons:
1) Food. For this we turn back to that eminent scholar of Cosmopolitanism, Bruce Robbins and his sometime alter ego Mark Bittman. We live in a global world marked by flows and misflows (Yid: vegn und umvegn) of resources and culture, and nowhere is this more felt than the realm of cuisine. New Haven was not only an early adopter of fusion cuisines , it was also the site of one of America’s first great experiments in taking something that clearly doesn’t belong to you and claiming it as your own. Such was the case with the legendary New Haven Pizza, the choice of all effete Cosmopolitans as they wrest themselves from New York or Chicago provincialism. But few know the true origins of New Haven Pizza. It seems that once upon a time, an adventurous New Havenite decided to make a food that was already sweeping New York, the Pizza. When a wealthy international businessman on international business sampled the delicacy and asked our friend what the concoction was, he replied, “It’s a…pizza,” and thus was born New Haven apizza (See: The New Haven Book of Why, Harold Bloom ed.) The constant need to repackage food in a Cosmopolitan world is best exemplified by Bittman/Robbins himself. Just consider his Minimalist videos which once featured a regular opening sequence yet now change almost every webisode.
Two More Recent:
As you can see, the cosmopolitical pressures to rebrand forced Bittman to invent a deaging device.
2) The Elm City. While the world prepares for the loss of its precious resource, even its defining resources, New Haven faced this crisis over a hundred years ago. New Haven was once filled with Elm trees, but a combination of Elm Beetles, lack of plant food, illuminating gas leaking into the soil, and Horse hitching (yes, horse hitching!) led to the loss of these wonderful trees (cf. the story of Berlin and its Bears). Sadly, it seems that the rest of us are doomed to suffer similar maladies…
3) …As is the case with reason #3: street gangs. Just about every post-apocalyptic movie (from Mad Max to Land of the Dead to The Devil Wears Prada) features prominent street gangs. It need not be mentioned that New Haven is a forerunner in this too.
Perhaps in the Cosmopolis of New Haven a type of politics that sees people as people can succeed. But in the world at large, such a system of humanity will surely lead to electoral defeat. Unless, of course, it’s able to successfully capitalize on anti-Russian sentiment.