Seoul, 21-22 September 2012

I’ve spent the past two days in Seoul attending the annual meeting of the American Studies Association of Korea. The theme of this year’s conference was “The United States in East Asia.”

My paper, “The Global Network University and US Global Studies,” was part of a panel entitled “American Studies in the Global Context,” chaired by Youn-Son Chung (Korea Military Academy). This was the line-up:

Cyrus R. K. Patell (NYU Abu Dhabi), “The Global Network University and U.S. Global Studies”
MEI Renyi (Beijing Foreign Studies University),” 30 Years of American Studies in China: An Overview and a Case Study”
Zeinab Ghasemi Tari (University of Tehran), “A Comparison of American Studies Programs in the Middle East: A Case Study”
Ioana Luca (National Taiwan Normal University), “The Eastern European in American Studies”
Comment: Mary Yu Danico (California State Polytechnic University), Kyung-Sook Boo (Sogang University)

The text of the talk appears below.

It’s important to note that the views presented below about the opportunities that are available for rethinking “American Studies” at NYUAD (and about possible futures for our Arab Crossroads Studies program) represent my perspectives only and do not represent the views of the NYU Abu Dhabi leadership.

The talk is intended to serve as a kind of “white paper” that might serve to start up an institutional conversation about new curricular initiatives. For this reason I am grateful in advance for any comments, suggestions, or  criticism left here in response to this post.


New York University is transforming itself into a “global network university” – a “G – N – U” – that comprises three “portal campuses” in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, and a network of study-away sites that currently includes Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Washington DC. In an essay entitled “Global Network University Reflection,” NYU president John Sexton argues that universities that “reshape themselves [as] ‘global network universities’ – can influence globalization positively and, thereby, foster the advancement of humankind in special ways.”

My goal today is to explore, briefly, the opportunity that the establishment of the GNU has created for rethinking the practice of American Studies at the new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). From the vantage point of a region that is a political, economic, and cultural crossroads in the early years of a century that promises to be marked by accelerating technological change, members of the faculty of NYUAD are interested in rethinking “American Studies” as “US Global Studies,” training the “area studies” lens that US universities developed during the twentieth century back on the US, at a moment when its power seems to be on the verge of a reconfiguration. “US Global Studies” promises to provide new insights into the flow of people, ideas, and commodities to, from, and within the United States, and to put US-based scholars of US Studies into productive dialogue with scholars around the globe.

The “US Global Studies” that I am imagining would take up my colleague Tom Bender’s call for scholars who study the United States to demonstrate “a cosmopolitan appreciation of American participation in a history larger than itself” (298). Indeed, the conceptual foundation of NYU’s global network university is cosmopolitanism, understood in the sense developed by such recent theorists as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whom Sexton invokes in his “Reflection.” Cosmopolitanism has traditionally been described as a form of universalism that is directly opposed to the idea of nationalism. The critic Bruce Robbins has argued that cosmopolitanism should be “understood as a fundamental devotion to the interests of humanity as a whole.” According to Robbins, “Cosmopolitanism has often seemed to claim universality by virtue of its independence, its detachment from the bonds, commitments, and affiliations that constrain ordinary nation-bound lives” (1). Appiah reminds us that the term “cosmopolitan”

dates at least to the Cynics of the fourth century BC, who first coined the expression cosmopolitan, ‘citizen of the cosmos.’ The formulation was meant to be paradoxical, and reflected the general Cynic skepticism toward custom and tradition. A citizen – a polit?s – belonged to a particular polis, a city to which he or she owed loyalty. The cosmos referred to the world, not in the sense of the earth, but in the sense of the universe. Talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled, then, a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities. (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xiv)

What makes the term paradoxical, then, is that its etymology invokes a commitment to the general and universal (humanity) by modeling it on commitments to the particular and local (the city).

In recent years, scholars like Appiah and the intellectual historian David Hollinger have sought to redefine cosmopolitanism in contradistinction not only to nationalism but also to universalism. Unlike universalism, this reconceived cosmopolitanism regards difference not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an opportunity to be embraced.

The cosmopolitan experience is all about finding sameness across gulfs of difference: it is not about eradicating gaps in cultural experience, but rather about bridging them. Appiah argues that “cosmopolitanism imagines a world in which people and novels and music and films and philosophies travel between places where they are understood differently, because people are different and welcome to their difference. Cosmopolitanism can work because there can be common conversations about these shared ideas and objects” (The Ethics of Identity, 259). Such conversations, Appiah writes, “can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable” (Cosmopolitanism, xxi).

The global network university presents an opportunity to institutionalize these conversations and to inculcate what the sociologist Bryan S. Turner has called “cosmopolitan virtue.” According to Turner, “A right typically implies an obligation, and, while there has been a deluge of legislation on rights, there is at present very little discussion of the obligations that might correspond to such rights.” Perhaps we should emend Turner’s assertion in this way: “A right typically should imply an obligation.” Certainly in the United States, the link between rights and responsibilities is made all too rarely, and when it is made, it is made in a way that gives priority to the idea of rights, with responsibilities and obligations often an after-thought. Writing in the aftermath of the Reagan era, the political theorist Mary Ann Glendon diagnosed this problem in her 1991 study Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, noting that the growing influence of the “sound-bite” in media coverage of the political sphere was exacerbating “the starkness and simplicity” of the way in which Americans talked about rights. The problem she diagnosed then has become amplified in the two decades since she wrote, with the advent of the internet, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and a global media in which virulent sound-bites can go viral across time zones almost instantaneously.

