The Global Homogeneity of the Networked World
A cosmopolitan culture is developed through relationship to the richness and diversity of global-cultural flows with the direct implication that rather that there being one centre, an imperial or hegemonic position, the cosmopolitan ethos is built on interrelationships and institutionalized reflexivities that emerge from the global condition (Skrbis and Woodward 2013: 16).
The novel’s coda, ‘Underground’, marks a cyclical return to the terrorist activities of the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the Japanese subway carriage, beginning and concluding the global narrative with the threat of cosmo- political crisis. Although Schoene argues that the novel demonstrates ‘the cosmopolitan novel’s compositeness’ (which opposes ‘postmodern fragmentation’ by preserving ‘the singularity of each segment as an integral building block’ and ensures the maintenance of heterogeneity at the most micro-level), the narrative trajectory now suffers a radical failure, disintegrating into a broken attempt at cosmopolitan collectivity (2010b: 45, 51). The totality and unity of the architectural structure relies on the interdependence of the nine narrative threads, and yet the coda weakens the perception that the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. While the nine narrative threads seemingly operate as a cultural communicative circuit of global interconnectedness, the coda now problematises Liam Connell’s assertion that: ‘narratives of convergence gesture towards ideas of global salience’ (2004: 82). ‘Underground’ reveals globalisation’s capacity to exploit the customs and icons of indigenous localities in order to sell imported products, reducing the individuals and landscapes of the separate narratives to global corporate advertising lining the subway carriage (while simultaneously reminding Keisuke that his terrorist activities affect the lives of global others across the world). Specifically, the coda exposes the novel’s millennial society to reflect what Beck terms a ‘banal cosmopolitanism’, exploring the ways in which individuals are ‘irredeemably locked into globalized cycles of production and consumption’ (2002b: 28). By placing an emphasis on commodified images of world culture, Mitchell exposes the extent to which the lives of marginalised subjects are shaped by global forces without subsequently enjoying the advertised pleasures of the globalised world.
This structural collapse delivers the most acute critique of the contemporary condition, as dominant globalisation compresses world cultures into a single vision of homogeneity. Following this reasoning, such hybridisation, depicting a global patchwork of cultures in a localised space for corporate purposes, reflects Norris and Inglehart’s identification that glo- calisation ‘encourages a blending of diverse cultural repertoires through a two-way flow of global and local information generating cross-border fertilization, mixing indigenous customs with imported products’ (2009: 20). The environments of the separate chapters are raised to a single ontological level, reducing world culture to one commodified vision of totality. Cultural diversity is rent asunder and engulfed by the homogenisation of communities and localities, impacting the narrative fabric itself to indicate the inherent struggle between globalisation and cultural heterogeneity. In spite of his anti-cosmopolitan fundamentalism, Schoene perceives in Keisuke’s attack a subconscious desire for cosmopolitan connection in the face of rampant globalisation: ‘[i]f only Keisuke could connect to this world and read its apparent fragmentation not as an irremediable splintering into meaninglessness, but the tantalizing promise of communal assemblage beyond any definitive unity or ideological totalization’ (2010a: 111). As it is, the debasing and re-appropriation of cultural signifiers in the underground carriage means Keisuke’s act of terrorism ‘is on a world so thoroughly globalized that its specific target could be anywhere on earth’ (2010a: 111). Global consumerism in the novel, then, leads not to global integration, but rather a neoliberal means of establishing the Western commodification of millennial world culture.
In extricating himself from the tangle of transnational citizens populating the enclosed subway carriage, Keisuke is not only attempting to escape from the biological fallout of his attack, but the unprecedented interconnection of global society itself. The coda’s microcosmic encapsulation of the previous interrelated transnational narratives reveals how Keisuke perceives the effects of Western globalisation on his nation-state - boundaries of cultures are progressively broken down and destabilised until the threat appears as omnipresent and inescapable as his biological attack, undermining both his cultural identity and sense of territorial belonging. The final image of the subway carriage accelerating and vanishing into the foreboding blackness of the underground, symbolically containing the transnational narrators and their narrative environments, suggests how the accelerated trajectory of global networks (and interpenetration of local and global dynamics) exposes humanity’s susceptibility to cultural annihilation. Further, the underground functions as a microcosm for the novel’s broader argument that globalisation has transformed the world into a fragile site of volatile interdependencies and brings to the fore the violent clash of oppositional ideologies that cultural integration naturally aggravates. The global narrative structure, seemingly promoting a progressive dialectic associated with cosmopolitan ideologies, in fact betrays the conflictual state of oppositional disharmony between global and local processes and the disintegration of convergence culture, preventing the emergence and interrogating the viability of a borderless cosmopolitan world. Ghostwritten, then, emerges as a counter-argument to calls for global unicity by systematically envisioning contemporary forms of social fragmentation, from religious fundamentalism, to cultural homogenisation, to global capitalism, to environmental destruction, to racial imperialism, to mass consumption, to Western military-scientific dominance. As a result, despite the structural and thematic interdependencies between the chapters, the nine separate narratives fail to achieve an architectural totality of form and vision of cosmopolitan unity. However, this is not a failure of the novel; the presence of the coda suggests that Mitchell is suspicious of utopian forms of cosmopolitanism, and that the forces staked against such harmonious integration are too strong to overcome.
