Interview with Professor Nikos Papastergiadis on ‘Cosmopolitanism and Culture’

The GSA was lucky to be able to talk to Professor Papastergiadis about his book Cosmopolitanism and Culture published in 2012 by Polity Press. 

Professor Nikos Papastergiadis

Professor Nikos Papastergiadis

This is an excellent book that offers a unique contribution to thinking through the possibilities and realities of cosmopolitanism. You set the stage for a rethinking of how cosmopolitanism is practiced by exploring the relationship between fear and the image after 9/11 and the constant barrage of negative images that connects the stranger to concerns about immigration and religious extremism. What are the conditions of hospitality in this environment?

Many thanks for this opportunity. The conditions of hospitality have undergone a radical transformation in the past decade. The possibility to disperse information by means of digital communication have expanded and accelerated the promotion of a wide variety of views. I have focused on these negative images and their capacity to restrict or redirect the experience of hospitality. This is because the mainstream media in the West has been dominated by what I called ambient fear. The uncertainty and insecurity spawned by this visual and data culture has restricted the conditions for movement and redirected the levels of support for migrants and refugees. There has been a militarization of border policies and an ever more instrumental and strategic deployment of global aid. At a social and political level the possibilities for welcoming strangers and recognizing the needs of others has been violently disfigured. Hospitality is not just a cultural practice of reception, but it is also a fundamental gesture that facilitates the encounter and understanding between strangers. These interactions are now heavily framed by suspicion and threat, and the willingness of an individual to express empathy, or extend solidarity is less and less likely. However, the same media can be and has been used to achieve the opposite ends, and I am interested to note that in recent years there has been a conscious effort by numerous artistic and political agencies to address the empathy deficit, and close what they call the empathy gap in relation to migration and asylum issues. This might enable new forms of hospitality.


You provide a firm critique of both network and mobility-based understandings of cosmopolitanism and propose the idea of ‘lines and clusters’ (influenced by Deleuze). How does this conception allow you to recover connections between people that these other approaches neglect?

The approach I take on the formations of cosmopolitanism is inspired by the capacities expressed by both individuals and collectives to transform themselves through the incorporation of the other. I am intrigued to see the way that structures and perceptions change as they encounter differences. For this to occur however, it is also necessary that the social and perceptual system be relatively open-ended. I use this idea of lines and clusters to note both the trajectory across real and symbolic borders, and the process of reconfiguration that occurs as new elements jostle together and form a new amalgamation. In this sense, my approach is affirmative of the individual capacity to adapt and optimistic that social formations are responsive rather than fixed and closed.


The imagination plays a crucial role in your understanding of cosmopolitanism and it is from here that you develop the idea of the aesthetic or cosmopolitan imaginary. How does this notion differ from something like Delanty’s Cosmopolitan Imagination?  

The key difference between my work and the important work undertaken by Delanty is the emphasis I give to artistic worldview. We both share a close interest in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis. However, in my work I play more with the aesthetic dimensions of Castoriadis and his ideas on creativity, whereas I think Delanty stays closer to the Kantian trajectory that retains a stronger attention to the normative and procedural outcomes of the imagination. Hence, you could say that Delanty is working more within a sociological perspective, and I am trying to reconfigure this approach by introducing a more robust engagement with artistic practice, and at the same time I am also trying to expand the understanding of aesthetics. This emphasis on the aesthetic also a necessitated a shift in my work. It came about as a consequence of reflecting on the work that occurred in the work of art. I found myself unable to explain all that was happening if my vocabulary, terms of reference and perspective was confined to critical theory. I am not sure I have been able to break free from these parameters, but I have struggled to articulate the beginnings of a different sort of theoretical language that would be necessary for the cosmopolitan imagination in contemporary art.


Another important aspect of aesthetic cosmopolitanism is the desire to avoid universalisms. Instead, you argue that cosmopolitanism should be about negotiating differences. How does a focus on aesthetics alleviate the potential shortcomings of conceiving cosmopolitanism in terms of universal values?

