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Comparative Literature Studies 41.3 (2004) 317-334

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The Information Empire

University of California-Irvine


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States has found itself in a position of unchallenged power. It accedes to the hegemony of the complex history of the past five centuries in which Europe extended its control over most of the world, and, after World War II, lost that control. The question of defining a strategy of resistance to U.S. power must first acknowledge that power. Any tactic that results in an increase in that power is counter-productive to a decentralizing process that would move toward planetary democracy. The best, recent example of counter-productive tactics is Al-Qaeda's murderous acts of September 11, 2001, playing as they did right into the hands of George W. and his crew in their bellicose, hyper-nationalist designs.

One aspect of the challenge for critical thought today is to redefine globalization from its "free market" capitalist model to one that recognizes the multiple cultures that must build a new planetary system. To that end, the cultures of the past must give up their claims to autonomy. All must abandon positions that dismiss others as barbarian, infidel, pagan. These terms must become politically impossible and anyone who preaches them must be seen as an ally, not an enemy, of American hegemony. Thanks to the planetary flows of people, goods and information, we are face-to-face/mediated with others, confined to a relatively small territory in which cultural crossing is not exceptional but ordinary. We must ask, then, what are the resources of this crossing and how can we deploy them to construct a planetary democracy?

Critical social theorists and comparative theorists of culture have begun to recognize the imposing fact of global formations. Fantasies of spiritual [End Page 317] unification in monotheist religions, aspirations toward universality in Enlightenment thought, and urges toward international resistance to capitalism in Marx may all now be seen as imaginary and discursive anticipations of a planetary human ecology. Recent works by Manuel Castells (Castells) and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Hardt and Negri, Empire) proceed from a standpoint of emergent global integration. At every point of human life old lines of division—systems of order, relations of signification, hierarchies of value and power—are palpably beginning to crumble. While local groupings are by no means extinct and in fact in some ways are more prominent than ever, there is no question that a new mapping, a new, planetary distribution of things is emerging.1 Everyone and everything is affected by the disruption. Many humans are irritated, to say the least, by the trend, if the horrific events of September 11, 2001 are any indication. Others are hopeful that globalization is not simply an extension of capitalist markets but the beginning point of a new form of collective human life.

These musings about a new globalism are hardly revelatory and should come as no surprise. The difficulty, however, is to get one's bearings amidst the novel circumstances, to find a way to grasp some feeble purchase on the enormous drift in which we are all being tossed about, seemingly without choice of direction. It is probably futile, and may even be counter-productive, to respond to the changes by adopting a stance of outside observer or attempting to occupy the position of truth that marked critical thought in the period of modernity. Characteristics of discursive subject positions today are contingency and paradox, heterogeneity and multiplicity, the frank recognition that we are within something that is huge and perplexing, something that engulfs all cultures and standpoints, providing perches of epistemological privilege to no one. It is then wisest to adopt the mode of the hypothetical.

If I am granted such a modest epistemological posture, I propose to speak about networked digital information humachines in relation to globalization. I use the awkward term "humachine" to designate not a prosthesis but an intimate mixing of human and machine that constitutes an interface outside the subject/object binary.2 I address the relation...


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