VIRTUAL ISSUE: COSMOPOLITANISM - CONVERSATION WITH AUTHORS
In our attempts to draw out common themes related to Cosmopolitanism in these highly disparate essays, we asked each author to respond to the following set of questions:
Each of the essays selected for this virtual issue can be seen to offer insight into scholarly debates around cosmopolitanism. What has inspired your work and in what ways might it contribute to a more thorough understanding of cosmopolitanism? How do you see a discussion of cosmopolitanism to be relevant/necessary at this moment in time?
The authors' responses are listed below. Please visit our supplemental pages for a more developed discussion of each essay, as well as related links tools for teaching these in classroom settings.
MARISOL DE LA CADENA
My engagement with the notion of cosmopolitics resulted from unprecedented events currently taking place in the Andes: the indigenous defense, in the public arena, of other-than-human-beings—that the state, corporations, and the rest of us consider natural resources. My paper was inspired by what I thought was an isolated event: the opposition to a corporation that wanted to mine what it considered a mountain-with-gold which is also an earth-being for the people that live in the surrounding villages. After discussions among villagers in which both conditions of the entity were considered as reality, a group of peasants decided to travel to Cuzco and demonstrate against the mining project. The defense was non-violent and the mining project did not happen—at least so far.
During the years that followed similar events were frequent, and many were violent. They occurred all over the country. Government authorities were unyielding, with the Peruvian president dismissing the protests; ignorant beliefs in spirits and leftist instigators was all that was behind them. The worst happened in June 5th 2009, more than twenty people died in a bloody confrontation where individuals self-identified as Awajún-Huambisa killed policemen and vice-versa. Months later, the official commission that was appointed to investigate the events concluded that the confrontation had been instigated by a spurious leader supported by NGOs, liberation theology priests, and anthropologists. Confrontations continue in Peru, as the concession of territories for mining, timber, and hydroelectric constructions goes on under the leadership of Alan Garcia, a radical neo-liberal bastion in Latin America.
Things are only slightly different in Ecuador, under the leadership of center-left President Alberto Correa. Concessions are controlled by the state but the peoples that live in the territories in question are not consulted. Consequently, protesting the new mining and water law, which disregards the composition of those territories other than in terms of their potential wealth, in June 2010, the National Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador broke their alliance with Correa. In his response, the President qualified such attitude as “extreme, infantile ecologism,” a misunderstanding of his choice to develop Ecuador’s “extractive potential.” Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, the situation is similar in Evo Morales’ Bolivia where confrontations between the people and the government are currently not infrequent. Coincidentally in June 2010, a group of indigenous peoples marched from the lowlands to the capital city to demand participation in deciding the process of extraction of natural gas in their territories. The President accused them of being manipulated by right wing politicians under the influence of the United States. 
Differences in ideology do not explain the similarity of these situations—all three Presidents blame “their political other” yet refuse to acknowledge indigenous concerns over the territories they occupy and the nation was to offer to extraction. And I suspect that although perhaps a component, environmentalism alone is not enough to explain indigenous concerns either. At least in the case of Peru the care of earth-beings has been an important aspect of the protests. The cases of Bolivia and Ecuador are analogous, at least per newspaper information. New technologies can now extract resources from formerly marginal territories, and in the process translate them into highly productive areas. Yet natural resources are not only such; they are also other-than-humans, presences in local forms of life, and articulators of relations. Intriguingly, they are not necessarily incompatible with extractive industries—provided that these do not destroy them. This is the point where the confrontation starts, because seemingly for the investments to be productive, the destruction is necessary. It is also very visible in our terms as well: from the dramatic total disappearance of a snowed peak, and re-directioning of immense masses of water, to the lethal poisoning of soils, waters, and air. While people may get used to the first, the latter gets evident in the pained bodies of the affected (humans and animals). In either case, reducing the destruction to our terms, even if to successfully denounce the destruction of life, is currently insufficient.
