Cosmopolitan                                               when the first submissions for a volume start com-
                                                           ing in, when I wonder about the project’s coherence.

Freedoms                                                   Each time, however, my doubt is proven unfounded.
                                                               In this volume, although the contributions vary
                                                           considerably in style and content, there exists a
Lara Allen                                                 strong current of concern that repeats in the founda-
(University of the Witwatersrand,                          tion of many of the pieces. At the most fundamental
South Africa)                                              level this current is constituted of anger at injustice,
                                                           inequality, and lack of freedom in the world, accom-
What do the contributors to this volume of The             panied by a desire to envision alternatives.
Johannesburg Salon think of the present state of               One of the most recurrent themes in this volume
the world? What is, or could be, the social role of        is the social role of the intellectual, of the writer, of
intellectuals concerned to increase global levels          Ideas. Read together, the articles raise two trajecto-
of justice and equality? One response, suggests            ries of possibility: the relationships between Ideas,
Lara Allen, is a growing quest for equal access            Leaders and achieving the Good; and ethical use of
to ‘cosmopolitan freedoms’ for people across the           the capacities and opportunities that being a critic
planet.                                                    or writer affords.
                                                               One of the most powerful interstices between
Embarking on the process of editing a volume of The        ideas and the social sphere occur when visionary
Johannesburg Salon is an act of faith based on an          leaders evolve or promote theories directed at creat-
assumption. The assumption is that there exists a          ing a better, more just society. Three pieces in this
global community interested in the notion of analy-        volume engage the legacies of past leaders, and dis-
sis from a ‘southern perspective’; the faith is that the   cuss the contemporary relevance of the visions they
articles submitted will speak to each other; will share    advocated. The black ecclesiastical leaders and intel-      Extract from 3b by Cicilie
concerns; that the whole will be of greater value than     lectuals Martin Luther King and Jean-Mark Ela were          Photo: Flickr/Cicilie
the sum of the individual parts. The Johannesburg          (as shown in articles by Damien Marassa and Jane I.
Salon’s very free policy with regard to content makes      Guyer respectively) fundamentally concerned about           Mbeki – a leader who became ‘past’ without dying
the editorial process rather like the composition of       social and political inequality and injustice in this       – faced significant criticism for not ensuring the ful-
‘chance music’, a 1950s genre of western art music         world, particularly as it affected impoverished black       fillment of the promise of ‘a better life for all’.
considered very avant-garde in the: composers like         people. For them promises of a better life in the next          For Achille Mbembe, “the task of critique is to
John Cage set up the venue, invited the audience,          were not enough: “It’s all right to talk about ‘streets     witness”. What matters when attempting “to rei-
designated the beginning and end times of the piece,       flowing with milk and honey,’” King asserted, “but          magine the political and ethical realms”, he sug-
and then waited. Whatever happened between these           God has commanded us to be concerned about the              gests, “is to think ethically, sincerely and responsi-
designated points was the music. I wonder whether          slums down here, and his children who can’t eat             bly”. Rising to this challenge is, however, not always
Cage ever woke up in a cold sweat the night before,        three square meals a day.” Conversely, as Mark Ge-          an easy task. For instance, the articles in this volume
afraid that nothing meaningful would happen; that          visser reveals, ex-South African president Thabo            likely to be most contested (Saree Makdisi’s piece
there would be no music? There certainly is a period,

Cosmopolitan Freedoms                                                                                                                                                        1
on Israeli apartheid, Mark Gevisser’s assessment of       cess to social and financial capital, than it does on      points out that African intellectuals who counter the
Thabo Mbeki’s legacy in South Africa, and the anal-       knowledge or expertise. This is why writers from           ‘discourse of contingency’ with a ‘discourse of con-
ysis of xenophobia in Europe by Dominic Thomas)           better connected, richer African countries get more        tinuity’ (which proposes a return to a pre-colonial
are those that present widely disavowed perspec-          attention than writers from their less well-endowed        past in search of an originary moment) are missing
tives. The issues these writers address regularly gen-    neighbours; why a white, educated, foreign visitor         something vital about the present and the future: for
erate blind, irrational fury and denial. Why? Par-        gets his selection of African literature published as      many contemporary Africans seeking both opportu-
tially because powerful people and interest groups        representative of the continent’s spirit; why com-         nities for a better life, and an identity that fits their
stand to gain or retain power and privilege through       posers from Europe were commissioned to write              aspirations, tradition is a cul-de-sac.
