Monday, July 04, 2005

Returning to Regionalism

So I've been doing a bit of reading, and thinking about why regionalism might be related.

I want to say that regionalism is a way of talking about texts that describe or image the local. Texts that concern themselves with a bounded setting, and do not attempt to broaden that setting into something more, or universal.

So Main Street is not quite localism, according to this definition.

But perhaps it should be? I don't think that I've seen anyone try to put this text into the genre of regionalism. (We need to be careful about that term - we aren't sure if it's a genre or a form. Perhaps a genre, because it's not linked to structure in quite the way that form - or literary structure - is. We might need to just stick to "group.") It has the other ingredients - according to Richard Brodhead, regionalism should describe an out-of-the-way place, should make use of dialect or locally-inflected speech patterns, and should otherwise depict non-mainstream cultures.

Perhaps it's that last part that prevents the entrance of Main Street into the group. Lewis is not trying to describe how the local culture and/or local knowledge of Gopher Prairie (GP) are different from other small towns. Part of the point is exactly how similar GP is to other small towns, and how common and ordinary life in GP really is. That's what drives Carol crazy about living there - as in her thinking about the scenery on her initial train ride out to her new home with Kennicott.

So, then, Main Street is a text that could be described as anti-localism, or a text that tries to convince its readers that the local context, the restraints of local cultures and local knowledges, are something to be overcome, put in perspective, and otherwise relegated to minor, peripheral status. Great Art seems to transcend place (and not everyone can appreciate it, or not everyone wants to appreciate it because it might mean letting go of too many everyday sources of power and comfort). This is a book about perspective, about scales, and about transcendence. Carol gains perspective in Washington. She sees Gopher Prairie for what it is, and stops treating it as the only important place in the world.

But things get much more complicated when they are inflected by ethnicity. Main Street really doesn't address issues of race/ethnicity/Otherness except to comment on some ethnic prejudices. Carol's new-found perspective doesn't really address the prejudice of the GP upper class against the mostly Scandinavian immigrants who settle there. Though her struggle for change continues, it seems to be less important. Her own solution renders her activism trivial. In other words, Main Street opens the issue of ethnic (and class) rivalries, without really detailing the problems or exploring the issue in any meaningful way. (Olaf is an interesting counter-example, and might point to the potential rewards of a heavy influx of immigrants, and the dangers to the current class structure inherent in such a diverse underclass.) And you can make reference to a larger perspective, or otherwise resuscitate a character like Carol Kennicott by linking her with a larger, cosmopolitan (danger word!) world. As a "modern" (danger word!) woman, she aligns herself with women's suffrage, the labor movement, and otherwise perceives and responds to the "ideoscapes" that Appadurai refers to - the globalizing understanding of Enlightenment power words like "democracy."

In other words, because Carol is a "white" woman, it's not dangerous for her to appeal to a "larger" perspective of human rights and international struggle. What is much more dangerous is for someone like Zora Neale Hurston to appeal to a larger perspective.

That's a complicated point, and it's going to take a lot of heavy lifting to get that properly qualified.

What I mean is this - the local, particular life of Gopher Prairie, as imaged by Lewis, is not the kind of life worth celebrating. Carol's decision to abandon her connection or her identification (perhaps that's the important move that I want to make here) with her home and to instead maintain a "perspective" that permits her to take the small town less seriously, does not destroy her right to exist or to be an individual person.

That doesn't make sense. Let's back up a little. By connecting her desire for change with universal rights, and by otherwise pursuing or valuing things that seem to be "larger" or more important (the hint, of course, is that Carol is paying attention to social issues in GP, but that they aren't important or aren't as important as social issues in a global sense), Carol loses the urgency that drove her throughout the rest of the book. In other words, this larger perspective has had the undesired effect of reducing her motivation for change.

