Armenian Iranian refugees in Vienna

In Vienna I have been living in a student hall of residence for two years. Not all rooms are rented to students. Some are also rented to Iranian refugees of Armenian decent — the most important Christian minority in Iran. The manager of the house is Armenian himself. But apparently there is no philanthropy there, these refugees even have to pay a higher price than we do. They are a non-Muslim minority in Iran, they speak Armenian, and it is for them incredibly difficult to live there because of social and economical discriminations, not to mention the very strict Shi’a-Muslim way of life that they must follow. They all go to the USA, and have been doing so for decades now, with the blessing of the Iranian authorities of course.

Until now I have been caught up in my studies and my work and have not gotten time to exchange much with any of them. I have seen them coming and going, some rather swiftly, others waiting longer. However I am on holidays now and all the students are gone, being replaced by tourists. I am living in one room only with a couple of other floor mates, and two rooms occupied by four Armenians, two girls and two guys. They are very kind and open people and as we are often in the kitchen together we are talking, although their English is not always too good yet (but mine is not that perfect either). We form a little community by our immediate proximity and common use of the kitchen. I began to think then in terms of international relations, and wondered about the application of different frames of thinking. The kitchen is then the geopolitical zone of interaction, we have a common interest in keeping it clean and functional for the benefit of all. It is also the place where we exchange by using it: communicating, cooking, observing each others.

I am thus learning something about a group of peoples I did not even know existed. I am interrogating them a lot about Iran, life conditions there, the refugee process etc. I hope they do not see me as a policeman of some kind. Armenian Iranians mostly live in Tehran. But then again most Iranians do: 15 million people inhabit this over-polluted city! Forget everything about Beijing. The smog of pollution is so dense there you need to decrease your speed by half when you are walking and use a GPS.  I find it very worrying this automatic granting of asylum to them. Of course it is much better for them, they are off to a country that will allow them to reach their capabilities fully, and where they will not suffer from discriminations and be imposed certain restricting rules in their daily life. But the country is also slowly emptying itself of this age-old minority. It is a kind of asylum ethnic cleansing. Dreadful. And there is no hope for change. Even if the Muslim youth is despising the regime and aspire to more liberal rules and relaxed social , they too are quitting the sinking boat to live a more fulfilling life abroad. So only people without resource, members of the establishment, or sympathetic elite stay in the country.

One of the guys I am discussing with the most, Arbi (who with his shaved head looks like Agassi, another American of Armenian Iranian descent), tells me that they all go to the USA rather than Europe because they already have a community and relatives there, and that they can. It is really a slow massive population displacement in a way — a community is being displaced from one location to another. I cannot help but think about the sadness of this process. Obviously it is a great gesture on the part of the USA to accept all these refugees.

They all go to California, mainly because of the weather and the already established community. They have nothing to do here in Vienna all day but to wait for the process to be processed. At some point they are simply bored — no money, no job, all the sightseeing done, nothing left to do. Apparently the process takes about two years, and I am told that the real difficulties first arrive in the USA as they have to run for about a month from one bureaucracy to the other to get all their papers and permits in order. Arbi, has a degree in bio-chemistry that he will have to pass again. But he says it does not matter, nothing of all the troubles he is going through by moving to a new country, filling tons of applications, red tapes, passing the same exams again, nothing is worse than the troubles they suffer by staying in Iran.

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Idea for a wiki project site on cosmopolitanism

Andrew Weldon

Illustration: Andrew Weldon

I am fairly new to the blogosphere, and I found a cool blog for academics, especially in the humanities, advising on the latest NICTs for educational purpose–academhack, which is listed in my blog links on the right navigation bar. There’s a post about some interesting research tools. Among them, a link to “the state of wikis in education” an interview of Stewart Mader who wrote two books and is dedicating this same blog to the use of wiki in education.

This way of teaching and interacting with students and researchers seems very promising. I have decided to build one of these for cosmopolitanism instead of just this blog, since it truly allows for interactivity and exchange. I have first to build a network and if I get a job as teaching assistant or something similar I will definitely put something together. I imagine that people could have separate projects to work on, assignments on themes, post some links, add to some articles and researches, etc. First, I have to learn about wikis.