the perpetuation of particular myths, and therefore       pieces inspired by a one month sojourn in various              It is Edoro who most directly points to a possible
have well trained media battalions in place to defend     southern, melting-pot cities, while composers from         solution: an opening out to a form of cosmopolitan-
their advantage. And partially – perhaps mostly –         those places struggle to get their works performed.        ism, which she articulates using the Mbembian term
because these instances generate a mechanism for               The second point has two parts. First, there is a     ‘worldliness’.
the projection of victimhood in which many people         frustration with the fact that so often it is relatively       For me the notion that cosmopolitanism might
are emotionally and psychologically deeply invested.      ill-informed outsiders who get to represent Africa         be worth investing is also suggested in other contri-
This makes it difficult to consider that such feelings    and other postcolonial places. Or, even worse, such        butions to this volume, mainly via the convoluted
may not be appropriately placed, or that to reiter-       external perspectives are taken on and perpetuated         route of revealing the dangers of its opposite, na-
ate trauma is to propagate injustice and evil. One        from within the continent. Acknowledging the rich          tionalism. Here I take the term ‘nation’ in its broad-
pragmatic way in which writers and intellectuals can      Africanist literature that addresses the issue, Ainehi     est and most malleable sense: the sense in which it
make a real impact in the world, then, is to expose       Edoro theorises this tendency as a ‘discourse of con-      is used to define the identity of a people, which of-
widely believed untruths: to analyze and explain          tingency’, in which the definition and validation of       ten is not concurrent with the boundaries of existing
what the layers of untruth are – precisely – and how      Africa is contingent on something else: “call it mo-       nation states: the Jewish nation, the African nation,
these forge the mechanisms whereby some (usually          dernity, call it colonial encounter, call it the Euro-     the Zulu nation, for instance.
the few), cause harm to others (usually the many),        pean world”.                                                   In several articles the material as well as intel-
and what is in it for the rest to overlook such injus-         Second, there is a frustration with the fact that     lectual and ethical dangers of identity politics is re-
tice, and in so doing become implicated in its per-       the continent’s identity seems still to be stuck with      vealed. Apartheid – separate development – wheth-
petuation.                                                an image constructed by colonials at the point of          er in South Africa, Israel or anywhere else, consists
    A second theme that recurs through many of the        contact. Thus visiting composers seek only ‘tradi-         of categorizing people according to particular iden-
articles is anger about being ‘othered’. This is not a    tional African music’ in urban Johannesburg, argu-         tities, separating those of different identities, and
new problem, or a new anger. It is a principle con-       ably the centre of the subcontinent’s popular music        perpetuating inequality and injustice to the disad-
cern in much postcolonial and black critical thought.     industry. (On a different continent Isabel Hofmeyr         vantage of one identity group. Xenophobia is a form
But its iteration here raises two points and a possible   offers a cameo that in its role-reversal aptly reveals     of identity politics taken to extremes, with severe
solution.                                                 the insult and the ridiculousness that the narrow          consequences. The specter of the greatest commu-
    The first point, expressed most cogently by Syned     perspective of the presently powerful so often en-         nal crime in Europe’s recent past looms in Domi-
Mthatiwa, Yara El-Ghadban and Clare Loveday, is           tails: “In 2005, the Archeological Survey of India         nic Thomas’ description of ongoing arbitrary rafles
that the capacity to represent – in this case to speak    which oversees the St Paul’s graveyard reported            (round-ups) in France of those without papers, and
for and about the other – often depends more on ac-       ‘discovering’ the Boer POW graves.”) Further, Edoro        their internment in ‘camps’ throughout Europe. And

2                                                                                                                                                        The Salon: Volume Two
                                                          sidered like oneself, the ‘us’, and to block access to      by one’s circumstances. Furthermore, the generative
                                                          advantage for those considered ‘them’ or ‘other’.           power of cosmopolitan freedoms depends funda-
                                                                                                                      mentally on the two way relationship between these
                                                          identity … is used to perpetuate unequal access to          material and non material sets of attributes.