We could call this "larger perspective" a cosmopolitanism (danger word!), a word that connotes an internationalism, an ability to circulate among varying cultures, to gather and employ local knowledges. I'm thinking of synonyms like "worldliness," or "cultured," or "well-traveled." It's interesting, too, how this sense of the term is inflected by gender - we have the phrase "man of the world," but not really "woman of the world." It's usually men who thus circulate, or who circulate in the sense of gathering local knowledges (I'm thinking here of people like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, men who put their erudite preciosity on display.)

So Carol, who struggles in her role as a regional subject for most of the book, leaves the region to live in Washington for a few years, and discovers the larger perspective that allows her to cope with regionality. (Let's slip back into the phrase "localism." It's a little less freighted.) But this move, this acquired cosmopolitanism (yes, it becomes a kind of object, like a postcard or other tourist trash) threatens Carol's claims to specificity. Without a local reference to frame her identity (or with a weakened, less powerful bond to locality), Carol has reduced the strength of her own claims to difference, of identity through difference.

But that's also complicated. Carol is different, in the sense that not many people in GP have this cosmopolitanism. So, her "perspective," though it weakens her personal bond with the local and makes her a less local subject, still makes her unique and different from other GP residents, and gives her a unique identity in that community.

Carol, and Gopher Prairie, then, become almost a representative small town (if such a thing can be accepted, and we can assume from Lewis's remarks in his narrative that he accepts such a possibility of representativeness), with wholly local subjects (most of the residents) and worldly men and women (like Carol).

I'm not sure that I'm appropriately explicating Carol's identity here. I think that her upbringing in St. Paul makes her a bit different already, and more likely to accept the cosmopolitan perspective than residents of GP. It is, after all, closely akin to the metropolitan identity that she had already adopted through her father, and her former life.

I'll need to return to this later.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Arjun Appadurai and theories of global cultural flows

I've been reading and thinking about Arjun Appadurai's book, Modernity at Large, quite a bit lately. There are two really useful aspects of this book in this context. First, Appadurai describes five aspects, or five different ways of thinking about globalization. He equates the term "globalization" with the idea of "global cultural flows," which is annoyingly broad enough to add very little to the discussion. But the five terms he coins are useful, I think:

Ethnoscapes - "the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live" (33) - stable communities often partly constituted by shifting constellations of immigrants and/or people from other places.

Technoscapes - the global configuration and increasingly rapid exchange/transfer of technology ("both high and low") from one place to another (34).

Financescapes - the increasingly rapid global shifts and changing configurations of global capital as it moves through "currency markets, national stock exchanges, and commodity speculations" (34).

Mediascapes - both "the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, and film-production studios)" and "the images of the world created by these media" (35).

Ideoscapes - "are also concatenations of images" like mediascapes, but "they are often directly political and frequently have to do with the ideologies of states and the counterideologies of movements explicitly oriented to capturing state power or a piece of it. These ideoscapes are composed of elements of the Enlightenment worldview, which consists of a chain of ideas, terms, and images, including freedom, welfare, rights, sovereignty, representation, and the master term democracy" (36).

Appadurai points out that there are "deep disjunctures" between/among the first three, and that those disjunctures are refracted through the last two in multiple and conflicting ways. His use of the suffix -scape is an evocation of "landscape," suggesting both a perspectival or positional understanding of these five aspects of globalization, as well as a link to Benedict Anderson in the term "imagined worlds" (instead of an "imagined community").

So there can be multiple ways of seeing each individual aspect - multiple ethnoscapes, especially - though it seems like some of the "scapes" are unitary and "real," or fundamentally discoverable in a way that is different from the perspectival nature of the concept of "ethnoscape." So there's a flaw in the way the parts interact in this model - it suggests the primacy of capital, since capital is measurable, and a noticeable chunk of Appadurai's book involves a critique of the colonialist policy of enumeration of British subjects in India. In other words, the five "scapes" seem to be ordered. The seemingly unitary financescape might be the most influential "scape," right? And the others are less important but influential variables in the global financescape?

