EN4262 Seminar Two/Three Notes

Globalization: Ideologies, Tropes, Fissures and Discontents


How do we read (as it were) “against globalization”?  What are the consequences if we do not?  What is the literary equivalent of eating at McDonald’s, buying coffee from Starbucks, drinking at the chain “Irish Pub,” wearing only Uniqlo clothes?  In other words, who’s afraid of globalization?  It would seem that these questions matter, whether or not we believe that we can do anything about globalization’s spread and hold.


Reading the Global I: Deleuze and Guattari, smoothness and abstraction

Some D and G aphorisms (from Anti-Oedipus) to consider:

1.   “Everything is a machine…There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together.  Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all of species life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever” (p. 2)

2.   “The schizophrenic is the universal producer…Producing, a product: a producing/product identity.  It is this identity that constitutes a third term in the linear series: an enormous undifferentiated object.  Everything stops dead for a moment, everything freezes in place – and then the whole process will begin all over again” (p. 7)

3.   “Capital is indeed the body without organs of the capitalist, or rather of the capitalist being…some kind of full body, that of the earth or the despot, a recording surface, an apparent objective movement, a fetishistic, perverted, bewitched world are characteristic of all types of society as a constant of social reproduction” (pp. 10-11).

4.   “…the subject – produced as a residuum alongside the machine, as an appendix, or as a spare part adjacent to the machine – passes through all the degrees of the circle, and passes from one circle to another.  This subject itself is not at the center, which is occupied by the machine, but on the periphery, with no fixed identity, forever decentered, defined by the states through which it passes.” (p. 20)

5.   “The real is not impossible; on the contrary, within the real everything is possible, everything becomes possible.  Desire does not express a molar lack within the subject; rather, the molar organization deprives desire of its objective being.” (p. 27)

6.   “Capitalism is in fact born of the encounter of two sorts of flows: the decoded flows of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flows of labor in the form of the ‘free worker.’  Hence, unlike previous social machines, the capitalist machine is incapable of providing a code that will apoply to the whole of the social field.  By substituting money for the very notion of a code, it has created an axiomatic of abstract quantities that keeps moving further and further in the direction of the deterritorialization of the socius” (p. 33)

7.   “The primitive territorial machine codes flows, invests organs, and marks bodies…The essence of the recording, inscribing socius, insofar as it lays claim to the productive forces and distributes the agents of production, resides in these operations: tattooing, excising, incising, carving, scarifying, mutilating, encircling, and initiating…For it is a founding act – that the organs be hewn into the socius, and that the flows run over its surface – through which man ceases to be a biological organism and becomes a full body, an earth, to which his organs become attached, where they are attracted, repelled, miraculated, following the requirements of a socius….(p. 144)


D and G push us to consider the cost of capitalism (in ways that might not be evident, on the surface of things): firstly, in the totalizing “machine” system of capitalist production, the effacement of “primitive” (pre-capitalist) differences within the “body without organs of the capitalist socius.”  It is not so much that there is a loss of something authentic – D and G would say that it is impossible to know or miss the authentic, within the totalizing effect of the machine.  But does this totalizing effect itself sound a note of warning, even if D and G do not make any kind of privileging of the nostalgic?  Is there a yearning for something “rough” that resists the smooth surfaces of a “body without organs”?  What might this be?  How does Indian Anglophone literature seek to offer this?  (A clue inspired by D and G: think of the role played by marked bodies: disease, deformity, ugliness, wounds).


Reading the Global II: Consumption, Sign/Object, Caste

Global capitalism is the transformation of nations and zones into systems of production-consumption.  D and G’s approach, apart from the differentiation of pre-capitalist and capitalist machines, primitive bodies and the body without organs, would seem to offer no basis of differentiation; once we are in the body without organs, differentiation vanishes, and abstract homogeneity is everywhere.  But if so, what happens to discrimination?  The rich-poor divide?  Marginalisation?

