International Biennial of Contemporary Art Ljubljana,
23 June - 24 September 2000
News Archive
Micro Talks
Cankarjev Dom
M1 & M2

The Spectre of Globality


Dieter Roelstraete

What is globalization but the uncalled for debris of universalism?
"Well, in fact an awful lot has been said about globalization these last few years, and a lot of it has been said with such poignancy and such unashamed self-assurance that it seemed not so much to denote a certain process in the making, some kind of evolutionary, temporal force at work in the heart of the global economy, as to confront us with the inescapable, static and accomplished reality of an established globality. In our indifferent use of a problematic, highly polemic concept, in other words, the process of globalization (which, unmistakably, is under way) gets mixed up with the mere fact of globalization (which, equally unmistakably, is still a far ways off, if not entirely impossible to fulfil): we mistake a certain line of thinking, some kind of "cosmological" model – without doubt the most successful theoretic fetish in recent years, for a received notion of reality. Whereas me I'm not so sure. I don't necessarily see the spectre of globalization/globality as coinciding with "reality" as such. In fact, deep inside the triumphant and quasi–hysterical proclamation of the process of globalization as a mere fact, there's a universalist logic at work which hasn't changed a bit since the days of enlightened 18th century colonialism/colonization. What is the delirious rhetoric of globalization other than a late 20th century epiphany of the age-old Western thirst for world domination? As such, globalization is in fact nothing more than the uncalled for debris of universalism: Whereas Western civilization once devised the tenets of universalism – the idea of the universal, ahistoric validity of certain ontological, moral and epistemological maxims – to disseminate its Enlightenment project all across the newly discovered globe, forcing, among other things, its 'liberté, égalité, fraternité' bill of rights on an unsuspecting virgin World/Other, its universalist aspirations are now watered down to the brute, unmediated force of pure economy. Gone is the humanist master narrative of emancipation, liberation, egalitarianism, reform – the heroic "universalist" attempt to enlighten the world, "make the world a better place", has been trimmed down to the mirage of a global marketplace, a global shopping mall/consumer's paradise. The utopian universalist program of a "Brotherhood of Man" has dwindled to a mere footnote in the econologic of globalization: a brotherhood of consumers. Universalism with a vengeance – the vengeance of its own caricatured reduction to sheer economy. What, in effect, is the worldwide dissemination of the well-known icons of consumer culture – Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nike – other than the belated apotheotical consequence of the political fiction of universal brotherhood? So indeed, what we perceive to be the globalizing force of the monoculture of capital – the thesis of "globalization" as in "the worldwide propagation of 'postmodern' consumer capitalism" – is in fact no more than a remnant of the age-old Western thirst for universalist claims to truth and reality.
"Globalization is a facade, a farce, the mere veneer of an ideological framework designed to justify the cultist aspects of a multi/transnational economy striving for its realization of the much-aspired to "brotherhood of man". Globalization equals the trappings of ideology in supposedly post-ideological times. And of course ideology, as we all know all too well, is all about supplying certain representations of reality while simultaneously assuming the stature of reality – period. The ecstatic declaration of the world being a "global village" has no grounds in reality but the wish of the multi/transnational economy to transform that same world into one giant, unified and uniform marketplace. Much like the internet or the euro, for that matter.
"The marxist trivialization of culture/difference unwillingly serves as a lubricant for the capitalist homogenisation of the world economy."
"As a result of my training as a philosophy student at the University of Ghent, Belgium, I used to be into Marx real big time. Meaning that, being a philosophy student, here as elsewhere throughout the Western hemisphere, meant conceding to the Marxist model of social and political thought if you weren't into Thomist theology, hardcore linguistic logic or reductionist/applied ethics – which I definitely wasn't. So I conscientiously took on the Marxist creed of interpreting the world in order to transform and ideally improve it – a cause I was actually wholeheartedly devoted to, and which to date remains in every way just as crucial to my current artistic/theoretical activities. Anyway, in subsequent years I kind a wandered off into world-system analysis terrain – a "scientific" paradigm most commonly known as the sole merit of the towering intellectual personality of Immanuel Wallerstein, who, in his infinite wisdom and/or otherworldly megalomania, effectively tried to devise a totalizing Marxist epistemology for understanding (tellingly) such widely-differing "post-Marxist" topics, tropes and themes as globalization, tribalization, fragmentation, postmodernism, post-communism, etc. Suffice it to say that Wallerstein's world-system analysis stages itself as the 'countercultural' reading (and, inevitably, subscribing to) of "globalization", the economic homogenization of the world, not so much as an ideological mirage conceived to legitimize the subjection of the world by Western-bred consumer capital, but as an irrevocable fact of reality. I still believe that the Marxist model of uncovering the hidden mechanics that hold together the fabric of society has a lot of truth to it; as such, it remains both a fruitful source for theoretical renewal and a possible instrument of change. I must admit, however, to having had to abandon the vintage Marxist tactic of trivializing everything that has to do with culture, i.e. cultural difference – and from a