I have said that in the event that I witnessed villagers discussed both conditions of the mountain as reality: it was an earth-being and a repository of gold. My account had to be parallel; reducing the earth-being to a cultural belief would do ethnographic violence to the discussion. It would also introduce the us-they relation that the discussion indicted: we know better, and this is so even if we respect their … ok, let’s call it knowledge. Considering the double ontology of the mountain posed a challenge to my conceptual tool kit—and it continues to challenge the notion of politics as we know it. Left and right politicians cannot tolerate “beliefs” interfering with their plans, and of course they are historically unable to concede earth-beings reality even if they are not obliged to share it. Nature is nature—end of discussion. Importantly, the emergence of earth-beings in politics is a challenge to world-making projects—liberal and socialist alike. In the words of indigenous leaders in the Andes, see their presence as a manifestation of a de-colonial proposal that goes to the core of the civilizing model, the crisis of which it also reveals. The “end of the naturalist consensus” is a phrase Phillippe Descola (2005) uses to analyze the emergences that, resulting from contemporary bio-scientific inventions, blur the distinction between the social and the biological. New extractive technologies are contributing to the same end—but rather than the product of those technologies alone, in this case the naturalist consensus is disrupted by the defense of that which is not only nature. These processes are making new worlds visible, and proposing political arrangements; seemingly unthinkable, these proposals challenge notions of the world as we know it. Assuming the challenge, I think, is a condition for peaceful political conflicts--and even if such peace sounds oxymoronic, it replaces the unacknowledged war of the kind I discuss in my paper.
Why cosmopolitics (Stengers, 2005) instead of cosmopolitan? Because the latter, while proposing to articulate the world surpassing boundaries of nations, ethnicities, and cultures it leaves unaltered the reality upon which a cosmopolitan agreement among states (or multi-lateral institutions) should rule. And that reality continues to divide beliefs from knowledge, and is premised on the respect for cultures. However, respect for cultural beliefs may stop without being subject to political discussion if those beliefs contradict issues of economic growth and, as illustrated by nothing less than Presidential comments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, regardless of ideological and underpinnings or even ethnic commitments. Yesterday I read the most recent declaration of Alvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia, and committed to decolonization of the country. Indigenous communities, he explains, currently participate in the Bolivian state, “Thus, on one hand, this logic of the dialogic relation with nature, is brought into the state; but at the same time, when you are State, you need growing resources and surplus to attend the most basic needs of all Bolivians, and of the needy, such as the indigenous and urban-rural popular communities. And there is where the tension [with the ‘dialogic relation with nature] is generated” (AGL, 2010:33) And he continues: “[I]t is necessary for the state to produce, and this will affect a piece of nature, it will have to do so to guarantee the surplus that will allow the geographic stability of economic power in our country, to make possible the stabilization of the indigenous, peasant, and workers government itself. This is a debate between a larger good and a minor good; the community as a small segment, or the development of the community as a whole” (AGL, 2010: 35).
It is common sense: doubting the priority of economic growth—provided that transgressions to human rights, respect of culture, and the environment are avoided--is historically foolish. I agree. But that is precisely the problem: earth-beings are minor good even when, as in Bolivia, indigenous emergences have made them to count as reality. Usually they do not—and neither do the worlds they inhabit. That their irrelevance is a fact of history (and of the history of nature at that) does not matter—or rather, it counts against it, for it is a history that cannot be undone, neither as empirical time or as epistemic tool. (Since the 19th century at least, history joined science in the certification of the real: what is a-historical does not exist, or does so as cultural belief). Cosmopolitics proposes to think about how this common sense can be undone—it asks what the price would be to think differently, and is willing to take risk of doing so. Two main assumptions are a) political voices—politicians and concepts—do not master the situation they discuss, b) vectors, reasons, and relations of difference exist beyond current imagination, and c) the cosmos is a composition of multiple and divergent worlds, and the articulations they may be capable of, and d) but none of this has a quality that concerns everybody that is not achieved through the ceaseless negotiations that through which the articulations of worlds may be composed. This proposal, unlike cosmopolitanism opposes the mode of “cultural respect” that participates in the genealogy that differentiates between belief and knowledge—one unreal the other real. The cosmopolitical proposal is a proposal for political negotiation among voices that while having different access to power, share the same status of reality. The negotiations it envisions are conflict-laden, and ideologically without warranties, but from and/or towards a symmetry of worlds. And it is a utopian proposal—indeed.
