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Cosmopolitanism in a ‘minor’ mode

At the dawn of the 21st century, academics, politicians and other pundits claimed that a cosmopolitan world was near. People had never before been so mobile; the digital revolution created new networks of things and ideas; the Berlin Wall had fallen; war crimes were brought before international courts. The global community even decided on collective measures to reduce global warming.

Today, not much remains of this euphoria. The promise that globalisation would lead to a planetary consciousness, that all people would begin to “think and feel beyond the nation,” as Cheah and Robbins defined cosmopolitanism, is in shambles. New walls are being built and old borders are militarised across the fault lines of poverty, race, citizenship and religion. All sorts of ethnic nationalisms are on the rise; human and non-human lives continue to be sacrificed for capital, while the foundational category of enlightened reason, truth itself, is under siege in the age of “alternative facts”. What’s happened to the cosmopolitan promise, and who betrayed it? 

There are no easy answers. Yet it merits to briefly look back to the European Enlightenment when cosmopolitanism was first developed as a political concept for modernity: For the normative idea of humanity formulated by this project was (and continues to be) male, bourgeois, and white. The Enlightenment embraced the liberal promises of a globalising economy, yet preferred to be oblivious to, or even complicit with, the entanglements of capitalism, slavery and colonialism. It derived a cosmopolitan vision from and for the aspiring middle classes as the answer to European despotism, irrespective of the ongoing disenfranchisement, dehumanisation, and extermination of their Others. While we do not blame the long trajectory of such major cosmopolitan thought for the ever more unequal, unjust and unkind world of the 21st century, we insist that its academic and political valorisation must be checked.

Minor cosmopolitanisms challenges the world historical model of major cosmopolitanism, without wishing to let go of the unfulfilled emancipatory potential of the Enlightenment. We argue that this potential can unfold only when visions of and for the world converse, on an equal footing, across the planet. This is why we advocate minor cosmopolitanisms expressedly in the plural, and imbued with a sense of modesty. This approach acknowledges that binding norms for all remain the essence of cosmopolitan thinking, action and sentiment. Yet it cautions that these can only formulate provisional agreements, open to contestation and change. Minor cosmopolitanisms is about truly accepting difference without abandoning a shared vision of conviviality and justice.

In our work we are less intrigued by philosophical ideals or sociological utopias, than by projects that create worlds from specific local, historical and political situations without necessarily already knowing them. We wish to bring into conversation cosmopolitanisms in process: in writing, in performance, often in responding to existing and firmly delineated orders. We look for them in public spaces, in theory, literature and film, in theatres, museums and community centres, in the social media, in artefacts, in everyday experiences, interactions and encounters.

The RTG minor cosmopolitanisms thus offers a kaleidoscope of views which critique the liberal, imperial, and often very male trajectories of cosmopolitanism. Yet at the very same time, we aspire to revitalise the cosmopolitan idea. We want to create new debates, to forge new coalitions on a planetary scale, to build cooperation across difference: An alliance against the old and the new jingoisms and chauvinisms which throw our planet ever more into crisis.