This is an exciting way to approach knowledge and research. Organising a web site also allows me to think in terms of structures and framework to place how all the elements of research fit and connect to each other. I think that such a web site is much more appropriate to the teaching of knowledge, and in particular with such interconnected discourses as in the history of ideas. Why was I not taught with the use of these tools at university? Definitely worth developing and researching.

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Obama in Berlin: ich bin ein Weltbürger?

Senator Barack Obama was Thursday 24 July 2008 in Berlin where he delivered his much anticipated speech in front of a massive crowd. Of course the reference to “ich bin ein Berliner” was obvious and too easy to mention. He opened his speech toning down expectations, stating he was there as a simple US citizen, and a “citizen of the world.” Rhetorically he is leaving it up to the media coverage to make the link: “ich bin ein Weltbürger.”

To my knowledge, this must be one of the very first time a politician declares so openly a cosmopolitan ideal to be his. There is certainly much to celebrate for a cosmopolitan in this speech, but I would like to present a few remarks as to the alleged cosmopolitan nature of his commitment.

Barack Obama is strongly emphasising history. His narrative is mixing his own individual history with History, and the former influences the latter. For the first time, a politician takes it as a positive and self-promoting way to underline a transnational and transcontinental heritage: European, African, and North American. However, his own individual narrative is American, and hence his historical narrative is also emphasising an American view of the world. Obama thus retold Berlin’s past in the cold war. “People of the world – look at Berlin!” he asks. In fact, he asks them to look at how the USA has helped and fought the 20th century enemy – communism. For the 21st century the enemy is terrorism, and then other foes such as undemocratic regimes, nuclear threats, and global environmental challenges. For these reasons Europe and America must pass their differences and work together because “… the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” Only through partnership and cooperation between Americans and Europeans is it possible “to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

I cannot but be enthusiastic about such a speech. Clearly a cosmopolitan agenda is on the making. However, I recall Dunn’s words about the role of intellectual history in politics: “Where the history of political theory remains of decisive significance … is in the clarification and assessment of political goals and in the appraisal of political action.” Since I am studying cosmopolitanism as a political doctrine, both epistemologically and ontologically, I feel compelled to a few remarks to America’s potential next president.

Perhaps it was just Lacanian to connect in the same sentence the idea of “common security” and “common humanity.” Whose humanity is that anyway? Clearly it is a Western security connected to a Western conception of “our humanity.” We know since Anderson’s book on nation, that these are imagined communities. As Robbins states it “worlds too are ‘imagined.'” Or as Pollock et al. argues, there are many versions of cosmopolitanism, many cosmopolitanisms and not just one. This means that when we reflect upon our common humanity we do so necessarily in our own rooted local discourse. For Obama, it is the American discourse, and more widely the Western discourse.

In the Western discourse of cosmopolitanism, the vision of a common humanity sharing a common world emerged as a dominant discourse during the Enlightenment. Inherited from the humanist reactions against the atrocities committed in the name of religion against the “Indians” in America and between protestants and catholics in Europe, enlightened philosophes started to state political and moral theories based on a vision of a common humankind. Doing so, they opened the possibility to place oneself as a subject speaking for humankind. This was rhetorically done through the concept of universal reason. Since reason is what defines humankind, one using reason is necessarily speaking for humankind. Thus, laws of morality could be induced from using reason and observing man: moral and political “sciences” were born.

Obviously the danger of this modern positivist account of cosmopolitanism is the absence of consideration that by speaking for humankind on the behalf of humankind, one is in fact speaking for the humankind one would like to see, and from one’s own local perception of it. Of course, fighting terrorism, promoting human rights, and cooperating to fight global warming are policies everyone should endorse because they are for the benefit of humankind. What I want to underline is that “we” (“Westerners”) should do so by understanding that “others” have a saying and should be included in discussing how and why to do so. Otherwise, it is pure imperialism or universalism, and not cosmopolitanism.

Of course I feel enthusiastic to be included as a potential political force of the 21st century: “It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation – our generation – must make our mark on the world.” However, I would like to warn presidential candidate Obama and “our generation” about making “our mark on the world”: we must learn to include others, listen and engage dialogues with the world, because “worlds too are imagined.” It is during the eighteenth century that the expression “citizen of the word” became fashionable; until some abused the word to pretend to philosophical truths and objectivity they did not possibly mean; until the French revolution attempted to export real kosmopolitik to Europe by claiming to fight for human rights; until the word “cosmopolitan” became associated with a uniform imperialism.

