Lonely Cosmopolitans

–Did you enjoy that?
–Oh, yes.

It is this “oh” that concerns me.

Is there a way to describe that barely discernible but ever-present pause that marks the moment of shared cultural participation? A quick glance to decide how loud to applaud, a desire for consensus to decide the merits of a work, whether a song is dance-able, worth singing to, a poem “deep.”

It is more familiar as a sense of cultural lag, the moment when one understands denotation but lacks the appropriate sense of cultural (and cultured) affect. In its more quotidian form, it’s the joke that one “does not get.”

(Even, and especially, moments of digression bear this side-ways glance, this lag, the essence of J. Alfred Prufrock.)

The quotidian sense of not quite knowing how to react that is, at once, the mark of foreignness, but also, perhaps, one of the few things we share. Perhaps this explains our fascination with social and cultural forms of awkwardness, our distaste for certain forms of social polish, our envy for the few among us who seem to move fluidly.

I attended a conference where a scholar who has written eloquently about cosmopolitanism was in attendance. For most of the day he seemed slightly lost, a little melancholy, awkward in that way many academics tend to be. It reminded me of my own lost object of desire, community. It was a term that guided my undergraduate prose in quite embarrassing ways. Only later did I understand that my desire for community expressed itself as an extended elegy.

It is telling, I think, that the modern philosopher most associated with contemporary ideas about cosmopolitanism, Immanuel Kant, writes about cosmopolitanism primarily as a relationship between States. I have wondered, as I read contemporary thinkers, what gets left behind or unaccounted for when we move from Kant’s notion to the scene of interpersonal relations. How does a State feel? Do we feel the same way?

I’m circling, of course.

I constantly find myself looking at others around me to learn how to react. In part, this reveals my lack of fluency at certain forms of interaction, that niggling idea that something will slip and I’ll no longer pass. I begin from this position to de-naturalize how we feel, how we react, how we constitute ourselves as we.

Here is where, I think, diaspora and cosmopolitanism come together: as difficult practices filled with uncertainty and hesitation, moments when one doesn’t know how to act and how to react. Moments where one learns how to experience feeling from others.

But still that temporal gap, that moment when one learns to act in appropriate ways at times when we prize spontaneous reaction.

Also, to decide whether or how to applaud.