Keynote address by Peter Dahlgren – University of Copenhagen

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Cosmopolitanism and Global Citizenship:
the Rhetoric of Moral Agency

Peter Dahlgren, Lund University

Today many citizens are getting involved in global civil society, beyond national boundaries and the structures of established political insitutions, especially by using the affordances of the electronic media. These developments are increasingly being framed by the concept of cosmopolitanism, a notion that has gained much prominence in recent years. As a conceptual lens this term is multivalent and contested, and one task of this presentation is to briefly elucidate its major currents, as well as lines of contestation and ambivalence. My main focus, however, will be to critically explore what the growing literature on cosmopolitanism says about civic agency in the global arena – a situation where citizenship is in the process of redefining and recreating itself.

One of the key currents in this literature, while having as a point of departure in social theory, in fact enacts a strongly rhetorical set of admonishments as to how such agency should be carried out. Often with an anchoring in the philosophy of Levinas and his understanding of responsibility to the Other, this literature argues, in a rhetorical manner, for a particular version of citizenship that ultimately rests on conceptions of morality as its platform. The global citizen is thus rhetorically constructed as a moral agent, one whose agency is defined and (at least implicitly) evaluated according to moral precepts.

My response to this is not that it is per se ill-advised or counter-productive, but rather that it does not go far enough. To rhetorically invoke moral frameworks for civic agency and yet ignore the fundamental raison d’être of democratic citizenship – namely as a framework for political agency – leaves us in an odd position. Thus I want to probe how we get from moral to political agency, and what are the rhetorical issues involved in such a move. I will connect my discussion with perspectives on media and citizenship, and follow this link into the global context. Oddly, little has been done in regard to the media’s role in cosmopolitanism; a major exception is Silverstone’s Media and Morality (Silverstone, 2006), which underscores the normative aspects of cosmopolitanism, as well as offering a particular interpretation of the global public sphere, the mediapolis.

These are important steps. However, my aim is to go one step further: to explore how democratic politics can be derived from the current focus on cosmopolitanism. My argument is that while the recent surge of interest in cosmopolitanism can help illuminate the moral dimensions of agency in mediated global civil society, we need to take a further step to actually connect such agency to the life of democracy. Rhetorically what is at stake is to convincingly argue for how engaged citizens can involve themselves in the political as it presents itself via the media – a position that faces obvious challenges. I conclude with reflections on the implications of civic cosmopolitanism to the ethics and practices of academic work.