by Carol A. Breckenridge

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As the final installment of Public Culture’s Millennial Quartet, Cosmopolitanism assesses the pasts and possible futures of cosmopolitanism—or ways of thinking, feeling, and acting beyond one’s particular society. With contributions from distinguished scholars in disciplines such as literary studies, art history, South Asian studies,…  See more details below


As the final installment of Public Culture’s Millennial Quartet, Cosmopolitanism assesses the pasts and possible futures of cosmopolitanism—or ways of thinking, feeling, and acting beyond one’s particular society. With contributions from distinguished scholars in disciplines such as literary studies, art history, South Asian studies, and anthropology, this volume recenters the history and theory of translocal political aspirations and cultural ideas from the usual Western vantage point to areas outside Europe, such as South Asia, China, and Africa.
By examining new archives, proposing new theoretical formulations, and suggesting new possibilities of political practice, the contributors critically probe the concept of cosmopolitanism. On the one hand, cosmopolitanism may be taken to promise a form of supraregional political solidarity, but on the other, these essays argue, it may erode precisely those intimate cultural differences that derive their meaning from particular places and traditions. Given that most cosmopolitan political formations—from the Roman empire and European imperialism to contemporary globalization—have been coercive and unequal, can there be a noncoercive and egalitarian cosmopolitan politics? Finally, the volume asks whether cosmopolitanism can promise any universalism that is not the unwarranted generalization of some Western particular.

Contributors. Ackbar Abbas, Arjun Appadurai, Homi K. Bhabha, T. K. Biaya, Carol A. Breckenridge, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ousame Ndiaye Dago, Mamadou Diouf, Wu Hung, Walter D. Mignolo, Sheldon Pollock, Steven Randall

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By Carol Appadurai Breckenridge

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2899-2

Chapter One

Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History Sheldon Pollock

Few things seem to us as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages that different peoples use for making sense of life through texts, that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their abandonment and gradual disappearance in the present. In fact, literary language loss is often viewed as part of a more general reduction of cultural diversity, one considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity to which it is often compared. The homogenization of culture today, of which language loss is one aspect, seems without precedent in human history, at least for the scope, speed, and manner in which changes are taking place.

This commonsense view of the world needs two important qualifications. First, the vernacular ways of being that we see vanishing everywhere were themselves created over time. These are not primeval ways of autochthons, for autochthons (like the Spartoi of Thebes, "the sown people" born from the dragon teeth planted by Cadmus) do not exist outside their own mythical self-representation. Second, by the very fact of their creation, the new vernaculars replaced a range of much older cultural practices. These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smallerplace. They were, in a sense to be argued out in this essay, cosmopolitan practices. These great transformations in the course of the last two millennia-from the old cosmopolitan to the vernacular, and from the vernacular to the new and disquieting cosmopolitan of today-resulted from choices made by people at different times and places, for very complex reasons. Studying the history of such choices may have something important, perhaps even urgent, to tell us about choices available to us in the future.

In earlier work I have studied the period following the old cosmopolitan epoch, which I called the vernacular millennium. This began in southern Asia and western Europe with remarkable simultaneity in the early second millennium, and it developed with equally striking parallels over the following five centuries. I say "began" emphatically: vernacular literary cultures were initiated by the conscious decisions of writers to reshape the boundaries of their cultural universe by renouncing the larger world for the smaller place, and they did so in full awareness of the significance of their decision. New, local ways of making culture -with their wholly historical and factitious local identities-and, concomitantly, new ways of ordering society and polity came into being, replacing the older translocalism. These developments in culture and power are historically linked, at the very least by the fact that using a new language for communicating literarily to a community of readers and listeners can consolidate if not create that very community, as both a sociotextual and a political formation.

While the literary-cultural processes of this reshaping are remarkably similar in southern Asia and western Europe, the political logics they followed appear to have differed fundamentally. In Europe, vernacularization accompanied and enabled the production of the nation-state; in India, it accompanied and enabled the production of a political form we may neutrally call the vernacular polity, in order to signal its difference. In both worlds, however, vernacularization helped initiate an early modern era, each again marked by its specific type of modernity. And it is only now for the first time, when this epoch seems to be drawing to a close as vernacular modes of cultural and political being are everywhere coming under powerful pressures from an altogether new universalizing order of culture-power (call it globalization, or liberalization, or Americanization), that we may begin to conceive of this past history as a whole and make some sense of it for cultural and political theory.

