Seosamh Mac Grianna is on his way to Algeria when he changes his mind. The thought strikes him in London that instead of going to North Africa he should go instead to a country that is much nearer, but in a sense equally foreign, Wales. He explains his decision in terms of his own singular destiny as traveller and writer:

Dar liom, goidé is fiú dom an ród mór leathan a shiúlas achan duine a leanstan? Ní hé mo bhealach é. Chan ar bhealach na gcarr agus na gcabhlach a gheobhas mise mo chinniúint. Bheadh leisc ar ainbhíosan a aidhmheáil go raibh sé riamh sa Bhreatain Bhig. In ainm Dé, siúil na háiteacha nach siúlann daoine eile, mura mbíodh le feiceáil agat ach tithe cearc. (Mac Grianna 1940: 83-84)

[I think, what’s the point of walking the big, wide road that everybody else follows? It is not my way. I will not find my destiny where cars and navvies go. An ignoramus would be reluctant to admit that he was ever in Wales. For God’s sake, walk in places where nobody else walks, even if you see nothing but hen houses]

Mac Grianna took his own advice and travelled to Wales, an experience that would lead him to write a separate work on the country entitled simply An Bhreatain Bheag. However, not many Irish writers and intellectuals have followed the path trodden by Mac Grianna and as recently as 2000 M. Wynn Thomas in his prefatory remarks to a collection of essays on the literatures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland noted that, ‘although there is ample evidence here of several of the cultures of the Anglo-Celtic archipelago speaking to each other, there is next to no evidence of them speaking empathically for each other—what is noticeable is that very few of the contributors have felt sufficiently confident in their knowledge of a neighbouring culture to venture to draw parallels, or at least to make comparisons, between that culture and their own’. What I want to suggest is a way of thinking about the cultures of countries like Wales and Ireland that is potentially of interest not just to those who wander off the beaten track of international travel but to those who throng the ród mór leathan, the big wide road, of contemporary writing.


It is commonly claimed that it was the Greek philosopher Diogenes who in the fourth century first defined himself as a citizen of the world. Later, Aristippus in a more evocative image expressed a similar idea by claiming that the road to Hades was the same distance from any point in the world. In 1552 Erasmus refused the citizenship of the city of the Zurich offered by Zwingli declaring that, ‘I want to be a citizen not of one single city but of the whole world.’ The ideal of humanity as a collection of free and equal beings, possessing the same basic rights and where notions of hospitality, openness to others and freedom of movement are primordial underlies much thinking about cultural contact and the intercultural from antiquity to our own times. Peter Coulmas, in his Weltbürger: Geschichte einer Menscheitssehnsucht (1990) offers the reader an historical overview of the vicissitudes of cosmopolitan thought down through the centuries and openly states his preference for a worldview which he believes to be the only one capable of ensuring lasting peace and friendship between the different peoples on the planet. For Coulmas, a decline in cosmopolitanism is always synonymous with the rise of particularism and the birth of nationalism. When he goes on to describe important moments in the history of cosmopolitanism, it is almost invariably in the context of great empires of yesteryear, the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Carolingian, the French, the Spanish, the Austro-Hungarian and the British. This approach is not particularly quixotic and it has become a historical commonplace to underline the multi-ethnic and multilingual character of empires, even if the focus is not as resolutely centred on the West as is the case with Coulmas. The version of cosmopolitanism made explicit by Coulmas is what we might term macrocosmopolitanism, namely, a tendency to locate the cosmopolitan moment in the construction of empires, in the development of large nation-states (France, Great Britain, Germany) or more recently in the creation of supra-national organisations (European Union/United Nations/World Health Organisation).

For the macro-cosmopolitan, it is only large political units which are capable of allowing the development of a progressive and inclusive vision of humanity, even if occasional hegemonic over-reaching cannot be ruled out. Small nations, ethnic groups concerned with the protection or preservation of cultural identity, former colonies which still subscribe to an ideology of national liberation are dangerously suspect in this macroscopic conception of cosmopolitanism. Bloody conflicts in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland seemed to provide more recent justification for the distrust, in Pascalian terms, of the infinitely great for the infinitely small.

