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Friday, January 06, 2006

On Culture, "Contamination," and Cosmopolitanism

Well, it's January 6, Epiphany. As good a day as any to kick free of the old year and get on with the new one, wouldn't you say?

Kwame Anthony Appiah's NYT Magazine essay from last Sunday, "The Case for Contamination", has received a fair amount of praise in the blogosphere, but little actual discussion. That probably is mostly a function of the fact that it appeared on January 1, and most of us are only now slowly getting our blogging muscles back into shape after the holidays. But I'm sure it's also at least partly a function of the fact that most of the blogosphere is probably already pretty comfortable with Appiah's basic cosmopolitan thesis: most bloggers, just like most modern inhabitants of the Western world generally, are philosophical if not political liberals, believers in above all individual liberty, and quite willing to agree that notions like "culture" and "authenticity," while all well and good in their place, are basically problematic if anyone starts using them in such a way that might actually involving the restricting of certain choices or the disciplining of certain desires. So when Appiah argues that all cultures are essentially "contaminated," and that such contamination is a good, he's essentially arguing for free trade and liberalization and diversity and who is to disagree with all that?

Well, I'll disagree with at least some of it. Not all of it, by any means; Appiah is a serious philosopher, and his book The Ethics of Identity was a serious contribution to the debates over liberty, culture, community and identity. The argument he made in that book--for a "rooted cosmopolitanism," wherein states (which Appiah takes much more seriously than nations) should be expected to make use of extant cultural resources in order to mold citizens into persons with both healthy particular identities and a robust appreciation for the tentativeness of such--has clearly contributed to the more popular argument he appears to be making in his new book, Cosmopolitanism. The vision of cosmopolitanism he presents in his NYT essay is an attractive one. He goes to lengths to distinguish his cosmopolitan position as a "humble" universalism, one based as much on doubt about differences as it is on an assurance of sameness, and thus distinct from the "neofundamentalist" universalism of radical Islamists (or Christian theocrats, for that matter), and he connects that to an interesting and careful argument about how cultures intermingle and adapt. It is a fine bit of writing. But the first few sections, I think, betray a major presumption on his part that I just can't accept.

Appiah insists that so long as you take individuals and not groups as "the proper object of moral concern," it is obviously correct that preserving practices in such a way as to discourage individual "contamination" is both wrong and foolish, because "people are entitled to options." Let people choose to be tribal if they want: just make sure they don't have any obstacles in the way of their choosing. Very broadly, this position is the same as Will Kymlicka's "liberal culturalism": we need to protect cultures insofar as some people might want to choose to partake of them for the sake of constructing their own identity; hence we need positive action to support various cultural practices, but we must avoid negative or protectionist actions that claim to act on the basis of the "purity" of those practices as they are actually lived. (Appiah sees this as the difference between "preserving culture," which he's all in favor of, and "preserving cultures," which he opposes.) When you look at it that way--when you allow yourself to be carried along by metaphors like "purity" and "contamination"--then Appiah's argument seems not just strong, but pretty eminently reasonable. Cultural enclaves are "distinct islands of homogeneity." Everyone wants at least a few of those around--every Scottish groom wants the option of buying a good old-fashioned authentic kilt to wear to their wedding, and so we ought to see if it isn't possible to make sure kilts remain available. But if it comes down to actually forcing people's choices to negotiate around the imperative of preserving these islands of kilt-makers and their kilt-making practices....well, then it's just not worth it. As he writes, regarding Asante farmers:

When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his maternal clan (including his younger brothers) would work it with him....Nowadays, everything is different....Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave--perhaps to seek work at one of the new data-processing centers down south in the nation's capital--and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

For Appiah, these islands of homogeneity--these sites of "pure" or authentic cultural practice--are invariably backwards: they lack modern medicines, technology, education. Losing one's "distinctiveness" means interacting with the modern world, and that allows for a new kind of distinctiveness: the variety and "contamination" that comes through individual choice, and that invariably means exposure to advanced material opportunities and goods. So, while modern globalization does cause some of these cultural islands to disappear, they are replaced by empowered individuals capable of choosing their own individual distinctiveness. Is contaminated diversity better than that which it replaced? Appiah says yes, because it agrees with his basic commitment to the individual--but more importantly (at least insofar as this essay is concerned, which is light on philosophy and heavy on telling anecdotes), because attempting to hold on to the previous kind is just way too cost prohibitive.