             Another way to theorize globalization is to see it in terms of new ways of discrimination, marginalization – even as we retain D and G’s conception of its transformative totalisation.  i.e. The machinery is totalizing, as is the creation of universal production-consumption; but the notion of the body without organs also encodes a system of discrimination and marginalization (even assuming the absence/transformation of the primitive body).  i.e. structured inequality is part of the machine system, abstraction and smooth surfaces can also mean that different sectors of the body without organs are consigned to different stages or phases of production-consumption.  Or else differentiation is due to different actors being in different stages of deterritorialisation or transformation from pre-capitalist into capitalist entities.  In a sense, all are equal in capitalism, but some are “more equal than others” (to adapt Orwell).

             Jean Baudrillard’s For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign reminds us of the continuation of inequality within the “equalizing” mechanisms of capitalism. 

1.   “…it is the question of the production of a caste by the collective grace of a play of signs, and of the production of these signs by the destruction of economic value…It seems absurd to speak of a ‘democratized’ logic of caste.  Yet consumption is instituted on the basis of the exchange of differences, of a distinctive material and thus of a potential community…” (p. 119)

2.   “…today differences are produced industrially, they are bureaucratically programmed in the form of collective models.” (p. 119)

3.   “Everywhere prestige haunts our industrial societies, whose bourgeois culture is never more than the phantom of aristocratic values.  Everywhere the magic of the code, the magic of an elective and selective community, fused together by the same rules of the game and the same system of signs, is collectively reproduced, beyond economic value and on the basis of it” (p. 119)

4.   “Today consumption…defines precisely the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as sign value, and where signs (culture) are produced as commodities. (p. 147)


The value of Baudrillard’s formulation is that he reminds us that capitalist processes do not take place (merely) at the level of political economy and the commodity, but also at the level of “codes” and “signs.”  Commodities are signs, and to consume is also to consume and buy into a code of values.  Goods are meaningful by virtue not so much of their use value, but of the value assigned to them by societies, and thus by the individual consumers who partake of those values.  (Think, at the most obvious level, of the value of an SICC golf club membership to someone who doesn’t play golf, or secretly hates the game or is inept at it).

             In this approach, society – values, judgements, aspirations; status symbols and objects; ideas and training – is a system of codes and signs that structure centres and margins, the “high” and the “low.”  Baudrillard sees this as a new “aristocracy,” based not on lineage and blood, but on the manipulation of codes.

             This approach may allow us to re-think some of the tropes of India (or any other nation, for that matter) that we discussed earlier: to what extent are things like caste, religion, middle-classness, the elite, codes or signs of preference, rather than monolithic groupings?  How are such preferences concretized as if they are monolithic?  i.e. saying that they are systems of codes or signs is not to say that they are flimsy and transient – by calling them “castes,” Baudrillard points to their durability despite being systems of signs and codes.  What explains this durability?  How are these systems represented in our novels – from a modernist and revisionary perspective, or is it more complicated than that? 

             If Asian modernity is (in many ways) opposed to the codes of traditionalism, then what do they offer in their place?  How are we meant to view these?


III.  Reading the Global III: Finance and Economics

From at least the time of Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations), economists and statesmen have been talking about a system of international trade that binds nations into friendly and mutually-beneficial commerce.  The theory of the “invisible hand” of international trade is that products and production will flow to countries which have a strong relative advantage in a particular trade or product (Nike factories in Vietnam and China; healthcare in Singapore), while countries which find it difficult to compete in those industries will cease to do so, and pursue their own relative advantages.  In this way countries maximize advantage, and climb up the value ladder (the way Singapore moved from manufacturing in the 1970s to high-end services and R&D today). 

             Unfortunately, things seldom if ever play out this way.  Instead of leveling (and leveling upwards), international trade seems to find ways to be unequal and exploitative, or at least requires firm and skilful interventions in order to prevent natural inequality and exploitation.  Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions) point out that although Adam Smith thought that pre-Bengal was one of the most prosperous regions in the world, European intervention and colonial rule managed to block that prosperity reaching the people and benefitting the land:

“The competitiveness and quality of Indian exports was a cause of concern for native Eruopean manufacturers, and in Britain in particular, before the establishment of British rule in India, there were several acts of Parliament prohibiting the wearing of Indian textile products.