But that's not necessarily true. People are literally countable, just like money. And population statistics can be interpreted just like financial statistics, with bias toward certain structures, certain properties, certain patterns. Maybe my marxist bias makes me think against this - the old base-superstructure fallacy - but I'm thinking that the primacy of financescapes over ethnoscapes is also a capitalist illusion. Hence the tendency to reduce globalization to what Saskia Sassen calls "economic globalization." To someone like Thomas Friedman or Jagdish Bhagwati or Martin Wolf it's all about (and only about) the money. Everything else flows from that, right? It's the money that flows, and people, culture, "prosperity" follows.

The second part of Appadurai's book that I think is really useful is the way that he describes the local as socially constructed and produced, not territorially determined or bound. In other words, he doesn't really subscribe to a strong geographical determinism. While this might have been the case in the past, he doesn't think that modern concepts either of ethnicity or locality really build on a place (real or imagined). Put another way, locality is a "structure of feeling," a term from Raymond Williams. The production of locality is increasingly contested, according to Appadurai, by the efforts of the nation-state to control and define the localities within its jurisdiction, the general cultural drift away from a particular "territory" as a defining element of identity (both individual and collective), and the erosion of the distinction between "spatial" and "virtual" neighborhoods (189).

Williams would also add, as the earlier parts of Appadurai's book suggest, that terms like "community" (which Williams said is suspiciously "always positive") are used in this context of the production of locality as a means of contesting and controlling what a locality should be. And both Appadurai and Tsing (and others, like Harvey) point out the crucial role of scale in these struggles as well. It matters very much if we talk about a "global village," or a more literal "village" - whether we talk about a single bounded space or a large-scale concept like "nation" or "globe." These scales do things.

More on this later.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pre-War attacks on Iraq?

There's evidence, too, of US military attacks inside Iraq way before the outbreak of hostilities in March of 2003, according to Paul Rogat Loeb:

"More Damning than Downing Street" by Loeb, Z-Net

So we're wondering why the Bush Administration decided that Iraq needed "regime change." The clearest reason, for the former Texas oilman and his oil-affiliated cabinet (Rice on the Chevron Oil board, Cheney on the Halliburton board, etc.), was to secure a major source of oil for US companies.

Why do we dismiss the obvious so easily? Why are Bush and his cronies getting away with this? Why did we re-elect this guy?

I've heard it said that Bush has a deep faith in markets, and the ability of markets to do the right thing. That should have disqualified him for government. (Of course, Bill Clinton was also a major believer in free trade and neoliberalism. We can't forget that, either - both parties are implicated in this tangled web.)

Alternet article on Iraq war dead

Check this out:

"My Brother Died for a Ruse" by Dante Zappala

And I'd like to post a link to the Downing Street memo:

Downing Street Memo

This seems to be the kind of question that the US media can't ask. What happens if the war was all a lie, and the dead American soldiers died for no reason? It's an explosive issue, and something that people just don't want to touch. Even if it's true.

Vietnam is still sensitive for the same reason. People don't want to admit that the war was a mistake, and that we were fighting for the wrong reasons, and killing tens of thousands of innocent people merely because we didn't know who else to kill. And that the thousands of Americans who died there died for no particular, or no good reason.

What Iraq needs is a John Kerry - someone self-interested enough to speak out against the war, to accuse this administration of throwing away innocent lives for political gain - and perhaps we'll see some kind of change.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Iraq and US Labor policies

So, according to the Teamsters, the Bush Administration is actively working to suppress labor unions in Iraq. Here's an extract from an e-mail I received about a Teamsters meeting to talk about this:

We are 'fighting to spread Democracy' to Iraq and this part of the world but did you know:
a.. In Iraq, the Bush administration still enforces Saddam Hussein's labor policies that ban Unions for most of Iraq's workers? (Did nothing to change Hussein's 1987 Law which made Unions illegal, when Bush's Provisional Government made up all the present rules to govern the country)
b.. Iraqi Union activists are routinely harassed, threatened, and even murdered?
I found at least one web article on the subject if you want to read a little more:

Alternet Article

According to this article, the US forces in Iraq invaded and trashed a union office, arrested several union leaders, and otherwise made things very difficult for unions.

