Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

The Man without Identities

S.D. Chrostowska

Rambling Man by Peter Campbell;; courtesy of the artist.

Being identified as a global citizen makes me uneasy; its message is hard to place, like an accent that does not clearly indicate where the speaker comes from.

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he is considered a forerunner to antiquity’s most famous Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, whose citizenship there was revoked upon his exile and who, like Anacharsis before him, came to Athens as a metic, a resident alien.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.

Containing Multitudes

As a multiple national and serial expatriate, I find it revealing to be routinely identified as a “global citizen” (globalhaving a smarter ring to it than world). But the designation also makes me uneasy; its message is hard to place, like an accent that does not clearly indicate where the speaker comes from. I may be well traveled, conversant, and actively involved in several cultures, yet for that very reason be insufficiently steeped in any one of them. I am altogether uncertain whether the impression created by my way of living and social status counts as, overall, positive in an age when the waning of nation-states and national loyalties, prematurely taken for granted, seems less a truth than an illusion produced by financial capitalism and the big welcomes, in a small window of time, given to the subaltern in search of a new home.

On the surface, the meaning of cosmopolitanism has not much changed, which is to say that it remains amphibolous and reversible. As an attribute of a person, cosmopolitan has two sides. One is positive: belonging to the whole world, free of national prejudices. At its best, this manifests as debonair worldliness, and at its worst as epicurean affectation. Either way, it is often meant as something of a compliment. One could be a reader of The Cosmopolitan—the women’s improvement magazine begun in 1886 and now better known as Cosmo—but to claim for oneself a cosmopolitan identity betrays poor taste.

The other facet of cosmopolitan is neutral, shading into negative. It signifies someone without any particular, especially national, attachments. As such, it tends to be an identity, or, rather, a label pinned from without. The cosmopolite, like the Jew and the Gypsy, errant and deracinated—at home both everywhere and nowhere—is potentially subversive of national interests. On the one hand, then, there is the lack of prejudice toward one’s own nation, and on the other, the lack of ties to it (ties that would not necessarily count as prejudices). Nothing in this double-faced definition points to multiple citizenship as a causal factor. Implicitly, the mark of a true cosmopolite would seem to be a lack of prejudices or ties not because of constitutionally weak roots like mine, but in spite of a single site of extraction from native soil.

The personal meaning of cosmopolitan, already rich, does not exhaust its semantic scope. For the word also works as an attribute not just of a single person but of a collection of individuals (like an army) or of a place containing them (like a city)—individuals who come from different countries, without necessarily representing cultural diversity. When we identify people as cosmopolitan on the basis of their passports, it is this collective sense that is applied, or, rather, misapplied. An individual is not a group, even if by the plurality of one’s provenance one seems to contain multitudes.

My reason for not avowing the label cosmopolite as an identity does not have to do with avoiding the label snob or any pejorative connotations that dog rootlessness. To begin with, I do not think of cosmopolitanism as an identity one can have, that is there for the taking, ready-made. Rather, I take it to be an attitude that develops over time, that one grows into—not a given, not something one inhabits, as one does one’s sense of national belonging. In this, it has strange affinities with the attitude of international economic migrants and political refugees, who may have lost their citizenship, or at least their identification papers, and who also, incidentally, do not for that reason assume as an identity the label refugeemigrantstateless person, or even prospective citizen that administrations rush to stick on them.

Migrants in Place and Class

The problem with adopting cosmopolitan as an identity is not having too many (national or other) identities, and hence being unable to make room for still another, supervening one. Identities are not mutually exclusive, but accumulate and huddle up together. So, too, in the case of the refugee: The problem is not the lack of a solid identity (national or otherwise) and, hence, the failure to accept even one so marginal or provisional. We need not think further than Hannah Arendt, a German Jew exiled to America’s shores by the rise of fascism, who in her poignant sketch in political anthropology, “We Refugees,” saw the importance of accepting a label she instinctively rejected (preferring instead the innocuous newcomer or immigrant)—and who, at the same time, was the very image of the rooted cosmopolitan, rising above tribal allegiance to, once in America, live up to her ideal: being a citizen without ceasing to be a Jew.11xHannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Marc Robinson, ed., Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile (Boston, MA: Faber & Faber, 1994): 110–19. Arendt’s essay first published 1943. Nothing in principle stops refugees—any more than it would someone who never left a room, or who led a precarious existence in a barrel, like the Cynic Diogenes—from cultivating a cosmopolitan attitude toward the world. Precisely because of their attachment to their homelands, asylum seekers show not just desperation and vulnerability when setting off for the unknown but also courage and openness to the world. Their ties to their country of origin may be weakened by their ordeals, by the long and winding road of getting to safety, but those ties may also grow stronger. Since, on average, their material situations could not be more different, the parallels and convergences between the refugee and the cosmopolite are, to be sure, rather limited. While exploding its close association with the privilege of multiple citizenship, the refugee is not simply the face of modern cosmopolitanism.

