TEXT review

Imagining the world and global writing


review by Nikos Papastergiadis


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:Imagining the Cosmopolitan.jpg
Anne Surma
Imagining the Cosmopolitan in Public and Professional Writing
Palgrave Macmillan, London and New York, 2012
ISBN 9780230229938
Hb 184pp  GBP53.00


In a networked society images and texts that are made in one place have the potential to reach out and interact with strangers across the world. Of course, not everyone is fully networked across the world. Internet use, for instance, is very uneven. Access rates are as high as seventy-five per cent in the United States of America but as low as twelve per cent in Africa. Nevertheless the levels of cultural interpenetration are rapidly growing and the use of digital media to circulate images and texts is at the forefront of this change. This spread of information can be witnessed at a range of levels. For instance, a celebrity can now maintain a global status because their messages to the world operate through an apparatus that can instantaneously connect them to a vast network of recipients. However, we are also constantly amused, informed or provoked by messages that come from ordinary people in distant places. A quirky incident captured on a phone camera, an eyewitness report, or a statement that speaks to a global issue but also resonates with our personal hopes and fears: these bits of information that have been produced far away are now capable of entering into our private sphere of attention.

In this book Anne Surma is interested in exploring the way we handle the global flow of information exchange. Globalisation has enabled an unprecedented level of growth in the speed and volume of information. It has generated both the mechanisms to coordinate the trajectories of flow and the systems for standardising the meanings of the images and texts that circulate in the world. This means that exposure to ideas that have originated from either a great distance, or from strangers is now a routine occurrence. Does this banal and complex encounter with difference make us more aware of diversity, or is everything being funnelled through a structure that is making things more simple, uniform and homogenous? While globalisation has meant that access to and the accumulation of information from across the world has intensified and expanded, does this mean that we have also become more sensitive to the needs of others, more capable of translating across of differences, more able to evaluate the options, and thereby able to develop a knowledge of how local and global issues relate to each other. In short, Surma asks, have we learnt how to take care of our relations with others in the world.

Surma’s pursuit of these questions is twofold. She tracks the use of language in key instances by which individuals, government agencies and corporations try to convey their belonging in and responsibility to the world. Her survey of examples is broad and representative. There is a vivid account of a woman who walks into a public meeting on the construction of a detention center for asylum seekers in her neighborhood wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Bomb Their Boat’. This image is caught by a photographer and published in the national newspaper. Surma questions the complicity between individual acts in local places and the national media strategies. There is a penetrating critique of the Australian Government campaign on You Tube that warns asylum seekers of the perils of sea voyages with unreliable ‘people smugglers’. She highlights that this strategy is assuming that the messaging process that underpins chain migration can operate in the reverse direction. Recent arrivals are meant to pass on the images of risk to refugees considering their options. There is an analysis of the methods adopted by universities as they seek to deliver new flexible modes of learning and on-line forms of administration in order to make their systems compatible with the aspiration of the new global student. Finally, there is a rather humorous exposé of the public statements made by the Chief Executive Officers of transnational corporations like Coca Cola as express their wish ‘to make a positive difference in the communities we proudly serve’ (115): Starbuck’s belief that they have ‘a shared responsibility to give back to the communities they touch’ (114), and then the higher note is struck by the Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s as he humbly acknowledges that they don’t have all the answers and promises to collaborate ‘with non-government organisations, academics, governments and others in the industry to help us reach our goals’ (114). The point of the critique is not simply to expose the link between hype and hypocrisy. That is pretty easy these days.

Surma is more concerned with the way the discourse of commitment, engagement and belonging is structured in public texts. She then critiques these discursive forms through a theoretical prism that has been adopted from recent sociological debates on cosmopolitanism. This is an interesting and bold move. It pays close attention to the rhetorical flow and grammar of global citizenship and then proceeds to match them against the theoretical investigations into ethical responsibility and aesthetic possibility. The sociological debates on globalisation and cosmopolitanism are dominated by normative and ethical concerns, and as a consequence Surma’s handling of this domain also falls mostly on issues of interpersonal care, mutual respect, compassion for the vulnerable and gives little attention to the field of aesthetics.