Apart from being a fundamental violation of the human rights of Iraqis, this renders the entire war suspect: these actions suggest that the US is attempting to make Iraq a "region," in Anna Tsing's sense of a lawless, generalized, and exploitable place. If the workers have unions, then they are less likely to be employed for a dollar a day or less, and less likely to fight companies that abuse or mistreat their employees.

On top of this, unemployment in Iraq is still about 50%. So I'm sure they're desperate for companies to invest and create jobs in Iraq. This desperation, coupled with the abysmal security situation and the Bush Administration's demonstrated willingness to place corporate profits ahead of everything else (including democracy), suggests that Iraq is headed for some serious human rights problems. I'm thinking that it would take quite a bit of persuasion to get a company to spend money there - a significant promise of return. So you're going to get the pirates, and pirates aren't often nice to their crew.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Competing Ideas about Globalization

So, we have a definition of globalization as "americanization," with the idea that "America" is a "cause not a nation" from Mary Kaldor. The global spread of the "American dream," or the "American way of life," or whatever these people want to call it.

And we have globalization as the global spread of culture through high-speed internet connections and 24 hour global news channels, the emphasis being placed on technological advances and the concomitant opportunity, hybridity, and apparently universal access. Some guy in Vancouver posts a blog on his website, and five minutes later people in Shanghai are reading and responding. That kind of thing.

Both of the above are the ideal. The negative side to the first - the crushing of minority or non-Western cultures before the hegemonic forces of Hollywood and consumerism - sounds quite a bit like the negative side to the second - an emphasis on speed and quantity, not depth and quality. Both re-readings of the idealized definitions highlight the agents of globalization as corporate actors. Self-interested, dispassionate entities seeking money and power.

The "Americanization" reading works against the communication networks thing. (I'm seeing myself influenced here by Fredric Jameson's essay, "Globalization as a Philosophical Issue" from The Cultures of Globalization.) Jameson argues that the two sides can be read as economic and cultural, and though oppositional, they combine and react in a dialectical "both/and" relationship.

I'm probably not the first, but the negative reading that I hint at above suggests that such a reading of globalization as "Americanization" is ethnocentric. The United States did not invent the corporation, or capitalism, and can't really lay claim to all of the global actors involved in corporate globalization. Attempting to conflate capitalism and "American-ness" has always been a deception and an ideology - a way to mask a misleading assumption that often benefits the people who promote it. The old "be a good American, and buy an American car" spirit. If consumerism is the American Way, then corporate greed is very American. But if all men are created equal, why do corporations pay some people more than others? Why are employees laid off to make a company more profitable? Why do companies hate labor unions so much?

I'm wandering off topic - the point I'm trying to make is that globalization, if understood as the spread of capitalism to new markets, is not the same thing as "Americanization." We Americans just like to think that it is, both for the sake of pride and to avoid the implication that we might be spreading a cancer. Cultural cancer. I like that analogy as a metaphor for globalization - though again the originary tumor might not have been here. Perhaps it was the UK - the British Empire - that was the original tumor. Enrique Dussel would blame the Spanish and Columbus.

This also points out that globalization, understood however you want to, is not merely the product of the actions of nation-states. It's not just an inter-national issue. The US is an actor in globalization, but so is Nike, and McDonald's, and Steven Spielberg, and Donald Trump, and Shaq. It's much more complex than that, and the idea of a single culture growing outward and dominating the world is a dangerous imperial fantasy.

But I think that the belief in globalization as "Americanization" is pervasive and persistent. I don't think I'm going to kill it with these remarks, so I think that this conception of globalization is something that will need to be acknowledged, though it seems to work against the corporate model.

This is a central concern, and I'm going to be thinking about this for a while.

Friday, June 10, 2005

More on Iraq and Globalization

Here is a brief passage from a recent OpenDemocracy article by Mary Kaldor:
The war was also portrayed as a powerful moral crusade. There was always an idealist strain in American cold-war thinking, which Anatol Lieven and John Mearsheimer discuss in recent articles on openDemocracy. There is continuity in rhetoric between Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” and Bush’s “axis of evil”. The argument is that America is a cause not a nation, with a mission to convert the rest of the world to the American dream and to rid the world of enemies.
I like that turn of phrase - a "cause" not a "nation" - because it seems to fit the United States idea of the "American dream" as an exportable commodity.

