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Thu. July 07, 2022
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IA-Forum Interview: Prof. Sergio Costa

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International Affairs Forum: Could you please speak a bit about the concept of cosmopolitanism in your book (Vom Nordatlantik zum "Black Atlantic" - Postkoloniale Konfigurationen und Paradoxien transnationaler Politik) and the criticism of ethnocentrism present in many visions of this concept?

Professor Sergio Costa: Well, the concept of cosmopolitanism has a long history that I will not reproduce here. But I think the more interesting thing is to uncover how the concept has been incorporated into the contemporary debate. There is an idea of cosmopolitanism which refers to Kant and to the entire legacy that comes after that. Perhaps the most representative author of that vision nowadays is Habermas, who has a vision of cosmopolitanism as the cosmopolitanism of human rights. The risk in that vision of cosmopolitanism is actually that a kind of form of modernity, a kind of project of modernity that took place in Europe, is seen as a model to be exported nowadays through the world. Behind that is the idea very familiar to the theory of modernization that the modernization is a process of irradiation of certain institutions, of certain forms of life, of certain values of Europe to the rest of the world.

Thus, in modernity the European model would be repeated in other parts of the world. Habermas believes that something similar would happen with the human rights and the rule of law. Just like Europe"discovered" the rule of law, the human rights as a response to the pressure of secularization and individualization in the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth century, depending on the country that we take into account, today this process would be present in the whole world, and therefore this European invention of 200 years ago would only have to be exported. The criticism against this type of model is precisely against its origin in the theory of modernization and the argument that at the same time that Europe was discovering human rights and the rule of law other regions of the world were already integrated or were integrating the process of modernisation as colonies or as part of the trafficking of slaves.

So this idea of an irradiation, this idea of a modernity after another, in one region and then in another, is an idea that does not actually correspond to the way modernity was formed; it has developed in a way some authors call intertwined modernities. The other concepts of cosmopolitanism intend, from that criticism against a modernity that goes from one place to another, not only to criticise this Eurocentric model of cosmopolitanism, but also to create its own model of a cosmopolitanism that takes into account the combination of experiences and contacts with modernity established in different regions of the world. It considers what some authors call minorities’ modernities, so to say, modernities that takes place outside this pattern, established or recognized by the theory of modernization, the various and simultaneously forms as the various regions of the world would be included in modernity viewed as part of a cosmopolitan project. First, on an analytical point of view of the cosmopolitanism, one would recognize this intermingling of the process of formation of modernity beyond the national borders, and second, on a normative point of view, that would mean not implementing regulatory experiences from one region to another, but to allow the establishment of parameters for equality of treatment, etc., beyond the national borders.


IA-Forum: I would like you to speak a little about the concept of "transnational contexts of action".

Prof. Costa: This is a concept that I proposed in a book which was published in Portuguese with the title "Dois Atlanticos" (Two Atlantics) and that is indeed a "work in progress", I can not say that it is a finished concept, but something that in this book works as a reference that helps one to think about some problems, I think it is actually a “to be better exploited” concept. It is not a theoretical concept but a more analytical one, an analytical unit adopted in order not to repeat the mistake of post-war Social Sciences, which institutionalised themselves within national borders and took the national units as their analytical reference. The sense is to take an analytical unit established by the concrete action of agents, and not to previously establish a demarcation of space or a national-political one, having the National State as a reference for analysis. The space may appear as a variable, but it is not a pre-defined space, but the space of action of the agents in the processes that I am studying. In this sense it is much more a methodological than a theoretical concept. Nevertheless, it is a concept inspired by a theoretical discussion, one that begins in the 1970’s with the critique of the so-called epistemological nationalism, something that in the German sociology has been discussed again recently by Edgar Grande and Ulrich Beck, a debate that was very well rebuilt by a Chilean sociologist called Daniel Chernillo, who showed how the criticism of the nationalist character of the social sciences began in the mentioned decade.

The concept of transnational contexts of action is inspired by such criticism and is at the same time also an attempt to seek for an analytical unit appropriate for the processes that I was studying in the book, the processes of the transnationalisation of anti-racism. I intended to see how the circulation on and between the countries’ borders takes place, and that is why I addressed these contexts. These contexts would then be formed by actors, discourses, without a prior space definition.


