The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital
In recent years the nature and effects of globalization have come under increasing scrutiny. Much of this scrutiny has been rooted in the skeptical posture of postcolonial criticism and its attendant emphasis on constestation, hybridity, marginality, and migration in place of modernity’s predilection for metanarratives and coherence. Duke University Press is an important promoter of such efforts, and the seventeen essays, one interview, and the introductory overview in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, fit clearly into this growing body of work. In the words of the editors, “it is our intention to intervene in discourses on transnational capitalism whose tendency is to totalize the world system” (p. 15).
This book presents a vision of what its authors collectively see as happening around the world as global capitalism proliferates. It is an effort to identify commonalities in how this process of globalization and capitalization is unfolding. Although the process is often hidden in the shadow of capital, and often too overlooked by theorists of globalization and practitioners of development, the authors uncover abundant examples of how culture has become a contested space in which the conjunction of local dynamics and global forces gives rise to unexpected formations—social, cultural, economic, and political. In so doing, they dispute several claims of processes that are often believed to accompany globalization. It is the unpredicted consequences of globalization in particular that attract their attention.
The contributors’ essential point is that development planners, modernization theorists, and Marxist critics alike have all erred in predicting the course of changes ushered in by globalization. Neither capitalism, nor modernity, nor democracy—“Westernization,” if you will —has replicated itself around the world. Capitalism opportunistically cannibalizes other economic systems, particularly labor, rather than remaking them anew, and to the surprise of many even distinctions of [End Page 502] core and periphery are being lost as corporations and industries relocate production either at home or abroad to suit immediate needs. Commercialization has not resulted in increasing cultural homogenization, but in a bewildering variety of local cultural hybrids and adaptations. The metanarratives of political development and modernization also have proven misguided; in place of democracies and modern market economies there is instead yet another web of local particularities and unpredictable hybrids.
This volume is an assessment of and effort to theorize about the unexpected course that globalization has taken. Individual authors present what amount to case studies that—in varying degrees—critique the distorting character of modernity’s metanarratives, illuminate the shortcomings of Marxist and modernization theory, present examples of alternative cultural formations growing in the spaces between global and local, and identify global links below the level of the nation between communities engaged in such struggles. Throughout the individual essays the overwhelming emphasis is on culture as a terrain in which political relations are negotiated. The motivation for this volume is sympathy for struggles against the racism, exploitation, and patriarchy that accompany the late twentieth-century spread of transnational capitalism.
There is, of course, a tremendous variety in what can be termed an antiracist, subaltern, or feminist struggle. In one part of this work, “Unlikely Coalitions,” several authors chart efforts to create linkages between struggles that are disparate and inherently local. For example, George Lipsitz describes how American postwar military and economic expansion in Asia was built upon a racism that inspired feelings of solidarity with Asians among African Americans. On the whole, however, what emerges in these essays is a strong sense that transnational linkages—new identities—between participants in antiracist, subaltern, and feminist struggles are rare. Several authors lament this, and the book is more of a call for than an affirmation of such ties.
At the level of individual struggles to define cultural, social, and political relations between local communities and global movements, the essays generally fall into two camps. One set analyzes the imperial tendencies of narrative discourse about development, modernization, nationhood, and nationalism to make space for other voices to be heard. Thus Reynaldo Ileto critiques the linear emplotment of colonial and nationalist Philippine history for the silence and subjugations it enforces to the benefit of the state. Another set describes more visible practices in which the demands of transnational capital, modernity, and Westernization are contested. For example, Jacqueline Urla [End Page 503] describes how Basque free radio broadcasters and listeners have established an alternative form of public culture among urban youth that actively challenges the totalizing and normalizing bourgeois public sphere theorized by Jürgen Habermas.
The greatest contribution of this thick volume is these case studies and assessments. In her essay Aihwa Ong notes that the collective findings of ethnographic studies since the 1970s “challenge[s] theory to catch up with lived realities” (p. 61). Yet to what degree The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital succeeds in theorizing these complex developments is questionable. Caught flat-footed, theorists are racing to catch up to the train, but have yet to reach it. The essays in this volume are too numerous to discuss individually but are of a consistent quality rare in collaborative volumes. They contribute to the wider movement in academia highlighting the limitations and implications of linear, traditional narratives of modernity, development, culture, and democracy. To many the cumulative effect of such challenges may be the conclusion that world systems analysis and other world historical models—being overly simplistic at the least, perhaps fundamentally misguided, and at most unwittingly complicit in the imperial effects of all linear narratives—should be abandoned. Whither then world history? This is a question with which world historians must grapple.