                                                          resources, power and privilege                                  In this volume it is the articles about the arts
                                                                                                                      in which the struggle for cosmopolitan freedoms
                                                          It is in the promise that it offers an alternative to the   is most clearly expressed. Moreover, it is over in-
                                                          inequalities and injustices perpetuated through the         equalities that regularly occur regarding what Arjun
                                                          identity politics of the nation that the notion of cos-     Appadurai describes as the ‘circulation of forms’
                                                          mopolitanism becomes attractive. However, while             that the battle is most acute. While, as Pamela Al-
                                                          in theory any national could adopt a cosmopolitan           lara relates, Kim Berman’s visual meditations on xe-
                                                          identity and become a citizen of the world, in reality      nophobia were engaged in the United States, Yara
                                                          this is not the case. The practice of cosmopolitanism       El-Ghadban and Clare Loveday discuss the struggles
                                                          is restricted to relatively well off people from pow-       for recognition in the metropole of compositions
                                                          erful countries. For instance, the holder of a Brit-        from the periphery; and Syned Mthatiwa is despair-
                                                          ish passport may travel to many places in the world         ing about the circulation of literature by unknown
                                                          without a visa; the holder of a Zimbabwean passport         African writers. It is, however, in the pieces by Joni
Corps indice                                              may not. Most of the world’s population is, to all in-      Brenner and David Bunn about Brenner’s oeuvre as
Photo: Le Corps Indice
                                                          tents and purposes, debarred from what I would like         a fine artist that the complexity of the circulation of
(Wikimedia: GNU Free Documentation License)
                                                          to term ‘cosmopolitan freedoms’.                            an avowedly western cultural form – the portrait –
                                                              By cosmopolitan freedoms I mean both the free-          becomes most apparent. As Brenner faces the per-
                                                          dom to be cosmopolitan, and access to the freedoms          sonal tragedy of the death of the individual who is
Kim Berman’s images of the camps set up by the
                                                          that cosmopolitans are believed to enjoy. Specifi-          the face in all her work, she revisits her long-held
United Nations in the wake of xenophobic violence
                                                          cally the term signals freedom from being classified        claim that her project is to make essential or uni-
in South Africa speak stark volumes in their sterile,
                                                          according to identities based on race, ethnicity, reli-     versal portraits. Brenner’s struggle to relate the indi-
post-human emptiness.
                                                          gion, place of birth and so on. And for such identities     vidual to the universal mirrors a core tension in the
    The issue is that identity is not just a soft, ‘be-
                                                          not to restrict one’s freedom of movement, freedom          cosmopolitan ideal: it is fundamentally universalist
longing’ thing, although it is also that. In many in-
                                                          of association, and freedom of opportunity – to try         and humanist in impulse but is driven by the desire
stances a particular identity imparts or removes
                                                          to make a better life in a country not of one’s birth,      of individuals to follow their own trajectories.
access to basic attributes of a decent life: access to
                                                          for instance.                                                   Through his analysis of the massive intensifica-
safety, security, general wellbeing, economic oppor-
                                                              Importantly, however, cosmopolitan freedoms             tion in the circulation of forms, along with the ex-
tunity and, in certain extreme instances, even to life
                                                          are not restricted to the economic and political do-        treme proliferation of forms of circulation that char-
itself. In other words, all too often identity, as the
                                                          mains. Their non material attributes are as cogent.         acterizes 21st century life across the developed world,
theoretical mechanism used to categorize humans
                                                          These constitute freedom of consciousness and aes-          Arjun Appadurai offers an incisive explanation of
as different from each other, is used to perpetuate
                                                          thetic choice; freedom to dream, to aspire, to become       the mechanisms that drive contemporary cosmo-
unequal access to resources, power and privilege; to
                                                          someone different from that seemingly determined            politanism. This is particularly the case with regard
obtain and retain advantage for those humans con-

Cosmopolitan Freedoms                                                                                                                                                        3
                                                                  movement, wikis, file-sharing sites, and civil society   makes the notion of cosmopolitan freedoms seem
                                                                  networks such as online petition organizations that      unrealizable – preposterous even.