philosophical point of view that means 'difference' tout court. In fact, I have found that in Wallerstein's thesis, to name but one, the Marxist trivialization of culture/difference unwillingly serves as a lubricant for the capitalist homogenisation of the world economy. In its obstinate, near-idiotic refusal to confront the topic of culture and/or cultural difference and/or difference, the arch-foe of capitalism has succeeded in underscoring, ultimately even approving and the imperialist and unmistakeably neocolonialist project of globalization. (For instance: in a grandiose and equally ambitious manoeuvre to counter the baleful prospect of total fragmentation, alienation and dissolution of the social order as implied in the French philosophy of 'otherness' – and in its final installment in a postmodern ethics of heterogeneity – Fredric Jameson, the great Marxist theoretician of a postmodernism of complicity, once famously coined the phrase "difference relates". Meaning: sure, there's difference galore, and of course you all got yer culture'n'all, we're willing enough to go along with the différence/différance word-play and all… but, all in all, lest we fuckin forget: das Wahre is ja schön noch immer das Ganze, right? We have to keep on thinking globally, right? And "act locally", innit? Difference relates, good people of postmodern mannerisms! We're still facing a totality here! Difference ain't nuthin' but an antithetical term in the dialectical triad of totalization, as is engendered in the prospect of total synthesis: globalization. Jameson in fact 'fessing up to – at least theoretically – accepting the spectre of globalization. Deep, deep down, culture/difference don't mean jack shit."
"But there does exist an irreducibility of difference."
"There exists an irreducibility of difference against which all claims to homogenization, be it under capitalist, digital/informational or local guise, must remain powerless. All this talk off "cultural homogenisation"… Nothing more than the delusions of grandeur characteristic of a culture prone to universalism and essentialism. What right do we have claiming the total and irreversible homogenisation of the world into a tight-knit modern world-system, invoking as circumstantial evidence to make our case only the obvious ubiquity/omnipresence of certain symbols of economic domination and/or conquest? McDonald's branches in Beijing, Johannesburg, Moscow, Taipei and Tehran – is that it?!
"Coming back from India, a so-called first-to-third-world country, former Imperial British colony and major power broker in the global economy of the near future – a country not nearly as far away, technically speaking, as, say, Brazil, California, the Philippines or South Africa – I was not so much amazed at the supposedly overwhelming homogeneity of the present-day world system, its monolithic stature, or the universalizing economic stringency of the "global village" as by the sheer depth of difference. "Globalization", meaning: the homogenization of the world economy, by means of information technology and global networking, doesn't mean a thing to the reality of among other things everyday Bombay/Mumbai. The true depth of this so-called "difference" can hardly be imagined, its width hardly fathomed. OK, so you decide to go to Mumbai’s McDonald’s and put globalization to its long-awaited test. What does it mean to enter Mumbai's McDonald’s and find it impossible to order a hamburger there, and order a lamburger instead? Maybe this is where the crux of 'Otherness' lies; maybe this semantic/cultural short circuit – a communication breakdown if ever there was one – ultimately signals the collapse/failure of the consumerist utopia of globalization… An abyss of irreconcilable differences and 'othernesses' lies at the heart of the lamburger, so to speak: India's sympathetic, culturally determined reply to the American/Transatlantic hamburger is no mere pun, but an expression of the great rifts forever dividing the peoples that people the surface of Planet Earth. The lamburger tells us that we've been far too self-inflated in deeming "our" economy fit to unite the world in a brotherly orgy of consuming behaviour.
"I am of course deeply sympathetic to the cause of the call for "borderlessness" and "transgression". After all, as a general rule we might indeed conclude that the more borders there are, the more trouble you’re likely to come across. So down with borders, and long live borderlessness! But this call for "borderlessness" might just as well be a call to arms to defend the cultural achievements of the globalizing force of the capitalist world economy, including a highly problematic conception of "universal brotherhood", an equally treacherous conception of "equality" in the face of cultural differences (in short: the equality/liberty for all to consume the same products), universalism, essentialism, etc. So what does it mean to 'think global' and consequently go 'borderless'? While applauding the ongoing project of globalization by striving for a continuous breakdown of bordering strategies and delimitation tactics, do we not condone the homogenisation of the world into one giant antiseptic marketplace in which all human beings are interchangeably linked in today's "great chain of being", namely that of production and consumption? While aspiring to transcend/transgress all notions of "bordering" in a dumbstruck euphoria of universality, do we not subscribe to the capitalist logic of unification and uniformity beyond the grasp of cultural difference? Isn't it quintessentially "Western" – imperialist, macho, authoritarian – to negotiate the irrelevance of 'bordering'/'difference' in the hubristic battle cries of globalization? What happened to the 'Other', anyway? What future for otherness beyond borderlessness?
"A self-deluding fantasy of global villageness/glocality permeates our perception of the world and feeds into the capitalist phantasmagoria of universal purchasing power; meanwhile, people, families, villages remain light years apart, even more so than whole worlds."

Ghent, November '99

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