Works cited:

Anderson, Benedict.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991 rev. ed. [1983] .

Dunn, John. “The History of Political Theory.” In The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, by John Dunn, 11-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, 1-14. Durham, NC & London: A Millennial Quartet Book, 2002.

Robbins, Bruce. “Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 1-19. Minneapolis, MN & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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Foucault and the academe

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Personally I do not understand at all where most of the people who write about Foucault or use Foucault in their studies (particularly in the fields of sociology and philosophy) get their interpretation of Foucault from.

When I started to get interested in Foucault I had an odd reflex of getting my hand on secondary literature introducing Foucault to the dilettante that I wish I had not. The reason I did so was that I heard so much about how difficult his ideas were and how difficult he was to read. Actually the difficulty had perhaps more to do with the fact that I heard this in the Anglo-American literature, which has a tradition for concise prose and clearly structured books. Not only did I waste vastly my time trying to understand what they meant, but I also almost got a completely spoiled understanding of his work. Luckily, I decided to try to read him on my own. Looking back I realise that most of what people write about Foucault or using Foucault is really a lot of nonsense. I do not claim to be the only one who understands Foucault on this planet, but it seems to me that there is a big hype about his work, which is totally unjustified. I read Foucault in French, and I guess that it probably helps to understand better, since one is less conditioned by conventional political literature written in English (this concise and structured thing).

I think that the best way to introduce Foucault to students is to dedramatise the Foucault hype completely. One has to convince them that Foucault is not a difficult author, mysterious and impenetrable to the infidel. One must have a punk attitude and dare to confront one’s mind to any other one’s. However, it does take a while to read him, and one must be patient with his writing. But it does pay off in the end if one has taken careful notes on the readings of The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Discourse.

A great companion to read alongside Foucault is Using Foucault’s Methods by Gavin Kendal and Gary M. Wickham. The first two chapters at least can be very useful, especially the passages explaining the differences between archaeology and genealogy and the idea about “suspending second order judgements” in applying the method.

However, there is absolutely no better way to understand Foucault, and particularly his archaeological method (from which the rest is based on, especially genealogy, which merely adds power as an element of explanation), than applying his method concretely to the analysis of a discourse in history. I am strongly sceptical towards any other applications of Foucault’s “tools” to other fields than the history of ideas.

In order to do so, the students should first read the methods as described in The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Order of Discourse, and the short text “What is an Author?”. Bullet points, and definitions of Foucault’s key concepts are very important. Then attempting to apply them to historical “facts” or “monuments” is the most effective way to actually understand what Foucault meant by “discours”, “fonction énonciative”, “objet”, “concept”, “stratégie”, etc.

I would really love to teach Foucault my own way, since nobody taught me Foucault. I truly believe also that it is in Foucault’s spirit of approaching any research, like Kant’s enlightened vision of a lamp in the dark, to approach Foucault completely without judgements, with the brain as blank as an empty sheet of paper.

Posted in Foucault, Method in the history of ideas | 2 Comments

MA thesis abstract

I have now finished writing my thesis, which only needs a very last light-editing touch. As a teaser, I publish here the abstract:

Cosmopolitanism is not a well-known entity in political theory. Therefore, a history of this political doctrine is needed. However, such epistemological enquiry faces an ontological conundrum. Not only is it difficult to identify cosmopolitanism, but doing so might prove to be an ‘uncosmopolitan thing to do.’ This thesis employs a contextualist archaeology — marrying Foucault with the ‘Cambridge school’ — in order to conciliate an epistemological approach with a fairly ontologically neutral status. Cosmopolitanism is thus envisaged as a located discourse in the West, problematising the local and the general, and squeezed in between (inter)nationalism and universalism. How did cosmopolitanism enter political thought alongside these two other doctrines? To contemporary cosmopolitanism, eighteenth-century French political thought constitutes a ‘return’ to the humanist foundations on which our modern political vocabulary got formed. Its study reveals that a hitherto-considered nationalist vocabulary — the nation, the patrie — was indeed formulated in cosmopolitan terms. It also reveals that the conception of humanity structured communautarian contractualist theories despite the universality of human rights. This thesis shows the common archive of these three discourses around a rediscovered and yet unanswered question in political thought: the proper sovereign authority to govern ‘universally free and equal’ humankind.

