intermezzo

the minor cosmopolitan weekend remembered

Text by Fatin Abbas

Photographs by Camila Gonzatto

Illustrations by Nik Neves

 On the opening night of the the Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend, three figures sat under a spotlight in the auditorium of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, stitching a piece of fabric between them. On the other side of the stage, the lone figure of a woman leaned under a spotlight, also stitching. Over this scene, Angela Davis’ voice played on repeat loop. Referencing the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, which resulted in the murder of four black girls by white supremacists, Davis argues for the necessity of black people’s recourse to violence in their confrontation with white supremacist terror.

 Created by Patricia Kaersenhout, a Surinamese/Dutch artist, the performance meditated on wounding and healing by linking the bodies of a female Dahomey warrior stitched on fabric, the four bodies of the girls murdered at the church in Birmingham, and Angela Davis’ voice, in a kind of tapestry connecting the experiences of black women from west Africa to the US. In doing so, the performance raised compelling questions about the relationship between cosmopolitanism, violence, race, and gender.

This was an unusual and original way to commence a conference exploring the theme of the “minor cosmopolitan.” The aim of the weekend was to “[review and rethink]” the concept of the cosmopolitan “in the face of rising nationalism,” by considering “alternative traditions and practices of the cosmopolitan from across the globe.” As such, the goal was to “experiment with ideas and practices of doing, undoing and redoing the cosmopolitan in a minor mode and a minor key.”

In many ways the weekend fulfilled its promises. The range of approaches was exemplified in the keynote speeches of the opening night, speeches which touched on topics as varied as the passport (Arjun Appadurai), Afroeuropolis (Michelle Wright), empty objects (Sundar Sarukkai), and “minor” instruments of percussion (Ananya Jahanara Kabir).

The panels and other discussions were equally thought-provoking. Vivian Price’s lecture on “The struggle between work, identity and eco-consciousness,” part of the Film, Women’s Work & Labor Organizing panel, looked at obstacles to and prospects for working class environmentalism, while, in the panel on Literatures, Jay Austin Williams examined the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ disturbance of theatrical conventions in her play Picking, which unravels the relationship between trauma and plot.

 What I enjoyed in particular was the incorporation of artistic work into a weekend which was largely an academic affair (the event was organized by the Research Training Group “Minor Cosmopolitanisms” based at the University of Potsdam, in collaboration with funding partners the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/DFG and the Zentrum für Gender). In addition to the performance by Patricia Kaersenhout on the opening night, it was refreshing to listen to writers such as Elnathan John or filmmakers such as Mary Jirmanus Saba address the question of the minor cosmopolitan through the lens of their artistic practice, speaking about language (uses of Hausa and English) in the case of Elnathan John, and gender, class and cultural work in the case of Mary Jirmanus Saba. It was equally inspiring to visit installations by Maria Camargo and Anaïs Héraud-Louisadat which explored the idea of the minor cosmos visually and sonically.

Because of this effort to push against the conventions of the academic conference, the weekend had a varied, experimental spirit that was at odds—in a good way—with the staid scholarly gatherings that such events tend to be. The variety of approaches and themes touched on during the weekend didn’t provide a definitive answer to what constitutes the “minor cosmopolitan”—and this wasn’t the point, of course. The talks and artistic interventions raised rather than answered questions such as: Where and when can the minor cosmopolitan be found? Whom does it touch or designate? How is it or can it be articulated or embodied?

 But if the Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend left me yearning for something, it was for a deeper, more critical and self-reflexive questioning of the academy itself as a venue for a truly meaningful, radical re-thinking of the (minor) cosmopolitan. For this “minor” weekend in many ways felt like a major event. Even the location chosen for the weekend—the Haus der Kulturen der Welt—imposed upon the visitor a sense of grandiosity that was suggestive of “Cosmopolitanism” with a capital “C.” 