I would like here to elaborate on these earlier arguments by situating the vernacular millennium within a comparative-historical account of the cosmopolitanisms that preceded it. These, too, comprised forms of identity that reveal themselves as produced and entirely provisional; they are located securely in time and in the choices made by the producers of culture to participate in new frames of reference, routes of circulation, and kinds of community. And each had its own specific political logic. My concerns will be, first, with tracing the parallels between these cosmopolitan formations, as well as the dramatic differences that become perceptible when we place them side by side; and, second, with considering the ways they may have contributed to shaping the vernacular varieties that replaced them (whose histories, for their part, I can only briefly summarize here). Very different cosmopolitan and vernacular practices have existed in the past, and these may have important implications for future practices in the face of what often seems to be the single, desperate choice we are offered: between, on the one hand, a national vernacularity dressed in the frayed period costume of violent revanchism and bent on preserving difference at all costs and, on the other, a clear-cutting, strip-mining multinational cosmopolitanism that is bent, at all costs, on eliminating it.

Let me take a moment to explain how and why I proceed as I do in my historical analysis of cosmopolitan and vernacular ways of being and the kinds of cultural and political belonging to which they have related, as well as my purpose in trying to make sense of this history. First, my intention here is to think about cosmopolitanism and vernacularism as action rather than idea, as something people do rather than something they declare, as practice rather than proposition (least of all, philosophical proposition). This enables us to see that some people in the past have been able to be cosmopolitan or vernacular without directly professing either, perhaps even while finding it impossible rationally to justify either. By contrast, the attempt to vindicate cosmopolitanism or vernacularism -the production of the very discourse on the universal or the particular-seems to entail an objectification and abstraction, and their associated political practices, that have made the cosmopolitan so often take on the character of domination and the vernacular, that of inevitability.

Second, the specific practices I have in mind are those of literary culture, by which I mean most simply how people do things with texts: writing, reciting, reading, copying, printing, and circulating texts. These may be expressive, discursive, or political texts, but I am interested at present, above all, in the first kind. For purposes of our discussion here, cosmopolitan and vernacular can be taken as modes of literary (and intellectual, and political) communication directed toward two different audiences, whom lay actors know full well to be different. The one is unbounded and potentially infinite in extension; the other is practically finite and bounded by other finite audiences, with whom, through the very dynamic of vernacularization, relations of ever-increasing in-communication come into being. We can think of this most readily as a distinction in communicative capacity and concerns between a language that travels far and one that travels little.

Doing things with texts, the practices of literary culture, may seem a long way from the desperate choice mentioned above. And yet the communication of literary culture importantly shapes the social and political sensibilities that make such choices possible. Literature, in particular, constitutes an especially sensitive gauge of sentiments of belonging: creating or consuming literature meant for large worlds or small places is a declaration of affiliation with that world or place. The production and circulation of literature, accordingly, are utterly unlike the production and circulation of things. The universalization of particular technologies or the particularization of universal ones that characterize a dominant form of contemporary globalization carries no hint of belonging; the practices of literary culture, by contrast, are practices of attachment.

As for the "literary" in particular, let me stress that this was no open category in the worlds and places under consideration here, but something reducible and reduced to a theoretical and practical system of differences from all other kinds of texts, a system of conventionality and intentionality. Although people who think about such things now can perceive the literary in all sorts of texts and all sorts of texts in the literary, in these earlier systems not everything could be literature and literature could not be everything. At the beginning of the first millennium, Sanskrit and Latin writers had yet to read Derrida, and so they failed to grasp that there is no way to identify the literary object, that literature has no essence, that the documentary is irreducibly rhetorical. Quite the contrary, Sanskrit literary theorists were true essentialists in their search for what they called the "self" of poetry. If they failed to agree on what it was, they had no doubt it existed. Accordingly, the instability of textual types that to our eyes may be phenomenologically obvious was to theirs ethno-epistemologically impossible-and therefore historically irrelevant to us except as a second-order problem.

Third, I consider the cosmopolitan and the vernacular comparatively and historically, and I axiomatically reject the narrow European analytical and temporal frameworks that are usually thought to contain them. The absence nowadays of any interest in the macrohistorical reconstruction and analysis of these matters is little short of astonishing. No doubt it is another consequence of what Norbert Elias once identified as the social science "retreat into the present"-this despite the fact that social science is premised on a narrative of the pre-present, especially the pre-modern, that is still only partially written.