Coulmas evokes the popularity of the motto, ‘small is beautiful’, associating it with a fashionable interest in local costumes, dances and languages. His verdict is clear, ‘this nostalgic looking back is clearly opposed to the onward march of history towards larger political entities’. Worse still, he declares, ‘The small state is praised.’ These small states have a function which is clearly described in a chapter on the great metropolises of history. The latter benefit from the arrival of immigrants from less important states, ‘by means of this brain-drain, many brilliant minds escape their country of origin, particularly, small countries offering few possibilities.’ In Culture, Raymond Williams offers a similar description of the role of the metropolis, with his notion that those who participated in the many avant-garde artistic groups were frequently, ‘immigrants to such a metropolis, not only from outlying regions but from other and smaller national cultures, now seen as culturally provincial in relation to the metropolis.’ Indeed, for Matthew Arnold in an earlier period it was precisely the centripetal pull of the centre that made the notion of separate nationhood for the Irish or the Welsh or the Bretons a dangerous illusion:

Small nationalities inevitably gravitate towards the larger nationalities in their immediate neighbourhood. Their ultimate fusion is so natural and irresistible that even the sentiment of the absorbed race, ceases, with time, to struggle against it; the Cornishman and the Breton become, at last, in feeling as well as in political fact, an Englishman and a Frenchman (Arnold 1859: 71).

The existence of small countries is justified by their being a kind of pre-cosmopolitan nursery, a warehouse of the mind where cognitive raw materials await the necessary processing and polish of the present and former capitals of empires.


What I would like to propose here is a notion of micro-cosmopolitanism which will be opposed to that of macro-cosmopolitanism. Micro-cosmopolitan thought shares a number of macro-cosmopolitan core ideals (freedom/openness/tolerance/respect for the other) but it is distinctly different in foregrounding other perspectives, other areas of writing and reflection and above all in freeing cosmopolitanism from a historical vision and a set of ideological presuppositions that both threaten its survival as a necessary element of human self-understanding and its ability to speak meaningfully to many different political situations. Why do we need a micro-cosmopolitan perspective and what does it consist of? We will begin with the necessity for such a perspective.

There are now more nation states than at any other time in the world’s history. Currently, none of these nations seem particularly keen on abandoning their independence and, in the case of countries like Tibet and Chechnya, the struggle for national independence still goes on. In this context, it is unlikely that small or new nations who have, often with great difficulty, freed themselves from a former colonial presence, will be particularly impressed by being told that the notion of nation is outdated and reactionary and that clinging to such a notion automatically disqualifies them from belonging to the cosmopolitan community. A dangerous and fatal consequence of this approach is to set up a progressive cosmopolitanism in opposition to a bigoted, essentialist nationalism where the latter has no place for the former. In other words, the inhabitants of smaller political units find themselves subject to the ‘double bind’ famously described by Gregory Bateson. Either you abandon any form of national identification, associated with the worst forms of irredentist prejudice and you embrace the cosmopolitan credo or you persist with a claim of national specificity and you place yourself outside the cosmopolitan pale, being by definition incapable of openness to the other. The effects of this particular double bind are particularly damaging and in cultural and political life bring about the paralysis that Bateson noted so clearly in our emotional lives. Extreme nationalists of all hues take refuge in virulent denunciations of anything construed to represent the cosmopolitan (as has been demonstrated in such a tragic fashion in European history by the history of Anti- Semitism) while the proponents of macro-cosmopolitanism for their part are trenchantly hostile to any movement of thought that might appear to harbour sympathy for nationalist ideology.

Another version of this unhelpful dualism is to be found in certain analyses of the phenomenon of globalisation. Globalisation is typically presented by its opponents as a process of whole-scale standardisation, dominated by large multinational corporations and international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, acting at the behest of the political and economic interests of the world’s remaining super-power, the United States. This thesis has been challenged by a number of thinkers such as Roland Robertson, Jonathan Friedman and Manuel Castells who view globalisation as much a fragmentary and centrifugal process as a unifying and centripetal one. Their analyses which would appear to challenge the hegemony of the powerful do not in fact offer smaller nations a particularly promising role as once again they are cast in the position of fide defensor, as the touchy and scrupulous guardians of national difference. The binarism of macro-cosmopolitan thinking—small, closed as against large, open—which also underlines Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations or Benjamin Barber’s vision of ‘Jihad vs. McWorld,’ is deeply disabling intellectually and politically. Writers and intellectuals from nations such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales should not have to be condemned to the facile dualism of macro perspectives.

