Editorial: Cosmopolitanism and Its Borders

J.P. Singh

The Europeans from Orlando Figes (2019) narrates a glittering history of culture: the flows of technologies and artists as they traverse the routes of Europe from Madrid to Moscow to create cosmopolitan beliefs and identity. From railways to book production, nineteenth century Europe made possible cultural flows that changed the way people thought of themselves. “Before the railways it was not uncommon for citizens to spend their whole life in the town where they were born” (ibid.:47). A pan-European ideal emerged. The technologies of circulation and movement produced spectacles such as French grand opera that were ‘universally’ understood in Europe. The emerging sense of a European community symbolized moral progress and was viewed as cosmopolitan: “The arts played a central role in this evolving concept of a European culture identity. More than religion or political beliefs they were seen as uniting people across the continent” (ibid.:478).

The Europeans explains the emergence of European cosmopolitanism across the many borders of Europe but with an awareness of its limitations. One of the protagonists in the story is the French-Spanish nineteenth-century opera star Pauline Viardot (1821–1910). Her career intersects with the spread of the railroads, but as she grows old, traditional Europe is re-asserting its borders. The Dreyfuss case unleashes anti-Semitism at the turn of the century, and four year after Pauline Viardot dies in 1910, Europe is at war with itself.

The cultural history of European cosmopolitanism that Orlando Figes describes must be read against other universalisms in European history, and the continual fight between tradition and Enlightenment, and between reason and passion. Jacques Barzun’s (2000) history of ‘Western’ cultural life begins with the figures of the humanist Erasmus (1466–1536) and the evangelical Martin Luther (1483–1546). They represented opposing visions of how humanity could live with itself, with or without religion. Evangelicals made the gospel universally available and understood—and with a passionate case for faith. Erasmus, a former monk, provided a reasoned view of Christianity. Erasmus was a good Christian—a monk when he was young—and critiqued the same superstitions as Martin Luther. However, one’s reason challenged the other’s passions. Luther found Erasmus to be blasphemous.

Arts & International Affairs issue of cosmopolitanism and its borders reflects on the cosmopolitanism of Europe through its historical tribulations and complexities but extends those discussions worldwide. It celebrates Wroclaw, but the ‘incredible’ cosmopolitanism is of a city that over the last 1,000 years has known both Europe’s traditions and modernities: its wars, destructions, and upheavals; its humanism and religions; and its sense of community—Silesian, German, Polish, East European, and now that of the European Union.  Wroclaw welcomes internal and external migrants. The restoration of the Jewish life and the White Stork Synagogue in the city stands in contrast to the anti-Semitic incidents elsewhere in the country. It rightfully earned its place in 2016 as a European Capital of Culture.

Another set of essays reflects on the glues and fissures of cosmopolitanism. Saeed bin Mohammed forwards a discussion of cosmopolitanism as a “theoretical framework” but one that attends to issues of justice, openness, and inclusion through the post-war figure of UNESCO. Renée Marlin-Bennett speaks to the borders that cosmopolitanism traverses. She describes the “the emotional resonances of borders, the places in which one ontology—one state of being—is exchanged for or gives way to or is taken over by another.” Border art addresses these overlaps. Both Saeed bin Mohammed and Renée Marlin-Bennett write with a strong sense of justice and politics. Marlin-Bennett concludes: “Border art power is subtle; its reach is limited. Yet it captures how individuals engage in micro-global politics and how those practices change the way people think and feel.”

The city is a central figure in the geographies of cosmopolitanism. The essays in this volume visit urban representations from several dimensions—temporally, spatially, architecturally. Wroclaw and Sarajevo provide contrasting and overlapping perspectives. The 14 short essays on Wroclaw attest to its resilience through time, its destruction during the second World War and rejuvenation thereafter, and its subsequent transformation into a pan-European city after the fall of the Soviet led communist bloc. The incredible part of Wroclaw’s story—here retold through the editorial vision of the city’s Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz (2002–2018)—is its ability to project itself into the progressive reaches of the twenty-first century while not forgetting its cultural past. Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World (2013) introduces Rafał Dutkiewicz with these words about his pragmatic vision: “The mayor is hardly everything, but pragmatism and a preoccupation with problem-solving rather than posturing can make a crucial difference” (ibid.:91).

Two texts in this issue—from Joanna Zielińska and Sascha Priewe—go further into the critical dimension of cities. While the 14 essays on Wroclaw visit the city’s past, present, and future through diverse perspectives, Joanna Zielińska visits the medieval city of Sarajevo literally through a different lens. Her documentary and commentary present Sarajevo through the voices of six women and the feminine narrative that is often overlooked in the cultural histories of cities. Sascha Priewe discusses the cultural roots of cities to then address the pathologies they face. He writes that “to deal with the challenges that cities and the world are facing, to stem the populist tide and to manage life alongside one another in the densest and most connected human agglomerations, a systematic and holistic approach to culture and its global dimensions needs to happen.” The way to move forward is through networks of cultural diplomacy. The World Cities Culture Forum is an example.

Another challenge attends to the everyday cultural life of cities. I visited Wroclaw during the summer of 2019. At a presentation from architect and urban planner Zbyszek Maćków, he noted that a good city is like a scrambled egg, but you need to have good ingredients scrambled together. The metaphor is not about cultural monumentalism but suggestive of a syncretic cosmopolitanism. In this volume, one of Maćków article’s analyses his housing development of Nowe Żerniki in Wroclaw. His words capture both the tensions of the past and the challenges of the future. “The Nowe Żerniki housing estate is not supposed to be a monument.” It is “a testing ground, a workshop or a process.” His words about urban planning and architecture address the in-betweenness and overlaps of cultural spaces: “We believe that the culture-shaping potential of architecture lies in responding to questions posed by the present day and anticipating those of the future. Meanwhile, beauty is not just empty forms whose contents are added by opportunism—it is all that sometimes happens in between the buildings.”

Figure 1. JP Singh with the professor dwarf at the University of Wroclaw, July 2019. There are over 400 different dwarfs in Wroclaw, commemorating the symbol of the Polish anti-communist movement Orange Alternative, which started in Wroclaw in the 1980s.

The flows of technologies and peoples, and the thrusts of passion, tradition, reason, beliefs and values collectively shape the cultural histories of cosmopolitanism and its borders. Through the cultural spaces of cities and borders, the authors in this issue explore the potential of cosmopolitanism but not without attending to its limitations both internally and externally. Sarajevo has just re-emerged from recent ravages and destruction. Wroclaw is a beacon of cosmopolitanism in an alarmingly reactionary Poland and the populism of our times. In their magisterial history of a Wroclaw through a thousand years, Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse (2003) see it as a Microcosm of a central European city with its “migrants and settlers” and one where “national states were inevitably small and weak, while dynastic empires were large and strong” (ibid.:9). In the twentieth century, Wroclaw experienced fascist and communist totalitarianism. However, its history includes its salience as a seat of learning in Central Europe and now its position as a culturally prosperous business hub. Wroclaw is once again “the flower of Europe” as it’s been known through history. Similar celebrations and tensions inform the work of all authors in this volume. They all speak to cultural networks that are wide and inclusive, but in a world that can also be reactionary and exclusive. They continue the ponderings and critiques of a cosmopolitanism that emerged with the railways of nineteenth-century Europe.



Barber, Benjamin R. (2013) If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Barzun, Jacques. (2000) From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life—1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins

Davies, Norman, and Roger Moorhouse. (2003) Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City. London: Pimlico/Random House.

Figes, Rolando (2019). The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books