By all accounts, the lecture that I gave for the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Wednesday night went well. The title of the talk was “Cosmopolitanism, Multiculturalism, and the Promise of Literature.” Like Joanna’s lecture on the Silk Road, it took place at the Al Mamoura Auditorium in the building that houses the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which is the group that serves as our sponsor in Abu Dhabi. Here’s the blurb that I’d given them about the lecture:
Originating in the idea of the world citizen and conceived in contradistinction to nationalism, cosmopolitanism can be understood as a way of building community by embracing rather than avoiding difference. This lecture will explore the ways in which a cosmopolitan perspective responds to problems posed by contemporary Western multiculturalism. It will also suggest that literature offers distinctive resources for the cosmopolitan thinker.
In the lecture, which owes much to the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah and David Hollinger, I tried to tie together a number of elements from my recent scholarship and thinking: the problems posed by overly pluralist conceptions of multiculturalism; the problems posed by the desire for “cultural purity,” the power of “emergent writing,” Zoroastrianism, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. In addition to serving as a way of tying together these strands, Moby-Dick was intended to offer a case study in the ways that a text can mobilize cosmopolitan perspectives and finally as an entree to the idea that “literature offers distinctive resources for the cosmopolitan thinker.”
That idea is the least developed in my current work, but potentially the most intriguing. I wanted to get at the idea that great literature promotes a cosmopolitan embrace of difference because it often asks you to do precisely that: embrace a different consciousness than your own. In the case, for example, of reading a novel, what you do if you become immersed in it is to let the consciousness of another take over your own.
If you’re interested, you can download the script that formed the basis of the lecture here.
The talk was also accompanied by PowerPoint that I hoped would make the lecture a little more vivid by presenting images and also the block quotes that I was using. I confess that I was worried that I had included too much material about Moby-Dick, a text that I’d assumed my audience had heard of but not read. I tried to solve the problem by telling stories about the text and anecdotes related to the text (in particular, the sinking of the whaleship Essex in the South Seas and Melville’s reaction to reading Owen Chase’s account of it). I tried to survey the audience: only one or two seemed to be asleep, and I really couldn’t complain about that since I myself had succumbed to jet lag during my colleague Joanna’s talk: apparently at precisely the moment that she made a reference to Zoroastrianism! (Whoops!)
The question and answer session was gratifyingly lively and gave me many things to think about. Indeed, I expect to be meditating on some of these questions more here in the days to come.
I had a question from a colleague at Zayed University about language differences, translation, and whether cosmopolitan conversation was predicated on a shared language. I tried to suggest that language was yet another gulf that the cosmopolitan tried to cross by whatever means he or she could and that one of the opportunities presented by the present moment is the fact that texts were so quickly translated and disseminated. And I suggested that one of the goals of the NYUAD literature program would be to make students aware of both the limitations and opportunities accompany the translation of any text.
Another colleague from Zayed asked whether my suggestion that literature offers an opportunity for cosmopolitan experience was limited to texts that don’t themselves adopt a counter-cosmopolitan or fundamentalist attitude. I tried to suggest that in fact it would have been much more challenging to use exactly such a text as my case study, because I would like to be able to argue that even a counter-cosmopolitan text, insofar as it forces the reader to confront difference of perspective and consciousness, can encourage cosmopolitan thinking. And I talked a little about the way in which learning from the fundamentalist or from the provincial is the hardest thing for cosmopolitans to do today.
NYUAD Vice Chancellor Al Bloom gave me the opportunity to talk a little more about the interplay of sameness and difference, and I had the chance to talk a little about Anthony Appiah’s slogan version of cosmopolitanism — “universality plus difference” — which I’d chosen to omit from the lecture and about my take on the recent history of cosmopolitan theory, including ideas about “rooted cosmopolitanism.” I suggested that what can save cosmopolitanism from being simply another Western idea imposed on everyone else is the idea that it is a “weak” conception of the good from a philosophical point of view. (Actually, in the event I didn’t use the phrase “W of the good” when responding; I wish I had.) It’s a structure, a container into which different ideas can be poured, so long as the ideas are compatible with the ideas of embracing difference and being willing to engage in dialogue across boundaries. A cosmopolitanism rooted in Abu Dhabi will have structural affinities with cosmopolitanism rooted in New York, but also salient differences that enhance the cosmopolitan experience!
They put out a nice spread afterward, but I only had one nibble of it because so many people from the audience came up to ask questions and offer insights. I was particularly gratified to meet Alia Yunis, a novelist whose first book, The Night Counter, has been on my list of texts to add to read as part of my final revisions on the NYU Press book on emergent literatures. Now that I’ve met her, I’ve moved it to the top of my list. (She’ll be reading at the conference on the 1001 Nights that Philip Kennedy has organized for the NYUAD Institute this December. Check out her website and you’ll see why.)
With any luck, a number of the people who said that they would e-mail me with further thoughts actually will! Meanwhile, i recorded the entire session and hopefully will have the courage to listen to the Q & A again soon. (You’re never quite as good as you thought you were when you listen to the actual tape!) I’d like to keep the conversation that I started at Al Mamoura going, even if only (for now) here in the ether.