Empathic Cosmopolitanism

A REVIEW BY SUSAN ANTEBI

Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America
By Mariano Siskind
Northwestern University Press, 2014

In January 2015, shortly after terrorist attacks in Paris, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” began to circulate on Twitter and to appear on demonstrators’ signs in Paris and throughout the world.  The protests expressed support for the twelve dead at the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and often for the four hostages murdered at a kosher supermarket two days later. Charlie Hebdo had been explicitly targeted for the magazine’s satirical cartoons featuring drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. The related slogans, “Je suis juif,” and “Je suis Ahmed,” in reference to the supermarket victims and to the name of a police officer killed in the first attack, also appeared. At a moment when reactions to these assaults and their political contexts ranged from horror and sadness to discussions of the issues of freedom of speech and the limits of solidarity, much of the commentary pointed to the risks, ethics and political efficacy of identification with the victims. This was particularly so if one’s own position, sense of identity and viewpoints diverged sharply from those of the victims in question. 

Though I do not wish to tease out the full complexity of Charlie Hebdo’s political satire in the French and international contexts, these debates do suggest a strong divide structuring contemporary possibilities for transnational solidarity and empathy in the face of violence and injustice. Those who refuse to “be” Charlie may fear the pitfalls of so-called group think, or the literal danger of repeated violence. They might reject the specifics of actions and opinions associated—accurately or not—with Charlie Hebdo, or find questionable the gesture of symbolically assuming a radically alternate identity through a few quick keystrokes. They might specifically choose to identify as not Charlie in order to stake out an alternate, dissenting and marginalized subjectivity. Those who embrace the “Charlie” identity may do so through a commitment to freedom of speech regardless of the content of enunciation or through a sense of solidarity with the victims that could extend to a universal collective of all potential victims.

Mariano Siskind's illuminating and rigorous study, Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America, assumes a special relevance for putting these events in context.   Each response may be termed a cosmopolitan gesture, not because it appears in the global space of the Internet, but rather because it necessarily engages with what Siskind, following Hannah Arendt, calls “the world.” This is, for Siskind, “an imaginary, utopian space of reconciliation and freedom in difference...” (p. 262 n. 7). Those who proclaim themselves as Charlie, or not Charlie, equally express the cosmopolitan desire to participate in a universal discursive sphere, even while negotiating and contesting the inevitable failures and exclusions in this process, whether these are internally or externally imposed. 

 Siskind tells us that this “world” is also “the imaginary ground where Latin American cosmopolitan writers work through the traumatic aspects of the question of modernity, inscribing their modernist subjectivity in their universality” (p. 10). The recent violent events in Paris and the international responses they continue to elicit may seem far removed from the Latin American literary modernity of Siskind’s highly original analysis. Yet this contemporary context nonetheless highlights the ongoing and far-reaching significance of Siskind’s book and the framework it offers for thinking through the dilemmas of universalism and cultural particularity, hospitality and exclusion, desire and solidarity, both within and beyond the Latin American literary sphere. 

In a daring move that situates his theorization in relation to the classic work of Angel Rama, Siskind describes cosmopolitanism in opposition to transculturation. The former tendency strategically downplays Latin American differences so as emphasize the universality of literature while the latter emphasizes separate traits so as to produce a resistant, emancipatory cultural politics (pp. 13-14). Yet Siskind’s reading is not a rejection of transculturation as such, but its repositioning. By placing cosmopolitanism and transculturation side by side as literary strategies that reveal their respective desires for universalized and particularist subjectivities, the author suggests that both tendencies are part of a broader framework organized by the projection of these desires, and ultimately through which “marginal literatures ... expose the hegemonic making of modernist global mappings” (p. 18). In addition, the analysis questions Rama’s celebratory notion of transculturation and subaltern resistance as the opposite of an elitist cosmopolitanism, by positing both transculturation and cosmopolitanism as equally propelled by fantasy and “libidinal force” (p. 14). 

