Globalization and the Postcolonial Condition
Modern Language Association, December 2000
Copyright Paul Jay 2000
My talk takes off from work Iíve been doing on the impact economic and cultural globalization will have on the future of English. In an essay thatís to appear next month in PMLAís special issue on globalizing literary studies, I argue that itís become increasingly impossible to study literatures in English without situating them, and the culture(s) from which they've emerged, within transnational histories marked by the complex processes of globalization. As a result of this history, English has become in our own time less a national literature than a language in which people write from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The globalization of English, from this point of view, is not a theoretical formulation or a political agenda developed by radicals in the humanities to displace the canon. Itís a simple fact of contemporary history.
In the few minutes I have this morning, I want to briefly discuss the rise of globalization as a new discipline in the social sciences and humanities, raise some questions about the relationship between globalization and postcolonialism, and end with a few suggestions about how I think we can develop a working relationship between what in many way appear to be two different paradigms for the interdisciplinary study of transnational literatures and cultures.
The study of globalization, first initiated by economists and social scientists, was tied to the emergence of a global economy, grounded in modernization, fueled by the expansion of Western capitalism, and more recently, tied to the rise of transnational corporations and the proliferation of markets that regularly cross nation-state boundaries. One of the paradoxes of globalization, which in its current form challenges the power and autonomy of the nation-state, is that it first developed in connection with the expansion of the nation-state. Immanuel Wallerstein's well-known formulation of "the modern world system," for example, which to an important degree paved the way for more comprehensive theories about globalization, is based on the notion that it was nation-state economies that facilitated the development of a world economic system. Western nation-states, in particular, characterized by voracious economic development, strong governmental structures, and a powerful sense of national identity, controlled this economy for their own benefit. However, the rise of the multi-national corporation, and later, the internet, has transformed Wallerstein's world system by decentering the role of the nation-state. Indeed, more and more, Wallerstein's world system, tied as it is to the dominance of the modern nation-state, looks like the last phase of an age in eclipse, since under globalization the nation-state is being undermined by transnational forces that threaten its traditional power to regulate subjectivity and determine what constitutes cultural belonging. Where Wallerstein's world system depends on the controlling force of the nation-state, globalization depends on the steady diminution of its power by multinational corporations, which increasingly operate outside the interests and boundaries of the nation state.
There is another important difference between Wallerstein's formulation of a world system, and contemporary approaches to globalization. Where Wallerstein's world system was fundamentally an economic one, globalization is now recognized as a broadly cultural phenomenon. Moving from world system theory to the study of globalization, we move from the narrow study of global economic exchange to a more generalized study of complex forms of transnational cultural exchange. While globalization started out as a disciplinary sub-field of economy and political science departments, it has become increasingly populated by sociologists, cultural theorists, and professors of English. Where Wallerstein gives a nod to how "cultural links" can have a secondary role in reinforcing the power of the world-system, in his view that system is fundamentally economic. Globalization studies, on the other hand, has developed by continually rethinking the relationship between economies, cultures, commodities and social behavior, and by focusing carefully on how systems of commodity exchange are also systems of cultural exchange.
This shift from a world system focus on the organizing power and autonomy of the nation-state, to globalization theory's focus on the reorganization of social formations, political alliances, and cultural identity and power along transnational lines, has profound implications for how we think about the organization of literary studies. The old model of literary studies, of course, was nationalist through and through, and so was demonstrably connected to what Wallerstein called a modern world system. Indeed, the organization of departments and curricula along national lines is a vestige of the organizing power of the very concept of the nation state. In the United States, for example, literary studies have been structured like a political map, the borders of which have neatly duplicated those between modern nation-states ("English," "French," Spanish," "Italian," "German," etc.). Given that the rise of the university in the West is so directly linked to the development and needs of the modern nation state, the globalizing of literary studies portends a remarkable moment of reversal, one that is bound to have a profound effect on the disciplinary organization of literary studies.
Of course these nationalist paradigms for organizing literary study had been called into question by postcolonial studies well before the advent of globalization studies. As theories about globalization, and the practices of globalization studies, are absorbed by those of us working in literary studies, it seems to me we have to deal with a number of pressing questions about how to productively connect globalization and postcolonial studies. Among the most pressing questions are the following:
This last question strikes me as particularly vexing because postcolonialism and globalization seem to offer two distinct approaches to the transnational study of literature and literary culture (the first to a significant degree is rooted in the work of postcolonial intellectuals and writers, and is grounded in the political and social experience of political decolonization and nation-building, but the second is primarily the product of Western intellectuals and is grounded in a complex of disciplinary theories focusing on postnational structures and cultures). Do these two ways of contextualizing transnational literatures and cultures have enough in common to allow them to forge a workable relationship, or does globalization actually represent a threat to postcolonial studies? Put more starkly, we have to ask ourselves whether academic forms of globalization simply duplicate the worst effects of economic and cultural globalization, whether, that is, globalization studies is simply the latest manifestation of the West's desire to colonize the rest. I want to try to answer some of these questions in what follows.
