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Sovereignty, or The Art of Being Native

From: Cultural Critique
51, Spring 2002
pp. 74-100 | 10.1353/cul.2002.0023

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Cultural Critique 51 (2002) 74-100

Globalization is a topic of criticism that for the moment demands to be addressed, or assessed, forcing itself on any attempt to discuss issues of capitalism and culture. It seems that the cultural critic can no more not mention, define, or judge the phenomenon of globalization than one could only recently avoid paying critical obeisance to postmodernism. Whether globalization is the essence, aftermath, or efflorescence of postmodernism is not the particular concern of this article, nor indeed what either of these terms has been taken to mean. My concern is partly with the pressure to engage with these terms in cultural criticism, a pressure, given my own location in New Zealand, that itself appears global. This location, alternatively faraway (perhaps from you) or close at hand (to me), is a frontier of globalization, and proves a useful vantage point from which to consider the critical conversation of globalization—to question its nature as an imposition—if not the phenomenon itself. Yet this will also be an exercise in not talking a great deal about globalization, for I argue that ever since the advent of talk about postmodernism, something else has been at stake—the issue of sovereignty—occluded by this dominant conversation to a degree that makes me think that talk of globalization bears a critical agenda that misconstrues the nature of world history, or historical process.

The conversation of the postmodern, although dated, nevertheless implicates the rhetoric of globalization in a larger economy—global in aspiration if not reality—urged forth by the confusion of criticism and commentary, the merging of criticism of global capitalism with the ever accumulating, or globalizing, mass of such criticism. In other words, the problem of providing an adequate description of world history, or historical process, is part and parcel of the tendency of criticism—which offers global explanations to become global in actuality—to become another form of the object of its criticism. The scope of the conversation ensures that it attracts wide interest, or attendance (i.e., it attracts me, you, others), and constructs an economy of sorts through the investment in it of participants. As the conversation gains mass to match speculative compass, it naturally exerts force, such that talk of history is monopolized by talk of globalization, making it difficult to distinguish a claim to knowledge (of history) and the effect of an economy that the conversation as such has brought into being: an economy constituted by the interlinking through conversation of widespread institutions, sites, media, publics, actors—an economy, that is, of discursive effect.

The irony of being native suggests the existence of multiple conversations with multiple purposes, and filters ways of talking that assume their import for all. To be in one kind of conversation, if nothing else, is to be at that moment not in another. And yet you also remain a participant in conversations of quite varying import. This irony, that "I" am not simply "I-for-you," therefore neither encompassed nor fully captured by this conversation, suggests a shortfall of knowledge on the part of the speaker; the shortfall, what it is about me that is not for you to say, which may not be sayable in my conversation with you, is the ground of claims to sovereignty. These grounds recall history: what the postmodern imagines as a clearing (history now enclosed by being seen as having ended) is for the native a rich and unbounded landscape, a history not coterminous with that of globalizing capital. According to this view, who or what is "native" is not located outside or anterior to the history of capital, nor quite resistant to processes of globalization; it is a fully ironic, which is to say properly historical, mode of inhabiting the perception of others.

What was Postmodernism and/or Postcolonialism?

The postmodern moment is variously located, but as a benchmark for the academic "event" of postmodernism, as opposed to other forms of the postmodern (artistic, economic, scientific), I think Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition (English translation, 1984) would be uncontentious, making the mid-1980s the high point of debate about postmodernism as a phenomenon. At the same time in...

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