Micro-cosmopolitan thinking is an approach which does not involve the opposition of smaller political units to larger political units (national or transnational) but one which in the general context of the cosmopolitan ideals mentioned earlier seeks to diversify or complexify the smaller unit. In other words, it is a cosmopolitanism not from above but from below. The defence of difference is always problematic if the notion is understood in a essentialist and unitary sense but what I want to advance here is a defence of difference not beyond but within the national political unit. Microcosmopolitanism is linked to what I have called elsewhere fractal differentialism. This term expresses the notion of a cultural complexity which remains constant from the micro to the macro scale. That is to say, the same degree of diversity is to be found at the level of entities judged to be small or insignificant as at the level of large entities. Its origin lies in a paper published in 1977 by the French mathematician, Benoît Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot asked the following question, ‘How Long is the Coast of Britain?’ and his answer was that at one level the coast, was infinitely long. An observer from a satellite would make one guess that would be shorter than, say, a Paul Theroux negotiating every inlet, bay and cove on the coast and Theroux’s guess would be shorter than that of a tiny insect having to negotiate every pebble. As James Gleick pointed out, ‘Mandelbrot found that as the scale of measurement becomes smaller, the measured length of a coastline rises without limit, bays and peninsulas revealing ever smaller subbays and subpeninsualas at least down to atomic scales.’ Mandelbrot’s discovery was that the coastline had a characteristic degree of roughness or irregularity and that this degree remained constant across different scales. Mandelbrot called the new geometry that he had originated fractal geometry. The shapes or fractals in this new geometry allowed infinite length to be contained in finite space. The experience of the traveller bears out the discovery of the mathematician. The traveller on foot becomes aware of the immeasurable complexity of short distances in a way that is invisible to the traveller behind the windscreen or looking down from the air.

A particular striking example of the phenomenon is offered in the work of the English mathematician and cartographer Tim Robinson. In his Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, he offers a detailed exploration of the 14,000 fields that go to make up the island of Inishmore off the west coast of Ireland. What Robinson clearly demonstrates as he goes through field after field on this small island is not only the remarkable richness of these reduced spaces but also the omnipresence of the traces of foreignness, of other languages and cultures in a place that through the work of John Millington Synge and others was closely identified with Irish language and culture and Irish cultural nationalism. The local is honoured in Robinson’s work but it is a local that is informed by diversity and difference. In a sense, it is the fractal travelling of the writer that allows for the elaboration of a theory of the micro-cosmopolitan.

Micro-cosmopolitanism helps thinkers from smaller nations to circumvent the terminal paralysis of identity logic not through a programmatic condemnation of elites ruling from above but through a patient undermining of conventional thinking from below. A micro-cosmopolitan perspective also avoids the ready assimilation of cosmopolitanism to economic and social privilege which is apparent not only in the tirades of the European Far Right but is present also in the analyses of progressive thinkers who are skeptical about the uses to which cosmopolitanism is put by transnational capital. Timothy Brennan, for example, launches a trenchant attack against cosmopolitan thinking in At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now where he denounces the current vogue for cosmopolitanism as simply the well-meaning version of American imperialism which under cover of cultural pluralism wishes to ensure the continued dominance of its political, economic, military and cultural interests. Danilo Zolo in Cosmopolis: Prospects for World Government is similarly hostile:

What western cosmopolitans call ‘global civil society’ in fact goes no further than a network of connections and functional interdepedencies which have developed within certain important sectors of the ‘global market’, above all finance, technology, automation, manufacturing industry and the service sector. Nor, moreover, does it go much beyond the optimistic expectation of affluent westerners to be able to feel universally recognised as citizens of the world— citizens of a welcoming, peaceful, ordered and democratic ‘global village’— without for a moment or in any way ceasing to be ‘themselves’, i.e. western citizens.

The micro-cosmopolitan movement by situating diversity, difference, exchange at the micro-levels of society challenges the monopoly (real or imaginary) of a deracinated elite on cosmopolitan ideals by attempting to show that elsewhere is next door, in one’s immediate environment.

City and Country

If there is a place that would seem to offer itself quite readily to the micro-cosmopolitan approach, it would appear to be the city. Lewis Mumford in 1961 was already claiming that the, ‘global city is the world writ small, within its walls can be found every social class, every people, every language.’ The cities that have been classed as the great world cities of the past have included Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, Vienna, London, New York but now they include cities such as Karachi, Toyko, São Paolo, Mexico City and Montreal, to give some more recent examples. For certain thinkers such as Manuel Castells, Saskia Sassen and Gerard Delanty, the city, and in particular the large international metropolises are going to become more and more important at the expense of nation-states. These global metropolises, key nodes in international communication networks, by bringing together a plethora of different cultures, languages, identities, are seen as an inexhaustible reservoir for the renewal of the cosmopolitan spirit. Cities are indeed striking examples of the potential of a micro-cosmopolitan approach. The fact that between now and the end of the century more than 80% of the planet’s population will be living in urban centres would seem to be yet another reason for favouring an exclusively urban focus in research.

The danger however is that we end up once again giving new life to a jaded binary opposition: town or country, progress or reaction. In this view, cosmopolitanism is the proper business of cities and the role of the rural population is to act as guarantors for the authenticity of the land. It has become a critical commonplace, for example, to show how the city of Dublin was marginalised in Irish writing for many years after independence because in the nationalist imagination the city was a foreign presence, an alien substance in the Irish body politic (Dublin—city of the Vikings, seat of British colonial power). The countryside alone was deemed worthy of interest by many of the post-independence short story writers because it was the countryside that was seen to be the incarnation of much that was deemed to be specific to Ireland. Needless to say, in Ireland, it was mainly urban intellectuals—Yeats, Synge, Standish O’Grady, George Moore—who contributed to the Romantic deification of the land in cultural nationalism. If the more extreme forms of nationalism see the city as the polluted well of the cosmopolitan destroying the manly vigour of the nation, the ready and too facile identification of the city with cosmopolitanism in the work of many thinkers on cosmopolitanism itself tends ironically to give succour to the most retrograde forms of nationalism.