Unlike the transitionally stateless, disenfranchised condition of displaced populations, cosmopolitanism, even if viewed disapprovingly, is considered a privilege—the sentiment of an intellectual elite, with historical roots in the eighteenth century’s moral and political reaction to imperialist absolutism (roots that, incidentally, would prove tough enough to support Liberty Trees planted to celebrate the abolition of privileges before the century was out).22xSee Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), originally published 1959. Koselleck reproaches this intellectual elite for its political idealism and the egregious reversals of its ideals in the French Revolution. Later, the Revolution’s liberal and nationalist ideas, as well as models of political organization in Masonic secret societies, found fertile ground in expatriate cosmopolitan communities, raising the hope for national self-determination that would spell cosmopolitanism’s decline. See, e.g., Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (New York, NY: Vintage, 1996), 141. First published 1962. Blindness to one’s privilege, as we know, has emerged as the worst social sin. To fail to appreciate your privilege as such is bad faith; to reject a privilege as an identity when you fit the bill seems a willful provocation. Imagine denying that you are white when you are no other color. Or disavowing that you belong to the upper crust when you obviously do—as if your identity, the relationships and interests that define you, all of that was not in large part made of money steered toward the identifiers of your class! In this case, at least, we have a term ready: class consciousness, that old standby. It is your class consciousness (even when unconscious), your class identity—in other words, social reality—that you deny. Unless you put your money where your mouth is and sever your ties with what made you, you shall be a laughingstock. Whether you like it or not, you identify with something that normally comes virtually bundled with your social stratum (e.g., poor health or a quality education)—hence, however indirectly, you still identify with your “native” class even when you officially disidentify with it and by your own efforts rise in status to attain, or fall to escape, privileges. The theory of intersectionality sharpens the critical-analytic tools to keep slaying the hydra of privilege. With public opprobrium closing in on entitlement from all sides, upward class migration can prove as punishing as the reverse.

The plight of the stateless notwithstanding, national identity—even when privileged, like the American identity—still belongs to the kind that can be disowned almost with impunity. It is not necessarily renounced when one becomes the citizen of another country that does not accept dual nationality; it may coexist with a new one, or the new graft may never truly take (a private matter), the original national tie being severed only officially. When nationality is strongly rejected, as when one personally disidentifies with a country, sometimes to the point of relinquishing one’s natural citizenship to make a political statement with no other legal papers to fall back on, few take notice unless one’s fame precedes one. The peculiarity of what is commonly taken for cosmopolitanism is that it renounces not nationality as such but as an identity. Cosmopolitanism does not cancel citizenships, nor the civic responsibilities that come with them, but only throws off the emotional shackles of exclusive identification with a particular nation-state, or with several of them at once, as the case may be. (Multiple nationalities may pluralize one’s sense of belonging and take the edge off one’s nationalism, but they do not prevent such sentiments per se; nationalism is a long-distance relationship that actually works.) Despite my foreign IDs, or because of their plurality and my lived experience in the countries from which they issue, I do not possess a national character or identity. This, however, does not lead me to self-identify as a “world citizen.”

