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Modernism/Modernity 9.3 (2002) 363-374
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High/Low in an Expanded Field
Globalization is bound to change the field of cultural and literary studies, and it poses a serious challenge to modernist studies. More significantly, it also represents a major challenge to various traditional and current notions of culture itself. But so far, processes of globalization as distinct from historically comparable, earlier phenomena such as internationalization or empire building and colonization have been studied primarily in terms of economics (financial markets, trade, transnational corporations); information technology (television, computers, the internet); and politics (the waning of the nation state, civil society, the rise of NGOs). The cultural dimensions of globalization and its history remain poorly understood, often for the simple reason that "real" or "authentic" culture—especially if framed in an anthropological or post-Herderian context—is seen as that which is subjectively shared by a given community and therefore local. Only economic processes and technological change are perceived as universal and global. This global/local binary, however, is as homogenizing as the alleged cultural homogenization of the global it opposes.
How does the concern with modernism/modernity fit into this debate? Most modernist research in the U.S. academy is still largely bound by the local. It remains predominantly tied to the traditional North Atlantic canon and its disciplinary codification in national or regional departments of language, literature, and culture. The canon has indeed been expanded in recent [End Page 363] years by the inclusion of phenomena such as the Harlem Renaissance or Caribbean modernism; but processes of translation and transnational migrations and their effects remain insufficiently studied outside of local specializations. We lack a workable model of comparative studies that goes beyond traditional approaches and that still takes national cultures as the units to be compared. Tim Mitchell has argued that modernity has always presented itself as a stage of history and as a stage for historiography in relation to the temporally and geographically non-modern. 1 Modernist research has long focused on the former, but neglected the latter: the modernity of the geographically "non-modern."
Clearly, globalization provides the horizon for the work of comparative modernisms today. But how can the transition be made from the often bland considerations of the global in much of the literature—where the global appears either as threatening specter or as beneficial invisible hand—to the study of cultural genealogies of language, medium, and image as they undergo transformations under the pressures of the global?
In this essay, I revert to a model of literary and cultural studies that, for rather parochial reasons, has been prematurely put to rest by U.S. postmodernism: the model of high and low art or elite and mass culture. High/low should here be seen as a cipher for a much more complex set of relations that always involve palimpsests of times and spaces that are anything but binary. I suggest that this model, once freed from earlier parochialisms stemming from its embeddedness in U.S./European constellations, may well serve as a template through which to look comparatively at phenomena of cultural globalization—including that earlier phase of non-European modernisms in Asia, Latin America, or Africa. For too long, such non-Western modernisms have either been ignored as epistemologically impossible—since only the West was considered advanced enough to generate authentic modernism—or dismissed as lamentable mimicry and contamination of a more genuine local culture. Such "studied ignorance," as Gayatri Spivak once called it, is no longer acceptable.
However, the high/low problematic also extends to the realm of tradition and its activation in the present, taking very different forms at different historical times and often inflected by radically different politics. This becomes clear when you consider, for example, the political role played today by classical Brahmin epics in India, epics written in Sanskrit ages ago but endlessly displayed on television and circulated in many languages in oral culture today; the renewed struggle in China over what in Mao's times was relegated to the margin as feudal culture; and, also in China, the...