Academic journal article MELUS

Barack Obama, the 2008 Presidential Election, and the New Cosmopolitanism: Figuring the Black Body

Academic journal article MELUS

Barack Obama, the 2008 Presidential Election, and the New Cosmopolitanism: Figuring the Black Body

Article excerpt

On July 24, 2008, a new American presidential candidate--one whose personal background has been attacked by some as cosmopolitan rather than sufficiently American (or even adequately black American)--declared in Berlin, "I speak ... as a fellow citizen of the world" (Obama, Berlin). In order to recall President John F. Kennedy's 1963 trip to West Berlin and to signify on Kennedy's declaration "Ich bin ein Berliner," Barack Obama used a phrase commonly attributed to an ancient philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope. At the same time, his words resonated with a well-known 1967 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., who announced at New York's Riverside Church, "I speak as a citizen of the world" ("Beyond" 153).

Obama's reiteration of an ancient cosmopolitan credo comes at a time when some, such as Ulrich Beck, have asserted, "reality itself has become cosmopolitan" (287). On a structural scale, people live in a world of escalating international circulation, including the circulation of ideas, products, people, and capital. To quote Obama, ours is "an era of globalization and dizzying technological change" (Audacity 10). In addition to new information and transportation technologies, new transnational labor and immigration patterns have altered the conditions of life in the United States and around the world. Recent events have forcefully demonstrated that the economies of individual nations are increasingly linked to those of others. As presidential candidate Obama's claim to world citizenship in Berlin and his complicated personal history and ancestry suggest, the 44th president of the United States seems uniquely positioned to represent in iconic fashion this new cosmopolitan state of affairs.

Obama's physical embodiment of what might be called "cosmopolitan blackness" also contributes to a current debate over the promises and dangers of a revitalized cosmopolitan social ethic. Since the mid 1990s (a time period that overlaps with the publication of Obama's 1995 Dreams from My Father), a number of black and white intellectuals, cultural critics, literary scholars, sociologists, and philosophers have demonstrated an interest in revising older theories of ethical cosmopolitanism, or the recognition of shared human rights, in ways that will make it more responsive to local bonds and affiliations. Current theorists of cosmopolitanism have been especially interested in exploring its complex relationships to nationalism, ethnicity, and cultural hybridity through the consideration of so-called "vernacular," "already existing," and "discrepant" cosmopolitanism. (1) The current attempt to recuperate a cosmopolitan ethic after the postmodemist rejection of universals and after the post-Civil Rights concentration on "identity politics" has centered on the question of whether a revitalized appeal to universal human rights can provide a basis for progressive social reform, or whether it simply promotes abstract loyalties at the expense of existing ethnic, geographical, and national communities.

What does an examination of the social meanings attributed to the raced body of the American president, who has recently been called "one of the most photographed men in the world today" ("Newly"), contribute to these debates? What does it mean when Obama positions himself as an embodiment of democratic and cosmopolitan values in his speeches and his writing? What notion of citizenship--of personal, national, and international identities--might such claims entail? To answer these questions, I first examine several social meanings that were attributed to Obama's body by the American public during the 2008 campaign, especially as they were represented in widely circulated photographs and images. An examination of the political representations of Obama reveals the degree to which the candidate's body became a contested site for competing conceptions of citizenship, ethnicity, and nation. Second, I analyze Obama's own reading of his body as an incarnation of cosmopolitan values, drawing largely upon his speeches. …

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