Universal values are both necessary and impossible. The crazy thing about an artwork is that it actually imposes a new universality in each iteration. Each artwork also seeks to make a world, it has an imperious demand to see the whole anew and propose an alternative order. In this sense art is a world making activity. It is about the cosmos in cosmopolitanism, and it is an activity that is engaged in re-making the cosmos. Of course, it always fails, but at the same time, each artist is compelled to repeat this task. In that sense the condition of and possibility for realizing universalism is paradoxical, or as Spivak once said, a form of strategic essentialism. Therefore there is no strict code of predetermined order through which universals are established, but at the same time, there is a need to assert some kind of absolute as one observes, interacts and speculates about the world. The aesthetic use of the universal is therefore like a constant experiment, a testing, probing, an incomplete quest. It must retain a degree of openness in order to keep the creative process alive, but it must also make a claim about the world in each instance. I think this dual attention to the whole and the ineffable is vital for our understanding of cosmopolitanism. It would liberate us from both the more fluffy versions of cultural cosmopolitanism, and the rigid moralistic versions of normative cosmopolitanism.


This conception of cosmopolitanism captures both the everyday micro-connections that make hospitality possible and the hard work that goes into developing cosmopolitan practices. How are these two characteristics – the innate and the striving – reconciled to produce new possibilities?

This is a difficult question. At one level the answer is already contained in the statement that hospitality is both a banal gesture, in that it can be both a visceral response to the needs of others, and an expression of our individual right to care. Nothing about these activities is just natural or easy. We do work hard to cultivate or repress these qualities. I suppose that the art of bringing them together does rely on the work of the imagination. Here I should stress that by imagination I do not mean just reconfiguration, which would be a form of translation in the narrow sense, when you simply rearrange different things into a new order so as to make them commensurate. I am more interested in thinking of translation as an activity that keeps alive the incommensurable elements that are brought forward to our attention in the very process of translation. This is where the work of combining becomes difficult, in the sense that some things are resistant to conjunctions, or remain mysterious even as they are recast in a different context and language. Here the work of art is creative, it is not simply rearranging things, but also enabling something new to emerge in the world.


Artists are given a privileged role in this process. Are they less susceptible to the ambient fears that mark the current context?

I think we are all susceptible. Stigmatic associations creep into my consciousness all the time. Many artists begin by declaring their own prejudices and confront the power of the stereotype to reshape our horizons. However, what is interesting is not that they are already above or immune to these forces, but their capacity, as one artist called Cesare Pietroiusti put it, to stick their fingers in the wound. They are important to us because they are prepared to re-examine something we would otherwise gloss over, and at times they are courageous in the very impertinence and refusal to accept the rules of the game. They are not living in a world without fear, they are often quick to reveal the extent to which violence and hate structures our psyche, but equally, they do not want to live in a world without hope and love. Their desire to reclaim these possibilities of connection and mutual understanding make them valuable in both aesthetic and social terms.


Are there any geographical constraints to this conception of artistic practice and the aesthetic imaginary?

One of the extraordinary features of contemporary art is that it is as global and the new global middle class. The mobility in the artworld is phenomenal. Art schools in the West are increasingly filled with students from every continent. Every biennale, and there is a new one opening every two weeks, always boasts of the diverse nationalities that are being represented. The circulation of images and information in the form of art magazines is obviously no longer dependent on the slow sea-mail, and hence, the old debates about provincialism and belatedness in the non-west are undergoing a significant overhaul. This does not mean that there is genuine inclusivity and unencumbered spirit of equality. On the contrary, just one set of racialised hierarchies are knocked down, a new and albeit less discernible but just as pernicious set is established. The lust for exotica and the residual class distinctions in the artworld are as spikey as ever. Nevertheless and often despite these boundaries, or even in the context of increasingly corporatist aspirations, there are glimpses of connection and collaboration from artists from all over the world. There is no doubt that contemporary art is being re-invented in every continent, and it is now so vast and diverse in scale and form, that no-one can seriously survey the whole, or claim to be able to see the current trajectories in contemporary art. So being located in one metropolitan city, even in Berlin, or even being on the constant move from one biennale to another, is never enough. There is just too much happening, and in this surplus and from the promiscuous mixture, there is a renewal of a kind of worldiness that is astounding.

(Interview by Alistair Brisbourne)

Click to view book on Polity Press webpage

Click to view book on Polity Press webpage



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