Which seems like a pretty realistic position. However, Appiah's quick and presumably "common-sensical" reference to economic realities in this situation is revealing. He notes the importance of the problem faced by those for whom he says we ought to feel sympathy--"they can't afford to do something that they'd really like to do, something that is expressive of an identity they care about and want to sustain....they're too poor to live the life they want to lead"--but then moves on, simply shifting forward in time: the real issue, according to Appiah, isn't considering what social and economic reforms might be involved in order to make possible the local preservation of various "islands" in the face of globalized media and capital, but just stopping various anti-cosmopolitans and anti-globalists from getting in a snit about what happens when the people on those islands get wealthy enough to choose to run around in Gap t-shirts if they so desire. Which, I freely admit, a great many of them will; I've known more than enough farming families in my years in the South and Midwest to testify that an awful lot of the rising generation always wants nothing more than to forget about their (in their minds') marginal lifestyles and join the mainstream. But that raw anthropological fact doesn't justify Appiah's elision of the issue at hand. What he's essentially doing in making that claim is suggesting that once we enter into an argument about the actual availability of cultural-economic opportunities, then we're not really talking about authenticity any longer, but distribution. And if maintaining a widespread distribution of family farming or kilt-making islands is really costly....well, hey, the argument for the irrelevance of authenticity to the present moment practically writes itself.

Except that it doesn't. Appiah makes the same mistake that so many liberals make when thinking about the cultural/communitarian/localist argument: they assume that, just because such an argument partakes of conservatism (which cultural preservation does), that it must be all about conserving some sort of purity. (Colby Cosh has some fun with this idea, not realizing its flaws, here.) Thus all you need to do is show that every cultural community has been contaminated by diverse human choices at one point or another--which is surely true--and you've won the argument: since it's both conceptually bizarre and socio-economically impractical to conserve all this (apparently fictitious!) purity, you embrace the marketplace of ideas as the only legitimate response. Appiah knows very well that cultures don't really work that way, yet he assumes that his opponents don't realize the same thing. (Granted, a fair number of them don't: there are plenty of honest to goodness reactionaries out there, who, say, really do think the 1950s were the way they appeared on "Leave It to Beaver" and honestly want to get us back to that point.) The "expression" of a culture--the fluid, evolving way in which the basic elements of a healthy community get enacted, critiqued, revised, defended or dropped, over and over again, every day--is inseparable from its authenticity. And this is what the better resistance to globalization and, yes, "contamination" is all about: not about defending a supposedly "pure" cultural content, but preserving the context wherein people ought to be able to work out whatever content it is they respond to. And so talking about the expressive capabilities of a community and the people within that community--and the economic empowerment and solidarity which goes along with making such necessary--is not a side issue to a more basic argument about what it means to protect a culture; it is that basic argument. (Realizing this point doesn't mean that opposition to cosmopolitanism automatically has a normative force which overrides all other public concerns; I haven't demonstrated that. I'm just saying that Appiah's argument benefits by making use of a metaphor of culture which makes it easy to think primarily of burdensome and static practices and modes of production, when I think the better argument is that "authenticity" is located in people's collective self-expression, which obliges to think about making sure that peoples are politically and economically involved in shaping their cultural practices, rather than just worrying about (and ultimately giving up on) any given cultural content.)

