Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 323-326
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In National Culture and the New Global System Frederick Buell presents a postcolonialist analysis of trends and theories of globalism in the contemporary world. It is a useful introduction to the subject of globalism in both its comprehensive coverage of new intellectual trends in the United States and its many interesting and important insights on questions of nationalism and ethnicity. At the same time, this book needs to be read with critical care. Buell's uncompromising commitment to postcolonialist propositions on globalism leads him to overlook or sidestep crucial problems raised by globalization and lends a strong ideological coloring to his reading both of the contemporary world situation and of the theoretical issues it presents.
Buell seeks to demonstrate that a new global consciousness stimulated by economic and cultural globalization has transformed, or is in the process of transforming, earlier modes of analyzing the world in all the disciplines, producing "varieties of hybrid interdisciplinarity... appropriate for a world of hybrid cultural production" (p. 7). His own approach exemplifies this premise: while literary works provide the core materials for the argument, the book draws on a rich body of literature ranging from sociology to history, from political economy to cultural studies.
The argument proceeds along two lines: on the one hand, to demonstrate that the assumptions that have guided social, political, and cultural analysis in the past are insufficient for understanding the world, and, on the other hand, to present globalist analysis as a necessary [End Page 323] alternative. The introductory chapter sets the tone by critiquing Herbert Schiller's idea of "cultural imperialism" on the grounds that it assumes homogenization of the world when the evidence points to the proliferation of difference and that it denies agency to Third World audiences. The first part, "Constructing Tradition in the Postwar Period," continues the critique by questioning concepts of "the three worlds" and nationalism. Against the "three worlds" idea, Buell proposes a "plurally interactive global culture" (p. 39). His critique of nationalism draws on examples from Japan, India, and anticolonial nationalism in Africa to show that nationalism, rather than being an expression of primordial cultures, represents an "invented primordialism" (p. 93), itself conditional on globalism. The two final chapters of this part turn to political-economic literature to trace tendencies to globalization over the last two decades.
The second part, "Decentering the Core," takes up questions of ethnicity in the United States. As he does with nationalism, Buell views ethnicity as a creation of the present rather than a legacy of the past, and he traces the emergence in recent years of a "deconstructionist ethnic theory" (p. 162) in which "different culture" appears as "culture difference" and "subversion from within" is substituted for "revolution in the name of an alternative vision" (p. 164). A chapter devoted exclusively to Asian American literature seeks to show the "wide" adoption in "America and the world" of "cultural hybridity ...as a progressive program" (p. 202). Two final chapters in this part, crucial to the articulation of Buell's theoretical stance, deal with postcolonialism. According to Buell, postcolonialism stresses "colonial interactions" over Eurocentric creationism (p. 223), privileges the periphery over the core (p. 227), and "enshrines syncretism and hybridity" (p. 235). The cultural decentering of Eurocentrism in postcolonialism also makes postcolonialism an indispensable partner to multiculturalism; the two movements overlap and nourish one an-other (p. 221).
The final part, "Culture in the Contemporary Global System," turns to a review of theoretical literature. Predictably, Buell rejects "the Marxist tradition" for being too centering and totalizing. In the process, he also rejects emphasis on "the narrative of capitalism" on the grounds that "globalization is a process operating at a wide variety of points throughout the whole system, not one driven by 'capitalism', a narrative that privileges the core" (p. 305). Against Marxist narratives, he places the works of globalists to whom he acknowledges a...