Curricular Crossings

Women and the New Cosmopolitanism
by Josna Rege

Good afternoon. My very brief review of the new theoretical work on cosmopolitanism will necessarily sketch out in broad strokes the different tendencies as I currently see them. I'll be summarizing new material whose implications for women I'm only just beginning to grapple with, so please forgive any sweeping generalizations I may make. I hope to set out a working model of the different forces which a global women's studies must contend with and seek to understand.

In the current swirl of North-South contention, the word cosmopolitan conjures up, from one perspective, a worldly, secular, mobile individual. From another, it suggests an elitist vagrant opportunist who has betrayed religion and homeland. The term has long contained contradictory connotations, and has also long been used in opposition to nationalism. A cosmopolitan is someone who, depending on one's perspective, is either valorized or reviled as a citizen of the world, free from any national restrictions or allegiances. With the increasing globalization of capital in the past decade or so there's been a corresponding globalizing move on the part of public intellectuals in the United States and elsewhere. This has given rise to transnational studies, and recently to a flurry of books and essays on cosmopolitanism. Some of these voices tend to be rather celebratory of globalization, valorizing the postnational and the transnational, and rather prematurely proclaiming the bankruptcy and demise of nationalism. At the same time other scholars and public intellectuals are seeking to define a new cosmopolitanism. Their theoretical work is attempting to understand how the post-cold war global order functions, and how to respond to it. Nevertheless, as we watch helplessly while the US nation-state threatens to stage its latest show of strength under the pretext of making the world safe from tyranny,(1) it's easy to mistrust the motives of a new cosmopolitanism emerging from the US that purports to have the interest of the world at heart.

In the absence of strong left movements with an international vision, and with the ascendancy of right-wing religious fundamentalisms and identity politics, there's a commendable desire on the part of many intellectuals to find shared values and visions, in order to link local people's movements and to resist the homogenizing forces of transnational capital. Some believe that nationalism can provide that resistance to a degree, and it's clear that some strong states can resist globalizing forces and protect their weakest workers. But with the violent ethnic and religious subnationalisms rife around the world, it is increasingly being seen that nationalism is a force for divisiveness as much as unity, and moreover that it tends to collaborate with transnational capital, even while proclaiming its economic and cultural independence. While the new cosmopolitanism is often polemical and full of internal accusations and counter-accusations, it does make a genuine attempt to be self-critical. Overall, its concern is to find grounds for international solidarity without imposing a new universalism from the West, and unwittingly colluding with the forces of global capitalism.

My point today is that the new cosmopolitanism as it has been articulated so far, has paid almost no attention to women, neither to the effects that globalization has been having on women, nor to the responses that women's movements around the world have been framing.

First I want to sketch the broad features of the new scholarship, and demonstrate this rather glaring omission. Then I want to consider briefly how women's movements and women's studies have already been addressing these questions, with specific reference to India, and this part will be very brief. In the process I hope to suggest one or two of the local/global questions that women's studies in the U.S. might usefully be addressing, and some of the gaps that we might be attempting to bridge between the theoretical formulations of the U.S.-based new cosmopolitanism, and the contemporary realities being faced by women and women's movements around the world. My own field is post-colonial literature, and, more specifically, problems of nationalism and contemporary South Asian women's writing. So I'll touch upon what I see as the "rooted cosmopolitanisms" being articulated in some of the contemporary fiction by South Asian women, both in India and in Britain.

To simplify, the new cosmopolitanism has two contradictory faces. On one hand there is a celebratory universalism that is arguably a mask for U.S. nationalism in the new world order. On the other there is a genuinely decentering move that recognizes multiple cosmopolitanisms working themselves out at multiple sites, that works to understand the complex tensions and interactions between nationalisms and global forces in the contemporary period, and that continues to seek new forms of transnational solidarity. This approach holds onto an ideal of global justice in the face of persistent, even growing inequities, and tries to find, but not exaggerate, the emancipatory possibilities opened up by globalization.

Tim Brennan, author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (1997),(2) a book that is generally very critical of the dominant strain in the new U.S.-based cosmopolitanism, usefully defines it as an ethic, "an ethic of proper intellectual work."(3) In the contemporary period, with the ground shifting continuously under our feet, we all want to work out what our stance ought to be vis-à-vis this global restructuring of the world.