Spaces Yet Unfilled

In America, the mix of identity and politics is second nature. It seems as if grassroots politics can hardly be done without an identity from which to challenge a narrow set of pertinent wrongs. The closest cosmopolitanism ever came to identity politics, a politics rooted in a particular social, typically minority identity, was after World War II, in the form of antimilitarist reaction. Although, aside from the menace of global nuclear war, it never had much going for it by way of oppression, antimilitarist cosmopolitanism acted as a magnet for diverse oppressed. Its torchbearer, Garry Davis, gave up his US passport (but not his citizenship) and declared himself “the first citizen of the world,” claiming his “right not to have a nationality” and hence the rights that come with one. Rallying the world’s stateless to his cause, as well as French intellectuals—he was beloved of the Surrealists, among others—he founded, in 1953, the World Government of World Citizens. (A merely global citizen, he believed, was not bound by an ethics of “humenvironmental” sustainability).33xAccording the World Government of World Citizens website, world citizenship is “a political statement”; “an idea put into action.” “A ‘world citizen’ is who you are, what you do, and to what you pledge your allegiance,” where “world” is a specifically human system of interactions working together for a common goal. The site continues, “This conception of a functional world system requires principle, ideology, strategy and tactics of world citizenship. For a world citizen, the principle is one human family; the ideology is universal rights and duties; the strategy is education of universal principles, rights and duties; and the tactics are the symbols and tools that we engage to promote comprehension of our need to be committed to our planetary and human status, to the rights and duties that we have in the world that we create for each other.” From David Gallup, “Why Should We Call Ourselves ‘World Citizens’ Rather Than ‘Global Citizens’?,” World Government of World Citizens, accessed March 21, 2018, In the decades that followed, as the movement’s popularity declined, Davis started a US political party, created an eco-friendly world currency, and before his death in 2013 issued “World Passports” to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Was he thinking of Anacharsis Cloots when he envisioned “vertical citizenship,” breaking with the horizontal order of sovereign states, instead of waiting around for a revolution that might never come to do it for him, or that might come but fail to effect a break?

Much ink has been spilled on cosmopolitanism since the turn of the millennium, as the concept rose to prominence, together with that of global citizenship, in the academic fields of ethics and political philosophy. Attempts to join theory to practice in recent years have yielded Global Citizenship Education (GCED) initiatives, in many instances closely identified with the United Nations, that seek to implement curricular changes promoting a set of values, such as world-mindedness or holistic understanding, to complement and extend those of community. Such efforts’ long-term goal is to instill, along with global consciousness and competence, at least the potential for a common identity that transcends local and individual differences. Instead of endorsing the naive stance of a Promethean warrior for all mankind, a centuries-old utopian hiccup, GCED comes down to empowering learners to work toward a sustainable future by making room for a critical, collaborative, proactive orientation by nurturing an inclusive worldview.

Political initiatives inspired by cosmopolitan ideals are not unified by an identity, whether recognized or still in need of recognition. Politicized cosmopolitanism comes in as many shades and guises as there are cosmopolitanisms: magazine, linguistic, digital, aesthetic, culinary, literary, moral, armchair, “of the spirit,” universalistic, agonistic, radical-democratic, economic, national, transnational. But in and of itself, it does not entail any particular political model, only a practical disposition. Folded into the adjective cosmopolitan is not a political identity, but its negation. Diogenes the Cynic was the first known case of the word being used to describe oneself. Asked where he came from, he reportedly replied, “I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitês].”44xDiogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. Robert Drew Hicks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 6.33. First published 1925. He short-circuited the question in unexpectedly asserting allegiance to the whole world. But instead of being claimed as a special, suprapolitical identity, cosmopolitanism was used to dodge a particular political one, stemming from a specific polis. Given its unprecedented political implications, it would be better thought of as a personal value, or the germ of an ideology. This is cosmopolitanism as individualism, rather than the universalism embracing the entire human race that it would later become with the Stoics.

To see in cosmopolitanism only a metapolitical perspective, one that always pulls back from the brink of war, would, however, be a mistake. Cosmopolites, if they are also patriots (as that dreamer of global perpetual peace, Immanuel Kant, would have it), are not automatically pacifists. As we mark this year the centennial of the end of the First World War, let us consider its paradox: a cosmopolitan war in a Europe before its economic integration. Noting this, my compatriot Andrzej Stasiuk, living in the southernmost part of Poland—historically part of Galicia, the northernmost province of Austria, then of Austria-Hungary—once observed that

ultimately, in a way the First World War was a cosmopolitan war, at least from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. Who knows if sentimental feelings about those days, or even special memory of that war[,] do not arise out of nostalgia for an era when a person’s own regional national identity was part of a larger, universal reality in a natural way. Quite possibly, as time goes by, we tend to perceive the “prison of nations,” as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called in those days, as something like a prototype, albeit an imperfect one, for a united Europe.55xAndrzej Stasiuk, “Not a Living Soul Around,” trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Sign and Sight, March 1, 2005, First published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, January 22, 2005.