The practices of literary communication that actualize modes of cosmopolitan and vernacular belonging to be examined here are those of southern Asia and western Europe. And since the analytical framework is comparative and the temporal framework is vast, we need to think in terms of elementary practices and to be drastically schematic and shamelessly reductive. There exists a remarkable parallel in the historical development of literary communication in these two worlds, where a long period of cosmopolitan literary production was followed by a vernacularity whose subsequent millennium-long ascendancy now everywhere shows signs of collapse. This historical symmetry, along with a very wide range of formal congruences, distinguishes the southern Asian and western European cases sharply from others. Contrast, for example, the wide sphere of Chinese literary communication, where the vernacular transformation in places like Vietnam or Korea occurred so late as to appear to be the project of a derivative modernization. That said, profound differences are to be found in the ideological forms and in the modalities of social and political action to which these communicative practices relate and which they underwrote. One world presents -and here are two sweeping generalizations for which some substantiation will be provided in what follows-what we may identify as a coercive cosmopolitanism and a vernacularism of necessity, where participation in larger or smaller worlds is compelled by the state or demanded by the blood; the other world presents a voluntaristic cosmopolitanism and a vernacularism of accommodation, where very different principles are at work inviting affiliation to these cultural-political orders.

Just as remarkable as the underdevelopment of macrohistorical comparativism is the fact that analyses of cosmopolitanism are themselves rarely cosmopolitan. The widespread a historicism no doubt contributes to this, as does the tendency to concentrate on pronouncements rather than practices. Discussion typically takes place on a highly localized conceptual terrain and in a very vernacular idiom constituted by European culture. But cosmopolitan is not necessarily to be equated with a cultural-political form of universal reason, let alone with a universal church or empire, any more than vernacular is to be taken to be synonymous with national. On the contrary, as I have already suggested, it has historically been possible to be the one or the other without asserting the compulsion of the national-cultural through talk of mother-tongue and mother's milk-of language and blood-or offering spurious universalizations of this or that particular rationality or deity or power.

As important as it is not to reify the cosmopolitan or the vernacular by foregrounding doctrines while ignoring actions, we must guard against filling either category in advance with any particular social or political content. My whole point here is to suggest how variable this content has been and may still be. Yet it is no easy thing to think outside the Euro-forms, for they inevitably prestructure for us the content of both the cosmopolitan and the vernacular. The very terminology we use imprisons us, assuming for the moment that we believe etymology is truth and predetermines the thought even of the etymologically ignorant. The term cosmopolitan presupposes a great deal, while at the same time it ironically undercuts its own logic: it assumes the universal intelligibility and applicability of a very particular and privileged mode of political identity, citizenship in the polis or Greek city-state. The term vernacular, for its part, refers to a very particular and unprivileged mode of social identity-the language of the verna or house-born slave of Republican Rome-and is thus hobbled by its own particularity, since there is no reason to believe that every vernacular is the idiom of the humiliated demanding vindication.

All this is reasonably well known, but the constraints remain considerable, and some scholars have tried to find ways out. The alternatives are scarcely less problematic, however. Take the binary "philologies of community" and "philologies of contact." The troublesome assumptions here are not hard to identify. For one thing, community is posited as existing primevally and prior to all interaction; for another, universalizing forms of culture are implicitly supposed to affect community from the outside (through "contact"). Communities, however, are never uncreated but rather create themselves through a process of interaction-emulation, differentiation, and soon-with non-community, or, rather, with what by that very process becomes non-community. Any claim to indigenousness thus becomes simply evidence of historical ignorance of the source-or suppression of the source-from which the indigenous has been borrowed. Global cultural forms, for their part, are generated from within communities themselves, and thus only in a restricted sense stand outside some of them. Instead of cosmopolitan and vernacular, therefore, or any one of their conceptual derivatives, I would actually prefer to use terms of Indian cultures (Kannada, for example, or Telugu) that make far fewer assumptions-terms, for example, that refer simply to cultural practices of the great "Way" and those of "Place" (marga and deshi, respectively). But, in fact, as we will see, those cultures' own understanding of these terms significantly restricts their domain of reference.

Last, one needs to ask clearly and unambiguously why we should even bother to think historically about these matters. For this hardly seems meaningful any longer in a world where last week's news seems to be history enough, and where historical thinking has anyway lost its innocence to ideology critique, discourse analysis, or-perhaps the worst predator of all-boredom. The problem of why we want historical knowledge has a degree of urgency directly proportionate to our awareness of the fact that the past is always written from location in the present. In this case, however, it seems especially pressing since we are dealing with a question that, after all, we raise because it is a matter not of the past or even of the present but of the future-a matter of choices yet to be made about self and other, freedom and necessity, even war and peace. Given all this, it strikes me as unhelpful to say (as a leading intellectual historian of early modern Europe puts it in a recent analysis of the history of liberty) that our historiographical purpose should be simply to "uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage and display them once more to view," holding ourselves "aloof from enthusiasm and indignation alike." The continual invocation of this sentiment of dispassion since Tacitus first gave expression to it makes it no more true or practicable, or anything more than a preemptive strike against critics. Our enthusiasm and indignation shape our argument willy-nilly. One can hardly doubt, in fact, that the neo-Roman theory of positive freedom that the historian has so valuably reconstructed for us is the theory he prefers. And it may reasonably be asked whether such passions do more to undermine historical argument the more they are suppressed.

