Citizens of Nowhere in Particular: Cosmopolitanism, Writing, and Political Engagement in Eighteenth-Century Europe

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This article explores the connection in the late eighteenth century between the invention of citizenship and the obfuscation of local, corporate or national identity under the guise of cosmopolitanism. The common premise in much recent writing on nationalism is that the nation, even if it is an 'imagined' community, provided the critical framework in which political identity and, hence, political participation first became possible for ordinary people. However, it is clear that in absolutist Europe, private subjects were often best able to make themselves into political actors on either the national or the continental stage by de-situating themselves rhetorically, that is, claiming to speak from no place, no position, and no name except 'friend of humanity' or 'citizen of the world'. Moreover, this literary strategy of insisting on one's fungible individuality—the notion that one was no more than a generic 'simple citizen' and no less than 'the plenipotentate of my own ideas' in a culture obsessed with social position and family name—ultimately helped to bolster an alternative (and often historically overlooked) way of thinking about relations among states and the individuals within them that marked an early challenge to the hegemony of national interest.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2002

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