When Appiah gets into talking about how actual people all around the world have, in fact, responded to the increasing dominance of their disparate cultural contexts by American media and markets, he's on stronger ground. It's undeniable that a lot of anti-globalists replicate the old imperial sin of condescending to the natives: "pity the poor Zulu, his consciousness will be lost, for he cannot resist the power of 'Days of Our Lives'!" Appiah is right when he says that "cultural consumers are not dupes." This is true. But it is also true that if this is the only mode of acculturation available to any given Zulu--namely, consumption or rejection--then something important will have been lost nonetheless: the ability to believe in one's culture, to take it seriously as a substantive and particular resource. When Appiah talks about Israeli Arabs viewing an episode of "Dallas" and drawing from it a message "that confirmed [their belief] that women abused by their husbands should return to their fathers," I don't think you're seeing, contra Appiah's claim, people enabled in a critical engagement with and vivification of their own embedded beliefs thanks to the power of cultural contamination; I think what's happening is a bunch of Israeli Arabs are disconnecting their belief about abused women returning to their fathers from the matrix of practices and beliefs where it developed historically, and are instead taking it as a free-floating principle, to be rejected or embraced or modified however one may wish. In other words, it's not an immanent critique, but a dislocating one. Now, if what you really want is the sort of critical empowerment that will privilege the individual above all, then however you get there must be praiseworthy. And even if you don't want that (as I don't), let's not pretend that one can always tell the difference between an argument which breaks apart horizons and one which works within them. Appiah talks about cosmopolitans are "humble," and we anti-cosmopolitans need to be humble too. But, as a general principle, being suspicious of cultural interventions that seem to be mostly one-sided doesn't strike me as particular arrogant.

Ultimately, Appiah wants to defend a cosmopolitanism that backs away from strong universals, one wherein people can choose not to be cosmopolitan. Sounds good...but the way that wish is structured supposes that everyone already is, in some sense, cosmopolitan, and thus can plausibly choose not to be. I think that gets it backwards. My belief is that we all have to be in particular contexts if we're going to choose cosmopolitanism in the first place--which means we have to ask ourselves just how and how many contexts can be empowered and preserved. And that means going beyond Appiah and Kymlicka, because these contexts don't begin with their having been chosen; they begin with their being substantively manifest in the way people already are, depending on where they happen to be born and what language they happen to speak, which is a communal and not an individual feature of life. Hence, the French language laws in Quebec (which Appiah once criticized in a debate with Charles Taylor): if the people who choose to live there are not obliged, as a collective, to restrict how they speak, than within a generation of free individual "linguistic consumption," being a Quebecois will mean something entirely different than what it does now (if it means anything at all). Is this one of those "islands of homogeneity" whose expressive context isn't worth defending? I have no idea how you would judge that; maybe it isn't. I'm not pretending that there is some easy solution to the problems posed by the prior burden which cultural contexts place upon our ability to negotiate globalization. But Appiah's cosmopolitanism, ultimately doesn't allow for any such pre-emptive contextual negotiating or defending, and that isn't right either.


Clark Goble said...

Russell, that was very interesting and touched on things that have annoyed me for some time. I have one question though. You say,

I think the better argument is that "authenticity" is located in people's collective self-expression, which obliges to think about making sure that peoples are politically and economically involved in shaping their cultural practices, rather than just worrying about (and ultimately giving up on) any given cultural content.)

That's very Heideggarian. Look past "the They." However in terms of power relations, which seems to be the underlying issue, it seems we're in a chicken and egg situation. You want to empower people so as to provide authenticity but it isn't clear how one empowers them without  trampling on authenticity. That is, how do we let a people be a people?

The appeal to Quebec seems most interesting since it is precisely there that issues of power are so overt. Thus we had in the 80's acts of mild violence against ethnic stores and restaurants that didn't have French only signs. (i.e. say a Vietnamese restaurant) It isn't exactly clear how to look upon this. Especially since with the Quebecois there is the dual culture of being a Quebecois and being a Canadian. And those two cultures are often (IMO) in conflict. (Note I'm speaking of the 80's and not current conditions)

I do agree that there is a problem viewing things in terms of stasis and far too many do this. The ultimate problem though is that the contexts are always shifting and changing. Further, it seems that to self-empower requires knowledge-gaining but knowledge gaining undermines self-empowerment.