When I was doing fieldwork on Free and Open Software, my advisors and many anthropologists urged me to travel (just about anywhere) to test my understandings of the geeks I was meeting in the US and Europe: surely, the effects of culture would shine through and we would see interesting differences between western hackers, Indian hackers, Chinese hackers, Latin American hackers, etc. I was at a conference just prior to going to India for the first time when a former MIT hacker and artificial intelligence researcher, who was also very keyed into science and technology studies, said: "why do you want to go to India to study hackers? Just go down the hall." These two conflicting approaches turned into something that has haunted my work in this area ever since: which cultural differences make a difference?
My sense of the global community of Free Software geeks was that the experience of becoming a geek and of interacting with others who had, through the creation and maintenance of networks and software, was far more influential than it was any of the obvious cultural differences that we are to explain: language, race, religion, identity, etc. In many ways, this mirrors a concern that runs through the literature on cosmopolitanism, with its anxieties about what can be preserved and what must be repressed or abandonded to become cosmopolitan. Geeks who join the international community of people who make and promote Free Software often find that it immediately produces both possibilities for their particular home (the ability to create appropriate technologies without dependence on a foreign company, for instance) at the same time that it demands adopting a certain set of ideologies, rituals and philosophical commitements (to liberalism, to critiques of intellectual property, to a belief in technological problem-solving and progress, etc). I like to think that this case provides one that navigates between the classical cases of cosmopolitan artists and scientists.
I suspect that there are multiple conversations that are necessary today. For me the most important aspect concerns what I see as the reorientation of power and knowledge around the creation of new media and technology. Free Software programmers and advocates had a lot of power in the international scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They have far less today, around 2010. It has been usurped by the conventional media companies that have finally figured out ways to control internet-based media, and by a new trend towards monopolization: Google and Facebook. The kind of cosmopolitanism represented by Facebook seems to be having distorting effects on every form of interaction, at every level, and across just about every national border, and as such, makes the idea of cosmopolitan class look much different. But the political stakes are much different than in the case of Free Software, and probably represent the need for a different kind fo analysis than the one I provided. Free Software looks more and more like the Paris Commune to me, and less like the future. Perhaps we need a question here about cosmopolitanism and pessimism....
I started writing about North American receptions of Bollywood song-and-dance clips as part of my broader research focus on the role of musical circulation in mediating global subjects. I wanted to look at the way that culture has been fed back into things that don't necessarily return to a cultural center, or start from a self-conscious presentation of cultural authorship. It seemed to me that the "ghost world" of Bollywood rescaled cosmopolitanism from local/global distinctions towards recognizing the transnational subjectivities of popular media. Cosmopolitanism is commonly described as a form of identity assigned to appropriately “global” citizens, often migrants and diasporic groups, who represent a post-national transcultural agency that can seamlessly absorb and interpret many forms of cultural difference. But following from Ana Tsing’s critiques of uneven collaborations and “globalist dreams,” I wanted to show that cosmopolitanism also operates through dissonant acts of cultural appropriation that are foundational to media circulations. I describe cosmopolitanism in the realm of cultural performance to show that it is as much a form of mediation as a type of identity. Remediations of popular music and film, in particular, have become part of how contemporary subjects position themselves within the imbalances of global exchange.
I turned to Bollywood as an icon of cosmopolitan media that combines cultural intimacy with alienation, kitsch, and ironic distance. The circulation of Bollywood confounds the stereotype of cosmopolitanism as a postcolonial intellectual project of liberal subjectivity. Its mass-mediated mix of influences puts stress on the Orientalist trope of appropriation, and its reception in North America forces us to reconsider the local ethics of multiculturalism as part of the transnational interpenetration of popular culture. In describing this scenario, I am arguing that cosmopolitanism is not just an identification, but a process of remediation that can produce global subjects as well as represent them.