Rights, as NYU philosopher Ronald Dworkin has famously argued, should be viewed as “political trumps,” powerful cards that shouldn’t be played until absolutely necessary. “Individuals have rights,” Dworkin argues, “when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them.” Rights in this sense guarantee individuals a sphere of immunity that cannot be infringed by society. Dworkin stresses, however, that this “characterization of a right is … formal in the sense that it does not indicate what rights people have or guarantee, indeed, that they have any.” Rights, in Dworkin’s argument, are socially constructed: it’s as if, in agreeing to enter into the social state in order to avoid what Thomas Hobbes describes as the “war of all against all” in the state of nature, human beings agree to render the idea of natural rights obsolete. Dworkin’s theory of rights “does not suppose that rights have some special metaphysical character” (Ixi-xii). Rights in this account, are socially constructed and therefore may well differ in their specific construction from society to society.

Cosmopolitans, as Appiah and others stress, are not moral relativists. They believe that some ideas are better than others, and that it is their obligation to be continuously self-reflective about their beliefs and values, testing them through conversations with others who have different points of view and even different beliefs and values. I, for one, believe that the idea of human rights is a conceptual advance, and I am in sympathy with Dworkin’s account of a fundamental right to equal concern and respect from which all other rights are then derived. This formulation does not mean that all human beings should be made to be absolutely equal, or that there cannot be strata within human societies, or that all societies should be the same. It does mean that human beings must be treated with dignity and that, as Dworkin puts it, “the weaker members of a political community are entitled to the same concern and respect of their government as the more powerful members have secured for themselves” (198-99). This formulation allows for considerable variation in the ways societies might go about constructing rights that protect human dignity.

As a cosmopolitan, I recognize that I cannot simply declare, on metaphysical grounds, that this conception of rights or any particular set of individual rights derived from it are simply “true” and thus should be adopted by all peoples and societies everywhere. Instead, I have a duty to test and refine my ideas through conversations with others who disagree. In these conversations, I will do my utmost to be persuasive about the correctness of my beliefs and the attractiveness of my values. but will also be open-minded and willing, should I encounter a better formulation or a better idea, to have my mind changed.

Too often, however, proponents of the kind of “rights talk” that Glendon describes throw down their trump card too soon, invoking the right to freedom of expression at the outset of a conversation, which has the effect of putting an end to the conversation before it has even begun.

Moreover, if rights shouldn’t be invoked too quickly or too often, they should also never be invoked without a sense of the obligation to respect the dignity of others, to think about whether the invocation of your right actually has the effect of failing to show equal concern for others. Too often, the discourse that exists within US civil society simply isn’t civil. Our civic conversations would become much richer, for example, if , before a knee-jerk invocation of the right to free speech, participants in public discourse would stop to reflect for a moment: “I have the right to say this, but is saying it the right thing to do in this circumstance?”

Turner argues that what he calls cosmopolitan virtue is a pre-requisite for the creation of any workable conception of global citizenship. He identifies some key components of a cosmopolitan virtue that would respond to the problems created by globalization and technological change: “care for other cultures, ironic distance from one’s own traditions, concern for the integrity of cultures in a hybrid world, openness to cross-cultural criticism.” Turner’s conception of irony is a refashioned form of Socratic irony, that pedagogical technique in which the teacher first praises the wisdom of a student before leading the student to understand what is faulty in his or her argument, or else feigns ignorance of a topic in order to lead the student to discover a valid argument about it. In Turner’s hands, cosmopolitan irony leaves behind Socrates’ somewhat irritating sense of superiority and instead sincerely embraces the idea that the teacher has something to learn. According to Turner, cosmopolitan irony “share[s] much in common with the pragmatism of Dewy and Rorty in that tolerance of others must start from a position of some uncertainty as to the ultimate authority of one’s own culture” (57). I believe that it is precisely this kind of skepticism that can transform a twentieth-century practice called “American Studies” into a twenty-first century practice that we might call “US Global Studies.”

One danger of a creating so-called global campuses like NYU Abu Dhabi or NYU Shanghai is that the students will be given a kind of deracinated “worldly” education that is unmarked by any engagement with local geography and culture. In an article published last year in the journal Cultural Anthropology, NYU anthropologist Tom Looser worries that such campuses will become the cultural equivalent of special economic zones, “built as islands, both literally and because they are places of cultural, political and economic exception within their own regions” (101). Looser’s argument mirrors a criticism that has been aimed at cosmopolitan thought more generally: that it is simply the imposition of Western Enlightenment thought by other means.

