The Rooted Cosmopolitan


Tarini Sridharan

Benedict Anderson        (Photo:CULCOM)

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Editor: Manohar Khushalani

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The capital’s literary cognoscenti turned up in large numbers at the India Habitat Centre last month to attend a lecture by the noted intellectual Benedict Anderson, best known for his book ‘Imagined Communities’. Introduced by none other than the famed historian and academic Prof Sanjay Subrahmanyam of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) the event was held under the aegis of the prestigious journal IESHR (Indian Economic and Social History Review) and Sage Publications.

Anderson, who is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, and considered a major authority on Indonesian history, highlighted a model of the cosmopolitan that had little to do with the popular image of an actively traveling businessman, and more to do with a stationary, intellectual form of global thought. “The cosmopolitan,” he states, “is an intellectual, not a businessman; he does not need to move around much,” – advocating the idea of staying put while thinking internationally.

Anderson went on to add that this cosmopolitanism derives from a multi-lingual status as opposed to the globe trotter figure who still insists on reading translations of other nation’s literary works without making the effort of reading them in their own languages; and thereby remaining shuttered to the outside world.

Multi-lingual societies, he proposed, serve as a mirror to other nations. This is explained in how the rooted cosmopolitan sees everything as “coming to him” while he in turn functions as a mirror to other nations; showing them “who and what they are.”

This structural model of a mirror fulfills a two-pronged purpose: of being both identity-maker and identity-giver, acting as a reflection to all other ideological communities.

Throughout his lecture, Anderson repeatedly cites Chinese multi-lingual author Quay as a perfect example of this theoretical model, who, in the Dutch colonial period could speak multiple languages including Dutch and German, and yet never went holidaying or left the country – the archetypical rooted cosmopolitan.

According to Anderson, the rooted cosmopolitanism was moreover, decidedly nationalist in nature, as he explained a nation derives its identity only through comparisons with other nations and ideologies, and not in isolation. To demonstrate, he gives the example of any nation with a fixed ideological and political identity and independence, possessing a simultaneously strong need of belonging to an organization such as the United Nations, an institution which epitomizes tolerance and cosmopolitan ideas of world citizenship.

Nationalism and cosmopolitanism are therefore, the way Anderson puts it, two sides of the same coin and are not oppositional.