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CfH Lectures

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18 January 2011

Cosmopolitanism beyond the Colour Divide? Postcolonial Englishness in Postwar Women’s Writings

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In this lecture Effie Yiannopoulou is mostly concerned with the politics of racial difference in a cosmopolitan economy. To reflect on the shifting meanings and power dynamics primarily of whiteness and blackness, she focuses specifically on the construction of cosmopolitan English communities and the increasing racialisation of Englishness following the mass migrations of colonial subjects to the metropolis after the end of WWII. The making of the English cosmopolitan communities will be followed through in literary texts written by white English women writers around the middle of the twentieth century (Jean Rhys, Rebecca West, Doris Lessing), the moment when the diasporising of the imperial home begins to materialize, and Black British ones who, at the end of the twentieth century, return to the mid-century period to open up alternative subjective spaces for themselves through (re)constructing the originary moment of immigration (Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Meera Syal). Constantly working along, and against, Paul Gilroy‘s desire for a “planetary humanism,” Yiannopoulou draws on Jean-Luc Nancy and Sara Ahmed‘s work on the concept of community to explore how Black British writings envisage an alternative multiracial Englishness based on the loss of immanence rather than the forging of intimacy. She also makes use of Avtar Brah‘s concept of “diaspora space” to think through the meeting of the global and the local in the postwar diasporising of English national identity, and will borrow from Jacques Derrida‘s philosophy to account for the increasing “spectrality” of (female) whiteness in cosmopolitan contexts. Running through all the above is the literary text‘s ability to promote a new kind of interracial and intercultural ethics. This, in her understanding, encompasses not only the “act of creation” but, crucially, the “act of reading” which is a process central not only to literature but to all kinds of cosmopolitan conversation.

This lecture was given within the framework of the 2011 School of Critical Theory organized by the Centre for the Humanities in Utrecht. The programme was titled ‘G-local Cosmopolitanism: The Social Responsibility of the Artists, the Academics, and the Media’, and offered trans-national and interdisciplinary approaches drawn from the humanities, social sciences, law, philosophy and international relations. Its focus on the development of cross-national European perspectives in these areas, allows for the innovative use of key notions of cosmopolitanism across different national, cultural and disciplinary traditions. The school consisted of three clusters, which focused on Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Artists, Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Academics, and Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Media.