While Ghostwritten explores the diversity of cultural positionality from the perspective of numerous transnational actors, Mitchell ultimately indicates that a global condition or culture is not yet established. Likewise, although Mitchell effectively establishes a global dialogue between transnational actors, the novel remains sceptical of whether a cosmopolitan world can come to exist in a contemporary environment where globalisation and Western privilege neglects disenfranchised others from non-Western nations. As Schoene therefore identifies, ‘cosmopolitan representation’s possibly greatest challenge lies in bridging the rift between the world of globalised business [... ] and political decision-making, on the one hand, and its countless sub-worlds of powerless, disenfranchised daily living, on the other’ (2010a: 14). The late-twentieth century struggle between ‘the West and the rest’ may have mutated to address multiple sites of power, but the dichotomy still remains; globalisation, that catalyst of cosmopolitanism, paradoxically creates the conditions for the persistence of entrenched nationalism as a form of local resistance to external forces. In this way, the interrelated crises of globalisation, socio-cultural homogenisation and ethno-political dominance in Ghostwritten are interlocking parts of the same failing system, creating dramatic inequality and a sense of disempowerment with regards to global resources, territorial ownership and cultural belonging in millennial societies. Despite the representation of nonelite subjectivities, the novel’s vast global sweep fails to provide a cosmopolitan solution to the inequalities characterising millennial world culture. Instead, the novel becomes the manifestation of critiques against cosmopolitanism, with any form of cultural or philosophical unity often circumvented by the imposition of Western values above all others, and by the trans-territorial dominance of the US.
Although Robertson claims that globalisation entails ‘the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole’, as Tomlinson counters, it does not necessarily follow that ‘we all experience the world as cultural cosmopolitans’ (1992: 8; 1999: 30).8 Both the global structuring of the narrative, reflecting the cultural heterogeneity of millennial society in literary form, and the thematic harmonisation of interfigurality, are exposed by the coda to hold limited cosmopolitan potential, easily destabilised by the cosmo- political risks of the globalised world. While the narrative structure is unable to transcend the continuing relevance of existing nation-state boundaries, it also (paradoxically) fails to ensure that the maintenance and singularity of locally relational histories are preserved within an interdependent global system. With this in mind, it is difficult to support Schoene’s claim that the novel ‘pays little heed to national boundaries’ - the novel does not imagine a world without frontiers (2010b: 53). The protagonists of Ghostwritten remain tied to their localities and restricted by nation-state boundaries. Mitchell’s transnational circuitry reveals that some non-elite communities cannot be assimilated into cosmopolitanism’s global designs. As opposed to envisioning an emerging borderless world, Ghostwritten instead reveals the ways in which contemporary society is still institutionally and culturally dependent upon the nation-state system. Although globalising processes in the novel create a homogenised environment, ethical values are activated by resistance to enforced institutional connectivities - the cosmopolitanised world, functioning through the existing nation-state system. While Schoene is correct in contending that the novel ‘pioneers a new cosmopolitan modus operandi for twenty-first-century British fiction’ by contrasting ‘divergent perspectives that together span and unify the globe’, an emphasis must be placed on the continuation of global inequalities that tether the narrative to the ethno-political inheritance of history (2010a: 97). Ghostwritten, therefore, more accurately envisions the cosmopolitanisation of nations, whose borders have been weakened and penetrated by (and cultural practices altered as a result of) interconnected processes of globalisation, yet which still retain a distinctive national identity.
Braidotti, Hanafin and Blaagaard suggest that formulating a contemporary framework of cosmopolitanism is ‘a genuine challenge’, combining: ‘a grounded perspective of singular, situated locations with the ideal of a globally interdependent community’ (2013: 3). Although Mitchell unintentionally responds to this task, envisioning the interdependence of localised actors and globalised flows, Ghostwritten remains sensitive to the improbability of a global community arising. The novel’s enforced confrontation and increased proximity of transnational others, coupled with the development of a dialogue across nations, avoids suggesting the utopian possibilities of cultural harmonisation. Rather, by rendering global inequalities more perceptible, the novel indicates that such disparity requires not only an agenda of institutionally-based ethical accountability but individual active agency. Cosmopolitan values in the novel materialise at the individual and parochial level as seemingly unconnected transnational characters operate as ethical nodes in the global system. Ghostwritten thus echoes Costas Douzinas in positioning cosmopolitanism to be ‘globalisation with a human face’ - an ethical guide by which to accommodate socio-cultural and institutional frameworks (2010: n.pag.). In critiquing the eventual homogenisation of the nine heterogeneous narratives in ‘Underground’ (and revealing the potential for cultural connectivity across geopolitical divides), the novel supports Nafeez Ahmed’s claim that the contemporary environment requires new paradigms for global networks ‘premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family’ (2014: n.pag.). The sustained attempts to circumvent cultural dislocation and address global inequalities in the separate narratives indicate the necessity for contemporary society to resist cultural monopolisation and the disenfranchisement of global citizens, instead proposing ethical frameworks for a progressively interconnected global community. The following reading of Cloud Atlas will pursue this reasoning, revealing the thematic similarities between Mitchell’s novels.