Book Review: Towards Corporeal Cosmopolitanism by Anjana Raghavan

Review by Senthorun Raj

Dr. Anjana Raghavan is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Her work is located at the interstices of decolonial and queer feminisms, political philosophies and critical theory-praxis. She has published work on “corporeal cosmopolitanism”, global southern feminisms and the creation and performance of decolonial identities. She is currently working on love, and queer-feminist spiritualities as modes of inhabitation and resistance. Her book, Towards Corporeal Cosmopolitanism: Performing Decolonial Solidarities, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017 and will be out in paperback in February 2019. 

Cosmopolitanism is a seductive concept. In the past year, a surge in ethno-nationalist movements around the world coupled with debates about (the failure of) ‘identity politics’ has foregrounded a disparate array of political challenges facing marginalised social groups that seek belonging and inclusion.  Cosmopolitanism, with its emphasis on universality and shared humanity, promises to alleviate the anxieties of such groups struggling to navigate these emotionally charged social and political differences. Yet, Anjana Raghavan’s thought provoking new book, Towards Corporeal Cosmopolitanism: Performing Decolonial Solidarities (2017), cautions us against an uncritical embrace of cosmopolitanism. By moving through rich bodies of feminist, queer, and decolonial scholarship, Raghavan invites readers to ‘re-member’ histories of colonial oppression and to resist the erasures wrought by the appeal of homogenising discourses of cosmopolitanism that seek to abstract what it means to be human (p. 4). 

Towards Corporeal Cosmopolitanism makes a number of scholarly and political interventions. The book: (i) affirms the value of cosmopolitanism as a praxis that can generate forms of social belonging; (ii) affectively critiques some of the disembodied claims that underpin cosmopolitan discourses; and (iii) mobilises the body as a way to perform decolonial solidarity and justice. Drawing on case studies involving the narratives of trans women in southern India and Indo-Caribbean women in the Caribbean Islands, Raghavan’s book offers readers an affective way to corporealise cosmopolitanism by foregrounding, rather than obscuring, individual subjectivities. 

In Chapter 1, Raghavan defines ‘corporeal cosmopolitanism’ by weaving together a selective dialogue of various scholars who are critical of national identity logics and/or embrace liberal conceptions of cosmopolitanism. While the desire to transcend borders can be understood as a response to the parochialism of the nation-state (as evident in the work of scholars like Anthony Appiah), Raghavan observes that the evacuation of identity categories is dangerous, if not impossible, for those denied recognition of an identity in the first place (p. 31). Instead, she posits that scholars of cosmopolitanism need to account for the colonising implications of the widely celebrated Kantian and Derridean notions of hospitality, belonging, and universality (pp. 41-3). 

Chapter 2 produces a theory of embodiment that forms the basis of corporeal cosmopolitanism. By drawing on feminist materiality and affect scholarship, Raghavan outlines the ways in which feminine bodies have been repudiated in politics. Exclusion, rather than being a consequence of political failure, is an outcome of political communities founded through the abjection and surveillance of (non-male, non-white, non-able, non-heterosexual) bodies (pp. 56-65). Rather than embrace this abjection, Raghavan conceptualises the body as an  act of performance, and as a space of home, to reclaim subjectivities that remain both theoretically and socially dispossessed (pp. 65-81).  

In Chapters 3 and 4, Raghavan deftly fleshes out her theory of corporeal cosmopolitanism and the performance of solidarity by looking at the lives of ‘Thirunagai’ communities (trans women in southern India) and Indo-Caribbean women. Queers in India, for example, seek life affirming legal and policy change. As Raghavan notes, such interventions are only possible ‘with a deep engagement, and conversation with, corporeality, affect, gender and sexuality’ (p. 100). For trans women in southern India, such a dialogue makes space for claims of gender recognition while critiquing the limits of the gender binary or patriarchal conceptions of beauty (p. 114). For Indo-Carribean women, corporeal cosmopolitanism relates to sharing (food, gossip, stories, etc) while questioning how these women create spaces of sharing and what they allow to be shared or silenced within them (p. 126). This corporeal reflexivity, for both sets of women, makes space for revealing the fragility of trauma and desire that underpin marginalised identities while enabling us to challenge the racism, (trans)misogyny, and poverty that structure marginalised identities (p.149). 

Raghavan concludes her book with a call for love. In Chapter 5, Raghavan asks us to be vulnerable (p. 170). Whether we are seeking legal change for reproductive justice or marriage equality, love can free us from some of the institutional demands that limit our current ways of living together. This does not mean we should romanticise love or its ability to eliminate material inequalities. By ‘bringing back the body’ in theories of cosmopolitanism, Raghavan urges us to make space for modes of loving/living that are fragile, silent, difficult, frustrating, and inarticulable (p. 176). In doing so, she suggests the promise of solidarity – when we perform it – lies in spaces of vulnerability, trouble, and resistance rather than reification, ease, and conformity. 

Raghavan’s book speaks to a number of disciplines such as sociology, politics, law, and cultural studies that are interested in concepts of dialogue, belonging, hospitality, justice, and community. As a scholar and advocate working in human rights, I was both excited and nervous when thinking about how a theory of corporeal cosmopolitanism could be applied to litigation and law reform. Would law ever admit (to) the messiness of the body? Could law ever love? Should justice be fluid? I pose these questions because they are ones Raghavan gestures to but also because they sustain a number of broader conversations about solidarity and justice. Solidarities are essential to resist local and international oppressions. Yet, we need to be careful to avoid reproducing colonial logics of compassion and desire that undermine the voices or work of those we are trying to ‘help.’ Corporeal cosmopolitanism is a risky strategy, then, because it admits to vulnerability. Yet, this vulnerability is precisely what allows us to navigate political tensions among or between different groups without closing down conversations (p. 195).  

Dialogue, based on love and vulnerability, is a rich tactic for activists and scholars interested in cosmopolitanism. Towards Corporeal Cosmpolitanismis an important contribution to existing scholarship because it engages with disparate theoretical commitments to sensually speak to those of us who are critically invested in global aspirations for community building and making space to recognise embodied differences. Ultimately, this book offers readers an a/effective way to sustain both. 

Senthorun Raj is a Lecturer in Law at Keele University and Co-Director of the MA in Human Rights, Globalisation and Justice. Sen also works with LGBTI activist and community organisations. He tweets @senthorun.

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