Transnationalism and Globalism

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Defining the Term

In sweeping strokes, we can understand “globalism” as closely related to the term “postcolonialism” itself. The two terms share the idea of cosmopolitan centers in changing relations with rural areas and the emerging metropolises of the Third World. For the purposes at least of this page, however, we will use “globalism” to refer to economic relations and shifts in modes of production that occur between financial centers like New York, Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles and emerging nations around the world. Usually narrated as positive processes like “investment,” “progress” and “development,” activists and scholars around the world have begun to discuss globalism with ambivalence as they unpack profound as asymmetries between center and periphery. The most visible actors in these relations are abstract, imagined entities called “Trans-” or “Multi-National Corporations”(MNCs). The sites where MNCs do (and do not) set up shop become the crucibles for radical change in material conditions and cultural production as well as potential sites of resistance from people whose lives have changed dramatically, as often as not for the worse, despite the rhetoric of progress. (See Marx and the Idea of Commodity)

Flexible Accumulation

Although many theorists have offered engaging descriptions of Late Capital’s strategies, geographer David Harvey has formulated a succinct and useful set of concepts that captures the way MNCs do business:

Flexible Accumulation … Rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. It has entrained rapid shifts in the patterning of uneven development, both between sectors and geographical regions…. It has also entrained a new round of what I shall call ‘time-space compression” … In the capitalist world the time horizons of both private and public decision-making have shrunk, while satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space. (The Condition of Post-modernity, 147)

Flexible accumulation, then, belies the nature of corporations that are not so “multi-” as much they are “trans-”. Transnational accumulation does not occur equally between geographical areas, but rather in specific locations — Wall and Bond Streets, for example — with transactions that transgress no end of boundaries with increasing speed.

For people living in locations affected, directly or indirectly, by the presence of MNCs, the ebb and flow of global capital becomes a destabilizing force, something to follow or find and that seems to value them as labor. In turn, however, new-found cash incomes create new markets consisting of people not previously thought of as viable consumers. In the worst case scenario, peoples marginal to urban centers where MNCs are headquartered become doubly exploited, first as labor and later as consumers. Both processes increase accumulations of capital far from the sites where goods are produced.

Cultural Implications

Focusing on the cultural implications of transnational capital, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has tendered a useful set of terms for a world that has undergone what he calls, after Deleuze and Guattari, “deterritorialization.” In Appadurai’s scheme a variety of “scapes” — ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finacescapes and ideoscapes — are constantly at play. Most crucial and human among these post-territorial scapes are the ethnoscapes “… who make up the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest-workers and other groups and persons [that] constitute an essential feature of the world and appear to affect the politics of and between nations to an unprecedented degree.”(See Representation)

Where cultural practice takes hold in the interstices of this transnational culture is in the production of the imagination, a term Appadurai uses not in an individual sense, but rather in terms of “a social practice.” New or refined forms of media financed by ideologically thick apparati produce what is possible, what we can imagine in and between cultural and geographic boundaries. (See as response to Nationalism)

In his considerations of mediascapes, Appadurai harkens back to Guy Debord, theorist of the spectacle, who examined a technologically accelerated process by which a new mode of spectacular production transforms social relations in a total frame: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images … The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”

Extending this framework, Rey Chow follows spectacular logic to the point of inversion, as the visuality of the transnational society of the spectacle finds media supplanting imagination in creating what she calls “Postmodern Automatons.” Her first step in locating an arena for a feminist intervention in global power relations comes in recognizing that “… a perception of the spectacular cannot be separated from technology, which turns the human body into the site of experimentation and mass production.” Once spectacle dissolves human agency, it finds the human body a fertile site for production.


Writers and Theorists

Chow’s search for sites and strategies for intervention — which she locates in the mediation between “critical regionalism”and the supposed abandon of postmodern theory — opens up the crucial question of finding other sites and strategies where resistance can or does take place. Chow’s work complements the work of other feminists who consider the many positions women hold or can take both in regard to transnational capital and academic feminism’s subject matter. Expanding on a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich, writers like Chandra Mohanty, Caren Kaplan, and Lata Mani interrogate the “politics of location” by which discursive assymmetries and ellisions of real agency parallel the material conditions fostered by globalism.

Locating the problems of “postcoloniality,” Arif Dirlik offered an early salvo along this front from within the intellectual or academic institutions implicated in the logic of globalism:

I would suggest … that postcoloniality is the condition of the intelligentsia of global capitalism. The question, then, is not whether this global intelligentsia can (or should) return to national loyalties but whether, in recognition of its own class-position in global capitalism, it can generate a thoroughgoing criticism of its own ideology and formulate practices or resistance against the system of which it is a product. (356)

In An Antique Land, 1994.

In An Antique Land, 1994.

Anthropologist and novelist Amitav Ghosh has explored the relations of people in and between nations through wars and accumulation, in both his novel The Shadow Lines, which takes place in India, Britain, and Bangladesh, and his non-fictional book In an Antique Land, follows people through the Arab world at the time of the Gulf War and back through history.

Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid imagines her own country through the eyes of a tourist at the same time as she exposes the global transformations that legitimate and illegitimate transnational economic flows have affected Antigua in A Small Place.

Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, an imaginative ethnography, links marginality in what some would call an isolated area in Indonesia to broader — regional, national, and global — concerns. She shows how  female cultural innovators incorporate and overturn observable, local depredations of various processes that have global implications.

Vandana Shiva, a physicist and Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in Dehra Dunn (India), confronts the environmental challenges that large scale industry presents to ecologically minded feminists as she relates environmental health to human health, insisting that the two are a continuity, not independent spheres.

Works Cited and Bibliography

  • Ahmad, Aijaz. “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory.’” Social Text 17 (Fall 1987). 3-25. (A response to Jameson, below.)
  • Appadurai, Arjun. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology.” Recapturing Anthropology. Satnta Fe: School of American Research P, 1991. 191-210.
  • —. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995. 324-339. (Reprint from Public Culture 2:2 (Spring 1990). 1-24.)
  • (Both of the above articles are included in Appadurai’s recent Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.)
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings (Mark Poster, ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988.
  • Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. New York: Zone Books, 1995.
  • Dirlik, Arif. “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter 1994): 328-56.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveller’s Tale. New York: Vintage, 1992.
  • —. The Shadow Lines. New York: Penguin, 1990.
  • Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan (eds.). Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,1994.
  • Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell,1990.
  • Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986). 65-88.
  • Kaplan, Caren. “Resisting Autobiography: Outlaw Genres and  Subjects.” Smith & Watson, eds, De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 115-138.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Plume (Penguin), 1988.
  • Mani, Lata. “Multiple Mediations: Feminist Scholarship in the Age of Multinational Reception.” Feminist Review 35 (Summer 1990). 24-41.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience.” Barrett & Phillips, eds. Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992. 74-92.
  • Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” Mohamed &Lloyd, eds. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.216-245.
  • Shiva, Vandana (ed.). Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development Worldwide. Phildelphia: New Society Publishers, 1994.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.

Author: Pete Nowakoski, Spring 1996

Last edited: May 2012

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