IA-Forum: I would also like to know more about the political and symbolic exchanges with the imagined space of the Black Atlantic mentioned in the book as a great impulse both for the anti-racism struggles in Brazil and for the rupture of the miscegenation discourse.

Prof. Costa: This is indeed a central question for the contemporary Brazilian debate on what we call racial issues. Somehow there is a problem, there is a nation built on what some argue is a myth in the anthropological sense, the myth of miscegenation, and that therefore is something that should not be touched. For others, however, this myth is actually a way of making the inequalities of opportunity for black and white people disappear without anyone noticing. Anyway, this was the national discourse that actually built the possibility of a nation where everyone could feel symbolically included. This has a history and it is that of the rupture with the scientific racism at the beginning of the twentieth century, thus the miscegenation discourse has a key role for the parameters of this new form of coexistence, but is actually a discourse that shows an exhaustion, since the anti-racist movements show that in that nation's idealized image there is somehow an ideology that hides the inequality of opportunities.

So perhaps the element that is missing is that of the importance of transnational links for the construction of this image of nation. And this questioning of the miscegenated nationality discourse is a questioning that takes places far beyond the national ties in the imagined space of Black Atlantic. In order not to address to this in such an abstract way, taking a case as an example, one may remember all the symbolism used by the black movement in the late 70s, through the 80s, which is an entire vocabulary, a liturgy, a dramaturgy that refers to the movements of liberation in Africa, the struggles against apartheid, the U.S. civilian movements.

The Brazilian black movement construction and articulation, in its political form, takes place from its very beginning in a scale that goes beyond the nation. And at a cultural level, we may recognise the same phenomenon. If we take into account movements like Hip-Hop, Funk, and the re-Africanization of the carnival from Bahia, we notice that they are all movements that clearly refer to the imagined space of the Black Atlantic. And only to make this point more clear; as Paul Gilroy showed very well, it is not a space related to a Pan-Africanism, a latter source in Africa, but a space which is defined by the common experiences of discrimination. It is therefore a space that is not connected, such as Paul Gilroy says, to the roots, but to the trajectories, the routes of Diaspora lead to the construction of this space. Thus that space is the starting point for the articulation of black movements in Brazil, while at the same time they are part of that imagined space.


IA-Forum: Finally, I would ask you to talk about the legitimation process in the national contexts of the anti-racist politics developed transnationally, perhaps using as an example the Conference in Durban.

Prof. Costa: Well, I was saying that at the Black Atlantic there is cultural diversity, the idea of Diaspora does not mean a repetition of Diaspora events in all contexts, but redefinitions according to the local experiences, the local conditions and so forth. Maybe we could make a parallel with the political level, so we would have anti-racist struggles that are somehow connected transnationally, but acquiring their own forms in different national contexts. And the legitimation form of politics at the national level is the democratic one, the form of the porous and opened process of opinion and politic will formation following the existing institutional structures.

What seems to me to have been happening in Brazil is a very strong dialog of the national anti-racist movements with the world level, which obviously pressures the national public sphere so that the policies are implemented. Over their implementation, however, they pass through the constitutional processes of formation of the opinion and the political will, being therefore “corrected” and when turning into forms of concrete policies, purchasing a form of concrete policy that is compatible with the expectations of the Brazilian public space. So there is a redefinition, a resignification and even a correction of the concrete public policies over the process of its discussion in the public sphere, what means that none of the measures are adopted without extensive discussion. And that suggests, therefore, that even though certain anti-racist reivindications are formed in transnational spaces, it is in the national arena that they actually build their legitimacy, that they can take the form of law, of concrete public policy interventions’. But in order to that, they go through the whole process of negotiation, discussion and justification in the national level. Therefore, they go through a way of legitimation before being implemented.



Sergio Costa is full Professor for Sociology at the Free University of Berlin and researcher at CEBRAP (Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning, São Paulo). The book mentioned on the interview is available both in Portuguese (Dois Atlanticos – Teoria social, anti-racismo e cosmopolitismo; 2006) and German (Vom Nordatlantik zum "Black Atlantic" - Postkoloniale Konfigurationen und Paradoxien transnationaler Politik; 2007).

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