Looking in to look out: Cosmopolitanism and the future

February 21, 2017

Wall Scholar Dr. Renisa Mawani is co-hosting Worlds at Home: On Cosmopolitan Futures workshop on March 16-17 that is sponsored in part by the Peter Wall Institute.

Cosmopolitanism comes from the Greek word “kosmos” or “world.” In its western formations, the term originated from the Cynics and is based in the belief that humans belong to a single world or global community. But many have challenged and expanded this view of cosmopolitanism. While some see it as a global ethics that draws on multiplicity and difference, for critics, cosmopolitanism remains an insufficient vision of a world to come. Today, with the ongoing displacement of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean and beyond, the resurgence of ardent nationalisms, Islamophobia, and white supremacist ideologies, cosmopolitanism demands further reflection, evaluation, and reorientation as a critical and future imaginary.

Dr. Renisa Mawani and Dr. Chris Lee will host a workshop on March 16-17, 2017 titled Worlds at Home: On Cosmopolitan Futures. Sponsored in part by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, Worlds at Home will draw scholars, artists, writers and activists from Canada, Australia and the U.S. to explore what our futures might look like in a world that continues to be divided by war, dispossession and racial violence.

The bodies of people that washed ashore and were recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent are seen near Zawiya, Libya, on Feb. 20, 2017.

The bodies of people that washed ashore and were recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent are seen near Zawiya, Libya, on Feb. 20, 2017. According to the UN there were 244 million international migrants worldwide in 2015. Photo: Libyan Red Crescent/EPA

These problems are not out there. In Canada, colonialism remains a structural and violent force evidenced in unresolved Indigenous land claims and resource rights, in the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, the inconsistent and uneven policies regarding refugees and asylum seekers, and in the ongoing racialization of ethnic and religious communities.

Placed in a longer historical context, the hardening of national and racial lines is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“If we look historically, it is clear that many communities beyond Europe inhabited worlds where ethnic, racial and linguistic differences were far more fluid and less divisive,” says Dr. Mawani, a Wall Associate and an Associate Professor in UBC’s Department of Sociology. “This raises questions about the novelty and exceptionalism of western cosmopolitanism. By focusing on ‘worlds at home’ we are actively thinking about this place, drawing attention to the friendships, solidarities and political alliances that developed between the Musqueam and migrant communities including Chinese, Japanese and South Asians.”

Worlds at Home is an attempt to think about the place that we inhabit and what it might become. It serves as a reminder of the relations of learning, respect and reciprocity that existed before the university and which continue to be nurtured today.

Dr. Chris LeeLeft: Dr. Chris Lee’s research focuses on diaspora Chinese literary thought during the Cold War and the cultural politics of Chinese Canadian historical narratives.

“UBC is always looking outside and trying to engage the world,” says Dr. Lee, an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program at UBC. “But what if we actually looked inside and thought about all the different pathways that brought people to UBC. We wouldn’t have the same dominant story of a university, we would have a story of people coming from all over the world and exchanging ideas.”

Reaching beyond academic silos

Although Dr. Mawani and Dr. Lee both teach at UBC, the foundations for this workshop materialized in Australia where they were attending a workshop on the sustainability of cultures. It was here that they found unexpected ways that their work intertwined even though they were working in different fields and departments.

“Chris and I realized that we actually have a lot of overlapping interests,” Dr. Mawani says. “We wanted to organize an event and this is what transpired.”

Such cross-disciplinary research is a key element for the Peter Wall Institute which brings together academics from various faculties and departments across UBC.

Keynote speakers

Worlds at Home will feature keynote speaker: Dr. Pheng Cheah, a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Rhetoric and Chair for the Center of Southeast Asian Studies. The title of his talk is “Worlding Literature: Living-With Tiger Spirits.”

“We’re also working consciously to create opportunities for emerging scholars and graduate students,” Dr. Lee said. “We want them to be involved, from the ground up, in the formulation of different disciplinary methods and approaches.”

Worlds at Home will commence with a graduate student workshop to be led by Professor Cheah and Professor Wenche Ommundsen (University of Wollongong). Participants will be invited to read and discuss several key texts on diaspora. The workshop will also feature the launch and discussion of a new book, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators, written by Dr. Sneja Gunew who is Emeritus Professor of English at UBC and who has made significant interventions in discussions on cosmopolitanism.