At a time when identity politics and the discourse of difference have seemingly put an end to the possibility for genuine international solidarity (somebody today called it "the old-fashioned international solidarity"), the idea of a new cosmopolitanism is very attractive. This new cosmopolitanism is one that remains self-aware, critical of its own positioning in the U.S., of its own potential collusion with global capitalism, as well as of the dangers of imposing a new self-interested nationalism in the name of universal good. And yet, how self-aware is it? I've been surveying this new body of work for a project of my own on contemporary South Asian women's writing, and found that one glaring blind spot in its self-awareness is the whole subject of women. Women seem to be overlooked altogether in the big Cosmopolitanism versus Nationalism debate, as the public intellectuals engage in their battle over definitions. Now feminists and women's groups around the world have been working this terrain for years, yet with a few rare exceptions, and I'm thinking particularly of Gayatri Spivak's writing here, any serious recognition or acknowledgement of their work seems to be conspicuously absent from the numerous pages filled by the new cosmopolitanism.

The burgeoning field of transnational and postnational studies has been criticized by some of the proponents of a new cosmopolitanism for its unduly celebratory approach to the processes of globalization and for its triumphalist pronouncements about the death of the nation. Arjun Appadurai's work is often taken, rightly or wrongly, to stand for that celebratory tendency. In his essay, "Patriotism and its Futures,"(4) he discusses emergent social forms, as he calls them, such as refugee camps, peace-keeping forces, and international terrorist training camps, that he argues are already transnational, and therefore "compel us to think post-nationally." Starting his essay with the declaration, "We have to think ourselves beyond the nation", he proceeds to the following disclaimer: "For those of us who grew up male in the elite sectors of the post-colonial world, nationalism was our common sense, and the principal justification for our ambitions, our strategies, and our sense of moral well-being."(5) Having established, then, that he's in a position to speak to no one but elite males, he asserts the general recognition today of the coerciveness and moral bankruptcy of territorial nationalism, and then begins a "journey...into the heart of whiteness," into the post-colonial Diaspora, never to return to the territory of the former colony, except to damn its totalitarian nationalism, and to "hasten the demise of the nation state."(6) Now, to do him justice, and he says a lot more in this essay, he does traverse some interesting ground along the way, but the relevant point for my purposes today is that his initial disclaimer seems to absolve him from the responsibility of addressing how this nationalism affects the women and the subalterns within its borders, let alone how the transnational forces he celebrates interact with nationalism to oppress them even more thoroughly.

In the latest issue of Social Text, quoting again Arjun Appadurai's opening exhortation to think ourselves beyond the nation, Partha Chatterjee argues that, on the contrary, we must necessarily speak from within the nation, even while recognizing that the nation-state is not necessarily our ally in the struggle for democracy.(7) Chatterjee's larger body of work clearly shows that he is not a rabid, flag-waving nationalist; nevertheless, given the realities of the current national and global structures of power, he argues that we cannot prematurely supersede the nation or proclaim its demise. Chatterjee has shown elsewhere that in its drive to capture state power during the nationalist struggle, the unitary nation-state subsumed many other populist/popular movements within it.(8) Women's' movements were among those sacrificed to the nation-state. And the recovery of their voices could now provide us with ways to move toward genuinely democratic institutions and communities. Nevertheless, in India today, the strongest ascendant voices proclaiming community are the new forces of communalism, that uniquely subcontinental term referring to the politicization of religious identity. And these voices, as Tanika Sarkar, Amrita Basu and others have shown, mobilize women only to serve their own interests in capturing state power, while advancing social agendas that would restrict women to motherhood and the home.(9) So community, that nebulous term, can have implications for women as problematic as those of nation.

In spite of its subtitle, a new collection of essays entitled Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins(10) also recognizes the importance of coming to grips with the national in the context of globalization, rather than merely celebrating transnationalism and diaspora. Instead of condemning the new cosmopolitanism as an agent of post-Cold War U.S. imperialism (as Brennan tends to do), or celebrating it uncritically as if the nation were already superseded (as Appadurai tends to do), the essays in Cosmopolitics foreground the tensions within the new cosmopolitanism. Even as several essays demonstrate a variety of what Scott Malcolmson calls "actually existing cosmopolitanisms,"(11) others argue that cosmopolitanism and nationalism are not necessarily antithetical forces, but that they often work in complex synergy in the interests of global capital.

