Anti anti-globalization

by Matthew Amster

As an anthropologist interested in cultural complexity and the proliferation of cultural forms, I find the current outbreak of anti-globalization rhetoric simplistic and unreflective and, perhaps even at odds with the very ideas and political ideologies that I sense people using it are trying to get across. Without meaning to unnecessarily essentialize anti-globalization proponents, as if they were a coherent group (which they are clearly not), I wish to argue that we need to be critical of both anti- and pro-globalization rhetoric, and embrace a more nuanced view, especially if you are a person who believes, as I do, that "cultural diversity" is a "good" thing.

Let's start with a touchy example of globalization: Islamic fundamentalism. In the current post 9/11 milieu, it is not hard to rally arguments for how Islamic fundamentalism, even as it opposes globalization, proliferates forms of globalizations and globalizing discourse. As with any universalizing motivating ideology, Islamic fundamentalism, like late global capitalism, is an ideoscape that permeates and changes as it moves though space. It is a global cultural form, which means it cannot be controlled or constrained. Ironically, it cannot be imprisoned by the ideology that created it, even if this ideology is, itself, anti-global. The movement against globalization, in a perverse twist that should be obvious, is that as protesters seek to make global news headlines to educate us all about meetings of the World Bank or other purportedly pro-global institutions, the protests themselves are an archetypal form of perfect globalizing activity. Anti-globalization protests, then, are forms of transnational movements, just as is hip-hop music and Islamic fundamentalism. As with hip-hop music, anti-globalization protests may have no authoritative center that can control how they are appropriated. Just as might be argued for the World Bank, each of these phenomena (and just about everything we can witness) are clearly part of an on-going process of cultural globalization. What we call "World music" exemplifies this unwieldy hybridity particularly well. It is not, as Derrida argued, that play is controlled by a center, but that there are often no centers whatsoever, or temporary ones where every place has the potential to be a center or a periphery or both simultaneously.

So what's the point? Ideologies, big and small, and the people that move them, are the ever-pregnant producers and consumers of global diversity. This is where anthropologists come in. One of our principal jobs as ethnographers in the global age is to keep our eye on the global flows, and there are plenty to keep our eyes on all the time. Some would argue that these flows are coming faster and more furious than ever, others that globalization is really nothing new and such processes have been pervasive through all human history. In documenting the the rate and nature of sociocultural transformations, anthropologists are intimate observers of context, from the minute microsociological evidence of human discourse to the ways in which meanings migrate across "cultures".

What many seem to agree upon in anthropology today is that any uniform and static notion of culture is problematic, that identities are constructed in multiple ways and shift through time. Still, people will tend to have some more, and less, shared "culture" orientations and agendas, based on a multiplicity of wide-ranging (and not-all-equal-in-every-way) variables such as mode of subsistence, religion, ethnicity, occupation, education, gender, class, and political orientation. As the technologies of self production proliferate --- to allow myself to participate in spreading an incredibly vague and questionable term --- both the variety within and between (unbounded) "cultures" is always increasing and decreasing at the same time. As we become more the same, we also become more different.

Our job is to follow these variables, even as they move across and out of what have been viewed as our "traditional" field sites, as surely our interlocutors are changing, not just as migrants and transnationals, but as individuals who remain in one place and encounter global influences at home. This does not mean that we should stop doing fieldwork in localities, but that our notions of locality and globality, and the study of local modernities, enters prominently into our decisions about what we study and how. In other words, within groups (cultural groups, ethnic groups, and others) there is always variation regarding how people construct selves, and this is no less true for the study of "modernity" and "globalization" than it was for the study of "tradition" and "culture".

The fact that this is not a contradiction, but an inherent dimension to understanding change, clouds current anti-globalization discourse, at least in the popular media. In contrast, anthropological discourses about globalization invigorate the field, as anthropologists have so much more to view and unravel and more ways of doing it. Perhaps we have too many options, making the field encompass virtually everything everywhere. As we try to grasp the pluralizing, heterogenizing, effects of cultural blending, hybridity, and creolization that globalization produces and reproduces (consumes and reconsumes), our ethnographic task becomes ever broader. As we enter into debates about the local and the global, the particular and the universal, we are forced to challenge stubborn constructs, including these very terms and others such as "tradition"/"culture" and "modernity"/"globalization".

With no pessimism intended, I would argue that our contribution as a field is that we always manage to find ways of showing how things that look the same often actually mean something different, and how things that look different often actually mean something quite similar. This is not a new thing for anthropology, but a tension that has shaped our whole history as a discipline and seems to get recast in new terms every couple of decades. At times this tension divides people into dichotomous camps --- such as those focused on uncovering universal similarities, psychic unity and the like, versus those who have strong relativistic tendencies and wish to expose the incommenserabilty of cultures. Most of us end up doing a good dose of both, sorting between the interesting particulars and universals, acting as translators (albeit imperfect ones) of other cultures. The current globalization debate exhibits some of these tensions, between those whose meta-narrative frame is biased toward continuity and those who focus on change, but most of us try to balance both, as both are part of the lived realities that surround us.

Just as the rise of ethnicity as a valuable construct in the Sixties and Seventies accompanied political movements of people in their relationship to political entities such as the state, so too does the present rise of globalization as a central construct and axis for discussion coexist with a heightened awareness of transnational flows, especially in the post cold-war era. Even efforts to stop globalization, as I began this brief essay, are part of the proliferation of cultural globalization. If it is not obvious by now, I would neither claim to be in "for" globalization, nor "against" anything so broad and complex; hence the title of this essay "anti anti-globalization". In using this phrase (with a nod to Geertz's famous essay anti anti-relativism") I am taking a stance against using the terms globalization or anti-globalization too narrowly to mean something more (or less) explicit than they do. (What this is exactly, I am not sure: perhaps the nature of capitalism and the destructive capability of markets). Whatever that explicit thing is that people mean by globalization (and, by implication, anti-globalization), I am pretty sure it will include its opposite as well, which is not to say that globalization is a meaningless term, just that it encompasses contradiction and is not always subservient to political ideologies and agendas. Indeed, just as we cannot talk simply of an essentialized culture or identity, but rather are forced to consider plural cultures and identities (if these constructs are to retain any realistic value), so too should we be pluralizing our use of terms, speaking of "modernities" and "globalizations." Indeed, much of anthropological discourse on globalization is being framed in terms of such multiple modernities, globalizations, and globalisms, as, consistent with our disciplinary agendas, we find difference in similarity and similarity in our difference.

Cultural imperialism and homogenization are not just phantoms --- surely such processes occur all the time --- but nor are the processes that resist and imperil them, many of which play out globally as well. Such processes, I believe, are too multifaceted and refer to too many different kinds of things to be something one can simply be "for" or "against." It would be like being "against" history or reality. Perhaps we can compare globalizations to viruses. Some viruses are strong and others are mild. Some relatively benign and others insidious and good at proliferating themselves. Some harmless, others fatal, and many in between or none of the above. The point is that there are infinite permutations and implications, and that's what should be evoked by the term globalization: rather than a purely homogenizing force, it is also a machine producing cultural diversity and spinning out of control, exhibiting chaos and, at the same time, constantly coalescing, combining, and reforging new patterns of human organization and interaction.






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