In response, theorists have recently developed the concept of rooted cosmopolitanism, according to which every true cosmopolitanism is global in its outlook but rooted in the locale from which it arises. In this account, cosmopolitanism should be understood a structure of thought rather than a collection of ideas and practices. It is a perspective that embraces difference and is therefore open to multiple iterations depending on its geographical and cultural origins. As John Sexton puts it in his “Global Network University Reflection,” every cosmopolitanism is locally inflected, and, to truly understand and acquire the ideas that are at its heart, one must be local, to experience the particular place in which it is rooted.” The global network university embraces the idea of thinking globally and acting locally, perhaps transforming it: “Think globally, learn locally, so that you can act effectively, both locally and globally.”

The curriculum of NYU Abu Dhabi reflects the institution’s commitment to a cosmopolitan perspective that emphasizes the interplay of both global and local perspectives in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Its Core Curriculum is designed to help its culturally diverse student body to develop global perspectives in the classroom. But, as a campus that is accredited not only in the US but also in the UAE, it follows UAE educational guidelines by requiring each student to take “at least one course on the history, society, literature or culture of the Islamic world, or Muslims in the global diaspora, or a full year of Arabic language study before graduation” (Bulletin, 16). This requirement ensures that our curriculum encourages our students to take intellectual advantage of the location of NYUAD in the UAE by adding a local perspective to their studies. It is important, and in keeping with the mission of NYUAD, that our students are encouraged to develop a rooted cosmopolitanism that trains them to become global citizens marked by their education in the Middle East.

In addition to instituting the Islamic Studies requirement, NYUAD has this year introduced a major in Arab Crossroads Studies, which is premised on the idea that “the flow of people, ideas, and commodities through the Gulf has made it a cosmopolitan and culturally hybrid setting for many centuries” (Bulletin 212). The major is designed to be far more interdisciplinary than the typical Middle East Studies majors found in the US. Indeed it seeks to reclaim what Looser laments as the now-lost promise of area studies: “a nondisciplinary terrain [structured in] a way that might actually bring other, more bounded disciplines (such as anthropology, economics, or history—disciplines with their own sets of questions and their own perspectives) into dialogue” (106). NYUAD goes further, adding literature, music, philosophy, and the visual arts to the mix of disciplines coming together under the rubric of Arab Crossroads Studies.

I suggest, however, that the potential of Arab Crossroads Studies will be fully realized only when the program is put into dialogue with other kinds of reconceived area studies, which conduct interdisciplinary inquiry into the societies and cultures of all the major groups that are currently interacting in the UAE. Our Arab Crossroads Studies program, in other words, needs to conceive itself as part of a network of academic inquiry that includes scholars working on North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Australia and Oceania, European Studies, Continental American Studies, and the United States.

In his study A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006), Tom Bender calls for a “worldly history” that can “encourage and sustain a cosmopolitan citizenry, at once proud nationals and humble citizens of the world” (14). Bender argues that scholars of globalization must recognize the importance of the local – at different levels of scale, from the countryside to the city to the nation to the region or “area.”

We are fortunate at NYU Abu Dhabi to have a structural opportunity to create the kind of ironic stance that seems to be necessary to implement the kind of reconception of US studies for which Bender calls. First, we teach in the UAE, a country that conceives of itself as a global crossroads and as a cosmopolitan nation that is rooted in Arab and Islamic culture. Watching that cosmopolitanism evolve will give us – as an American educational institution – the ironic distance from which to contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of our own cosmopolitanism. Second, by creating Arab Crossroads Studies first and then linking it to the development of US Global Studies, we have the opportunity to train the area studies lens back on the United States, creating an ironic distance that will open up new perspectives. Finally, we have the opportunity to train that area-studies lens from multiple vantage points, not only Abu Dhabi, but also Shanghai and all of the other away-sites, which gives us the opportunity to learn from all of the colleagues around the world who study the United States and who have already begun the process of reconceiving American Studies in global terms. For example, the inclusion of the “American Studies Institute” at Seoul National University’s among a set of Institutes devoted both to area studies and to other cultural topics may well provide us with a useful model as we move forward.

Ultimately, we hope that for many of the students coming to NYU via the Abu Dhabi and Shanghai portals, the New York campus and the new site in Washington, DC will simply be two away-sites among many. We imagine that, if they go to those sites, they’ll take courses that teach them about the “local” cultures there, just as NYU NY students learn about the local cultures in Accra, Berlin, Florence, or Madrid. And that, I think, will be a very good thing for the future of the discipline presently known as “American Studies.”


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: Norton, 2006.

__________. The Ethics of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Bender, Thomas. A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History. New York Hill & Wang, 2006.

Dworkin, Ronald. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Glendon, Mary Ann. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Hollinger, David A. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Looser, Tom. “The Global University, Area Studies, and the World Citizen: Neoliberal Geography’s Redistribution of the ‘World.’” Cultural Anthropology 27.1 (2012): 97–117.

NYU Abu Dhabi Bulletin, 2012-2013. Abu Dhabi: New York University, 2012.

Robbins, Bruce. “Comparative Cosmopolitanisms.” In Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, eds. Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998. 246–64.

Sexton, John. “Global Network University Reflection.” 2010. Accessed September 2012.

Turner, Bryan S. “Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism.” Theory, Culture & Society 19.1-2 (2002): 45–63.