A key starting point in this sociological debate is the work by Ulrich Beck (Beck 2006). He was one of the first to distinguish between globalising tendencies and cosmopolitan practices. He also advocated for a new methodological cosmopolitanism to overcome the nationalist blinkers in the social sciences. Beck stressed that the consequences of global mobility of people, goods and ideas were also experienced at a personal level. In ordinary settings people not only saw and felt the force of global movements, but also experienced the sensation of intimacy, entanglement and dependence with different people, complex structures and remote entities. The interplay between socio-economic structures and cultural formations also necessitated a deeper understanding of the role of affect in the global imaginary. Beck’s account of cosmopolitanism is an attempt to produce a comprehensive understanding of the social conditions in which people can co-exist. It is a method that is underpinned by a normative framework that begins with balanced comparative thinking, develops deliberative procedures and results in reasoned outcomes. The influence of the classic work on cosmopolitanism by Immanuel Kant is unmistakable. Despite the brilliant insights into the emerging cosmopolitan forms and practices in socio-political structures, the shortcomings in the handling of the affective and aesthetic domains are also equally glaring.

If we are to understand the possibilities for a new cosmopolitan society, then it is crucial that we identify the mechanism by which change is produced at the most basic level. A cosmopolitan imaginary would only be possible if there is transformation at both the individual level of consciousness and a collective commitment to create new institutions. Gerard Delanty’s analysis of the cosmopolitan imagination has been a useful contribution to this field of research (Delanty 2009). In particular, he has focused on the stimulus that occurs in the encounter between strangers. This stimulus is interpreted as the basis for both productive transformation and reactive defensiveness. Delanty argues that the capacity to move in either direction is a result of the individual’s capacity to translate differences and a cultural awareness of the creative opportunities that arise in these encounters. In more general terms, Delanty claims that translation is vital not only for the individual’s capacity to articulate a cosmopolitan imagination, but that it is also expressive of the immanent and transformative dynamic of modernity.  Translation is the process by which the stimulus of difference becomes a trigger for innovation. It is the basis for the openness and transformation that enables a novelty, or what he Delanty calls, the third culture of globality.

The idea that modernity spawns a third culture, one that is neither locally bound nor an empty abstraction, is also found in the writing of Judith Butler (Butler 2000). Translation also features here as a major trope for explaining the cultural capacity for ‘restaging the universal’ in the encounter with difference. Butler argues that this encounter invariably threatens the cultural narcissism that an absolute authority rests in every local culture. However, the consequence that she tracks is not a simple reversion into defensive cultural authoritarianism, or the passive acceptance of cultural relativism, but an opening up to the threshold space of the ‘as if’, a zone in which, neither the emergent difference, nor the established structure reign supreme, but both are re-imagined in the context of their interaction. Etienne Balibar makes a similar observation on the capacity to regenerate cultural authority (Balibar 2007). He also rejects the view that absolute universalism is confined to either a fixed code, or dispersed across an endless array of particularistic fragments. On the contrary, he suggests that the gaps within every culture provide the space in which difference enters, and also the dynamic for mutual transformation. As a foreign element enters in this space it is changed, and the host culture also changes through the dynamic of internalisation. It is indeed paradoxical, but also very appealing, to note that a strategic version of cosmopolitanism also arises from the gaps within each culture rather than being determined through a fully furnished version of normative deliberation. If we follow this line of argument in the theoretical foundations for a cosmopolitan imagination, then the potential and possibility for dialogue with strangers is posited not simply as a cultivated form of willingness to show interest, care and obligation towards the other, but also as a consequence of constitutive gap in our culture.

At the outset of this book Surma reflects on the meaning of the cosmos in cosmopolitanism (20). Drawing on Cwerner’s work she stress that the loyalties, identities and responsibilities associated with cosmopolitanism are usually defined across space. Cwerner also wishes to put emphasis on the temporal dimensions of the polity in the cosmos. This is a worthy supplement. However, it also marks another missed opportunity to reflect on the aesthetics of cosmopolitanism (Papastergiadis 2012). The ancient Greek etymology of the term cosmos not only contained a reference to an even wider spatial sphere than our global territory, but it also pointed to the identity of human race, and the aesthetic practice of making place attractive for another. The cosmos in cosmo-politan was not only a term of belonging in the widest possible sense, but also a reference to the aesthetic activity of bringing the other closer to you. The cosmos was both the source and expression of your own creative imagination. To make a cosmos was a world making activity.


Works cited

Beck, U 2006 Cosmopolitan Vision, Polity Press, Cambridge return to text

Butler, J 2000 ‘Restaging the universal’, in J. Butler, E Laclau and S Zizek (eds), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Verso, London return to text

Delanty, G 2009 The Cosmopolitan Imagination, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge return to text

Papastergiadis, N 2012 Cosmopolitanism and Culture, Polity Press, Cambridge return to text



Nikos Papastergiadis is Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures and Professor at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste