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Impulse Towards Hospitality and Cosmopolitanism

Is the impulse of eros and creation linked to hospitality and cosmopolitanism? Every time I try to answer this question I immediately run a line through the words I have just put down. I don’t know where to begin. The whole of my training has led me to examine hospitality and cosmopolitanism from the opposite direction. Changing direction, starting with the impulse is forcing me to go against the grain of my education in the humanities and social sciences. But I think a change is necessary. I am convinced that if the ideas on hospitality and cosmopolitanism are to find renewal, then we need to discover other forces, a different kind of momentum, and new links.

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Tania Bruguera, 10,142,926, live performance, performed at Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 2018. Courtesy of the artist. © Tate Photography

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For a long time I have argued that hospitality and cosmopolitanism need to be addressed from the artist’s point of view. I have claimed that the concept of aesthetic cosmopolitanism could provide a valuable supplement to the normative approaches that have so far dominated the framing of cosmopolitanism. I hoped that this heading would be a kind of antidote.

The 21st Century began with a violent awakening that a new world order was not within our reach. It was neither going to be delivered by the force of neo-imperial America might nor through the European model of incremental federation. The philosophers who gleefully relished the former and the others that held feint hopes for the latter were both disappointed. The world was not now, nor has it ever, been conquered or converted by force and reason alone. Other affects and ideologies have gained traction. In this crossfire the prospects for cosmopolitanism look weak and remote. It looks less and less likely that the available models of cosmopolitanism can override the visceral forms of violence let alone dismantle the new tribal divisions. Kant’s promise of a rendez-vous with a cosmopolitan destiny was revised, updated and extended, and still it fell short.

Part of the ruin of cosmopolitanism lay in the inability to dispel persistent stereotypes. Hospitality is a wonderful ideal, but as Derrida pointed out, in the real world it is viewed through a more pragmatic and, at times, more hostile prism. In the popular imagination cosmopolitanism was perceived as a luxury item for the elites who floated with unbound mobility and remained oblivious to the militarisation of borders and the desperation of the trapped. However, in my view the appeal of cosmopolitanism also suffered from its increasing reduction into a form of instrumental reasoning. They became cold and detached. Even when cosmopolitan values were incorporated into the institutional frameworks of the EU or UN very few people seemed to really believe in them. Cynicism compounded when values were seen as divorced from the actual distribution of economic resources and expressions of political will. It was hard to see how cosmopolitanism was being normalised within the formal networks of power. On the contrary, it was more and more caricatured by the neo-nationalists as sign of treachery. Even worse it was its adoption in the rhetoric and promotion campaigns of transnational corporations.  

While cosmopolitanism waned in the political arena it seemed to wax in the field of contemporary art. Many of the most prominent artists, such as Tania Bruguera, Emily Jacir and Francis Alys, could be seen as exemplars of aesthetic cosmopolitanism. In their work we can see new ways of expressing cosmopolitan principles and values; hospitality, empathy, curiosity and solidarity with others. By approaching ancient ideals from the ground of everyday relationships, ordinary transactions and local organizations they sought to resist the dominant political tendencies. Being witness to many such art events has been an uplifting part of my life. It has shown me that artists can sustain hope even when political philosophers decry that the situation is hopeless. The artistic combination of defiance and optimism is truly inspiring! However, I still feel that my previous efforts to address these aesthetic expressions are incomplete. Something is missing.

This nagging, and I have to say unprompted auto-critique is now uncomfortable. I wear it like a stone in my shoe. I am approaching the end of my tenure as an academic and I have the dreadful feeling of having trained my eye to look for cosmopolitanism from the wrong end. All this time I have been an advocate of the artist’s perspective, but I have only stopped to understand the expression of cosmopolitanism in social, cultural and political terms. Does an aesthetic cosmopolitanism not also demand its own point of view? Would this require a new optic that is trained towards the sensory impulse for eros and creation?

Approaching cosmopolitanism from the other end also requires a definition of impulse. I do not see impulse in terms of psychological categories such as instinct. It is not simply an inner force that is part of human nature. Impulse is the force that comes from the relation between I and Thou. It arises in the movement towards an externality – objects, peoples, networks, structures and spaces. Impulse does not take us into the inner well that is the source of human drives, but rather it refers to the connective force that is assumed in the relation between I and Thou. Cosmopolitanism is thus emergent from this connective impulse rather than a product of moral reasoning and a construct sustained by institutional regulations. Tracing cosmopolitanism from the point of view of the aesthetic impulse is therefore a means to re-center the role of the imagination and supplement the normative paradigms.

