The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 2 (Summer 2018)

The Man without Identities

S.D. Chrostowska

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 2)

History speaks of two Anacharses, living twenty-three centuries apart.

The first was a barbarian, scion of a Scythian prince and, in a late ancient retelling of his life, born of a Greek woman. He owes his legendary fame to his wisdom and to his travels in quest of paideia (education), their high point being an extended stay in Athens. Having arrived there about 589 BCE, he was eventually granted local citizenship—a rare honor for a foreigner. Owing to a combination of candor, critical acumen, eccentricity, and austere lifestyle (despite his noble birth), he is considered a forerunner to antiquity’s most famous Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, whose citizenship there was revoked upon his exile and who, like Anacharsis before him, came to Athens as a metic, a resident alien. Anacharsis’s enthusiasm for all things Greek (although he was appreciated as a bit of a gadfly) cost him his life upon his return to his native Scythia.

The second Anacharsis (1755–94), who adopted the name in homage to the first, was born into privilege as Johann Baptist Hermann Maria, Baron de Cloots. Lapsed in his Prussian nobility, he styled himself the “Orator of Humankind” and “Citizen of Humanity,” advocating the worldwide abolition of borders and the constitution of a family of all nations, a universal republic. Seeing an opportunity to advance his cause, he took an active part in the Revolution in France nearly from the beginning, becoming one of two foreign deputies in the National Convention. His honorary French citizenship did not preserve him from the Terror: Branded an étranger—along with Thomas Paine, who likewise pinned his heart to his sleeve by claiming the world as his country—he was accused of antipatriotic activity by Robespierre, and guillotined. His militant idealism, borne upon the great revolutionary surge, the declarations of the rights of man and citizen, and the human flow across Europe and the Atlantic, was thus cut short.

Less Than Fully Governed

They call me a cosmopolite. They mean nothing bad by it, of course: I even detect a hint of envy. As my nationalities and the readiness with which I own and occupy each one—changing countries like lovers without having to tear myself out by the roots every time—indicate, I am more than just a worldly subject of a single nation-state. Cosmopolitan is a category into which they put people like me, whose inner consistency is not threatened by having mobile roots. The category helps to make sense of individuals who exceed each of their nationalities, and who, while they can pass for good citizens of any one of the states for which they hold a passport, are in an emphatic or discreet way not fully subject to it—less than fully governed. A citizen is a card-carrying member of a state; a cosmopolitan is over and above that. To pass for the latter, it not only helps, but also apparently suffices, to have multiple such memberships, even if it is not strictly necessary.

And so, it seems, many passports doth a cosmopolite make, though when stated so plainly it is a preposterous idea. Cosmopolitan becomes a kind of metaidentity, floating above the national ones as an effect of their synergy, a natural consequence of holding more than two valid passports (at least one of them Western and widely coveted) and making use of them. The latter suggests that I live my different nationalities, not least linguistically, instead of merely collecting them like postage stamps. This, in turn, allows and encourages me to pass all the more easily through states (more or less as a tourist) of which I am not a citizen. Thanks to such broad cultural exposure, I seem to enjoy the precious freedom, at least in principle, to choose where to make my home from among a number of countries—not only from among my several legitimate homes or those that are conveniently multicultural, where I can blend in without having to pretend, but also potentially from all the available polities on the planet, where I could live and where I could feel chez moi, without necessarily claiming the status of a citizen. What makes a cosmopolite, then—if I have these associations and assumptions right—is essentially this freedom to go anywhere and to be at home there. This theoretical freedom, along with an attitude of openness to the world, is tied, in an elusive inductive chain, to the passports, which become its tokens, and to the fact that I have been using them, which is to say traveling with some regularity.

Cosmopolitan in its ordinary sense still carries a whiff of international adventurousness and itinerant travel. The first Anacharsis was a traveler before travel became tourism: The world was not yet easily traversable by sea, land, and air, not yet globalized via trade routes and the World Wide Web; the rules of hospitality we take for granted were not widespread; modern comforts we can now barely do without were unobtainable at any price. Until the end of the eighteenth century, celebrity scientists and philosophers sojourned abroad at the invitation of monarchs and interacted within the international community of the imaginary Republic of Letters. Academics today continue their itinerating by accepting visiting professorships or attending an endless succession of conferences. If the term with which we are concerned has a core meaning today, it is cultural fluidity, the risk of losing some national character in exchange for other-cultural enrichment.

Yet getting at this essence of cosmopolitan as a category of person, more or less intact since Anacharsis’s day, does not make the attribution of a cosmopolitan identity to an active multiple citizen any less ludicrous. To those who do not take the time to figure out what is behind this identification, the two terms are virtual synonyms. The meaning of cosmopolitanism thus risks being degraded to a function of what is in fact multisovereign state control, and—a fine scholarly buzzword just a few years ago—of being deprived of its ethical seriousness. Although the traditional meaning, unindexed to valid passport count, still survives, it is in the process of being assimilated into the one-dimensional logic of administration.

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S.D. Chrostowska teaches in the Department of Humanities, York University, Toronto. Her books are Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland, and Russia, 1700–1800; Permission: A Novel; Matches: A Light Book; and Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives (coedited with James D. Ingram).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.2 (Summer 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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