One reason to keep pressure on the concept of cosmopolitanism is to address the intolerance toward global exchange and cultural difference that has seeped into contemporary views of globalization since 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and recent debates over immigration. The desire for purification, especially around religious identity, has increasingly been written into the geopolitical agenda of the United States and other nations. At the same time, ongoing concerns about the ethics of appropriation and the violence of cultural misrepresentation are routinely dismissed as vestiges of “identity politics” and failed multiculturalism. Despite the slipperiness of the term, cosmopolitanism allows us to return to debate some of these crucial intellectual formations and aesthetic imaginaries. Cosmopolitanism lets us continue to stress the political values of individual difference, civic plurality, hybrids and mixtures, multiple authorships and paths of translation, and the impossibility of a singular world system.
Critical Cosmopolitanism Revisited: “Beyond the Glitter” and The Search for a Fresh Materialism
I wrote “Beyond the Glitter” to analyze the material asymmetries of globalization and new cosmopolitan imaginaries in Istanbul, a Middle Eastern megacity still lingering at the edge of Europe. By “material,” I refer to the under-developed yet pivotal connection among the production of space (neoliberal gentrification and historic preservation), embodied identity, and ideology (neo-Ottomania or imperial nostalgia). Embodiment, as central optic, helps chart how city makers and consumers have collaborated in restructuring, inhabiting, and playing on space with belly dance: a historically cosmopolitan and controversial performance practice. One of my goals is, or rather was, to anchor changing cosmopolitan desires/acts of various social actors as much in “the distinctive geography of capitalism” as in the spectacularly diverse, embodied/spatial negotiations over Turkey’s past and future (Harvey 2001: 299, see also Collins, di Leonardo, and Williams 2008; Comaroff and Comaroff 2001, Smith 1997, Çınar 2005). Focusing evenly on class, gender, and religion, I pluralize social difference and nuance political-economic critiques of neoliberalism (di Leonardo 2008: 16 and 1993; see also Ghannam 2006; Collins 2003; White 2002; Singerman and Hoodfar 1996). By doing so, I situate the cosmopolitan continuum between moral and economic restructuring at intersecting multiple scales, from transnational to urban.
I employ gentrification, as both metaphor and analytic frame, to connect the macro-politics of cosmopolitanism to its plural, and often contradictory, daily iterations that are made in and of space. Cutting across flesh, space, and memory, gentrification, reveals how neoliberal cosmopolitan worlds are dreamt and built while raising the essential question: at what cost? I thus borrow from scholars who criticize universal abstractions and reifications (Nussbaum 1994, Appadurai 1996, Connoly 1995) in order to articulate a more grounded, critical cosmopolitanism, particularly through ethnography (Stokes 2010; Singerman and Amar 2006; Harvey 2001; Turino 2000, Mignolo 2000).
Back to belly dance… Driven by colonial Ottoman nostalgia, belly dance, I have argued, situates Turkish cosmopolitanism in the transnational Orientalist tourism market (Scene 2), the engine of post-1980s structural adjustment. It helps elucidate the divide between secular and Islamic definitions of world citizenry and national culture. Such heritage cosmopolitanisms revolve around European belonging, Arab-Turkish distinction (with a strong hint of xenophobia), and local categories of female modesty. At the very macro level, Turkey’s European aspirations, guarded by Islamic capitalism and contested by secular nationalism, accentuate what David Harvey calls the “Kantian dream of cosmopolitan republicanism” (2001: 274, 278; see also Benhabib and Türküler 2006). Paved with Orientalist tourism revenue, the road to Europe is, however, quite rocky as economic uplift brings moral costs. Belly dance, even as global chic, still tarnishes national reputation. The Turkish dream of catching up with Europe (or the Global North at large with NATO’s “military humanism”) thus brings forth the tension between global citizenship and patriotism (Nussbaum 1996, Hannerz 2007) and between transnational security and what Singerman and Amar call “foolish treason” (2006:32, see also Harvey 2001: 270). At this level, cosmopolitan dreams are precarious, to say the least. Further complications ensue over geopolitics: Turkey’s friction with the US over the Iraqi War (and over Kurdish political demands), alienation of Israel (the Flotilla events), Islamic government’s alliance with Iran (over oil and Muslim identity) have all intensified these cosmopolitan dilemmas.