…one does not have to be an aggressive nationalist to recount the rapid decline of the relative position of the Indian economy during the British Raj.  Adam Smith attributed the beginning of the economic decline of the British domain in India to ‘some injudicious restraints imposed by the servants of the East India Company,’ to which he attributed even the Bengal famine of 1770” (pp. 20-22).    


The legacy of poverty from colonial times, together with problems after independence – corruption, poor infrastructural planning and provision – has posed continuing problems for India’s development, including problems of fairness and evenness, despite rapid economic growth:


“India’s record of rapid economic growth in recent decades, particularly in the last ten years or so, has tended to cause some understandable excitement.  The living standards of the ‘middle classes’ (which tends to mean the top 20 per cent or so of the population by income) have improved beyond what was expected – or could be anticipated – in the previous decades.  But the story is more complex for many others such as the rickshaw puller, domestic worker or brick-kiln labourer.  For them, and other underprivileged groups, the reform period has not been so exciting.  It is not that their lives have not improved at all, but the pace of change has been excrutiatingly slow and has barely altered their abysmal living conditions” (p. 29)


The stories told in Indian Anglophone literature, like many of the stories we should be listening to (but probably don’t) within globalization, are thus stories of “uneven development” or “gaps”:  between India and other countries like those in Western Europe and N. America (or even China or Singapore); between Indians and NRIs (Non-Resident Indians); between Middle-Class Indians and others; between Men and Women; between urban and rural Indians, etc.  “Gap” stories, filled with tropes of thwarted hopes/expectations, cultural divides, misunderstandings and miscommunications, distances etc, are stories which cause us to reflect critically on the notion of “development” within globalization.

             Then there are the “top” stories too – not just the tropes of inculcation into the global capitalist and middle-class values (as Baudrillard points out) on the part of those who have made it, but also stories of the gap viewed from “the top”: alienation, unease, loathing which is also self-loathing (and marked by self-abuse in the form of mutilation, addiction), self-deception and “passing” as something/someone else.

             Is developmental writing “dystopian” or cynical writing, then?  If development is uneven, and the “top” is also filled with unease and self-loathing, then who benefits from global capitalism?  Where is the hope in Indian Anglophone writing?  Where is the (as it were) moral centre?


Reading the Global IV: Bodies in Motion

Another angle on globalization is to consider what happens to bodies.  At one level, globalization is about bodies in motion: transnationalism, technologies of quick travel and movement.  But what is really paid for with all this transnational movement, is not the body but the talent (professionalism, skills, the abstract idea of the cosmopolitan, limitlessly-mobile individual).  The ideal transnationalism is something out of speculative fiction: effortless cyber-linkups, where “fleshed-out” reality is nothing more than a simulation; talent (intellectual capability, personality, memory) can be stored, uploaded and downloaded.  In all this, the body is only a “meat puppet” (William Gibson), and ideally can be changed or renewed with only the intellectual component uploaded (Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels).

             Novels like Calcutta Chromosome and The Body take up some of these issues of the body as “meat,” the possibility of the smooth transition of abstractions of personality and intellect (although you will have to decide for yourself what position these 2 novels take on such issues – by no means do they suggest that this is problem-free or desirable).  In doing so, these novels (which are on the more speculative or fantastical end of the generic spectrum) suggest the relevance of these concerns for the other (more realist) novels on this list as well, and indeed for considerations of globalization and culture in general.  In many ways, the body is where smooth conceptions of global mobility (whether social, transnational, technologically-enhanced etc) get challenged and contested.

1.   Physical appearances – skin colour, the body’s accoutrements and dress, size/height etc – evoke a kind of visceral, instinctual response that is not easily overcome by the changes that can be brought about through education, speech, behavior.

