National Cosmopolitanism

Reviewed by Emily Johansen

Over the last twenty years, there has been an explosion in critical accounts of cosmopolitanism. This work has done a good deal of important re-imagining of the descriptive and normative possibilities of cosmopolitanism. Yet, for the most part, cosmopolitan theory has had difficulty articulating the relationship between the cosmopolitan and the nation-state. While critics such as K. Anthony Appiah have made compelling arguments for the overlapping possibilities of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, rejecting a view of the two categories as antithetical, this work has remained both relatively abstract and grounded in liberalism’s emphasis on the individual. Thus, Rooted Cosmopolitanism’s focus on a particularly Canadian modality of rooted cosmopolitanism and its articulation in policy and public action provides a potentially fertile resource for Canadian scholars of cosmopolitanism.

In their introduction, Will Kymlicka and Kathryn Walker credit Appiah with the phrase “rooted cosmopolitanism,” understanding it as an “outward-bound cosmopolitan perspective [that] requires and involves the very roots it claims to transcend.” While the phrase actually originates with Mitchell Cohen (1992), Appiah’s popularization of the term has, as they rightly suggest, proven central to cosmopolitan criticism as it explores the relationship between cosmopolitanism and the nation-state. The various explorations of rooted cosmopolitanism found in this collection point usefully to the many tensions that surround the concept: does it privilege banal forms of nationalism? Does it remain so ephemeral in its notion of rooting as to limit its moral and ethical weight? The critics featured in the collection offer useful reflections on these points, as well as many others.

This last point—the ephemerality of rooted cosmopolitanism—is one, however, that the collection could usefully address more directly. The notion of roots at work throughout this collection is, for the most part, one that locates roots in immaterial concepts. Critics for whom roots evoke a material, even ecological, connotation will find this collection mostly silent on this sense of the word. Deleuzian notions of roots and territorializations are similarly absent from the collection. Given the collection’s broader focus, as the subtitle suggests, on “Canada and the World,” it would have been interesting to have a more specific sense of the material extension of such a relation. How, for instance, is Canadians’ belief of themselves as cosmopolitan reflected in their arrangement of national space? How does it shape their incursions into global places? These points are broached in various places, but further attention to them would have been an intriguing counterpart to the more immaterial roots the text explores.

This silence on roots as material is related to the text’s broader silence on colonial, postcolonial, and neo-colonial histories. Despite calling for a “postcolonial cosmopolitanism” in the introduction, few of the essays draw on a recognizably postcolonial framework in their consideration of Canadian cosmopolitanism. This is particularly noticeable in the almost complete absence of First Nations peoples in this text. Given ongoing First Nations’ struggles for self-governance and land claims, a struggle that many groups have put explicitly in conversation with global fights for Aboriginal self-determination (consider, for instance, the work of Ravi de Costa), this would seem like a key test case for the Canadian state’s avowed cosmopolitanism as it grapples with its colonial past and present. Similarly, while the text addresses the Taylor-Bouchard report in a couple of places, it does not take up the context in which the report emerged, notably the extreme application of reasonable accommodation to Muslim populations in Herouxville. These contexts seem integral to a truly postcolonial rooted cosmopolitanism. Indeed, they serve to highlight the necessity of thinking about cosmopolitanism as a relationship between a liberal universality and contextualized roots.

Overall, while Rooted Cosmopolitanism makes a useful intervention for scholars of Canadian studies, this is a collection that literary scholars may find less broadly useful. In addition to a very specific focus on Canadian forms of cosmopolitanism and its policy repercussions, this is a text very much directed towards scholars of political philosophy and sociology. Charles Blattberg’s contribution, “We Are All Compatriots,” explicitly rejects the potential of cultural texts—particularly literary ones—to provide any kind of meaningful and lasting cosmopolitan affiliation. Privileging, instead, the conversation as a more effective means of producing cosmopolitan attachments, “We Are All Compatriots” suggests that we “approach [stories] hermeneutically rather than aesthetically, critically rather than empathically, for only this allows them to contribute to the development of a durable, rather than fickle, form of caring.” No doubt literary critics of affect would take issue with this rejection of the affective component of cultural practice.

Indeed, Blattberg goes on to suggest that “durable caring . . . is what accompanies the sharing of a good in common with others, which can, after all, be the basis of a kind of friendship—and friendship is, of course, a thoroughly practical, as distinct from natural or aesthetic, thing.” As many post-colonial critics have pointed out, friendship and conversation are tricky models for a postcolonial politics given the way they tend to make invisible the power relations that necessarily shape these interactions. Moreover, as Yasmeen Abu-Laban’s contribution, “A World of Strangers or a World of Relationships,” suggests, the introduction of affect might actually be a way to attend to these power differentials: “because an ethics-of-care perspective is attuned to relationships and contextual details, as well as power, obligations, and policy,” it “holds considerable promise for dealing with the challenges that gender—and other unequal relations of power such as ‘race’ and class— pose to our understanding of both social reality and global justice.”

Kymlicka, Walker, and the other contributors provide a useful interrogation of what cosmopolitanism signifies in a Canadian context. Their suggestion of the way that cosmopolitanism is integral to most ways of understanding what it means to be Canadian leads to a provocative re-examination of this particular form of patriotism. Nonetheless, this is a contribution that will be of primary interest to those whose work focuses on Canadian studies, rather than those who work more broadly on cosmopolitanism.

This review “National Cosmopolitanism” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 171-72.

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