But the real question, as many have aptly asked, is how to link political cosmopolitanism to its politics on the ground, or how to narrow the gap between governance and culture? (Hannerz 2007:71; see also Singerman and Amar 2006; Harvey 2001; Turino 2000, Desphande 2000). To answer, I turn to ethnographic fieldwork. In this work, I show how daily negotiations in Istanbul’s night and urban life are firmly embedded in transnational markets and local definitions of moral/political unity underwritten by glitzy and broken dreams of au courant.
I discuss how the new secular bourgeoisie’s adoption/upgrading of belly dance, similar to the spatial gentrification of Ottoman landscapes, expresses the desire for global cachet (“hot” European city with newly-chic entertainment, Scene 1) and requires significant bodily labor (as new-age hobby or prestigious nightclub dancing, Scenes 1 and 3). These neoliberal subjects physically cultivate (historic) cosmopolitan taste as they redraw firmly the boundaries of their new community, fencing out the poor, the uneducated, and/or the immodest. My analysis treats cultural cosmopolitan production and consumption by the bourgeoisie as inseparable, or rather continuous, while drawing attention to its potential for exploitation, appropriation, and displacement (Marx and Engels 1952, also see Harvey 2001: 272). (Hence I disagree with Ulf Hannerz’s distinction between “happy” cultural cosmopolitanism and “worried” political cosmopolitanism, 2007: 71). As I also discuss, religious Turkish cosmopolitanism finds expression in the new veiling industry (global fashion markets) and mundane practice, generating moral and classed distinction (Scene 4). Either case articulates the performative cruelties of cosmopolitanism, particularly its exclusionary dynamics, as I build on the larger material critical debate (see citations above).
But my ethnographic cast is not limited to the elite as I widen the social base by attending to “vernacular” or “bottom-up” cosmopolitanisms (Stokes 2010: 20; see also Bhabha 1996; Wardle 2000; Ferguson 1999). In BTG, low-income and allegedly “immodest” professional performers engage in transnational cultural traffic through daily labor (tourist clubs), media exposure (private TV channels, videos, and the internet) as well as travel (nightly or weekly tours across and within borders) (Scene 3). Incorporating movement repertoires from India, Europe, and the US, Turkish dancers and musicians create eclectic aesthetics for local and tourist audiences. Rather than adapt, they innovate with the use of space (stage and venue), movement standardization, and sanitary rationalization (Scene 3).
As Martin Stokes argues in his eloquent ethnography of Turkish popular music, a thorough understanding of cosmopolitanism demands an aesthetic reading of performance codes, venues, and processes that consequently restructure public intimacies and the broader cultural logic of neoliberalism (2010: 14-15, 18-19). In other words, we need to speak the language of aesthetics to grasp fully the breadth and depth of vernacular cosmopolitanisms, and eventually to deepen our material critique. As well, performers’ engagement with transnational markets through world music and dance involves further rooting in national culture and politics (Turino 2000: 7, 13). To analyze these encounters sufficiently, I destabilize the rigid dichotomies of universal/local, or cosmopolitan/national (Turino 2000: 4, 354). In the last scene, Zeynep, a veiled, prospective university student and clerk, belongs at once to the umma, global Muslim community, and to the Turkish nation as she struggles with both daily class limitations and strict secular regulations against public Islam. Her lifestyle choices, from belly dance to veiling, generate and reflect the embodied possibilities and constraints along the national- cosmopolitan spectrum, a spectrum defined by commodified Ottoman nostalgia.
My recent research focuses on the socio-political significance of Istanbul’s title as the 2010 European Capital of Culture. This title brings immense benefits, ranging from two million Euros aid and bulky tourist revenues to prestigious worldly identification and state legitimacy. Drawing on fieldwork among culture executives, state officials, entertainment workers, ghetto residents, and local and international NGOs, I investigate the use, and rather, the abuse of multiculturalism, with a broader scope of performance. This new scope reaches beyond the stage to include grassroots protests, civic organizing, and oral street culture.