2.   Encumbrances of the body: marriage, procreation, family, extended family, fleshly habits (a certain kind of housing, transportation, amenities) are the reluctantly-acknowledged accompaniments to the pure global “talent” that global capitalism seeks to buy.  At best they are entanglements (expat children’s education, eg), at worst (children who run afoul of the law; maids and nannies required by children/families but who pose immigration/legal problems, etc) they threaten to undermine the flow and operation of abstract “talent”

3.   Effluents: the body interjects its presence through effluents that cannot be denied: sweat (and smell), excretion, pus, viruses, blood.  The seeming body-without-organs is emphatically ruptured in the event of illness, contagion, bodily failure recalling attention to the body once again.  (In D and G terms, think of this as ways in which the “marked body” reasserts itself contra the body without organs).

4.   Sex: as one of the most persistent and unruly manifestations of the body, sexuality also challenges the abstractions of global mobility.  Globalization is only partially tolerant of, only partially able to overwrite and contain, the body’s sexuality – the willful denial of human trafficking, prostitution, mistresses, second families etc.  However, sexuality often breaks out in ways that cannot be contained in many regimes: homosexuality and (class-transgressive) promiscuity (Valmiki’s Daughter, God of Small Things), pedophilia and incest (God of Small Things), HIV and other STD legacies (Calcutta Chromosome), etc.


Reading the Global V: The Animal Rationale, Liberal Individualism, and its Resistences

One of the most enduring legacies of the 18th C was the Enlightenment notion of man as reasoning creature.  Whether this was the cause or effect of, or co-causal with, the rise of political economy in the same era (the age of Jonathan Swift was also the age of Adam Smith and David Hume), is not a question we need to discuss in great detail for our present purposes – but certainly it was the same age, and with overlapping conceptions of man.   Swift in his letters thought that man was merely “rationis capax” rather than fully “animal rationale,” but the point remains that man was defined by his (potential for or attainment of) reason, rather than for anything else.

             While this (mutatis mutandis) is a notion we have pretty much retained since the 18th C, some of its implications may be more far-reaching than we think.  It is the cornerstone of the free market, the idea that because all players are rational, things (prices, wages, supply and demand) will ultimately find a right level.  It elevates “enlightened self-interest” to the level of systemic morality.  Does this, however, remove moral agency and the need for hard (even selfless) decisions and interventions?  Adam Smith didn’t actually think so, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments was really an attempt to qualify and round off his economic theory in the Wealth of Nations.  However, today Smith’s moral theory is more or less forgotten, while his economic theory is the foundation of all classical economics and market theory.  Looking at globalization today, can we really say that people and markets act rationally, all the time?  Does it appear that rational markets properly decide and determine right behavior for all or the majority of mankind?

             Implicit in all this is of course the idea of man as Homo Mercator (or Homo Faber et Mercator): man as defined (largely or exclusively) by his roles as producer, trader, merchant.  If we define “trade” broadly enough to include informal principles of exchange (e.g. exchanging greetings or phatic behavior), then of course there is truth in this view.  However, the problem arises when the unchallenged centrality of this view leads to coldly utilitarian conceptions of man and human society, so that money becomes the only viable measurement of the activity of homo mercator, but then people are assigned monetary values and ranked according to them.  Things which seem to be or were once important to human activity (leisured philosophical or critical thought; spiritual pursuits; creativity in its own right) sooner or later become transmuted into forms which have monetary value, or else get relegated into the realm of the “useless.”

             Another cultural consequence of the notion of animal rationale is the attendant notion of liberal individualism, which has become the cornerstone of Western (especially American) society.  This is in a way the ideological heir of Smith’s (and the 18th C’s) plea for “laissez faire” society – a society in which (principally merchants) were cut free from societal constraints which inhibited the work of homo mercator.  In the 18th C, this meant the power of church and state, but more broadly (and since then) could also apply to the environment, international relations, spiritual being and behavior in general – anything which could be interpreted as a limit or threat to mercantile behavior.

             This is all quite sweeping and inclusive – might be better to ask the question, What are the resistances to the notion of animal rationale and its consequences?  What might be left out within this conception?  Here we might call attention to and make a plea for the “irrational”: not necessarily bizarre or anti-social behavior (although it might at times come to that), but things like the supernatural realm, spiritual mysticism and zeal, creative and novel views of the world, “more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of rationalism,” to paraphrase Shakespeare.