                                                                  face those in power with the unsolicited results of          This pessimistic conclusion returns me to the
                                                                  what might be considered a type of referendum.           foundational concerns that run throughout this vol-
                                                                      In these ways fundamental cosmopolitan free-         ume: the widespread injustice, inequality, and lack
                                                                  doms are being claimed: they are being enacted,          of freedom in the world, and the role that writers
                                                                  and practiced even though the new cosmopolitants         and intellectuals might play in addressing this situ-
                                                                  may not ever have travelled physically very far from     ation.
                                                                  their place of birth. Arguably, then, the internet is        Contributors to this volume seem, in different
                                                                  enabling new forms of cosmopolitan identities,           ways, to be calling for renewed focus, in thought
                                                                  practices and freedoms that are becoming an influ-       and action, on working towards the Good: Marassa
                                                                  ential manifestation of what Appadurai describes as      hears King’s challenge as “an ancestral voice singing
                                                                  a ‘global discursive flow’.                              across the landscape of half a century”, whether or
Zonsopkomst winter 2007 Observatorium Robert Morris                   Cosmopolitan freedoms could also be seen as a        not it is couched in utopian or dystopian terminol-
Photo: Lvellinga (released into the public domain by its author   second-order elaboration of universal human rights.      ogy; Thomas reveals the shame of Europe’s intern-
at the wikipedia project)
                                                                  If human rights as presently conceived were to be        ment centers, while Makdisi points more directly to
                                                                  universally achieved, the world would be well ad-        the importance of civil society protest; Allara sug-
to new digital forms of circulation, specifically those           vanced in the quest for global, as opposed to nation-    gests that if Berman’s artworks do not yet herald
relating to the World Wide Web. Around the globe                  al, citizenship – with equal rights that such citizen-   the desired transcendence from a troubled present,
internet users participate in daily conversations on              ship would bestow. If all humans were equal global       they do constitute an emotive call to action; Or-
email, Skype and on social networking sites such as               citizens, then there would not be any ‘others’ denied    rantia relates how Antanas Mockus reshaped the
Facebook; they exchange images, music, video clips                rights, freedoms and opportunities.                      public sphere in Bogotá, making it a safer city, and
                                                                                                                           wonders what Mockus would do in Johannesburg;
and web links using various platforms.
                                                                  If all humans were equal global citizens, then there     Mbembe seeks if not a resurrection, at least a poli-
   These interactions constitute both the desire for,
                                                                  would not be any ‘others’ denied rights, freedoms        tics of possibility; Edoro calls for a Badiouan ‘event’
and practice of, particular cosmopolitan freedoms.
                                                                  and opportunities.                                       to enable a cosmopolitan world, and I suggest that
For many of these – mostly young – people, the old
                                                                                                                           making cosmopolitan freedoms equally available to
fundamental identity categories (race, nation and
                                                                  Of course none of this would work – practically or       all people would make the world a more just place. A
ethnicity, for instance) have little purchase. Instead
                                                                  ethically – unless it was accompanied by an unyield-     ridiculous utopian fantasy many (perhaps most) will
they have become accustomed to being able to per-
                                                                  ing commitment to cosmopolitan responsibilities,         cry. But just because Martin Luther King was shot
sonalize their identity options, select items for their
                                                                  particularly with regard to consumption. That there      for having had a dream; just because Thabo Mbeki
basket, and proceed to checkout. Furthermore,
                                                                  are not enough resources for everyone on the planet      was removed from office for deferring his; does this
while old lines of economic and political power are
                                                                  to consume at the present Euro-North American            mean that one should stop trying to envision ‘a bet-
firmly entrenched on the web, there also exist new
                                                                  rate is a well rehearsed fact. The goal would have to    ter life for all’? I think this volume suggests not.
online communities and networks that carefully
guard their domains against global capital and big                be sufficiency for all as opposed to excess for some.
politics. Examples include the Creative Commons                   It is probably this fact more than any other that

4                                                                                                                                                            The Salon: Volume Two

To top