Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Appiah on Cosmopolitanism + Reggie Harris on BookExpo

Appiah on Cosmopolitanism
AppiahI've been meaning to write something about the brilliant philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah's (left, Princeton.edu) various books and articles in the popular press on the theme of cosmpolitanism, especially since the topic is particularly relevant as we're witnessing an upsurge in nativism and misplaced nationalism around the issue of immigration, in light of growing religious fanaticism and intolerance of all kinds, and because globalization has for some time been pressing important and necessary questions of identity and identification upon us, but really, to do them justice, even the ones that basically repeat what he's already written, would require a good week's worth of reading and research and, I have to say, I haven't yet found the time or energy. Yes, that's a pathetic excuse, particularly for someone who finds the topic fascinating and considers himself to be at heart a cosmopolitan, in the little "c" sense).

But last summer I did slog through read large portions of Appiah's study The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, 2004), a demanding and excellent philosophical treatise on the themes of identity, ethics and cosmopolitanism, with essays into the topics of nationalism, pluralism and citizenship, morality and rationalism, norms and normativity, racial, ethnic and other kinds of stereotyping, autonomy and solidarity, his concept of "life scripts" (which he broached years ago at a panel, leading to immediate misunderstandings on the part of many in the audience), and a host of other themes relating to the book's main focus. It helps if you are going to pick up this book to have read some John Stuart Mill, since Appiah basically applies a thoroughgoing reading of Mill to ground his central thesis and critiques.

But, if you didn't get to Ethics of Identity, you can always try Appiah's subsequent study, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006) which, from several cursory glances at the bookstore and library, strikes me as a boiled-down, more accessible, historicized version of the prior study, with an even greater focus on Appiah's central theme of "rooted cosmopolitanism," which I take to mean an approach to the world that is ethically oriented towards our shared human fate, and open to negotiating the understandable sense of connection to our particularized experiences (his royal Ghanaian ancestry, which we hear quite a bit about in his work, for example) with a broader commitment to others beyond our immediate familial, national and other group-based identifications and filiations (racial, ethnic, religious, national, gender, etc.). As in the earlier book, I imagine Appiah's philosophical interest in ethics and its history comes to the fore, as does his skepticism about any easy or simple moral or ethical precepts (whether religious, classical, Kantian or other) for determining how to act in the world.

One of the leading contemporary philosophical ethicists, Thomas Nagel (of NYU), penned a knowledgeable and laudatory reading of both of Appiah's works in the February 2, 2006 issue of The New Republic. (Like many so many public commentators, he feels he must offer an especial critique of "black identity," as "incoherent," while failing to explicitly question its binaristic antithesis, "white identity," which is normative in this society and thus manages to elude deeper analysis, except by those specifically interrogating it). Nevertheless, I want to quote his concluding paragraphs, which give a sense of his reading and Appiah's book:

What is universal, though immensely important, merely provides a protective framework for the flourishing of individuality. And we can come to agree on certain basic protections in practice without starting from a common theoretical foundation. (Here Appiah invokes Cass R. Sunstein's constitutional theory of "incompletely theorized agreements.") The key to co-existence and mutual benefit from the variety of forms of life is familiarity, and not just reason. We have to get used to one another, and then over time our habits will evolve. Sheer exposure can accomplish a great deal. This, Appiah points out, is how attitudes toward homosexuality have been transformed in our own society. And it may eventually have its effect on the "woman question" that he thinks plays a large part in fueling Islamic hostility to the West.

It is a humane and optimistic vision, eloquently expressed. Disarmingly, Appiah describes his view at one point as "wishy-washy cosmopolitanism," and if these books have a fault, it is that of under-rating the depth of the conflicts that make the spread of liberalism so difficult. Appiah's golden rule of cosmopolitanism is a famous quotation from the comic playwright Terence, a former North African slave who lived and wrote in Rome: "I am human: nothing human is alien to me." Though he acknowledges that pessimists "can cite a dismal litany to the contrary," Appiah believes that the accumulation of changes in individual consciousness brought on by communication and mobility is already propelling us along this upward path. He rejects by implication the "clash of civilizations" as the global drama to which we are all condemned. I hope the future will prove him right, though the experience of our time makes me wonder. Episodes such as the recent widespread and violent reaction to a few cartoon depictions of Mohammed prompt the grim reflection that it took centuries of bloodshed for the West to move from the wars of religion to its present roughly liberal consensus. We may have to wait a long time.

An excerpt from Appiah's second book appeared on January 1, 2006 in the New York Times Magazine; I remember finding the opening sentences so annoying that I really didn't want to continue reading it. ("I’m seated, with my mother, on a palace veranda, cooled by a breeze from the royal garden. Before us, on a dais, is an empty throne, its arms and legs embossed with polished brass, the back and seat covered in black-and-gold silk." You know even more references to the royal house of the Asante are on their way....) It's now a Times-Select article, so it's inaccesible unless you're willing to cough up their monthly fee (or make a one-time archive payment). But wait; the article is accessible, since it's been reprinted verbatim in the RSA e-journal: yes, it's the very same "The Case for Contamination." After getting past the opening, I have to admit that Appiah makes some telling points that draw upon the insights of the earlier book on ethics and identity, and he's nearly convinced me to do more than just browse Cosmopolitanism when I find the time.

Reggie H. on BookExpo
Do you wish you could have/had gone to this year's BookExpo in our lovely capital, Washington, to see American publishers and self-publishers hawking their textual wares? Or maybe you just wanted to see New Jersey's (my) ex-governor, Jim McGreevey, brandishing the not very revealing excerpt from his forthcoming memoir (thanks Rod!), that is, the one that describes how he visited rest stops (in New Jersey? did he by chance hit the Walt Whitman Service Area?) for anonymous sex (while he was married and living on the DL in the closet?). Reggie doesn't waste his time on McGreevey, but in his thoroughly enjoyable report he does manage to touch upon the samo-samo "Best American Novel of the Last 25 Years" panel (including his thoughts on the antediluvian better known as Cynthia Ozick), as well as the one that addressed the Canonical Crew vs. Street Lit divide, Queen Latifah's appearance, and a few other delectable impressions that bring the event to life.


  1. Appiah bothers me a lot. I am skeptical that shared cultural products necessarily have any connection to shared ethical values: that one sees cellphones in Ghana says little about the potential for one's ethical orientation.

    How does one become cosmopolitan? And what keeps one cosmopolitan? Is globalization central to the formation of cosmopolitan identities (as Bruce Robbins and Pheng Cheah might suggest)? Is cosmopolitanism necessarily opposed to national identities (as Gilroy might suggest and Laura Chrisman disagrees)? Is cosmopolitanism nothing more than moral obfuscation, cultural consumption and literacy taken as an ethical orientation (where, I think, Tim Brennan's early work ends)? (Okay, yes, I have many issues with the term and how academics use it.)

    I wonder what happens to the quotidian in and within "cosmopolitanism."

    But now I'm simply testing out ideas contained in something I've been working on for a while--and will continue to do so for some time.

  2. Like you, Keguro, I sensed a disturbing ethical naivete when reading Appiah's article in the Times Magazine. He seemed to be equating the spread of western (American, really) materialism and cultural products with a sort of moral/ethical evolution. Puke! And I descried no real sensitivity for the ways that America's Mcdonaldization of the world might not be a wholly positive thing, might even be displacing superior cultural habits (more healthful, more functional--sociologically, environmentally, etc.) But I haven't read the book, so perhaps the argument is more fully (palatably) developed there.

    Kai in NYC