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The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature, edited by Aleksandar Stević and Philip Ta-Hang Tsang

Reviewed by Andreea Scridon, University of Oxford

The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature, edited by Aleksandar Stevic and Philip Ta-Hang Tsang. New York: Routledge, 2019. £115.00. ISBN: 9781138502048.


For the vast majority of critics setting the tone for literary analysis today, cosmopolitanism has become the norm, and, as a result, the questioning of this predominance is viewed by many of the adherents to this trend with a certain degree of alarm. Indeed, the subject is a delicate one, especially if we consider why this ideology became predominant to start with: precisely as a reaction to the absolutism that underpinned many of the ideologies of the twentieth century – a century of bloodshed, poverty, and radical change for every continent on the globe.

            As such, the decision to flip the coin and to discuss ‘our prison house of cosmopolitanism’ (1) is a daring but necessary one, as we must admit the evident paradox at stake – a reactive concept is frequently a limited one. The planet’s shared dilemmas of the past few years make for proof that cosmopolitanism might not be the sole answer to our troubles, or that, at any rate, we must understand its nuances and ironies before ‘implementing’ it, as stated in the introduction: ‘Cosmopolitanism seeks to transcend certain limits – the limits of narrower communities in the name of an encounter with the world as a whole. At the same time, that encounter is always conditioned on and even defined by geographical, historical, and cultural limits’ (1). Thinking of it that way, a book entitled The Limits of Cosmopolitanism does strike one as profoundly pertinent.

            The Limits of Cosmopolitanism is composed of ten essays, in which one or more novels (most of which are deliberately selected as non-Western) are dissected at length in relation to the way cosmopolitanism is implicitly or explicitly represented, often incongruously, within each text. Overall, the book is informative, clear and intelligible, answering the questions formulating in the reader’s mind in due time. Given that we live in an age so cosmopolitan on every plane, the intention of this book to reframe the debate is so necessary that the ‘stakes’ must be quite high. In this sense, one notes that the bibliographical selection falls short of its potential. One might have expected a reading list that pointed back towards a long tradition, in the manner of Harold Bloom’s selections, though not in the sense of ideology but rather in that of panoramic scope, given the subject itself. We find however, a series of novels that are respectable, and worthy of discussion (these being Season of Migration to the North, The English Patient, Lyrics Alley, and Foreign Gods, Inc., to name a few), but the guiding principle of their selection is difficult to identify. For this reason, one gets the sense that the overarching argument spins on a smaller axis than it might have otherwise have done, and that the readership might be slimmed down statistically thanks to this hyper-specificity. Ironically, the limit itself is the critics’ failure to appeal to lionised titans, for it was precisely an appeal to the canon that caused critics to break away from ‘minor national writers’ in the first place, and select the best of each national literature in the process of constructing world literature.

            In a similar vein, the fact that the limits of cosmopolitanism are explored mostly through postcolonial terms strikes one as self-defying on one hand, given that the same preoccupations, though worthy in their own right, have already been discussed at length in scholarship in the past ten or twenty years (from Edward Said’s Orientalism, that revolutionized the tone of literary criticism), and unequal on the other hand. If we are to examine the limits of cosmopolitanism in regards to ‘Theory’, it may be redundant to focus on postcolonialism in disproportion to other topics that usually come up in systemic study of this nature. The minor deviations from this prism – for instance, a chapter on the fashionable topic of eco-fiction – are representative of the fact that this book is not written with the intention of asserting an atemporal relevance, but rather of addressing the limits of cosmopolitanism in the here and now.

            Still, the essays in this collection are well constructed in themselves, and some are particularly notable as being representative of the various strengths and weaknesses of cosmopolitanism. The most complex and thus interesting is Philip Tsang’s ‘“Why is the Patient ‘English’?”: Disidentification in Michael Ondaatje’s Fiction’. While the arguments for Ondaatje’s perceived cosmopolitanism are sometimes so forceful as to be presumptive towards the author’s intentions - one could argue that the book is more subtle than presented here, and that this counterargument might have been teased out despite Tsang’s – justified – logos for his argument), some points raised are extremely interesting: ‘Almásy’s (and Ondaatje’s) choice of “English” is not arbitrary, but reveals a curious logic in the novel: to be English, or to identify as English, is to have no identity’ (109). This is a satisfactory possibility for the interested reader of the text, looking to wrap up an intelligent explanation of the undeniable metaphor governing the novel, which Tsang highlights with finesse, and an excellent trampoline for a reader who could very well develop an entire essay, if not a book, based on the assertion that ‘Englishness, for which literary education served as its most powerful vehicle, thus came to be both exclusively national and potentially universal’ (109).

            ‘Building Bridges: Constructing a Comparative Sufi Cosmopolitanism in Rock and Roll Jihad’ by Mukti Lakhi Mangharam proves to be an engaging essay, if sometimes prescriptive: ‘Resistance to the current international wave of ethno-nationalisms can only be fought back by an international alliance of those who define one’s allegiance in universalizing terms to all human beings’ (35). The reactions that can easily be provoked by such declarations highlight the delicacy of the question at hand, and its easy slippage into the terrain of anti-cosmopolitanism. After all, some readers would see the decision to take such affirmations ‘in context’ as an act of grace that they aren’t obligated towards. A declaration like the following can thus appear downright alarming: ‘In fact, the issue of martyrdom violence – understood as mimetic violence that draws suicide bombers into martyrdom – can be linked to the invisible, symbolic violence and overexploitation that accompanies transnational neoliberalism’ (55). While intriguing in itself, this topic does not necessarily make for a convincing anecdote in comparison to other potential examples, only signaling the fact that cosmopolitanism is a reactionary ideology in the same manner that anti-cosmopolitanism is, just as the decision to understand postcolonialism in the same terms that it has been previously discussed is a deliberately anti-cosmopolitan step. Overall, however, the criticism of the book is often exceptional (an essay that stands out in this sense is Suha Kudsieh’s ‘Stuck Between England and Egypt’), generally non-biased and non-judgmental. The essays are objective in their treatment of the often anti-democratic nature of this ideology, questioning the homogenisation and thus increasingly superficial tendency of literature by way of cosmopolitanism’s sometimes-commercial approach on to the literary market, and structure their arguments from a logical rather than moral point of view.

            ‘Cosmopolis Besieged: The Exilic Reunion of Bogdan Bogdanović and Milo Dor’ by Vladimir Zorić, for example, is not at all an elusive essay, often dismantling the enigma of its own metaphors and preferring clear and mechanical analogies. It does excellent work in defining what the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ means by unpacking it piece by piece, exploring both its internal and external mechanisms, and as such is determined to repeatedly scoop out the weaknesses of both sides of the problem. However, works like Doctor Faustus and Auto-da-fé are only briefly touched upon, in comparison to the attention given to more obscure books, which, as stated before, limits the readership, and the application of theory seems to be in detriment to the argument: Martha Nussbaum’s insistence on definition through spatial forms, for instance, strikes one as inescapably nebulous and formulaic.

            Ultimately, however, this collection of essays, varied in tone and satisfyingly explanatory, makes for a promising start to a wider discussion about the limits of cosmopolitanism in regards to world literature. As any courageous theory that opens itself to the possibility of deliberate misinterpretation, it is absolutely useful for literary critics, validating literature’s important role by considering the practical application of cosmopolitanism and its visible results through writing.