Today, friends and foes of globalization debate 'its' effects. Both assume the reality of such a process, which can either be praised or lamented, encouraged or combated. Are we asking the best questions about issues of contemporary importance when we debate globalization? Instead of assuming the centrality of a powerful juggernaut, might we do better to define more precisely what it is we are debating, to assess the resources which institutions in different locations within patterns of interaction possess, to look towards traditions of transcontinental mobilization with considerable time-depth?
Globalization is clearly a significant 'native's category' for anyone studying contemporary politics. Anyone wishing to know why particular ideological and discursive patterns appear in today's conjuncture needs to examine how it is used. But is it also a useful analytical category? My argument here is that it is not. Scholars who use it analytically risk being trapped in the very discursive structures they wish to analyze. Most important in the term's current popularity in academic circles is how much it reveals about the poverty of contemporary social science faced with processes that are large-scale, but not universal, and with the fact of crucial linkages that cut across state borders and lines of cultural difference but which nonetheless are based on specific mechanisms within certain boundaries. That global should be contrasted with local, even if the point is to analyze their mutual constitution, only underscores the inadequacy of current analytical tools to analyze anything in between.
- Frederick Cooper, "What is the Concept of Globalization Good For? An African Historian's Perspective," African Affairs 100 (2001), 189-213.
In academia (and even long-form journalism or, as we see with Teju Cole's Open City, fiction), the result has been a surge of works whose claims can be summarized as "This phenomenon has international consequences or roots that must be understood." We are now seeing that there are very few things in the world of which that is not true, which guarantees such works a readership and fanbase. That's not to be dismissive: often, depending on the nature of the subject, a claim like that is really a revelation. (Cole's book, if read devotedly or doggedly enough, can tell you much about what traditional literary fiction chooses to compartmentalize or ignore.) In history and associated disciplines, though, making an argument like this leaves room for serious confusion. This is because "X has international consequences or roots" is really two claims: "We do not do enough to learn about or take into account the international roots and consequences of X" and "The international roots and consequences of X are important." In many cases, the two may coincide: the French Revolution had international roots and consequences that have been neglected and yet are highly important. In other cases, they do not: I don't think the international roots of, say, early computing are as important as they've sometimes been made out to be, even if they are very interesting and we don't know enough about them.
All this seems like small potatoes at first glance, but it's striking to consider the effect the relentlessness of these kinds of conversations has on history and any discipline that deals with historical questions. Everyone roundly condemns histories that focus on unilinear upward progress, yet what we've been learning recently is that everything is international, the significance of the international grows greater over time, and, as a result, the world is always getting more globalized and interconnected. Like paint colors eventually mixing into brown, the sophisticated elegance of these histories produces a remarkably bland picture when seen as a whole. In fact, some kind of triumph-of-globalization story is likely to be the only take-away lesson learned by somebody foolhardily attempting to summarize the recent work. (C.A. Bayly's Birth of the Modern World, the best attempt to do that so far, is either impossibly confusing or bland in just this way, depending on how you look at it.)
So how do we work against this effect? I don't just mean my traditional "we as historians" first person plural here. I think this is something that concerns anyone who finds herself caught up in internationalized writing. The first step, it seems to me, ought to be an effort to focus on the failure of international connections or roots. When faced with nationalistic or local-particularist movements or ideas, writers used to the international narrative often treat them with a kind of studied condescension, as if people who followed them were ipso facto ignorant about how immersed they really are in the world. Sometimes this argument looks like "because nineteenth-century nationalism or twentieth-century fascism was an international movement, it was inherently self-contradictory." Sometimes it's more blunt: "But what about the Angles/Saxons/Pilgrims, why aren't you considering them dangerously foreign?" In the most sophisticated version, it's rather more nuanced, though the whiff of condescension certainly remains: "The problems in this situation resulted from a mix of international and local factors, and the poor benighted locals chose to defend their native culture from encroaching modernity by scapegoating foreign influence." (This kind of line is commonly encountered, for instance, in accounts of the Boxer Rebellion.)
Left-leaning writers tend to be more sympathetic to appeals to concepts like "cultural appropriation," even though there is precious little that separates this kind of talk from the essentializing identity-discourse of nationalists and fascists. What interests me here, though, is that moves against cultural appropriation form part of a chain of resistances to globalization (especially cultural or intellectual globalization) stretching back hundreds of years. This makes it possible to see a whole web of cases in which international links have not been constantly and unilinearly growing and spreading. Not all of these are simple fascism, nationalism, nativism, or localism. Sometimes it is by sheer accident that global connections decline. The Jesuits in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were at the forefront of European science and brought cutting-edge research to the Chinese court. (Matteo Ricci studied under Clavius, who played a leading role in developing the Gregorian calendar.) By the eighteenth century, they were fringe marginals who barely had any contact with metropolitan Europe at all. Thus China went from being enthusiastically "Westernizing" under the Kangxi emperor to being viewed as hopelessly arrogant and set in its ways when the English arrived less than a hundred years later.
We lack a language for talking about these issues except as the reverse of the globalization medal. But I think there is every indication that as the clichés of globalization recede, we will arrive at some better idea of how the failures or gaps in internationalization narratives can be exploited to make sense both of the past and the present. It is becoming utterly obvious that we are not facing a Star Trek-style future in which national boundaries are erased and political units are planetary in scale. How did this happen? Or, rather, how did so many smart people come to believe that this was inevitable? How does the agreeable simplicity of the international story confuse and betray insufficiently critical observers? These are questions people are beginning to answer, and I'm hoping academics will not be the ones to do it. Despite what many people believe, academics follow broader cultural trends far more often than the reverse, and when such a thing happens it is impossible to convince people that they are not being utterly faithful to the facts.
I think we'll end up arriving at the middle of the twenty-first century more confused than we were at the beginning. Social complexity will continue to grow, probably, which will mean many more people will find themselves affected by obscure developments in faraway places than were before. But "globalization" and "integration" will not be enough to explain these trends. We'll see that clearly enough. After all, we'll still be living in a fragmented, national world that has continually made gestures toward Star Trek but has never quite arrived there. I might eat my words eventually--but I really don't think so.