Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Globalisation and culture

Ien Ang


Review of: Elizabeth Jacka ed., Continental Shift: Globalisation and Culture, Double Bay, Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1992. pp.162. ISBN 0 949793 24 8 (pbk), $24.95.


This book is a collection of essays which were first presented at a conference of the same name, held in Sydney in August 1991. Reading the book almost three years later, a strange sense of temporal disjunction came over me. Somehow the book feels rather dated, not so much for the particular themes discussed and engaged with in the individual papers, but for the very framing of these themes under the rubric of 'globalisation'. The papers themselves are very diverse, in terms of level of abstraction, disciplinary focus, and specialist considerations. That they all have something to do with a vaguely defined 'globalisation' (as editor Elizabeth Jacka herself notes), needs to be teased out through a symptomatic reading.

The backcover of the book presents the question: 'Ecstasy of communication or sell-out to international interests?' as its narrative cliff-hanger, i.e. as the central issue surrounding the problematic of globalisation. As it happens, neither Baudrillard nor vulgar Marxist political economy have much place in this collection. Indeed, reading through the book, it becomes very clear that such an either/or questioning is unhelpful. If anything, it is the articulation between the exponential proliferation of cultural commodities in the "postmodern" age on the one hand, and the relentless transnationalisation of capitalism on the other, which form the common denominator that binds most of the papers together. Meaghan Morris, for example, in a devastating and cunning critique of the theoretical assumptions of David Harvey's influential The Condition of Postmodernity, rewrites the latter's monolithic and homogenised 'fiction of postmodernism' as the articulation of Harvey's own sense of crisis as a Marxist scholar. Harvey's inability to adopt a materialist theory of culture (in which culture is conceived as the site of struggle over meaning which is constitutive of, rather than merely reflects, 'real' history) leads precisely to an oppositioning of 'ecstasy of communication' (the fictional postmodernist's story) and 'sell-out to international interests' (Harvey's preferred story). What becomes impossible, then, is an understanding of the complex and contradictory relations of economy and culture, the intricate intertwinings of an economic system thoroughly dependent on the principle of commodification of ever more realms of life, and a cultural terrain which is both determined by and eludes that principle. In this sense, John Frow's argument that commodities have social careers which go beyond their status of commodities is illuminating: in particular social and cultural contexts, things can move in and out of their status as commodities. (What Frow doesn't address however is the cultural and aesthetic biases created in a situation where cultural objects are specially invented for a career as commodities, which marks the peculiarity of the capitalist consumer economy.) In a similar fashion, Louise Johnson criticises Marxist geographical theories for their preclusion of specifically cultural vectors of power (e.g. related to gender and ethnicity) in their explanation of industrial and urban restructuring.

In a rather different strand of research, both Tom O'Regan and John Sinclair offer substantial empirical ammunition against the view that the transnationalisation of media empires inevitably leads to a strengthening of American hegemony in this field. There are, by contrast, contradictory and simultaneous processes of: internationalisation and localisation of media production; centralisation and decentralisation of media power; homogenisation and fragmentation of media consumption. O'Regan substantiates his anti-'globalisation' stance through a careful analysis of Hollywood's international markets; Sinclair analyses the decentering of 'cultural imperialism' by looking at the situation in Latin America. Tony Mitchell's detailed summary of the emergent genre of 'world music' is another clear example of the flattening effect of Harvey's description of the 'condition of postmodernity' as uniformly 'ephemeral', 'fragmented' and 'chaotic'; writing clearly as a fan, Mitchell suggests how the growth of world music (which from a Baudrillardian perspective would be one evidence of the postmodern 'ecstasy of communication') can be seen, in a rather more culturally distinctive manner, as both a fetishisation of Third World exoticism and a reproduction of the celebratory, carnivalesque aspects of the oppositional cultures of oppressed racial minorities. All in all, these papers share an attention to the multidimensional complexities involved in 'the globalisation of culture', so much so that it becomes increasingly unclear what we are actually talking about when we talk about 'globalisation'.

This is what I mean when I said that the framing of the book feels rather dated, even after only a few years. In her introduction Elizabeth Jacka refers explicitly to the hype surrounding the term 'globalisation'. Writing this review in 1994, there seems a lot to be said that, more than anything else, talk about globalisation was part of a short-lived rhetoric which coincided with a precise historical moment, marked by the equally short-lived fantasy of 'the new world order', dreamed up by then US President Bush around the years of 1989-1991. Crucially, this was also the moment of CNN, the main carrier of what MacKenzie Wark calls 'global media events' staged in those few years: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Gulf War. However, perhaps these events were 'at once global and fleeting' in a manner much more profound than Wark seems to acknowledge: this particular constellation of events marked the extraordinary moment of a collusion of major world-historical political transformations and 'revolutionary' media developments working together to produce an apocalyptic sense of globalised reality. By the mid-1990s, however, this moment seems to be well and truly over. We now live in a post-globalised world rife with regional realignments and fracturings, nationalist and ethnic separatisms, and, in parallel, a proliferation of overlapping and criss-crossing media vectors which undermine a unified and singular notion of the 'global'. Even CNN is now business as usual (even before it has become a standard TV provision in Australia).

This doesn't mean that the economic, political and cultural processes generally subsumed under the term 'globalisation' are not 'real' and significant; on the contrary. The diverse and contradictory tendencies towards increasing interdependence and interconnectedness between disparate locales and dispersed communities across different parts of the globe are as undeniable as they are confusing. And while 'globalisation' did once serve as an effective rhetorical device to make us aware of these tendencies, we need to go beyond this rhetoric to analyse and examine them - as the papers in this collection usefully show.


New: 4 March, 1996 | Now: 26 March, 2015