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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 1-22

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The Outside of the Global

Urs Stäheli
University of Bern


THERE ARE NOT MANY THINGS AS PERFECT AS A GLOBE. A GLOBE IS A "complete or perfect body" (OED), a fully self-sufficient and well-balanced entity. Thus, the globe is by definition all-encompassing, and its perfection, wherein its beauty is supposed to lie, makes it difficult to imagine an outside of the globe. How could it be complete if it depended on an outside? Recent political and theoretical discourses on the global and globalization are fascinated with this logic of completeness. Moreover, they are themselves engaged in creating what they try to observe. The narratives put forward understand the global as teleological process, awaiting its fulfillment in the imaginary totality of an all-encompassing globality. This all-inclusive narrative does not leave out anyone or anything. Even that which resists the imperatives of the global has to be integrated into the global whole in order to achieve and maintain its ideal totality.

The figure of the global is both more inclusive and more exclusive than "older" models of society: anyone is anywhere, potentially, part of the global—it is the dream of a non-antagonistic society come true. The global cannot have any enemies by definition, since even those who oppose the [End Page 1] global are part of it. However, this all-inclusive stance is not simply an opening up of earlier imaginary constructions of society that were nationally, ethnically, or culturally coded. It is also a pervasive totalizing gesture, which tries to make the outside of the global unthinkable. In this respect, discourses on globalization often seem even more universalistic than earlier versions of totalizing theory have been. While, for example, the logic of capital certainly does not create an anti-essentialist perspective, it was still sensible to the contradictions within global capitalism and the very limits of this logic. In contrast, discourses on globalization often resemble a teleological world view, claiming that ever more social spheres are becoming globalized, leaving nothing untouched by the hegemony of the global.

The rhetoric of globalization produces political and theoretical effects of closure that are often neglected by the practitioners of globalization theory. Accepting a notion of the global as a teleological figure of completeness precludes crucial politico-theoretical possibilities; it constitutes an exemplary case of a "politics of the construction of the unthinkable" (Laclau 1981) that makes unthinkable that which does not fit in with the hegemonic definition of the global.

My paper tries to trace how the "global" and the "world" are used in contemporary theories of globalization, and the totalizing effects they create. What is at stake is a concept of the global that would be able to account for its own "constitutive" outside (cf. Staten 1984; Laclau 1990). To put it differently, deconstructing the global requires us to trace that which is excluded by talking about the global, and to examine how these constitutive exclusions affect the very possibility of globality. Such a conceptual operation becomes necessary if we want to avoid a totalizing gesture that uncritically inherits concepts of totality. While, for example, the Althusserian discussion of the concept of totality has highlighted the potentially essentialist pitfalls of the idea of an "expressive totality" (Cullenberg 1996), recent discourses on globalization appear to be a resurrection of the idea of an "expressive totality"—be it as local expression or signature of the global, or the local adaptation of the global. In both cases, the essence of the global reveals itself in the local adaptations that are only seen as surface phenomena of a totality organized by the logic of the global. [End Page 2]

The Global in Political Discourses

Although my argument on the global will primarily be an epistemological discussion of how the idea of the global works as a theoretical concept, I would like to start with a brief glance at how the metaphor of the global is used in contemporary political discourses. In so doing, I will try to show that the...