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  • “We are not the World”:Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange
  • Sue-Im Lee (bio)

In Karen Tei Yamashita's political realist-fantastic novel, Tropic of Orange, Third World1 labor confronts First World industry in a professional wrestling match. The champion of the Third World is a five-hundred-year-old messianic man called Arcangel, who fights under the name of El Gran Mojado (colloquially translated, "The Great Wetback"). The champion of the First World is NAFTA, alternately called "SUPERNAFTA" or "SUPERSCUMNAFTA." The representatives of the two hemispheres face each other in a Los Angeles stadium, amid all the pomp and screaming splendor of a televised pro-wrestling match. As the champions strut around the ring in the prematch show of self-promotion, Arcangel declares:

I do not defend my title for the
rainbow of children of the world.
This is not a benefit for UNESCO.
We are not the world.
This is not a rock concert.


When Arcangel mocks the popular slogans with which the First World describes a global community, he expands his challenge beyond his immediate opponent, the economic and political policies of NAFTA. [End Page 501] He denounces the very notion of a collective, singular subject position that stands as the "we" in the "We are the world." Sung by the biggest American pop stars of the mid-1980s who called themselves "Band Aid," "We are the World: U. S. A. for Africa" was a worldwide phenomenon in 1985, and the title came to function as the popular slogan for global interconnectedness and oneness. The best encapsulation of the globalist "we" is, of course, the concept of the "global village." Since Marshall McLuhan famously used the term in the 1960s to foreshadow a new world order, one in which the electronic communications medium overcomes and diminishes the physical and temporal distance that separates the world's inhabitants, "global village" has been the dominant term for expressing a global coexistence altered by transnational commerce, migration, and culture. More importantly, "global village" translates that altered material condition into a hitherto unrealized condition of proximity, intimacy, and interrelatedness, the ultimate basis for a singular, collective "we."

Arcangel's critical role must be understood in light of the unmistakable authority that Yamashita endows him. Arcangel is a prophet and a messiah who masquerades as a bawdy performance artist and street vagrant. He travels throughout South America and Mexico singing "political poetry" (148), recounting the southern continent's history of exploitation at the hands of Europeans. He literally bears, on his body, the scars of slavery and colonialism, and is the self-identified voice and the consciousness of the colonized and of the Third World.3 So when Arcangel rebuts the global village sentiments, he is not specifically deriding the First World's philanthropic enterprise at large but the facility with which the globalist "we" circulates in the First World's political, economic, and cultural discourse. The globalist "we," indeed, is a central protagonist in the First World's discourses of politics, commerce, and culture, crucial to its narrative of "progress" and "development." It underwrites trade policies like NAFTA (that free trade and trade increases will benefit all of "us") is also a highly marketable—indeed, invaluable—concept in the First World's culture industry ("we are the world"). However, Yamashita offers more than a critique of the First World's unilateral "we" in Tropic. The novel also argues the need to conceive of a new collective subject positioning that can express the accelerated movement of capital and humans traversing the world. Set in Mexico and Los Angeles, the novel highlights the transnational crisscrossing of labor, goods, resources, languages, and cultures in the late twentieth century, and its characters, whose formally disparate lives, separated by oceans and continents, are brought into hitherto unknown proximity and interconnectedness with each other.

This essay delineates the two dueling tensions in the novel's exploration of the globalist "we," and examines those tensions in relation [End Page 502] to contemporary debates on universalism. The globalist "we" under critique, I argue, is fundamentally a universalist "we," and Tropic's denunciation of the global village celebration is an indictment...


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pp. 501-527
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