This does not mean that aesthetic approach supersedes or cancels the normative. It is not a competition of zero and sum. These two approaches exist on different planes. There are zones of overlap. Clearly the works of art made by Bruguera, Jacir and Alys have normative effects – they prompt moral questions and political action. However, this does not exhaust the totality of its meaning and does not touch its sources. To catch these other levels, and apprehend another dimension of cosmopolitanism, we need to supplement the normative approach. It is not enough to look at art from the point of the moral imperative. Philosophers, such as Henri Bergson, who are part of a counter history in philosophy, have also argued in favour of a wider perspective. It is therefore with examples of the impulse for eros and creation drawn from the ancient Stoics and contemporary artists that I propose that cosmopolitanism can be grasped not just from the moral imperative but also in the creative constitutive.

Proof of this link is elusive, indirect and incomplete. There are many contemporary artists who declare inspiration from and connection with the cosmos. They insist that their capacity to create is drawn from above as much as it arises from within. There are also many artists who express a direct commitment to building the cosmo – polis. It is difficult to find direct and causal links between both of these claims. The foundational texts in art history are replete with references that link creation and the cosmos. Contemporary art historians such as Marsha Meskimmon have presented detailed examinations of the correspondence and renewal of both normative and aesthetic cosmopolitanism. We note the proclamation of the impulse in creation in the early texts, and witness a socially engaged form of tracking of the cosmopolitan imagination in the latter, but there is still a gap between these approaches. How do we more than proclaim the role of the impulse but also track its operation?

The dominant tradition in the philosophy of cosmopolitanism has steered away from this question. The word impulse would immediately assume dubious qualities and be associated with unreliable features. It would be either distanced by being equated with psychological categories for defining human nature, or disowned as a remnant in the irrational discourses of the divine. Against the grain of these affective or supernatural categories modern philosophical has sought to set it self up, and in particular terms pegged out the future of cosmopolitanism, on grounded versions of morality and politics.

Artists have rejected this separation and orientation. They have retained a cosmological belief in art. In an upcoming book of mine, I provide a long and diverse list of artistic claims that declare the cosmos as both the source of their creativity and the horizon of their belonging. From such propositions we can identify not only aspirations but also a context that aims to situate the impulse and trajectory of their art. The evocation of the micro in the macro, or the world in a grain of sand, is expressive of a cosmic intent. Henri Bergson also referred to this as the luminous interval between the two abysses of origin and death. Sheldon Pollock claims that the impulse is also evident in the eros of everyday sociality.

The point is that the impulse leaves no trace. It is not on the entrance of buildings, discernible in maps, and at the center of any institution. It does not leave a durable record or find expression in measurable outcomes. To look for and judge the viability of cosmopolitanism in tangible terms would therefore miss the point of the impulse. It is simply not there. It is not something that can be held up for scrutiny. It is like assuming that the atmosphere of the party can be defined by the placement of the furniture. To grasp it we have to look from another angle.

How do we begin to sense cosmopolitanism in terms of effervescence, rather than through the mediating apparatus of language and law? If our gaze is focused on the process of translation will we miss the imperceptible but vital force of impulse? How can we now the difference or significance of an impulse if we are unable to connect virtual intent with material manifestations? Or alternatively, can we turn it around and grasp the integration between a sensory apprehension, a conceptual abstraction and physical construction? How would precepts change our perspective of the world?

The world would look small, ephemeral and slow if we, as Marcus Aurelius suggested, our point of view was elevated to the cosmos. All objects, institutions and Empires would diminish in scale as the spheres of consciousness are ablaze with the awe towards the infinite flow. The cosmic space and modes of connection would explode the regions and metaphors for the politics of cosmopolitanism.

This turn towards the cosmological dimensions of cosmopolitanism has been a feature of the decolonial critique of philosophy and art. It has sought to validate the Indigenous perspectives and practices. Life-worlds that were previously dismissed as primitive are now recovered as sources of profound knowledge. This re-examination of specific cultural world-views has been cast in opposition to the universal version of cosmopolitanism. In order to recognise the diversity and open space for greater cross-cultural dialogue new pluriversal frameworks have been proposed. These are clearly salutary corrective measures. However, they do not resolve some underlying and overarching problems. The presumed arrogance in a totalitarian version of universalism is not overcome by acknowledging the diversity of counter-claims to universality. It may rupture the hierarchy that glorifies a singular perspective, but it will also open the trap door into the abyss of relativism.

Cosmopolitanism cannot be sustained if it is either directed from an imperious center or fragmented across infinite units. The relationship between cosmopolitanism and universalism is always qualified. There can never be a singular origin or ultimate destination that governs cosmopolitanism. However, the orientation of cosmopolitanism is universal – it includes everyone and everything. Cosmopolitanism can be envisaged in a variety of ways, but it cannot be defined in exclusive terms. There is no cosmopolitanism that is only for ‘my people’, but a cosmopolitan viewpoint can be emerge from a specific place and establish horizons that reach out towards the rest of the world. As these horizons lean out and touch each other they need not collapse into a centrally unified arrangement. The point of cosmopolitanism is neither the organisation of the world according to an absolute universalism, nor the fragmentation into a world of autonomous and localised cosmologies. Cosmopolitanism only exists in an open flow not in sealed and singular units.