‘On the Face of it?’ Cosmopolitanism and Consumption

By David Thompson
The University of Sydney, Australia

How do cosmopolitanism and consumption fit in together? Perhaps not very well, if theorists such as Craig Calhoun and Ulf Hannerz are to be believed. They both see consumption as superficial, at best a peripheral concern to something that is supposed to be a moral global project. Calhoun complains that consumption provides “easy faces” of cosmopolitanism that have little or nothing to do with its supposedly real task of building an international civil society (2002: 105). Hannerz (2004: 71) views consumption as part of a “cosmopolitanism with a happy face” that is concerned more with the aesthetics of cultural difference than with any genuine attempt at a sense of global civic responsibility. While cosmopolitanism may still have a slippery meaning, it seems to have preserved Kant’s ideas about the superficiality of the material world rather well.
Yet what if consumption is not just a ‘face’ of cosmopolitanism, but plays a much more profound role? Perhaps, it might be healthier to ditch the face metaphors. On the face of it, associating cosmopolitanism with consumption is misleading because it suggests a global social integrity that just isn’t there. Then again, the global circulation of commodities provides many people with an influx of objects that make this abstract idea visible. If we accept the importance of commodities in imagining a world from the narrow specifics of our own lives, then we also have to acknowledge that this consumption is also caught up in the politics of local social relations and spaces. Instead of any Kantian utopia, we are left with a cosmopolitanism that lives in sites of inequality and exclusion. In these places consumption isn’t a glossy veneer or clever marketing; it is a way of negotiating the terrain of inequality and difference.
For example, in Steven Gregory’s (2007) ethnography of Boca Chica, a tourist town in the Dominican Republic, he describes how an established order which separates cosmopolitan tourists from locals is perceived and contested. Boca Chica is starkly divided between its highly regulated and policed zona turística (tourist zone) around the beach and the shantytowns and poor districts in the surrounding hills that comprise the cominudad (community). While most local Dominicans are restricted from the zona turística, young men called fisgones regularly cross the established social and spatial boundaries between them. Fisgones manage to turn the tourist industry to their advantage by working informally as brokers of goods and services to tourists, from tours to prostitutes. Yet to access the tourist trade and resorts they must become presentable as cultural intermediaries. To facilitate this, they take on the objects and consumer language of a readily translatable, generic Caribbean identity. Bunny, for instance, is a fisgón described by Gregory as “a tall man with shoulder-length dreadlocks who had taken his nickname from the Jamaican reggae great Bunny Wailer” (2007: 45), cultivating a Rastafarian image to appeal to foreigners. Similarly, Richard, the son of Haitian migrants, presents a fictive history of an upbringing in Harlem which, supported by his use of language and fashion, allows him to establish a network of African American clients who travel to the town and use his services.
Hip hop aesthetics in the Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy of Erin Taylor.
This image of consumption is what the formal tourism establishments seek to repress. The hybridity represented by fisgones such as Bunny and Richard is a threat to the carefully cultivated folkloric face generated from within resorts and hotels that portrays Boca Chica locals and Dominicans more generally as rural, traditional and above all parochial. As Gregory explains,
This unruly hybridity risks disrupting the binary oppositions undergirding the industry’s symbolic economy – between “guests” and “hosts,” between subjects and objects of consumption, and between cosmopolitan modernity and the static charm of a fantasized native culture, in this case, that of the “fishing village”. (2007: 55)
While Bunny and Richard both use “global” commodities to communicate across cultures and negotiate between local and global scales, Dominicans appropriating the commodities and aesthetics of American hip hop and Jamaican reggae in order to appeal to American and European tourists is not something recognisable as global in its reach. Yet across the world images self-consciously proclaimed as global are very often conspicuously singular. In Patricia Márquez’s (1999) ethnography of street youths in the Sabana Grande boulevard in Caracas, for instance, she identifies different types of (male) teenagers who left the shantytowns surrounding the city to live along the commercial strip. These are woperós, obsessed with baggy pants, boots and electro music; monos, otherwise known as jordans, with a penchant for Chicago Bulls shirts, Nike shoes, hip hop and reggae; and chupapegas (glue suckers), who constantly go hungry in order to spend their little money in video arcades along the boulevard hosting games from Japan and the US. As Márquez argues, these youths “with their Nintendo dreams and Nike shoes, experience life in the larger context of global and transnational processes” (1999: 220).
Each of these groups insert themselves into different global aesthetics as a means of gaining traction on local experience, whether such a move is pragmatic, such as for the fisgones, or ideological, as with the youths of the Sabana Grande boulevard. All of these identities are built and sustained through different forms of globalisation of the imagination, as Arjun Appadurai (2005) would call it. Yet not only do these identities self-consciously clash (the woperós, monos and chupapegas are in constant conflict), they also fly in the face of the benign images that we conjure up to represent a cosmopolitan or global society.
Faced with these conflicting ideas of the global, Kant’s universal cosmopolitanism breaks down into the messy business of local spaces and social relations. Calhoun rightly points out that so much of cosmopolitanism is skewed by academics’ own privileged position as “frequent travellers” whose perceptions of the world are determined by the mobility few have access to in a deeply unequal world (2002). However, just because their/our self-purported cosmopolitanism is based from a position of privilege, this does not mean that a relationship with the global is entirely reserved for the wealthy jetsetters of the world. Gregory’s and Márquez’s ethnographies point to cosmopolitanisms that exist within, rather than in spite of, the stark inequalities that exist along different scales even as these inequalities define how the world emerges in everyday life. While cosmopolitanism can and does slip into utopian thinking, it can also reveal how the world as a concept is materialised even outside of the elite transnational circuits that are supposedly characteristic of it. Perhaps, then, cosmopolitan consumption is not a superficial “face” but a means of responding to and forming diverse relationships with a world made material.
Appadurai, Arjun. 2005. Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination. In Globalization, edited by A. Appadurai. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, pp.1-21.
Calhoun, Craig. 2002. The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travellers: Towards a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism. In Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice, edited by R. Cohen and S. Vertovec. Oxford: Univ. Press, pp.86-109.
Gregory, Steven. 2007. The Devil Behind the Mirror: Globalization and Politics in the Dominican Republic. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, pp.69-85.
Hannerz, Ulf. 2004. Cosmopolitanism. In A Companion to the Anthropology of Politics, edited by D. Nugent and J. Vincent. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Márquez, Patricia. 1999. The Street is my Home: Youth and Violence in Caracas. Palo Alto: Stanford Univ. Press.

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