It's all very confusing, and probably a lost cause anyways since I think globalization is inevitable and even in highly regulated economies information flows and people try to make money, undermining often attempts at control. 

Posted by clark

Anonymous said...


I sat in on a couple of Appiah's lectures this fall because I was so intrigued by The Ethics of Identity . He's quite a commanding presence.

In response to Appiah you write, "My belief is that we all have to be in particular contexts if we're going to choose cosmopolitanism in the first place--which means we have to ask ourselves just how and how many contexts can be empowered and preserved. And that means going beyond Appiah and Kymlicka, because these contexts don't begin with their having been chosen; they begin with their being substantively manifest in the way people already are . . . "

This sounds very Sandelian to me. How influenced would you say you've been by Sandel in your views? 

Posted by Melissa

D. Ghirlandaio said...

Cosmopolitanism is as conservative as it is liberal. It's based on the acceptance of difference to the point of accepting what liberals would consider barbaric, and is fundamentally a philosophy of aristocratic realism and remove. It's also too formal to be individualist.

The best models for cosmopolitanism these days would be those who could be called intellectual tradesmen : actors (some!). writers (fiction), musicians and lawyers (again, some). Appiah cheapens the whole thing by softening the contradictions.
And you caught him.


Posted by Seth Edenbaum

Russell Arben Fox said...


"That is, how do we let a people be a people?"

That's a doozy of a question. You're right to invoke Heidegger, though that hardly makes things any easier when actual power relations come into play; it's very hard to take a look at an actually existing struggle over a context--such as in Quebec--and content oneself with saying that discerning the boundaries of authentic peoplehood is a matter of "aletheia," that it'll just "reveal" itself in the contest. The matter of power--the actual harms which can be done to persons which we await the revealing--is something that weakens the political force of most romantic and phenomenological thinkers. Arendt is a something of a corrective to that....but she too ultimately figured that the only decent response to the call of authenticity is democratic contestation and the vita activa, rather than attempting to codify for a procedural resolution.

Russell Arben Fox said...


"How influenced would you say you've been by Sandel in your views?"

Very--all the big contemporary communitarians (Sandel, Walzer, MacIntyre, and especially Charles Taylor) were a major influence on my graduate education. I don't know if Sandel has written much on cosmopolitanism and globalization; he seems to have turned his work over the last decade or so to civic republicanism and civil society-type issues, meaning he's focused primarily on our community, rather than its relationships to others. But I'm always interested in what Sandel has to say.

Russell Arben Fox said...


"[Cosmopolitanism is] too formal to be individualist. The best models for cosmopolitanism these days would be those who could be called intellectual tradesmen: actors (some!), writers (fiction), musicians and lawyers (again, some)."

That is really a great point, though perhaps I'm understanding it slightly differently than you intend. For me, given the impossibility of a wholly atomized individual, you've got to credit the communal context that produces the possibility of political or moral individualism first and foremost. That means you've got to recognize contexts--or in other words, places. The only people who could possibly get away with poo-pooing the ineliminable role of such places would be those intellectuals and artists for whom modern technology and networks have created a globalized Everyplace, wherein their particular skill is uniformally valued. Of course, you can't maintain a society of only entertainers and lawyers, and thus cosmopolitanism of that sort is an ethic which ought not be defended as available to everyone. But of course, to say that wouldn't be liberal, and Appiah wants his cosmopolitanism to be liberal to everyone.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

I don't think a globalized everyplace can really be called cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is the result of tension, it's the taking of pleasure in conflict: not violent conflict, but internal conflict.
I live in an immigrant neighborhood in Queens and the people who live here agree that it's more cosmopolitan than manhattan. I've blogged about this a few times: the people have dual allegiances to themselves and to their communities. But all the groups get along surprising well (and they're all doing  very well). This gives them perspective, and weight as human beings. It's that weight that's interesting.
It's hard won.

Posted by Seth Edenbaum