York researcher is mapping out new ‘globalities’

Surveying his office located in the Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts, you likely wouldn’t think that York researcher Steven Flusty started out as a student of archaeology. In one corner of the room stands a large, inflatable version of the screaming figure in Edvard Munch’s classic painting, The Scream, while an Osama Bin Laden squeaky toy rests on his desk.

Right: Steven Flusty

Flusty is quick to insist that these novelty items – although not the stuff of traditional archaeology – are nevertheless artifacts worth our attention. “These things have a lot to tell us about the contemporary world,” says Flusty, whose interests over the years have shifted away from archaeology and into areas such as industrial design, architecture and urban planning. Now exploring the material artifacts and landscapes that make up our world, Flusty’s groundbreaking work is challenging the way we think about globalization.

The word globalization, however, visibly annoys the geography professor. “It’s just so overused and oversimplified,” he sighs. “People talk about globalization as if it’s this singular economic force blowing like a wind in one direction – out of Western capitalist countries and into the rest of the world, but globalization flows in many directions, and is not just economic.”

The author of De-Coca-Colonization: Making the Globe From the Inside Out (London & New York: Routledge, 2003), Flusty prefers the phrase ‘global realities’ or ‘globalities’ to describe complex global relationships that, in addition to being economical, are often social, cultural and religious in nature. To demonstrate, using his computer he pulls up the image of yet another artifact: Muslim prayer beads, manufactured in Thailand and purchased in Toronto. He also points to a designer Islamic robe, hanging from his office door’s coat hook.

“When you study these material objects and how they travel through the world,” he explains, “you start to realize that there are different kinds of globalities connecting different sets of global cities.” For example, when viewed according to the criteria of religious significance, important economic centres like Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo become relatively irrelevant, and other places like Jerusalem, Mecca and Vatican City assume major prominence.

“You might not automatically think of a place like Dharamsala as a global city,” he says. “But for Gelugpa Buddhists, Dharamsala is the centre of the world. For Mormons, the centre would be Salt Lake City. For Scientologists, it’s the axis connecting Hollywood and Clearwater. When you’re not thinking economically, the map of the world looks radically different than the one we usually picture when talking about globalization.”

Flusty’s research has also addressed the material landscape of global cities that are often celebrated for being multicultural melting pots when, in fact, they are often anything but. He notes the use of uncomfortable seating in Toronto – sometimes referred to as ‘bum-proof’ benches – that discourages people from sitting and thus lingering in public areas. The saturation of public spaces with security cameras serves a similar purpose. Such objects work to prevent different ethnic populations from interacting, thus keeping immigrants separate and isolated, and contributing to a rather impoverished multiculturalism.

“But the benches are just one example,” he says. “I’ve assigned some of my second-year undergraduates to get out there, and do their own research, and find other examples.” In fact, Flusty often cites the findings of undergraduate students in his papers, demonstrating the intrinsic link between research and teaching and the importance that he sees in training tomorrow’s leaders.

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, a York alumnus who writes on research and innovation.