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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21.1-2 (2001) 88-98

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Uncanny Presence:

The Foreigner at the Gate of Globalization

Before Nietzsche's proverbial house of philosophy there stands an uncanny guest.1 As with other foreign presences, this one is both strangely familiar and productive of anxiety; it is destined to remain outside (foras), both there and not there, neither recognizably present nor unambiguously absent. Is there such a guest at the gate of globalization?

I believe that we shall find that there is and that this "global foreigner" bears, however unwillingly, the stigmata of an ambivalence, of an infantile and "primitive" past, and of a confusion between psychic and material reality that Freud associates with the uncanny. This essay seeks to consider within a series of material and philosophical contexts, the spectral presences that haunt the circumstances and discourses customarily gathered beneath the name of globalization.2 It elaborates a figure of a "global foreigner" who, I argue, bears a particular relation to both temporal and material presence. This project evinces both a disruption and a continuity in the narrative of foreignness: a new configuration of the foreigner that emerges with globalization—one delineated less in terms of the nation-state, a language, or an ethnic identity than by a cosmopolitan lifestyle, electronic forms of communication, and investment in transnational markets and finance—but in which the semantic location assigned to foreigners remains largely the same.

Let us begin with the simplest of questions: is there such a thing as a "foreigner" in the era of globalization? Don't processes of globalization make the very concept of the foreign obsolete? Benjamin Barber seems to have argued as much: "modern transnational corporations in quest of global markets cannot really comprehend 'foreign policy,'" he writes, "because the word foreign has no meaning to the ambitious global businessperson."3 And to be sure, processes of globalization have conditioned a significant reformulation of the concepts of nation, citizenship, home, and belonging around which the foreigner is constituted in the modern world.4 The nation no longer bears exclusive sovereignty over its people or their transactions with those of other nations; it is superseded in certain economic and legal arenas, for example, by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, and challenged by both human rights covenants and environmental mandates.5 The nation is, hence, neither the only foundation for rights (many of which have been reformulated as "human" rather than "civil") nor the sole determinant of political legitimacy: individuals and organizations increasingly pursue economic and political engagements independently of nation-states. Citizenship has been revalued accordingly, rendered more "flexible," in Aihwa Ong's terms.6 The shuffling of the constituents of identity and the realignment of borders that accompany globalization may well mean that one's sense of belonging is organized around a mobile and cosmopolitan society—what Leslie Sklair has named "the transnational capitalist class"—rather than a geographical place, a home, or a nation.7 A member of that global tribe may well be more "at home" in an urban center where she is not a citizen than in the working class or rural neighborhoods of the nation where she is. He may well be more adept at an anglicized and computerized lingua franca than at the majority of dialects from his country of origin. The sense of familiarity constructed by the computer running on her lap may well eclipse the foreignness of immediate physical surroundings.

But if globalization has, in specific ways and for certain actors, effaced traditional meanings of foreignness, this is by no means to say that the figure of the foreigner no longer exists. On the contrary, there are a number of very significant and highly consequential survivals of foreignness in the era of globalization, one of which is churned out in the most predictable way by resurgent nationalisms. A by-product of globalization, such nationalisms (and equally virulent nativisms of other sorts...


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