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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 91-115

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Culture and Globalization, or, The Humanities in Ruins

Imre Szeman
McMaster University

It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. The forfeiture of what could be done spontaneously or unproblematically has not been compensated for by the open infinitude of new possibilities that reflection confronts. In many regards, expansion appears as contraction. The sea of the formerly inconceivable, on which around 1910 revolutionary art movements set out, did not bestow the promised happiness of adventure. Instead, the process that was unleashed consumed the categories in the name of that for which it was undertaken.
—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
The nation understands itself as its own theme park, and that resolves the question of what it means to live in Italy: it is to have been Italian once.

—Bill Readings, The University in Ruins [End Page 91]

AS THE RANGE AND NUMBER OF BOOKS AND ARTICLES EXPLORING CULTURE IN the era of globalization should indicate, the concept of culture has undergone a significant change at the end of the twentieth and in the early twenty-first centuries—a shift that has necessitated new ways of thinking and writing about culture. 1 This is not only, or even primarily, due to the impact on culture of those forces now inextricably associated with globalization: the unprecedented intensification and extensification of electronically-mediated culture on a world-wide scale; the effects of the growth of finance capitalism, that is, of obsessive speculation on capital itself in place of the attention once paid to the products of industry; a political shift from nation-state based sovereignty to a diffusion of sovereignty into international organizations, trade conventions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and transnational corporations; and so on. While these forces, individually and collectively, have changed culture and cultures, what is more significant is the conceptual impact of these (thus far largely) empirical developments. Early work on globalization tended to claim that it constituted something like a genuine historical and epistemic break: on the other side of 1989 (the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire), everything is supposedly different. It has now become more common to see through the rhetoric of newness that surrounds globalization, and to insist on the development of these forces in the longue durée. As with the economy and politics, so too with culture: rather than creating anything genuinely "new" in the sphere of culture, globalization has produced the conditions that might permit us to rethink culture in a larger historical frame, a process that would allow us to see that the concept of culture has always been other than what it claimed to be.

But if globalization has raised this possibility, its actualization has been repeatedly blocked by the operations of culture itself. The typical discussions that emerge around culture in reference to globalization—the already tired talk of cultural mixing-and-matching, or the equally unoriginal worry about the threats (and possibilities) posed to this or that culture by (American) mass culture—merely continue the old game of culture in a new guise. What is original about globalization for culture is not, it seems to me, to be found in the sudden impact of cultures upon one another. Rather, it is that globalization has made it impossible to maintain any of the fictions that [End Page 92] have continued to circulate around the Western concept of culture. This can be seen most acutely, I think, in the current crisis facing the humanities, which is why any exploration of culture and globalization must ask the question of what globalization means for the humanities today and for the future. But before we can address this question, we need to consider the ways in which the concept of culture has typically circulated in and alongside globalization discourses, in order to understand what is missing in most explorations of culture in the era of globalization.

Culture and Space

Discussions of globalization and...