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Cosmopolitanism, Exile and World Literature Today

Galin Tihanov, George Steiner Professor of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary, University of London, will deliver a series of three lectures at the Higher School of Economics this week. His most recent research has been on cosmopolitanism, exile, and transnationalism. His publications include four books and nine (co)edited volumes, as well as over a hundred articles on German, Russian, French, and Central-European intellectual and cultural history, as well as on cultural and literary theory. Professor Tihanov recently sat down with the HSE news service to speak about his research and teaching interests, including his work on Russian literature.

— What does it mean to be a Cosmopolitan? What prevents people from being Cosmopolitans?

— Being cosmopolitan is not a normative ideal, or a Kantian ‘ought’, although it could be, and often is indeed, seen as a set of values that may be preferable to other sets of values. There has long been this notion of cosmopolitanism as a normative discourse, a prescription for behaviour, but this view has recently come under pressure from the perspective of cultural studies, feminist theory, the notion of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’, etc. Historically, cosmopolitanism begins as a personal ethos, then it evolves into a political philosophy that should furnish the foundations for a specific world order, and most recently it has become a synonym for a particular methodology in the social sciences that opposes ‘methodological nationalism’. 

We also need to be aware of the so-called ‘enforced cosmopolitanism’, a recent discourse which, in a way that I don’t find entirely acceptable, appears to conceive of cosmopolitanism as a charitable departure, if not deviation, from the customary flow of life, a sort of happy-end adventure. Migrant workers, for example, are forced by circumstances to emigrate and try their luck abroad. Often undocumented and without equal rights with the locals, they are portrayed by this particular trend in sociology and social anthropology as developing, under duress, the desired toolkit of a cosmopolitan as they struggle to survive. They continue to live lives of precarity, of daily humiliation, of stark inequality, yet suddenly they are ‘upgraded’ to a ‘cosmopolitan’. Thus, they seemingly cease to be poor, distressed, dogged by police, in other words outcasts, and the wounds of émigré existence are miraculously healed. This latter discourse ends up masking social injustice and enticing people into accepting rather than questioning inequality.

— What would you consider an essential feature for a modern young person? How is it developed, and is it necessary at all? In what ways do you discuss this with your students?

— I see my role as teaching my students to think, to critically assess and interpret the society they live in, and not to take things for granted or at face value. Giving advice seems to me less important; if they do manage to carve out this space for critical reflection and expand their horizons through encountering and experiencing different cultures, they would themselves arrive where I would like them to be as global citizens of our conflict-ridden world: enterprising in spirit, independent-minded, and always ready to extend respect and acknowledge the dignity of others, even when they profoundly disagree with them.

There is so much that I find truly exciting about Russian literature and culture today. There are some wonderful cultural commentators, film directors, and artists whose work I continue to follow.

Galin Tihanov
George Steiner Professor of Comparative Literature at Queen Mary, University of London


— You have written on issues such as exile and cosmopolitanism. Official Soviet rhetoric changed on these issues quite frequently. What are your impressions of today's attitudes?

— You probably know that in the late 1940s ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the Soviet Union was a word of thinly veiled anti-Semitic abuse. Things have changed since then, but in Russia, just as elsewhere in the world, there appear to be growing pressures on the freedom of the press; the proactive appreciation of difference, on which cosmopolitanism rests – i.e. not just accepting difference and otherness but learning to live constructively with it and to appreciate it – perhaps even enjoy it – is still fragile, in this country and in the West. There is, of course, also the danger of forgetting that, genealogically speaking, cosmopolitanism itself is a Western discourse, which means that in order for it to make sense and thrive outside the West, it has to be culturally legitimate, adaptable, and sensitive.

— Along with Evgeny Dobrenko, you are the winner of the Efim Etkind Prize for Best Book on Russian Culture (2012), awarded for your co-edited 'A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism: The Soviet Age and Beyond' (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). What is exciting for you in modern Russian literature? Whom do you follow and what would you recommend that your colleagues at the University of London read, for example? 

— There is so much that I find truly exciting about Russian literature and culture today. There are some wonderful cultural commentators, film directors, and artists whose work I continue to follow. But my disposition and my interests are also historical. Recently I have read for the first time in its entirety Anatolii Shteiger’s poetry (before that I had known just a couple of his poems). I came to his work because of my interest in exilic writing. Felix Ingold has produced a wonderful bilingual (Russian-German) edition of Shteiger’s poetry (Shteiger lived out his final years in Switzerland), and I should also like to read Shteiger’s prose which I don’t know. Another émigré writer on my list is Ekaterina Bakunina; she was part of the Paris literary scene in the interwar decades, but then settled in England and died there. Her novels did not enjoy universal approval at the time; Khodasevich was less than impressed, while others saluted them as something fresh, daring, and uninhibited.

— You are coming to Moscow for three lectures, one of which you will give – on modern literature – in Russian. What is next on your research plate with regard to Russian culture?

— Right now, I am finishing a book, ‘Regimes of Relevance’, in which Russian literary and cultural theory of the interwar period plays a major part. After that I plan to write on what Russians understood by ‘world literature’, and how they believed its history should be written. This is an enormously interesting and significant question; suffice it to say, Russia in the 1960s was the unacknowledged (still to this day) pioneer of non-Eurocentric approaches to world literature. I have already done some research on this, and I will do a bit more on this trip to Moscow.

— Do you have any other particular plans to work with the HSE apart from this series of lectures?

— The HSE has great scholars on its faculty, and I am looking forward to meeting many of its graduate students. A long-standing friendship and collaboration with Alexander Dmitriev, my host during this week in Moscow; an acquaintance and shared scholarly interests with Ivan Boldyrev and Boris Orekhov, to mention but a few names of people I have been privileged to meet in person; as well as knowledge of, and admiration for, the work of many other scholars at the HSE means that I genuinely hope to continue the dialogue and cooperation with HSE colleagues and their graduate students over the coming years.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for the HSE News Service

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