To explore the interplay between active citizenship and cosmopolitan imaginaries, I investigate the role of “ethnic incorporation” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2010: 12, see also di Leonardo 1998), or the commercialization of Rom [“gyspy”] performance repertoires and sites. How is “transnational governmentality” (UNESCO and the EU) negotiated daily with local traditions and lifestyles (Ferguson and Gupta 2002)? Again, I suggest a fresh materialism to unpack not only cosmopolitan yearnings, but also paradoxical legislation. How to chart the subtle continuum between exclusion (of moral, ethnic, and economic others) and inclusion (of lucrative indigenous repertoires)? I emphasize both the tools and ends of Rom cultural brokerage to analyze intersecting political and symbolic struggles about European membership, global arts community, and heritage branding. Complicating class, gender, and religious difference, my ethnic focus brings new material depth to the abstract dialectic of global and local. In an increasingly repressive, fragmented Turkish landscape, this line of analysis, underscores the ways in which cosmopolitanism can be urgently interventionist against both the theoretical dead-ends (universal vs. particular or transnational vs. national) and divisive, nominal policies of cultural diversity. Layering critical cosmopolitanism with spatialized performance analysis, I suggest how and where to weave the ethical into the scholarly.
I take cosmopolitanism to refer to a certain set of practices that facilitate movement between physically/geographically and culturally (linguistically, politically, bureaucratically) distinct sites—or the logics by which people figure out how they belong in the distinct cultural spaces that claim them. Theirs are practices of articulation, whereby otherwise disparate cosmologies come into conversation, such that what it means to be Indian (or Hindu) gets imbricated with what it means to be American—for example—and ideas about civic values, democratic participation, ethics, and even human-ness, get recast in the encounter.
I’m not at all sure we set out to explore cosmopolitanism in any form during the HapMap research. If we talked about it at all, it would have seemed a contradiction, as our search was for a highly particular set of cultural particularities: “Indian and Hindu perspectives on genetic variation research.” Almost in the same way population geneticists seemed to be cordoning off populations as gene pools, arguing that the historical fact of migrations and inter-minglings still did not prevent them from using groups like “Gujaratis” as sources of stable, specific genetic information, our task was similarly to cordon off culture. We’re still at it, in fact, in the drawn-out writing-and-publication phase of the project. For unless we talk about karma or other intimately cultural aspects of Indian-ness, there’s really not much else to report about the work we did really—no take-home points for the practice of bioethics.
Did we find cultural specificities? Sure we did, plenty of them, from mythological snippets reanimated now by the question of whether to donate blood for genetic research, to pride in a medical tradition whose insights (into the value of turmeric, or neem) are being affirmed by modern research, as well as, yes, a sense of the connections between theories of karma, rebirth, and genetics. But cultural specificities were not all we found. And, to boot, they didn’t come ready to fit into pre-cast moulds. On some simple level, what we found was movement: people travelling back to India for routine health-examinations because these were cheaper there and because their faith in the Indian medical establishment was being renewed by the emergence of “world-class” hospitals (established by Indians as well as by NRIs [Non-Resident Indians]); people returning to India as NRI businessmen to ride India’s economic wave and do good works in the country of their origin (a sort of going back to give back logic); people moving back and forth between their professional roles in American workplaces and their cultural moorings—switching clothes, food habits, ways of speaking and ways of relating to others between workdays and weekends; people figuring out what it meant to remain Indian while living lives so physically far removed from India.
The HapMap study was a context to work some of this out, ideally, idealistically. Our questions were theoretical: what would it mean for you to donate blood? Why would you want to participate (or not) in a study of this sort? And so we got back theoretical and idealized reflections on what it would mean to participate, as Indians, in a part-American, part-global research study. “India” and the habits of being Indian were critical points of reference, though it was evident at many moments that our interlocutors were not only seeking representation as an American ethnic group, but were also keenly aware of the pragmatic implications of giving blood within the political economy of health care in the United States. [For example, the Acharya of the Chinmaya Mission—not coincidentally an organization that functions a lot like a church, with Sunday school programmes and other events like weekend lock-downs that take the Americanized Hindu family and return it to its Indian roots, as it were—brushed off our requests for interviews or interactions with the group’s members with the comment that “People will always do something and then say that you cannot be insured or something like that.”]
