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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 21.1-2 (2001) 82-87

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Globalization and Cultural Studies:

Conceptualization, Convergence, and Complication

To many people, globalization means the ubiquitous imposition of a guilty sameness—the suppression of difference, the sinister homogenization of the world. According to this view, dominating powers inflict their identity and interests upon distant economies and ways of life and eventually overwhelm them. Moreover, since the nineteenth century, things have supposedly gotten worse. In the bad old days, colonial states extracted labor, wealth, and culture from those they dominated. In the passage from what used to be called neocolonialism to what we now term "globalization," advanced societies have added an insidious counterflow to the longstanding pattern of extraction from societies on the periphery. Today, the First World not only steals their labor and raw materials, but also exports to and imposes upon poorer and weaker states its own dominantmode and relations of production, along with the increasingly hegemonic contents and values that are the cultural reflexes of these impositions. In both cases, it is a question of unjustifiably unequal exchanges: of extraction, appropriation, and imposition in the interest of a few at the expense of many.

In this paper, I want to argue for a complication of this view by making two basic points. First, monolithic conceptions of the unidirectional profits that supposedly arise in these flows and counterflows may be too simplistic and reductive. The situation seems to be more complex and multilayered. Second, the seeming self-evidence of this situation's unprecedented character, of the newness of the pattern projected in the notion of "globalization," may well not be the most propitious model for understanding these developments. Restoring the pattern to history may give us some conceptual traction that is missing in many discussions of globalization today.

Concerning the first of these points I will be more allusive than extensive. I will summarize a few theses that I believe would frame a more complete presentation of the issue. I will consider the second point by way of an analogy to the situation of another area of intense questioning and contestation in the contemporary world: I mean "Cultural Studies"—a field, and a concept, that is still being fought over in just the same world that is currently suffering—or benefiting—from globalization. I hope this methodological analogy may be helpful.

Let me go to the first of my points. One of the possibilities that our new "globalized" world affords is easy travel—at least for those of us living in hard currency economies and increasingly for those who are only emerging into these conditions of privilege. Though we can conceive of travel as a kind of appropriation by the rich of the experience and culture of the poor, really it's clear that travel has never worked in such a simple way. Think of the rich history of travel accounts, from the voyages of Europeans like Marco Polo to China or of Montaigne to Italy, of Jean de Léry or Sir Walter Raleigh to the New World, and on to the multiple accounts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and up to our own day.

It would be absurd to think such travel amounted to a simple and unidirectional appropriation. The experiences these travelers narrated have proven more significant for the places from which they came than for the places they visited. We are transformed by our ability to dominate. The supposed sovereignty of Western power is subverted by a different sort of power, perhaps we could say by the power of difference itself. Travel today makes it easier than ever to experience not only the creeping imposition of some centripetal First World hegemony, but also the enriching simultaneity of the world's variability. Despite the tendency to perceive the new in terms of the old, differences remain different. Even the English that people claim is becoming the leveled-down globalized lingua franca about which one currently hears so much lamentationturns...


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