Cosmopolitan Politesse

Goodness, Justice, Civil Society

in Journal of Legal Anthropology
Restricted access

In an earlier work (Anyone: The Cosmopolitan Subject of Anthropology, 2012), I considered a solution to the ‘problem’ of society as identified by Georg Simmel. The fact that we only come to know the interactional ‘Other’ by way of distortion, by virtue of the imposition of alien and alienating labels, categories and taxonomies, Simmel (1971) described as ‘tragic’ (cf. Rapport 2017). We distort the Other’s identity when we ‘know’ them in the conventional and collectivising terms of a symbolic classification of cultural reality. In response, I argued for a linguistic and behavioural style of public address and exchange, and an ethos of good manners, that I termed ‘cosmopolitan politesse’. This was an interactional code by which we presumed the common humanity and the distinct individuality of whomsoever we engaged with, but classified the Other in no more substantive fashion than this. We accepted that in our social interactions we were engaging with an individual human other – ‘Anyone’ – and not with a representative of some more substantive class: ‘a woman’, ‘a Swede’, ‘a Jew’, someone ‘working class’, ‘primitive’ or ‘pious’, and so on.