We can't proceed on the assumption that there are any "givens" about the emancipatory potential either of nationalism or cosmopolitanism; rather, we must evaluate every situation on a case-by-case basis, looking at the historical processes that underlie it, and have brought it into being. This is a conclusion that emerges from the diverse essays in Cosmopolitics. But it is also a conclusion that Indian women's groups arrived at some time ago through bitter experiences with both state and ethno-religous nationalisms on one hand, and with transnational organizations, both capitalist and non-profit, on the other.

That we cannot rely on the state as an agent for social development is another point raised by several essays in Cosmopolitics and by Partha Chatterjee's essay, "Beyond the Nation? Or Within?"(12) but it is also another lesson that the Indian women's movement has learned through experience (and I refer to the Indian case here only because it is one that I know of a little better than most others). The proper relation of women's groups to the Indian state emerged as a critical issue in the late 1980s and has been an issue throughout the 1990s for feminists throughout the country.

Even as feminists recognize that we cannot rely on state support because it so often appropriates our language and coopts our efforts, that the state's interests are often inimicable to our own, it is also the case that we must continue to work from within a given national polity, for better or worse, because if we can't make our own nation more accountable, more democratic, we have little hope of any credibility or effectiveness within our own territorial boundaries, let alone on a global scale. At a time when the U.S. is the global strongman, any efforts at international solidarity U.S. feminists make as individuals or groups will be read by the rest of the world as hypocritical, or at best, empty gestures, unless we're simultaneously working against the exploitative aspects of U.S. policy and U.S. capital at home and abroad.

In his introduction to Cosmopolitics, Pheng Cheah echoes a common argument in favor of a strategic alliance with the nation-state in the post-colonial South: he insists that the states can be an important agent of resistance to both global capital and capitalism, and that the State can also be, "an agent for social development" if the people invoke "a counter-official popular nationalism."13) However, nowhere in the essay, and rarely in the volume as a whole, is women's historically vexed relationship to nationalism mentioned, or, indeed, the gendered nature of the globalization of capital under which women are the hardest hit. Could inventing or invoking popular nationalisms serve women's interests, given the historical experience? (It's an important question to ask, but the new cosmopolitanism does not seem to be asking it. Once again Indian women's groups have been grappling with this issue for over a decade.)

In the late 1980s and throughout the 90s we see Indian women's movements turning away from the centralized national government to focus on local and regional efforts, both vertical and horizontal. (This is the process described in Radha Kumar's piece in The Challenge of Local Feminisms, edited by Amrita Basu.(14) ) However, it is important to note that this does not imply nativism or parochialism on their part; far from it. This move toward the regional and the local arises out of a sophisticated assessment on their part of the limited emancipatory potential of state-sponsored nationalism, of the relationship of the state to the global economy at this point in time, and of the impact of this relationship on women. In my own work, in the field of culture, and more specifically literature by Indian women in this period, I've been investigating a parallel turning-away from the national to the regional stage, and I argue for this as in fact a cosmopolitan move rather than a provincializing one.

James Clifford has coined a useful term, "discrepant cosmopolitanism," invoked by Bruce Robbins in an earlier essay, "Comparative Cosmopolitanism," to refer to multiple articulations of the cosmopolitan in localized settings which demonstrate that the concept is "neither a western invention, nor a western privilege."(15) In "Cosmopolitan Patriots," another essay in Cosmopolitics, Anthony Appiah advocates the related concept of a "rooted cosmopolitanism", one that has room for the national and the international.(16) But he doesn't give us much sense of what this rooted cosmopolitanism might look like. In the end I guess I see comopolitanism as a concept that can usefully describe a range of local/global principles and practices that women have been developing for some time, both as individuals and in groups. In my own work, reading a number of recent novels by South Asian women, both in India and in Britain, I see the emerging articulation of "rooted cosmopolitanisms" that undo any easy oppositions that have been drawn between rooted indigenes and free- floating cosmopolitans, between provincial locals and sophisticated metropolitans. Very briefly, four major characteristics that I see being shared by these varying articulations of rooted cosmopolitanism are:

1.The refusal either to romanticize an idealized "tradition" or to pose western modernity as the path to liberation. These South Asian writers draw upon the resources provided by traditional forms, but extend and re-imagine those forms to suit the situation to the extent that that is possible. They do not attempt to cut themselves off from roots, but find sources of support in more than one place, tapping all the available support systems. At the same time, they realize that they must continue to demand the guarantee of rights that modernity and the modern nation-state has held out, but not delivered, to all.(17)

2. The recognition, even while seeking to build a supportive community, that community is not uniformly supportive, and that internal differences and hierarchies are not easily overcome. Still, while these writers acknowledge and even celebrate differences between people, they do not fetishize these differences, looking instead for continuities and points of contact.