First, the relationship between the historical processes of postcolonialism and globalization. It seems to me that there are two different ways of looking at this relationship. The first would be to mark a clear distinction between the two, based on an understanding that while globalization is a postnational phenomenon, postcolonialism is linked to the epoch of the nation-state. The second, however, would insist on a fundamental connection between postcolonialism and globalization, based on the understanding that both colonialism and postcolonialism are integral to the very history of globalization. In the first view, postcolonialism is connected to the rise of modernity and the epoch of nationalism, while globalization is understood to be a contemporary, postnational phenomenon connected to the rise of postmodernity. While the second view recognizes that postcolonialism marks a break in the history of colonialism, and the exercise of colonial power, it insists that postcolonialism is nevertheless a part of the late history of the nation-state. It recognizes that postcolonialism marks a break in the history of the nation-state, but not a break from that history.
The second point of view rejects the idea that globalization is simply a contemporary, or postmodern, phenomenon. It insists that globalization actually has a long history, and that the whole arch of European imperial expansion, colonization, decolonization, and the establishment of postcolonial states figures prominently in that history. Instead of drawing a clear line between the (modern) age of the nation-state and the (postmodern) emergence of a transnational, global economic and cultural system, this point of view insists on taking a historical view of globalization that sees it unfolding in ever accelerating phases. To be sure, in the earlier phases of globalization, the nation-state linked colonization and capitalism together in the interests of its own expansion, while in its more recent phase multi-national corporations and the mass media have begun to challenge the power of the nation-state. But such observations do not undermine the basic argument that colonialism, postcolonialism, and globalization are historically linked in important ways. They simply suggest how the long history of globalization might be written.
It seems to me that the second way of thinking about the relationship between postcolonialism and globalization provides a much more fruitful context for negotiating a relationship between them than does the first. The first view sets postcolonialism and globalization at odds with one another, with each one belonging to a separate epoch. From this point of view, the postcolonial state, as a state, is relegated to the fading epoch of modernity, while the structures and cultures of globalization are associated with postmodernity and with a future in which the nation-state plays an increasingly peripheral role. However, the second view recognizes that the histories of colonization, decolonization, and postcolonialism are part of the long history of globalization. It productively connects the two by questioning the whole idea of a historical break separating postcolonialism from globalization.
Of course, once we recognize this link we are left with the fact that the forces of economic and cultural globalization are a double-edged sword for emergent postcolonial nations and the cultures (literary and otherwise) they seek to sustain. I want to explore this problem for a moment. If colonization, decolonization, and postcolonialism are part of the history of globalization, then it makes sense to distinguish at least two phases in that history relative to the nation-state: A first phase, in which the nation state harnesses colonization with capital development in the interests of its own expansion, and a second, in which multi-national corporations in the age of the mass-media begin to outpace the power of the nation state. The first stage suggests a historical epoch in which the formerly colonized achieve a measure of power and autonomy through the creation of a postcolonial nation-state. The forces of globalization, however, represent something of an ironic moment for the postcolonial nation-state. One irony, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, is that the nation-state is based on a European, colonial model, so that ďanti-colonial nationalism," as represented by the emergence of the postcolonial nation-state, "is itself made possible and shaped by European political and intellectual history." The structure that seeks to colonize becomes, ironically, the structure that seeks to liberate. A second irony regarding globalization, as Ania Loomba points out, is that at the very moment of its constitution, the power and autonomy of the nation state gets called into question by transnational forces that threaten to eclipse it. Worse yet, economic globalization demands participation in a transnational economic system that threatens the autonomy and the cultural identity of all nation-states, especially newly emergent ones. On the one hand, economic development seems tied to investment in the global economy, but on the other hand, contemporary globalization brings with it a homogenizing, Westernizing cultural force threatening the cultural autonomy and identity of the nation-state. How do postcolonial nations, and others seeking to preserve their cultural character, participate in the global system while protecting the autonomy and character of their national cultures?
This quandary underscores the main challenge of constructing a working relationship between postcolonialism and globalization. On the one hand, as I've insisted, it isn't that difficult to see how the history of colonization, decolonization, and postcolonialism can be understood as significant moments in the history of globalization, so that the two processes or epochs can be studied in interconnected ways. But how do we deal with the contemporary threat globalization seems to present both to the postcolonial nation-state and to postcolonial studies as an academic discipline? After all, isn't postcolonialism grounded in resistance to, and autonomy from, just the kind of colonization the forces of globalization seem to represent? Doesn't globalization, as a historical, political, economic and cultural force, threaten the distinct political structures and cultural identities of nation-states deeply committed to the process of recovering and enriching forms of cultural expression nearly obliterated by colonization? Isn't globalization a radically homogenizing force, one that inexorably spreads Western foods, fashions, music, patterns of consumption, and values wherever capital expansion and the media go, laying waste to local forms of identity and cultural expression? And worse, don't academic globalization studies represent the return of the repressed, the colonizing machinery of critical paradigms that in their most benign forms assimilate Otherness to Western disciplinary forms, and in their more insidious ones, as Ania Loomba has put it, celebrate globalization ďas the producer of a new and Ďliberatingí hybridity or multiculturalism, terms that now circulate to ratify the mish-mash of cultures generated by the near unipolar domination of the Western, particularly United States, media machine?"