We must come clean about our purposes, and the more modest these purposes are, the better. There is nothing very problematic or theoretically interesting about examining the past to see how people have acted and trying to understand the acts with bad consequences and the acts with good. We do this even though we know that the historical knowledge derived from such examination carries no guarantee of any kind that better practices must necessarily follow. A history of the cosmopolitan and vernacular might therefore seek-enthusiastically and indignantly-to compare past choices, when there have been choices, in order to inform future ones. Such choices will always be responses to conditions of politics and culture far more complex than any single account can hope to capture, conditions that sometimes seem to exceed the very possibility of intentional and knowledgeable action. But if intentions and knowledge count, good intentions are better than bad, and knowledge is better than ignorance. Shankara, the eighth-century Indian thinker, put it with unarguable simplicity: "Two persons may perform the same act, both the one who understands and the one who does not. But understanding and ignorance are different, and what one performs with understanding becomes far stronger than what one performs in ignorance."

The pertinence of my long-term and comparative historical analysis of literary practices and the meaningfulness of past cosmopolitan and vernacular choices to future ones will become more intelligible if we reformulate them in a more familiar idiom. This I try to provide in the latter part of this essay by examining how Antonio Gramsci took up these questions in the 1930s. I then briefly consider how several recent attempts to rehabilitate vernacularism from the left may be illuminated by this long-term earlier history. To these, in conclusion, are juxtaposed the views of some postcolonial thinkers who-beneficiaries again of a historical tradition, but one very different from that of Europe-seem to me to suggest possible escape routes from the dilemma confronting us in the disparate cosmopolitan-vernacular conflicts (the case of Serbia being paradigmatic) that closed out the second millennium.

* * *

If we conceive of the practice of cosmopolitanism as literary communication that travels far, indeed, without obstruction from any boundaries at all, and, more important, that thinks of itself as unbounded, unobstructed, unlocated-writing of the great Way, instead of the small Place-the world of writers and readers that Sanskrit produced, on the one hand, and Latin on the other, are remarkably similar. In addition to their universalist spatiality, the two languages are comparable in their temporal development as written codes for what both conceptualized as this-worldly (laukika, saeculare) communication after centuries of the liturgical, magical, and generally supramundane textuality (and largely oral textuality) to which they had restricted themselves.

A little before the beginning of the first millennium, after centuries of such geographical and discursive restriction, the two languages embarked on an extraordinary process of spatial dissemination and expressive elaboration. Within four or five centuries, Sanskrit would be found in use for literary and political discourse in an area that extended from today's Afghanistan to Java and from Sri Lanka to Nepal. There was nothing unusual about finding a Chinese traveler studying Sanskrit grammar in Sumatra in the seventh century, an intellectual from Sri Lanka writing Sanskrit literary theory in the northern Deccan in the tenth, or Khmer princes composing Sanskrit political poetry for the magnificent pillars of Mebon and Pre Rup in Angkor in the twelfth. Near the end of the cosmopolitan epoch, the poet Bilhana-who had himself traveled in search of patronage through the subcontinent from Kashmir to Gujarat to Banaras and south to Karnataka-could announce that "there is no village or country, no capital city or forest region, no pleasure garden or school where learned and ignorant, young and old, male and female alike do not read my poems and shake with pleasure." His boast may have exaggerated the social circulation of his work, but he was describing the universe for which Sanskrit poets and intellectuals had been writing for the preceding thousand years.


Excerpted from Cosmopolitan by Carol Appadurai Breckenridge Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Carol A. Breckenridge teaches at the in the department of South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago and is the founding editor of Public Culture.

Sheldon Pollock is George V. Bobrinskoy Professor of Sanskrit and Indic Studies at the University of Chicago.

Homi K. Bhabha is Professor of English and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Dipesh Chakrabarty teaches in the departments of history and South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Sheldon Pollock is the The William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and

Indian Studies in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and

Cultures at Columbia University. He is the author of

The language of the gods in the world of men : Sanskrit,

culture, and power in premodern India (2006) and editor of a number


FROM SOUTH ASIA (2003) and (w/Homi Bhabha, Carol Breckenridge, and

Dipesh Chakrabarty) COSMOPOLITANISM (Duke, 2002).

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