One could argue that instead of arguing by implication and by default for a patriotism of the land, it is more enabling to argue for a cosmopolitanism of the land, in other words, to define specificity through and not against multiplicity. Casual observers of Irish set dancing in a pub in rural Clare, might properly feel that they are witnessing a practice which is deeply rooted in a locality but they are also seeing the fruit of the influence of French dancing masters who came to Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century, finding themselves unemployed due to the exile or untimely demise of their aristocratic patrons. More recently, Riverdance, for all its egregious excesses and Celticist parody, is a striking synthesis of Irish figure dancing and Hollywood musicals. To stress hybridity in non-urban settings is not to devalue but to revalue. A key element of the micro-cosmopolitan argument being advanced here is that diversity enriches a country, a people, a community but that diversity should not be opposed to identity from the point of view of a dismissive, macro-cosmopolitan moralism.

If we have insisted on the necessity of considering cosmopolitanism as a phenomenon that is not the unique preserve of the urban, the underlying concerns are partly ecological. It is unlikely that rampant urbanisation of both our societies and our planet is the best way for humanity to proceed. The accelerated drift from the countryside in these islands and throughout Europe is a factor that detracts from rather than enhances cultural diversity and represents a significant threat to linguistic diversity to name but one component of cultural specificity. It has become something of a critical commonplace in recent years for commentators on the writing of the smaller nations of the ‘Anglo-Celtic archipelago’ to resist the rurification of these literatures. In other words, there has been an understandable hostility to the depiction of Irish or Welsh or Scottish writing as providing accounts of picturesque, non-urban experiences for the jaded intellects of the metropolitan centres, non-metropolitan writing acting as a cultural alibi for the consuming passions of tourism. The insistence on the importance of the urban voice in contemporary Irish writing, of a tradition of describing town and city experience in Welsh-language poetry and prose and of the avatars of the urban sensibility in Scottish fiction are perfectly necessary correctives to the platitudes of the postcard. However, it is important that we do not lose sight of the considerable body of writing in English, Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Scots which highlights the micro-cosmopolitan complexity of places and cultures which are outside the critical purview of the urban metropolis. In this way, in the investigation of the links between culture, place and language from the perspective of the fractal differentialism mentioned earlier it will be possible to develop a reading of, for example, Irish, Welsh, Scottish rural experience which is not condemned to a wistful passéisme but is forwardlooking in its restoration of political complexity and cultural dynamism to areas of Irish, Welsh, Scottish territory and memory. Such a move, an integral part of the microcosmopolitan project, would both revitalise enquiry into a substantial body of our respective literatures but would also have important implications for the development of a progressive literary and cultural criticism in dealing with rural communities throughout the world.

Particularism is easily parodied. A concern with specific places or peoples or cultures can appear more limiting or indeed narcissistic than a more universal, abstract compassion for all of nature, or all of humanity. The philosopher Val Plumwood argues, however, that care for or empathy with specific aspects of nature rather than with nature as an abstraction is vital if there is to be any substance or commitment to our concern. As she observes, ‘[c]are and responsibility for particular animals, trees and rivers that are well known, loved, and appropriately connected to the self are an important basis for acquiring a wider, more generalised concern.’ The major drawback with finding particular attachments to be ethically suspect and advocating instead a genuine, ‘impartial’ identification with nature or with the good, however defined, is that one can end up favouring an indiscriminate identification which subverts the basis for the initial concern i.e. the desire to preserve difference. Plumwood comments:

this “transpersonal” identification is so indiscriminate and intent on denying particular meanings, it cannot allow for the deep and highly particularistic attachment to place that has motivated both the passion of many modern conservationists and the love of many indigenous peoples for their land.

If we transfer our attention from biodiversity to cultural ecology it is possible to measure the particular importance of writings that are focused on a specific place, such as Ireland, but which are equally alert to the news from elsewhere. What Plumwood intimates is that it is the micro-cosmopolitanism of the margin rather than the macrocosmopolitanism of the centre that allows for a cultural politics which is crucially re-centred but not ultimately self-centred. The danger with the ród mór leathan is that it may ultimately lead nowehere.


Works Cited
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Mac Grianna, Seosamh. Mo Bhealach Féin. Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1940.

—–. An Bhreatain Bheag. Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig an tSoláthair, 1937.

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