Reading the Global VI: Violence

Given the all-pervasive nature of global capitalism (as I hope we are beginning to see), one of the few ways that any resistance to it can manifest itself, is in the non-ideological or non-discursive method of violence.  By this I mean in particular abrupt and disruptive acts, whether physical, symbolic or in the public sphere.  It can also be irrational (or anti-reason), as we have seen above.  Political debates turn into riots, individual discontents with society turn into sociopathic behavior like throwing killer litter or hanging up dead cats in public places, the oppressed worker goes home and beats his family or gets drunk and riots in Little India.  In the public sphere, we have things like seemingly pointless hacking (the work of “Anonymous” and co), vandalism, drunken assemblies, etc.  Then there is protest art (the work of the Guerilla Art Action Group of the 1960s and 1970s, the Russian band Pussy Riot), shock art (e.g Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club), the literature of “angry young men” (eg. Osborne and other English writers of the 1960s).  Arguably, things like terrorism, the series of WTO riots, the “occupy Wall Street” movement, are all instances of endemic violence underlying globalization.

             Such behavior is often condemned as the failure of civic responsibility and rule of law.  It is certainly true that no-one wants to live in a society where riots or violence can take place and affect our lives of that of people around us.  But perhaps it is too convenient to just sum up such behavior as civic failure, stupidity and lawlessness.  As early as the 1930s Freud had already theorized (especially in Civilisation and its Discontents) that the pressure of conformity to an increasing load of social mores would exact a psychic cost on individuals – this has only increased with technologies of surveillance, and with globalization exerting homogeneous expectations on more and more of the earth’s surface (i.e. leaving less and less “free” space for alternative behavior).  Zygmunt Bauman’s Postmodernity and its Discontents makes a similar argument for postmodern culture and society, contra the more optimistic and liberating theories of postmodernity.  Perhaps understanding globalization requires an understanding too of its pains and discontents – and violence is one of the most striking ways that those pains and discontents get expressed.

             What makes violence culturally significant – apart from the fact that it can damage lives and have lasting consequences?  Would we be interested in making a distinction between (say) armed robbery, and throwing killer litter?  Or between the sub-prime legerdemain of some Wall Street honcho, and an underpaid construction worker who is alcoholic, in debt and abusive to his wife?  (Or not?)  It may even be a slippery slope, how much we want to attribute to Postmodernity and its discontents, but is it still meaningful and interesting to ask about the link between global capitalism and violence?

             To ask the question in another way: why is some violence (such as in White Tiger, or God of Small Things, or Londonstani) literary, and others (Rambo I-V, or the typical street-corner mugging) not?  Part of the answer is narrative treatment of course, but still, some forms of violence recur quite often in literature and art, while others don’t.  Or: what is it about some forms of violence that can interest artists, writers and cultural theorists?

             Apart from the representation of violence (acts) in literature, in what other ways may violence be interesting?  Verbal violence, abuse?  Shock in narrative? (Caesuras, silences, traumas, gaps or holes)


Narrative and Art in an Age of Global Capital: Exploratory Thoughts

1.   How free is art to critically explore globalization – how much is art itself a phenomenon of globalization?  (To what extent can we separate the marketing – the glossy covers and sales pitches – of art, from its critical content?  What is the role of lit crit, of subjectivity and freedom of interpretation?)

2.   What are the forms, if any, of “minority” or “dissident” or “alternative” discourse (not just in literature, but other cultural forms)? 

3.   Are some forms or sub-genres (travel writing, the documentary, the psychological novel, the thriller, or others?) more predisposed to universalisation, more likely to overlook difference and diversity?  Or is form/genre largely irrelevant or neutral  - in which case what factors make the difference between writing from the margins/against globalization, and writing from a globalized/universalizing perspective? 

4.   What is the difference between authenticity to the local, and its commodification in a literary work?