Lavishly funded by the DFG, the opulence of the event inevitably raised questions for me about accessibility to resources within the academy, and asymmetries of power and privilege within university institutions and settings. I was left wondering whether, in the current moment, the (western) academy can really be a space within which radical (minor) modes of rethinking and reclaiming—for instance, concepts such as the “cosmopolitan”—can take place. This question is especially relevant given that, increasingly, western academic institutions have come to embody, rather than challenge, the neoliberal ethic that is at the root of nationalist and populist resurgences everywhere. Think of trends such as the growing precariousness of the vast majority of academic workers, or the webs of patronage and uneven funding that permeate the academic marketplace.

I can’t help but compare the weekend to another recent gathering, held in March 2019, one organized at the Werkstatt der Kulturen in Neukölln, a week-long event on “Post-2011 Arab Diaspora and Home-making in Berlin,” which touched on many of the themes of the Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend but specifically through the lens of the Arab diaspora in Berlin. Modestly funded, the event was organized by PhD researchers at Freie Universität with the support of Europe in the Middle East and the Middle East in Europe program, as well as Mayadin Al Tahrir, a non-profit Berlin-based association focused on Egypt.

While most of those involved were academics in training, the organizers explicitly positioned the event outside of, and in opposition to, the academy as institution, as well as in opposition to its conventions. Indeed, the event grew out of the scholars’ own frustration with the academy as a venue that more often than not stifles, rather than enables, truly radical and creative modes of thinking and researching. 

As in the Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend, artists and activists also participated in the Arab Diaspora and Home-making week, but in a much more integral way. These artists and activists were positioned not as foils to the scholars, but as mentors to them. Over the course of the week, groups of scholars worked under their guidance to explore and develop alternative modes of thinking through questions of homemaking and diaspora relevant to the Arab experience—modes that bridged academia and art. The result—showcased in a series of presentations by the scholars on the final evening that included performative storytelling, art installations, and podcasts—was quite personal, creative and moving, and yet it provided a deeply complex, yet accessible, meditation on meanings of homemaking and diaspora amongst migrant Arabs. By approaching the academy from an explicitly critical standpoint, the event radically challenged, and moved beyond, its discursive and scholarly limitations.

I describe the Arab Diaspora and Home-making week only by way of musing on the Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend. If debates about nationalism, populism, cosmopolitanism are to have meaningful relevance beyond the university, then they must begin by explicitly and critically probing the position as well as the praxis of the academy in the present time. Can the academy genuinely make space for working in a “minor mode and a minor key”? To what extent does the academy have the potential to nourish the “minor cosmopolitan,” and to what extent does it risk appropriating and consuming it—emptying it of its radical possibilities—for its own self-serving purposes? In what ways can the “minor cosmopolitan” not only be a topic of academic discussion, but also a tool used to expose and unravel the contradictions and paradoxes of academic institutions which, for understandable reasons, are seen by many to manifest rather than challenge issues of privilege, exclusion and inequality?  

The weekend’s most arresting moments for me were those that moved in this direction. One such moment was during the launch of Zairong Xiang’s Queer Ancient Ways, in which Xiang (also the curator of the weekend) and his publisher Vincent Van Gerven Oei discussed the conventions of academic citation—conventions which Xiang attempts to subvert in his work. The discussion touched on the necessity of challenging such conventions as a means of resisting widespread assumptions that many conceptual ideas current in academic scholarship—such as “queerness”—have roots in western thought, when in fact they often have precedents in non-western cultures. The discussion was compelling precisely because it directly engaged with how “minor cosmopolitan” scholarship might be practiced in such a way so as to unsettle the strictures of the academy not only in terms of subject but also in terms of procedure and convention.

In touching on such issues, and by including elements and participants from outside of academic settings, the weekend went a way towards pushing against the limits of the academy as an infrastructure suitable for thinking and experimenting in a minor cosmopolitan mode. It was an excellent start. One which can and should be taken even further.

further chapters

artwork courtesy of Niv Neves