Nostalgia for the storied place Robert Musil nicknamed “Kakania” has a long history, dating back to the world war whose end some of us will not live to see centennialized. “For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters,” mused the author of The Man without Qualities, “a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot.” Yet these characters or qualities, some of which are identity defining, pass through and hollow him out. “Which is why,” Musil continues,

every inhabitant of the earth also has a tenth character, which is nothing else than the passive fantasy of spaces yet unfilled. This permits a person all but one thing: to take seriously what his at least nine other characters do and what happens to them; in other words, it prevents precisely what should be his true fulfillment. This interior space—admittedly hard to describe—is of a different shade and shape in Italy from what it is in England, because everything that stands out in relief against it is of a different shade and shape; and yet it is in both places the same: an empty, invisible space, with reality standing inside it like a child’s toy town deserted by the imagination.66xRobert Musil, The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York, NY: Vintage, 1996), 30.

This passage led writer and cultural critic Stefan Jonsson—reflecting on the vicissitudes of universalism, of which cosmopolitanism is one expression—to an Agambenian conclusion:

Musil’s novel teaches us that universality is a human potentiality that can never be ultimately inscribed in particular identities, for it resides precisely in the human ability to exceed whatever identity the subject is allotted, which is also to say that it resides in negativity. Thus, universal man can only be a man without qualities, for a man without qualities is the only one who can possess any quality. But has anyone ever seen a man without qualities?77xStefan Jonsson, “The Ideology of Universalism,” New Left Review 63 (May–June 2010), 117. Why “Agambenian”? Giorgio Agamben’s theory of “whatever-being” (from the medieval Latin term quodlibetalitas) puts whatever-being at the heart of community to come: “Whatever is the figure of pure singularity. Whatever singularity has no identity, it is not determinate with respect to a concept, but neither is it simply indeterminate; rather it is determined only through its relation to an idea, that is, to the totality of its possibilities. Through this relation, as Kant said, singularity borders all possibility and thus receives its omnimoda determinatio not from its participation in a determinate concept or some actual property (being red, Italian, Communist), but only by means of this bordering. It belongs to a whole, but without this belonging’s being able to be represented by a real condition: Belonging, being-such, is here only the relation to an empty and indeterminate totality. Whatever adds to singularity only an emptiness, only a threshold: Whatever is a singularity plus an empty space, a singularity that is finite and, nonetheless, indeterminable according to a concept. But a singularity plus an empty space can only be a pure exteriority, a pure exposure. Whatever, in this sense, is the event of an outside. What is thought in the architranscendental quodlibet is, therefore, what is most difficult to think: the absolutely non-thing experience of a pure exteriority.” Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 67.

There is more to being cosmopolitan than the abjuration of national identity, even one as culturally open as that conjured up by prewar Habsburg-imperial nostalgia. Free of identitarian insecurity, cosmopolitanism does not proclaim itself as an identity superior to other (especially political) identities, but keeps silent as a nonidentity. It is my personal regulative paradox. More than his revolutionary namesake, Anacharsis Cloots, who in the name of common humanity defended (at least for the time being and out of political expediency) the maintenance of slavery in the French colonies,88xCloots’s pragmatism of 1790 gave way to principles when, a year later, he condemned emancipatory half-measures, and opposed granting equal civic rights to free black and mixed-race citizens in the colonies as long as chattel slavery was allowed to continue, even on condition of its progressive abolition. The result, on both occasions, was the maintenance of the status quo. See Jean-Daniel Piquet, L’Émancipation des noirs dans la révolution française: 1789–1795 (Paris, France: Karthala, 2002), 68–70. the original Anacharsis seemed to know what it was to be “a man without identities.” None of his works survived—only a handful of testimonies, passed down across two millennia, of those who might have seen him.