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  • Plasticity and the Global
  • Bhaskar Sarkar (bio)

The Problematic of the Global

In the face of the persistent Euro-American slant of Film and Media Studies, the task of globalizing the discipline involves approaching its object of knowledge differently. There has to be a metatheoretical shift not only in the constitution of “theory,” but also in the organization of the “global.”1 This essay will seek to identify and dislodge certain universalist preconceptions that underlie both concepts. Here I focus on the global, but many of the following observations are applicable to theory as well.

What, where, when is “the global” in film and media theory? For all its frequent invocations, it remains a notoriously contested and vacuous term, plagued by at least two major problems. The first one besets any totalizing concept: if the global is understood to encompass our entire planet, it takes on a universalist ring. Structuralist approaches echoing World Systems Theory are insightful in their attention to the global hegemony of certain industries and their international division of labor. But arguments about the Americanization or McDonaldization of all culture, which raise charges of economic determinism, also lean toward an easy universalism. Claims about media structured by the script of global capital, while compelling in their analytical rigor and empirical cogency, foreclose more nuanced explorations of the cultural field. Studies of Bollywood and K-pop, only recently acknowledged as global culture industries, also face similar pitfalls, with further confusions about the presumed timing: when did Indian cinema, for instance, turn global—in the 1990s, right after World War II, or even before? The challenge, then, is one of conceptualizing the spatiotemporal contours of [End Page 451] the global in a manner that registers its broader imaginative horizons while also grounding it in the practices of the local: a multilateral, fluid, and capacious articulation of the global.

A second problem stems from locating the origins and cores of the modern world in Europe and America. Once modernity is framed as an essentially Western phenomenon, any modern iteration of the global must also spring from the West. A handful of ascendant localisms—British, French, or German—usurp the place of the global, relegating vast segments of the globe to the proverbial boonies. Since the latter’s experiences do not match those at the presumptive centers of modernity, they remain the nonglobal, the perpetually stunted locals. Thus French cinema, while no match for Hollywood at the box office, claims preeminence within global art cinema; but cinema of the Maghreb, even when made with French financing and screened at prominent film festivals, gains attention as a cultural curiosity with “local” flavor. The challenge here is one of formulating a paradigm of the global that does not remain beholden to certain hegemonic localisms, but embraces a multisited globalism. To indulge in a bit of productive tautology, at stake is a globalized sense of “the global.”

The point of these observations is not to instigate a rehearsal of the structuralist vs. culturalist debates of the 1980s, or the center-periphery models of the 1970s, but to move beyond them. The approach I outline below is inspired as much by postcolonial critiques of globalization, stressing historical and cultural difference, as by the ever-increasing significance of the translocal linkages and commonalities. There is an ongoing truck between difference and sameness in the folds of cultural interaction that has to be accounted for by any theory of global culture. One way to attend to this complex traffic is to track the multi-scalar and multipotent relationalities between local nodes that constitute the global. Channeling resonance and discord, inducing amplification and erasure, these spatial contacts lead to a range of outcomes—collaboration, competition, neutral indifference. And under certain conditions, the relationships might develop into genuine reciprocities: in normative anticipations of the global—for instance, in theories of the cosmopolitical—mutualities are taken to be the ideal limit case.2

The nodes of the global are neither absolute nor impervious: whether agents, communities, or locales, they are far more likely to morph than to remain static. The global effectively materializes from the mobile encounters between mutating nodes—as networks of shifting relations between entities that are themselves...