The good and bad sides of global cultural flows

Our view of the world is being rewritten at a rapid pace due to global technologies, said Arjun Appadurai in his talk at York’s 50+50 Symposium, but it remains a world of differences despite what many fear is a trend towards sameness. The trick, said the global cultures scholar and Goddard Professor of Media, Culture & Communication at New York University, is in the flows.

Arun AppaduraiRight: Arjun Appadurai

Known for his writing about how ideas and fashions move around the world in what he calls global cultural flows, Appadurai said cultural objects such as images, languages, values and even hairstyles now move ever more swiftly across national and regional boundaries as a consequence of the speed and spread of the Internet and global advertising. And it’s having a dramatic effect on the world we thought we knew. “This volatile and exploding growth in traffic of global commodities, styles and information has been matched by the growth of global forms of politics,” he said, citing as examples the current world discourse on human rights and the languages used in these debates by radical Christianity and Islam.

These flows, said Appadurai, are both the pathways for the spread of cultural commodities ranging from Japanese graphic novels (mangas) and animé to capital and political movements. They are also themselves a force for change as they impact what were once remote corners of the world. “What globalization does is to create a more volatile and blurred relationship between finance capital and the more dangerous relationship between global commodity flows and the politics of everyday security and peace,” he said.

Barbara Sellers Young“Minorities of every kind…now have the capacity to exercise pressure on the state to respect their human rights and this pressure is often mobilized in the name of universal human rights,” said Appadurai explaining one cause of the increase in ethnocide and violence.

Left: Moderator Barbara Sellers Young, dean of York’s Faculty of  Fine Arts

But a key feature of global cultural flows, said Appadurai, is not just the transmission of ideas such as multiculturalism and diasporic diginity but also the sharing of cultural forms such as the novel or constitutionalism. “This business of forms rather than just content affects the very nature of knowledge.” Using the example of current political trends in Nepal, Appadurai said this flow of forms can produce entirely knew things with pathways and circuits of their own. “When the idea of constitution hits a place like Nepal… it’s an electric business, that country is completely transformed,” he said. “A major Maoist social movement which was a violent rural movement two years ago is now running a parliament of 500 people and overseeing a constitutional process. This is quite remarkable.”

But flows, which have freed the movement of culture and commodities, can create their own difficulties in what Appadurai calls “bumps” in the flow with their own “curious inner contradiction” – they create the very tensions they encounter. “The Chinese state is bent on curbing the Internet” he noted “just as Falong Gong uses global technologies of protest and communication to undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese state.” In these situations, Appadurai argued, the flows inform both sides of the latest developments in the discourse and bump into each. “The state of Singapore was not waiting to be informed when a human rights issue arises," he said. "They already know the issues and they know the arguments on both sides."

And this effect, Appadurai said, should be reassuring to “those of us who are concerned and anxious…to see global flows resulting in a single and homogenous cultural regime that covers the surface of the planet. The fact that these flows produce their obstacles as well as differences can also be comforting,” he said.

By David Fuller, YFile contributing writer