Kaldor talks a lot about the differences between what she calls "old" and "new" war. The Iraq War was envisioned as an "old war" by the Bush Adminstration, and fought as a traditional conflict between two sides with definite military forces and positions. The problem, of course, is that things quickly changed to a more lateral conflict between multiple, covert, and disparate actors fighting against the "coalition" for a multitude of reasons, in a multitude of ways. And the victims are often civilians. So, she says, the "coalition" is constantly trying to show how its version of the Iraq War is correct - a single, coherent insurgency led by Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda. And the insurgency wants the world to think that it is a war between the West and Islam, with a violent United States leading a battle to kill innocent Muslims, with a grassroots resistance fighting a holy war against religious hatred. Neither, of course, are accurate, but the two readings seem to feed off of each other.

I think that Kaldor wants to point out how the United States military wants the world to think that it has "globalized" its military, that technological advances have made it capable of striking anywhere the world with irresistable swiftness and precision. It's the global spread of terror, with "all options on the table" (as President Bush likes to repeat).

There's a thread here that sounds a lot like Benjamin Barber and his "Jihad vs. McWorld" thesis, that the only thing strong enough to combat the global spread of corporate culture is a violent religious resistance. Money vs. God, as I like to re-read it. (Of course, in the United States, we've somehow wedded the two, despite the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle passage in the Bible.)

It's clear that we need to get more people talking about these things, and talking critically. There isn't enough public thinking going on in Washington, and I'd like to see some more members of the Bush Administration break ranks and start opening up about Bush's policies. Letting the guy do whatever he wants has made him foolish. (Of course, he's repaid Congress by NEVER using his veto. Stem cell research might be the first time in four and a half years. Maybe the only time.)

I'm not closing this up well enough, so I think I'm going to come back to this.

Paul Wolfowitz, new president of the World Bank. A key architect of the Iraq War and the doctrine of pre-emptive war, he served as Deputy Defense Secretary under Rumsfeld, and was a major player in the war hype. He was pushing for the invasion of Iraq even before 9/11, and his reasons for doing so have been publicly shifting and plastic. He's a tool of corporate capitalism, and an imperialist, and shouldn't be placed at the head of a body that ostensibly exists to end world poverty. It seems too likely that his answer will be, "Make everyone more like us."  Posted by Hello

Have you ever wondered exactly why these two guys are so chummy? One is a conservative Republican from Texas, with a ranch, an allegiance to a watered-down God, and an imprecise way of speaking. The other is a buttoned-up, socially-conscious Labour-party leader from an old country. What do these two have in common? Why the hell did Blair sign on to the whole Iraq War thing? Does anyone understand why this happened? Posted by Hello

African Debt Relief

There are a couple of reports circulating that Bush and Blair are going to "write off" the debt of 16 countries:

New York Times article (free registration required)

CNN International article

London Times article

This is fabulous news, and I'm surprised that Bush and Blair could come to such a socially-conscious decision. But, like anyone accustomed to these two, I'm suspicious. Why only 16, when at least 62 countries are in dire need of debt relief? Here's the other side of the issue, and how the G8 hasn't gone far enough:

Global Issues - Third World Debt Undermines Development

Jubilee Plus - How it All Began

The debt amassed under these conditions and these policies doesn't seem to be valid, and the World Bank's policies of intervention or "structural adjustments" are an excuse to manipulate the internal policies of foreign countries to create favorable trade conditions for rich countries. This helps explain why Wolfowitz was made president - it's a war, and Wolfowitz is an imperialist.

I'm not sure why the 16 countries have made it to the top of the list. I'm going to dig a little deeper to try to see why these countries were chosen for relief, and the rest have been left to continue suffering. I suppose I shouldn't complain that some people will be helped by this, but I don't want this to convince people that everything is fine now.