These are hard questions to answer, especially for Western academics like myself who are deeply interested in postcolonial literatures and cultures yet also fascinated by the processes of globalization and the hybrid cultural forms it is creating. But I want to try. It seems to me that there are ought to be two sides to Loomba's warning. Yes, we need to guard against making a fetish of hybridity and multiculturalism when it simply represents a "mish-mash" of homogenized Western cultural forms and patterns of consumption, and yes, we need to be wary of celebrating the liberating effects of this "mish-mash" when it is obliterating deep-felt and long-standing forms of cultural behavior. However, I think that no matter where we come from, or what our cultural roots are, we also need to guard against insisting that whole regions of the world, and their sometimes impoverished populations, must preserve what we think of as their traditional cultural characters and resist accommodation with a global economy and the cultural changes it brings because we enjoy the richness and diversity their ways of dressing, eating, making music and living off the land represent (as if these cultures exist for the West as a kind of museum, a living diorama). I know it is hard to question this impulse without seeming to side with Western, capitalist forces of exploitation and sameness, but I think we must question it. There has to be a more complicated, nuanced, and carefully thought-through position on the relationship between postcolonialism and globalization than the polar ones suggested by Loomba, that is, between the position that sees all forms of cultural hybridity or cultural experimentation and transformation as the evil effects of globalization, and the position that unthinkingly celebrates hybridity and multiculturalism as paths to liberation from the paralyzing effects of cultural fundamentalisms wherever they may be. The first position makes a fetish of purity and stasis, ignoring the fact that cultures all over the world have always evolved syncretically in the context of complicated interactions with one another, and it plays down the extent to which people subject to contemporary Western cultural forms translate and appropriate them in complex ways. The second position runs the risk of making a fetish of syncretism and hybridity for its own sake, as if culture only liberates when it renounces rigid traditions and embraces syncretism and change. It can represent too enthusiastic an embrace of globalization without a recognition of the price it exacts all over the globe.
It seems to me that the only theoretically sound and practically workable position to take in these matters is to insist on the fact that cultures have always traveled and changed, that the effects of globalization, dramatic as they are, only represent in an accelerated form something that has always taken place: the inexorable change that occurs through intercultural contact, as uneven as the forms it takes may be. Sometimes itís lamentable and the result of conquest and force, sometimes it comes in the more benign contexts of trade and commodity exchange and facilitates fascinating forms of cultural improvisation in terms of social behavior or the production of anything from food to fashion, music and literature. But it has always happened, and it's hard to find a place on the globe where what we might want to celebrate as local or indigenous culture is either local or indigenous. This is certainly the case in the cultures I've been studying in relation to my teaching of Caribbean, South Asian, and Hispanic American literatures. You'd be hardpressed to identify cultural forms that are "indigenous" in any of these regions. They're nearly all the complex result of the long history of what we now call globalization. Understanding that globalization is not a contemporary phenomenon, but that it has a long history incorporating the epochs of colonization, decolonization, and postcolonialism, helps us deal with the complexity of cultural production in these regions without taking recourse to either of the polar positions I just reviewed. It helps us to see that cultural syncretism and hybridity are the thoroughly common, everyday result of sustained intercultural contact, not the relatively recent result of pop culture globalization.
Globalization studies in the mode I have been discussing provides a context for studying literary texts and the cultures from which they have emerged in ways that acknowledge their relationship to complex systems of transnational and intercultural exchange, appropriation, and transformation. Globalization studies can, it seems to me, be productively linked to postcolonial studies in ways that particularly facilitate the study of literatures grounded in diaspora communities linked to the phenomena of exile, displacement, and migration. The expansion of diasporic literatures in English, to cite one example, underscores the sense in which contemporary writing is produced not just in a postcolonial context defined narrowly, but in a postnational, global flow of deterritorialized cultural products appropriated, translated, and recirculated world-wide. I have in mind here particularly contemporary texts such as Zadie Smithís White Teeth, Jhumpa Lahiriís The Interpreter of Maladies, Mohsin Hamidís Moth Smoke, and Arundhati Royís The God of Small Things. These texts, while generally grounded in the history of colonization, decolonization, and postcolonialism, struggle more specifically with the emergence of a global economy and with the transnational flow of cultural commodities and hybrid identities, than do postcolonial texts focused more specifically on the exigencies of nation-building in the wake of colonization. Globalization studies offers us a useful framework for studying the emergence of global literatures like the ones represented by these texts, but only if we understand that the history of globalization is inextricably connected to the history of postcolonialism.