3. The recognition of existing hierarchies of power and privilege, and their own position within them. These writers expose class, caste, and global processes at work, and are willing to examine their own implication in power and privilege. They define empowerment in broad terms, and reject empowerment for an elite class of women at the expense of poor women and menthey are careful not to essentialize the category of "woman."

4. The choice to work within a local setting, without looking at people and at ethical choices through a local lens alone. While holding allegiances to people and places, these writers do not employ or identify with the language and structures of nation in their quest for identity and social engagement. And to the extent that they do invoke the nation, it is conceptualized in plural, inclusive terms. They find no creative capital in marginalization, seeking instead constructive engagements with society: life must be lived.

I'll close with some challenges that the current stage of globalized capital throws to women's studies. The challenges to the Indian women's movement over the past decade of economic liberalization and the rapid globalization of the economy and the mass media, the crisis of the nation-state, and the rise of the religious right have forced them to engage in a fundamental rethinking, even to the extent of questioning their very modes of discourse, such as the discourse of rights and structures of knowledge. Their rigorous self-criticism can be a model for women's studies scholars in the U.S. who are trying to plot a new course in the face of the new globalization. New research initiatives in global women's studies could seek guidance from local women's struggles on different local/global fronts, working with them to discover their needs, and then directing our research and resources to address those needs. As the Indian women's movement has done, we too must focus our critical attention upon the complex and often contradictory interactions of global and national forces, at home and around the world, and their differing effects upon women of different classes, races, and nationalities. We must intervene actively and authoritatively in the contemporary debates on nationalism, transnationalism, and cosmopolitanism, but I think we can engage with them on different terms. I think we should be gadflies, using the insights that local feminisms have already garnered in their struggles with global capitalism and with a variety of nationalisms, both the state-sponsored varieties, and those of the ethnic and religious right. The new U.S.-based cosmopolitanism will be useful to the extent that it provides an outward looking, counter-discourse to the provincialism and self-interest that pervades our national thinking. It will be useful to the extent that it is a genuine attempt to find an anti-imperialist ethic for U.S. intellectual work, and a productive mode of critical intervention into the U.S.-controlled forces of globalization.

Josna Rege teaches postcolonial literatures, postcolonial studies, and 20th-century British fiction at Dartmouth College. She is currently working on contradictory forces within postcolonial nationalism and South Asian women's writing. Today's talk on cosmopolitanism derives from her research project on new tendencies in South Asian women's writing in India, Britain, and the United States. You can contact her at


1. This talk was presented in late 1998, shortly before the onset of the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaigns in Serbia and Kosovo and after the U.S. missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan.

2. Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

3. Ibid., 311.

4 .Arjun Appadurai, "Patriotism and its Futures," in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 158.

5. Ibid., 158.

6. Ibid., 177.

7. Partha Chatterjee, "Beyond the Nation? Or Within?" Social Text No. 56, 16:3 (Fall 1998).
8. .Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

9. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, eds., Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1995); Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, eds., Appropriating Gender: Women's Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia (New York: Routledge, 1997).

10. Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

11. Scott L. Malcolmson, "The Varieties of Cosmopolitan Experience" in Cosmopolitics, 240.

12. Partha Chatterjee, "Beyond the Nation? Or Within?"

13. Pheng Cheah, "Introduction Part II" in Cheah and Robbins, eds., Cosmopolitics, 37.

14. Radha Kumar, "From Chipko to Sati: The Contemporary Indian Women's Movement" in Amrita Basu, ed., with the assistance of C. Elizabeth McGrory, The Challenge of Local Feminisms : Women's Movements in Global Perspective (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 58-86.

15. Bruce Robbins, "Comparative Cosmopolitanism" in Social Text Nos 31/32, 10:2-3 (Spring 1992):169-196.

16. Anthony Appiah, "Cosmopolitan Patriots," in Cheah and Robbins, eds., Cosmopolitics, 91.

17. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan repeatedly underscores the importance to women of modernity's promise, however sullied, of basic rights to all. The nationalist project of the postcolonial state opposes women's rights as a western, and thus an "inauthentic" and anti-national discourse. The demand of the modern nation-state that Indian women become modern without becoming western restricts and threatens their access to previously taken-for-granted human rights. See her Real and Imagined Women:Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (New York: Routledge, 1994). See esp. 129-143.

© Josna Rege




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