If the subaltern Other functions as central to the desire of transculturation and its project of socially transformative alliances, the Other pursued and desired by the Latin American cosmopolitan writers of Siskind’s book is of a different order: intensely personal, grounded in the experience of exclusion, and a “reaching out to the world” (p. 121). As Siskind writes, in reference to José Martí’s “Oscar Wilde,” “It is an Other whose foreignness stands for the outside exterior of particularistic identity, at a moment when that identity bears the mark of isolation and exclusion from the order of modernity” (p. 123). 

In the book's concluding chapter, the Other of cosmopolitan desire acquires further nuance and ethical potency, giving rise to what Siskind refers to as “empathic cosmopolitanism” (pp. 258-259). This reading centers on the travel narratives of Enrique Gómez Carrillo and in particular on the representation of Jews as figures of alterity and suffering. Gómez Carrillo depicts the Jews he encounters as Oriental subjects marked by strangeness and difference, but at other crucial moments as “victims of the Orient … at once included in and excluded from Western civilization and the Otherized East” (p. 242). The liminal quality of Jewishness here finds an echo in Gómez Carrillo’s overall travel narrative, oscillating between Orientalist difference and the cosmopolitan notion that everything is just like Paris, which is in turn more or less like home. Within the contours of this cosmopolitan travel experience and the inevitable tensions of mapping the world as both home and Other, the figure of the Jew inspires a limited form of empathy, “the other side of the Orientalist coin” (p. 259). 

Gómez Carrillo maintains his distance from the suffering Jewish subjects of his narrative, through an empathy that does not lead to ethical agency or self-transformation, but coexists in tension with Orientalist Othering. The chronicler’s encounter with Jewishness thus marks the emergence of a desiring cosmopolitan subjectivity. Yet crucially, Gómez Carrillo’s perceptions of Jewishness in his travel writing, as Siskind convincingly argues, stem from his direct experience of the Dreyfus Affair and its impact on French cultural politics. Gómez Carrillo’s detailed commentary as witness to events pertaining to the Affair from 1894 to 1906 demonstrates his sustained allegiance to the Dreyfusard camp, and his rejection of anti-Semitism as well as the conservative, anti-intellectual tendencies with which the anti-Dreyfus camp came to be associated. The empathic representation of Jewishness thus may be said to provide an avenue for Gómez Carrillo’s political and aesthetic self-inscription on the travel maps he narrates.  

The admittedly limited gesture of empathic cosmopolitanism, mobilized by figures of Jewish suffering through the travel narrative, thus defines Gómez Carrillo’s desired Other as the ambivalent projection of a marginal and universalizing self. As Siskind writes, referring here to Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” “empathy instrumentalizes the pain of others, in a self-referential process of ‘narcissistic identification’” (p. 259). The dizzying scope of cosmopolitan desire as it reaches towards a global, universal identification would appear to be matched by the terrifying scale of suffering described by Gómez Carrillo in his depiction of emigrating Russian Jews, as cited by Siskind: “a wretched group appears, walking slowly, not making a gesture or pronouncing even half a word, seeming as if they have escaped Dante’s hell” (p. 257). Yet again and again, as Siskind’s reading suggests, the reaching outward is foreclosed by the self-containment of the desire, just as the horror of witnessed human suffering reverts to disgust with radical Otherness. Siskind’s nuanced mapping of Latin American global modernity effectively embraces the inevitable failure of the geo-culturally marginal cosmopolitan subject to fully realize its universalizing desire (p. 21). In doing so, this provocative book emphasizes the productive possibilities of the cosmopolitan failure, but at the same time, I would add, gestures toward the risks inherent in the fantasy of encounter with the world. 

Susan Antebi is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Toronto. A specialist in Mexican literary and cultural studies, she holds a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University. She is the author of Carnal Inscriptions: Spanish American Narratives of Corporeal Difference and Disability (Palgrave Macmillan 2009) and co-editor of Libre Acceso: Latin American Literature and Film through Disability Studies (SUNY Press, forthcoming)

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