Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Changing Places

Scott McLemee


It is unlikely that anyone has ever confused a page of Thomas Friedman’s with one of Immanuel Kant’s, but between them it is possible to triangulate a prevailing sensibility of the past two decades. Call it managerial cosmopolitanism. It celebrates the idea of a global civil society, with the states cooperating to play their proper (limited) role as guardians of public order and good business practices. The hospitality that each nation extends to visiting foreign traders grows ever wider and deeper; generalized, it becomes the most irenic of principles. And so there emerges on the horizon of the imaginable future something like a world republic, with liberty and frequent-flier miles for all.

Admittedly, that last clause owes more to Friedman than to the Königsberg homebody. But the sense that an emergent mode of governance is always already implicit within the routine conduct of international trade was there in Kant’s own popular writings. And with this came a Timesman-like spirit of acquiescence. Fostering cosmopolitanism—precisely by adapting to it—is the duty of the wise burgher.

Such notions have diffused widely enough that their provenance may not seem to matter. Besides, these ideas may not have as much market value now that even the erstwhile beneficiaries of “globalization” cannot regard it as quite the name of their desire. But this makes David Harvey’s Cosmopolitanism and the Geographies of Freedom strangely timely. Harvey digs beneath the cosmopolitan doxa to a layer of Kant’s thought—his concern with geography—that has returned with a vengeance, even for those who only crib from thirdhand cribs of Kant’s corpus. For despite Friedman’s hectic urgings to the contrary, the world is not, as it happens, flat.

Indeed, its roundness and finitude are conditions for Kant’s own cosmopolitanism, because, he writes, human beings “cannot infinitely disperse and hence must finally tolerate the presence of each other.” Kant lectured on geography for decades, regarding it as the fundamental science needed to “create that unity of knowledge without which all learning remains only piece-work.” You can study a fair amount of Kant without ever suspecting this. The notes from the course—which he gave forty-nine times, nearly as often as those on logic and metaphysics—seldom receive more than a footnote in any biography. I have not read the notes, but the passages Harvey quotes are full of nonsense about how climate and terrain limit the moral and intellectual powers of lesser breeds in far-off lands.

But Harvey’s book is not, happily, just another reminder that Enlightenment thought was not so enlightened after all. Nor is it a polemic in which cosmopolitanism itself is unmasked as neoliberalism with a human face. Harvey’s patient and systematic labor here involves unpacking the notions about space, place, and the relation of culture and environment that are embedded in arguments about globalization.

To be sure, these are often implicitly deduced from neoliberal axioms. They “assume a world of deracinated men and women; producers and consumers; buyers and sellers; entrepreneurs, firms, and megacorporations; and supposedly neutral but placeless institutions of market and the law.” But at the antipode we find ideologies of postcolonial resistance that rhapsodize about the ineffable depths of subaltern tradition while drawing on Martin Heidegger or Edmund Burke (or both, which gets kind of creepy).

These are, obviously, counterposed ways of assessing capitalist modernity. But they both rest on implicit modes of cognitive mapping (to borrow a term from Fredric Jameson) that have political consequences. On the neoliberal globe, any local particularity (of landscape, climate, culture, etc.) exists primarily as a potential contributor or impediment to investment and accumulation. To oppose this reductive view of the lives of communities, something more is needed than dithyrambs to the indigenous.

Harvey is mainly seeking to define the terms for a new critical geography—one quite consistent with Kant’s call for a body of knowledge enabling the development of cosmopolitan citizens, but without all that stuff about the natural advantage given to white people in governing the world. For all their scope and high degree of generality, Harvey’s chapters on the categories of space, place, and environment seem less like an actual atlas and more like the prolegomenon to a Marxist geographic system. But Harvey’s presentation is cohesive and lucid enough, and in any case far preferable to the sketchy and largely gestural vocabulary that has become all too familiar from the cultural-studies vulgate, with its “sites,” “boundaries,” “displacements,” and whatnot.

Without revisiting The Communist Manifesto on capitalism’s insatiable and tireless need not only to expand but to reorganize the world in its own image (pages as fitting for the 1990s as the discussion of crises in volume 3 of Capital is for today), Harvey takes the continuing vitality of historical materialism as a given. This means taking the claims of cosmopolitanism seriously as well; more seriously, perhaps, than some of its recent publicists. For capital is not all that crosses borders and establishes new relationships, contractual and otherwise. So does labor. A few years ago, American investment firms would shore up their claims to being “global” by opening branches in distant countries, then not bothering to staff them. At the same time, their offices on Wall Street were cleaned by people whose map of the world included New York as the northernmost part of Latin America. Harvey’s book reflects the full range of this paradox—and thus serves as a reminder that there must be forged, somehow, a cosmopolitanism from below.

Scott McLemee is a writer for Inside Higher Ed.

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