Thursday, January 05, 2006

Again with the Cosmopolitanisms

Kwame Anthony Appiah's fresh take on cosmpolitanism has prompted me to add three books to my reading list.

A couple of questions arose from my reading of Appiah's piece for the New York Times Magazine. One, how do we account for the history of cosmopolitanism? If we take the position that cultural change and exchange are constants and leave it at that, we're essentially taking an ahistorical view, even as we raid the ancient texts and artefacts to make our point. At the moment I'm interested in the disjuntures between the various forms of cosmopolitanism, and the present conditions that make cosmpolitanism an interesting topic. Appiah's essay speaks to that. I'm hoping his book does so in greater depth.

Two, when Appiah claimed "Above all, relationships are changing," it struck me that his idea of culture might be signigicantly at odds with the idea of culture held by some of his antogonists, especially those with a background in social anthropology. Might not be, but I'd like to see it cleared up, and I'd like to see Appiah's complaint squarely directed to more contemporary anthropological thinking about culture.

By way of contrast, I'm presenting a long paragraph from Marc Augé's An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds, which sums up his reflection on the anthropological critiques of Fabian and others, particularly in the context of postcolonial Africa.

And conceptual revision is precisely what is at issue at a much broader scale [than the current situation in Africa]. If, as I believe, no domain or protagonist can be deemed offside for anthropology, and if the discipline is not to lose or efface itself in an uncontrolled quest for fields and objects within the present situation but rather define and construct those objects in accordance with its own demands and requirements; if concrete empirical reality is to remain the given and the single most important criterion in the development of all theoretical models--and given that the time has come to stop thinking of the others' words and responses as merely a source of information but rather as participation in the joint elaboration of knowledge--we must focus our efforts on the present and the future. Epistemology and the history of science are only of value in relation to sciences being developed and practiced now. Likewise, anthropology as a social science of the present can continue only if it commits itself to a deeper exploration of the twofold complexity that consists, on the one hand, of its accumulated knowledge, experience, and the results of its critical self-examination--this it the complexity of its own history--and on the other, of its object, whose complexity is composed of an expressed by rapid changes in history. The complexity physicists speak of today is clearly the result of improved means of investigation and calculation: thinking itself is becoming more complex because it is confronting a reality that cannot be grasped by simple instruments. The complexity being discovered by the social sciences, particularly anthropology, is not fundamentally different. We may of course think that, in varying degrees, the horizon and reference for all human beings today is the planet as a whole; the numerous radical technological changes affecting the earth are obviously not without consequence either for how we observe or what we observe; both are being perpetually recomposed. But from another point of view we may also ask whether the complexity now becoming apparent to us is not in fact the effect of an improved way of looking. Past worlds were not simple either, but they didn't "communicate" with each other (in the sense that different spaces in the same house are called "communicating rooms"), or only rarely, and at any rate less than they do now. In this sense they were not each other's contemporaries. And when, with the help of legends or bits of information, we were able to sketch an image of elsewhere, that image was one of another world: an El Dorado, a place of miracles and monsters. We are just learning to imagine the complex past of a planet that until recently never had been grasped in its entirety by a single point of view (even today we would be hard put to find a specialist capable of drawing a single picture of the world during the period when Athens and Sparta alternately dominated the Greek scene). If we are conscious of the fact that in and of itself technological sophistication tends to play a simplifying role--to have a homogenizing effect--we should logically conclude that complexity precedes the instruments susceptible of apprehending it and making it manifest. Complexity itself, together with the real problem it poses for "complete" intelligence--the intelligence of reconnaissance or "recognition" mentioned in Chapter 2--is proof that knowledge progresses and that science is effective. This is just as true in the social sciences, although they have to take into account phenomena that both bear a historical date and are irremediably current--demographic growth, urban expansion, the development of telecommunications, and so forth--phenomena that simultaneously infiltrate the complexity revealed by improved obversation, contribute to that amelioration, and create the conditions for effective, lived contemporaneity. The time has perhaps come in the field of anthropology--both because our multifaceted current reality seems to be calling on the discipline and because in exhausting its first terrains it seems likewise to have exhausted the possibilities of retrospective self-criticism--to move ahead and propose, for use today and tomorrow, the elements of a prospective critique.

(pp.52-53, endnotes omitted)

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:16 AM.


Blogger Caleb said...

You also might be interested in the books Cosmopolitics and Debating Cosmopolitics, which pair well with the Vertovec and Cohen book. I'm looking forward to Appiah's book too. (He has a chapter on cosmopolitanism in his other recent book, The Ethics of Identity, which might address some of the questions you raise.

January 05, 2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll have to get those on interlibrary loan (not a problem, just slow at times). At first blush the Vertovec and Cohen volume is addressing the issues I'm thinking about. I'm more at home with the sociologists than the political scientists--ha, ha, so much for Fido as cosmopolite. Anyway, it's a journey I'm eager to take, so I'll be looking into those books you've recommended.

And Appiah's book as well. I haven't really kept up with him since In My Father's House--not that it wasn't interesting. More to do with daily life not revolving around a university, I suppose.

January 06, 2006 8:35 PM  

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