Everyone is very welcome to provide a feedback regarding the quality of the abstract in itself and/or the content.

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I have a deadline to keep. I should be finished by the end of the month, i.e. Monday 30 June 2008. All I have left to do is some final round of editing, cutting 47,000 words to 35,000, proofreading, and printing three copies. But I still have my part-time job that is draining half of my energy out everyday.


Apparently the office is closed during June and July, so I will submit in August. When I am done with all that, I will have more time to post on my research themes and areas of interest on this blog.

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Encouraging words

I received on 9 June some very encouraging words from my academic supervisor,  who commented on the draft of my MA thesis I sent him, congratulating me for my “nice piece of work”, and also stating that he was “impressed by the standard of scholarship.”

My efforts are now all directed towards reducing my draft from 50,000 words to the required limit of 35,000 set by the University of Copenhagen regulations on MA theses. I am learning about editing the hard way, but I guess the only way.

I hope to be able to recycle the “rushes” in a future PhD dissertation, and that this experience will help me to write more focused on a first draft in order to limit such subsequently painful editing work overload.

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Setting up a new blog on my research activities

"Research" by Olin Warner, 1896

"Research" by Olin Warner, 1896

I have decided to set up a new weblog in order to publicise my research activities and personal research themes and projects. I hope to create a network of interest around my activities, make myself known, and get acquainted with other academic research activities on the same field or topic. This blog is also egoistically intended for personal use as a track keeper of my achievements or procrastinations.

I am currently giving the last hand on my Master’s thesis entitled ‘Element of an Archaeology of Cosmopolitanism in Western Political Thought’. I am waiting for some final comments from my academic supervisor. My MA thesis is combining Foucault’s archaeological “tool” of research with the ‘Cambridge school’ of contextualist history. I felt that the two branches of method in the history of ideas–roughly sketched as the Americans on the one side with e.g. Lovejoy and Strauss, and the ‘Cambridge school’ on the other, with e.g. Skinner, Dunn and Pocock–had weaknesses and strengths that Foucault could overcome and combine respectively.

The general topic of the thesis is cosmopolitanism as a political theory, primarily in Western political thought. It is as much a work of ontology–philosophy–as it is a work of epistemology–history. Since cosmopolitanism is not exactly a very well defined ontology, it is difficult to make its history. On the other had, it is difficult to make its ontology since we do not have a clear history. In my view, Foucault’s archaeology was a good tool to ‘deconstruct’ the doctrine into ‘unit ideas’, as a discourse composed of ‘objects’, ‘concepts’, ‘strategies’ and all glued together by ‘énoncés’ (or ‘announcements’). In this sense, it is providing the strength of Lovejoy’s and the US school of method in giving a constant to work with through time. However, one must take into account the critiques that the ‘Cambridge school’ provided to such an endeavour; i.e. the risk to run an anachronistic account on ‘perennial issues’ mainly set in contemporary terms. Foucault’s archaeology integrates such account for the context in which the objects, concepts, and strategies evolved inside a discourse, while the announcements are maintaining its stability through time for a historical analysis.

The research is then made easier. Instead of attempting to provide a definition of what cosmopolitanism is–and by that risking to compromise the ontology of cosmopolitanism–the thesis defines the contemporary discourse of Western cosmopolitanism. It then describes the archive of this discourse, choosing to focus on our early modern political vocabulary. I chose the Enlightenment period for the great influence it has on our poltical thought, and particularly France because of the influence it had in Europe.

My ambition is to pursue a PhD on this project where I would expand my theoretical method into something even more idiosyncratic and original, and also expand the research area to either include the nineteenth century or include other countries such as England and Germany, or both.

My final goal is to be able to publish a book in the next ten years on the history of modern Western cosmopolitanism. In the later run I would like to edit a more general opus on the complete history of cosmopolitanism since the Greek antiquity. There are very few historiographies on this political doctrine.

Posted in Cosmopolitanism, MA thesis, Method in the history of ideas, Research projects, Research themes | 2 Comments