But the point in the end is that these separate contexts, with their apparently separate demands and ideals and anxieties, were also impossible to definitively distinguish. They were in perpetual conversation, mutually constituting, and mutually interpellating. When interlocutors spoke about the need for “balance” in health and bodily well-being, for example, I struggled to align this with the Ayurvedic or other Indian medical cosmologies that are so ingrained into informal Indian body/health-care practices, which might have emphasized harmony, synchronization, and purification far more than just “balance.” Rather, I couldn’t help but think of the McDonald’s paper bag in which my on-the-go breakfast burrito (of course purchased from a drive-through while rushing to work—talk about needing a better work-life-food balance!) had once come, and which sat on my office desk for a long while. It pictured a woman in the “vrikshasana,” or yoga asana “tree pose,” with the tag line “life is a balancing act.” How much did reckonings such as these, oblique engagements with the East with long and complex histories of their own, Indian in their way but also evidently speaking to modern/ American dilemmas—how did these now provide conceptual templates for being Indian and representing Indian-ness in the context of our study?
An anonymous reviewer for Contributions to Indian Sociology, to which journal I’d submitted an essay while in the midst of my own relocation to India after 20 plus years in Canada and the US, found it odd that I did not emphasize more the American context within which our interlocutors lived. "Who are Gujarati Indians?" he asked, and insisted that the importance of India in their lives must be demonstrated, not assumed. While I take his point, I cannot help but imagine how bemused my (mostly first-generation immigrant) Gujarati Indian subjects might be to hear this assessment. Regional identities in India are typically strong, well formed, and they travel exceedingly well. Members of the Gujarati community usually carry with them a developed sense of self, which is often broken down into further community identifications, and expressed in language, religious practice (think of the strength and influence of the BAPS Swaminarayan devotional community both in India and globally), cuisine (“Remember you are eating nothing less than Patel kadi!” a restaurant owner reminded me to acknowledge the uniqueness of the yoghurt preparation he was serving), and even business practice (another interlocutor: “Well I am a Patel by birth, so of course eventually I had to own a motel.”) When I met people (not just Gujaratis) outside their homes for interviews, the most comfortable space was an Indian restaurant, preferably vegetarian, in the Hillcroft and 59 district; French bakeries like La Madeleine and even the swankier Indian joints were always unforgivingly alien. The commitment to community service that was so strong and so often called upon was invariably defined largely by religious or other community-based affiliations (even among many youth). As a friend remarked about my own “R2I” (Return to India), unbeknownst to myself, we’d all been quite distinctly Indian all those years abroad. We really only became “American” after returning to India.
And yet, as I suggested in the “Good Gifts” essay, participation in HapMap was also about the politics of recognition, and about standing up and being counted within the frameworks of American/Western democracy—a fact which Indian geneticists working in India were also keenly aware of, and therefore deeply resentful that the sample collection had taken place in the US [they have gone as far as to question the worth of the sample as less than representative—quite a damning assessment since its capacity to represent is what makes it valuable in the first place]. The point, in the end, is that although my Indian interlocutors are an American ethnic group, do claim rights as an ethnic minority in the US, this is not the only register in which their actions—from their community priorities to the ways in which they care for saints visiting from India to their participation in HapMap (in particular, not sharing the anxieties of other American minorities)—make sense. To me this is a sign of their cosmopolitanism, even of their cosmopolitics.
I think, however, that we still really lack the methodological and conceptual tools to be able to take stock of these perpetually moving sets of identifications that are always-already in the process of being articulated betwixt and between so many different frameworks, so bound are we by the need to pack things away into boxes with neat cultural labels, whether because our study design or our funders or area-studies journals insist on it. Anthropology as we don’t do it any more still exerts enormous pressure on what we can do as anthropologists, or on what we’d ideally like to do. If a conversation on cosmopolitanism can open up this issue not just theoretically but also practically, methodologically, then that’s at least one reason it could be very critical.
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