Cosmopolitan Futures, Modernist Afterlives: Critical Aesthetics in Teju Cole's Open City and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled

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Shin, Eugenie Jiwon, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ganguly, Debjani, English, University of Virginia

Cosmopolitanism, originating in antiquity and most often associated with the Age of Enlightenment, has traditionally been defined by a reflective distance from cultural affiliations and a belief in universal humanity. In contemporary cultural criticism, scholars have wondered how to reconcile such equalizing and emancipatory ideals with the postmodern and poststructuralist critique of naive, or “false,” universals. This critique includes confronting the aestheticist, high-cultural inflections of a literary cosmopolitanism. Hence, Rebecca Walkowitz has suggested that critics hesitate to associate the rarified aesthetic of modernist style with new cosmopolitan theory. Yet, as I observe in this thesis, contemporary anglophone novelists continue to advance the transnational value of literature with a modernist consciousness; adopting a repertoire of formal experimentation, ontological solitude, and challenges to epistemic foundations, they engage with the mission of their predecessors to reflect and defamiliarize microscopic facets of changed social realities. I argue that these descendents defend the attainability of an aesthetic cosmopolitanism, while gesturing to its limits. Teju Cole’s Open City adopts the figure of the 19th century flanêur to portray the disconnect between an aesthete’s boundless cosmopolitan curiosity and his capacity for genuine empathy, but also forms its own “cosmopolitan style” through its meditation on historical erasure, public memory, and calibrated knowledge. Kazuo Ishiguro crafts an enclosed, transferable aesthetic in The Unconsoled through a semi-realist spatial and narrative logic. Simultaneously, the novel satirizes and assesses the validity of a decontextualized “universal” art form through an imagined system of “modern” music. Upon outlining Kwame Anthony Appiah and Julia Kristeva’s respective new cosmopolitanisms as thematic frameworks, I explore the two novelists’ interventions on externally encountered and internally contained otherness, or “Strangeness”—That is, their contemplation on whether art can foster cosmopolitan tolerance, and whether it can transcend national boundaries as modernist allegory.

MA (Master of Arts)
Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism, Modernism, Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, The Unconsoled, Open City, Julia Kristeva, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Rebecca Walkowitz, Global Anglophone
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