16 November, 2009

Conditions of post-colonial subjectivity in global culture

written by Taeung Moon 2009

It needs long and complex description to illustrate contemporary global culture. As Arjun Appadurai pointed out in his book Modernity at Large, the politics between sameness and difference seems the key process in global culture. Although it is easy to assume that globalization is homogeneous process with its vast array of evidences, there is growing evidence of heterogeneous process of globalization. This series of what can be called anti-globalization movement which apparently, largely ends up without success, in most cases, are based on the assumption that the globalization will eventually homogenize every cultural diversity into one global culture that is found on basement of western civilization. They argue because the culture now is being lost and forgotten, we should cherish or somehow protect them. Though is true that imperialist movement and colonial practices of European civilization in recent few hundreds of years did bring significant transformation to the rest of the world as well as themselves, however, is it right to say the culture is being lost, forgotten and fragile thus it needs extra careful handling? It seems very strange to ask one to cherish one's culture before it disappear. Did not the culture mean the way people live - particular shared value, belief, and etc? If we agree with this definition of culture, there is no space for holding back or saving, recovery, or any kind of obsession in culture. It is just the way it is. Salmon Rushdie argued, 'Do culture actually exist as separate, pure, and defensible entities? We are all mongrels rooted everywhere. Idea of pure culture, home is dangerous myth.' Where does this contradiction come from? Why do people tend to protect, cherish and recover their lost culture in spite of the very nature of culture itself is not such a thing? Why do people not just accept it? Globalization is not new phenomenon at all. It does have a history as long as human history. China, Islam, and Rome are all examples of homogeneous globalization and today, it does seem no one cry bitterly for what they have done. Then, why now?

 I think, first, we should acknowledge that along with the globalization, it seems the classical idea of culture - the way people live - is obsoleted long ago and now we have new idea of culture. Culture now is more about how we label ourselves. This is very different. The interesting aspect of globalization is in the gaze of the Other and its politics. Unlike the past, when the culture was regarded as the way people live, thus unconscious, inertial, and immaterial, the culture we now have seems very conscious, political, artificial and material. As the world globalized, we have whole phenomena of the group's past become museum archives and historical texts, of tremendous amounts of possible other images generated from media, of diasporic movement especially tourists becomes more and more dynamic, of markets full of products from around the globe. These examples are rich evidence of what I would like to call as Materialisation of culture. This materiality of culture is very crucial. Today, we don't experience most of the culture that we think we know in traditional way.  With the advent of electronic media, we see Other's material culture; way of dressing, food, landscape, architecture, politicians, vocal language, written character and etc. In other words, we experience culture materially, identify it materially and remember it materially. So we all know, in a sense, French culture, materially, even though we have never been there; French language, food, history, literature, film, Eiffel tower, Notre-Dame, Chanel, wine, perfume, nation flag, colonial practices, and etc. One may argue this is only superficial aspect of culture but this superficiality is the way we identify Other culture. When you meet a person who says himself is from Paris but at the same time, doesn't know anything mentioned above, will you identify him as a french from Paris? As we can see here, there is another implication of Materialisation of culture; as culture materialised, it becomes de-contextualised, delivered to the Other available as manipulatable entity and eventually creates gaze of the Other - exotic expectation on Other culture. Culture doesn't exist in the way people live but it becomes a picture, sculpture, clothes, furniture, or book travels around the world allowing Other to abuse it - creative process of labeling Other. When this way of seeing Other start to apply to the way to the way we identify ourselves - when we start to see ourselves with materials that surround us - , the political dimension of culture emerges. With the popularization of idea of self-expression or self-representation - My space and Face book in internet for example - which allow us to experience culture as some kind of projected or objectified entity, we inescapably question, how to label ourselves? Materiality of culture and political dimension of culture are closely linked and they feed each other. Cultural reproduction now is not about accumulation of traditions. Cultural reproduction today does not offer any kind of way of living or idea of home but rather, it rapes subject with variety of cultural politics until subject become anxious, and uncertain thus embedding ambivalent and disoriented but powerful nostalgia in the subject looking for subject's own representation. Problem arosen when this subject, whether homeless or exile, try to locate himself within cultural materials in global scale. Cultural politics, under the ideology of Multiculturalism, which embraces the cultural difference and cultural diversity, place Other subject in new concept of marginality. The crucial point is that multiculturalism works incredibly different way in West and Non-west. Whereas the Multiculturalism provides variety of tasteful, consumable cultural diversity and safe borderline thus securing west from impure cultural mixing with Other for West, for Non-west, it works incredibly violent. Western cultural materials in the market and media in global scale, accompanied with its political power, advanced technology, and economic wealth, produce what I would like to call Fantasy of modern and this fantasy covers the name, West, with the name of Modern. This idea of Modern - being rational, scientific, democratic, civil, moral, autonomous, and whole concept of western produced Universialist assumption which is very distinctive thought in comparison with rest of the world and historical constructed in particular area at particular era, with its advanced technological materials like TV, inescapably linked with westernization and standardize itself versus Other and legitimate its standardization. For Non-west, Multiculturalism doesn't mean their own standard and exotic variation like what West gets. For Non-west, it means primitive or traditional their own and Others versus West and the modern West. There is no their own present for Non-West. Historical narrative is cut off at certain point whether by political power or economic penetration and instead they have variation of the modern West. Even more, It is western archaeologists and historians who build up groups' past. This, together with relatively new disciplines they brought like science which is essential in modern era and the idea of modern I earlier discussed, creates legitimacy and authority of the West over the Other. With this authority and legitimacy, Multiculturalism ask Other to turn themselves into products or objects for investigation and exploitation often provoking idea of cultural purity or even what I would like to call Extreme culture. What I mean by this term is that the kind of culture that is transformed through gaze of Other - one's demanding expectation on Other culture. This is similar concept with male gaze and women as object in feminist theory. Oriental cuisine, Oriental martial arts film, Oriental arts are all examples of this. Multiculturalism, just like global capitalism is no more than new clever strategy of Neo-colonialism which legitimate West's continuing rape and exploitation that has been started from the very early moment of european colonial practices and imperialist movement with pretty slogan saying advocate of difference. It seems this strategy works incredibly effective. When I was doing A-level equivalent in South korea, few years ago, my art tutor told me, if I try to make western art, I cannot make art that is as good as what western artist produce because I'm purely making copies, because I'm not western minded. He said what I can do is showing deep essence of East. My father told me the same thing; 'do not turn yourself into copy of the West'. The danger of this kind of thinking or cultural essentialism, is that it puts its cultural subject into prison of the unchanging past. At this point, as I constantly use the term West in offensive way, one might ask where does this idea of West come from? Non-west tend to put their position against the notion of the West but technically, West is a group of historically and culturally different nations. However, It is evident that this group of nations called West have some sort of shared value and civilisation which are distinctive in comparison with rest of the world. Perhaps the right question to ask is how does this notion of Non-west versus West being produced? Non-west designates vast area of the world only except Europe continent and its few settler colonies like America. Is this not strange? West and Non-west, In this binary opposition, as post-structuralist pointed out, there is always certain side which has dominance over its counter part and As Arjun Appadurai pointed out, if one is natural the Other is artificial. The critical point is in, like any other kind of discourse, the very fact that we cannot escape from being artificial, being set the direction, turning ourselves into counter-product, somehow. Few days ago, when I had a discussion with our class on Japanese student's art work where I argued his work is heavily engaged with aesthetics of Japanese Manga, One of classmate said 'If you are talking about Japanese Manga in east, that is okay but you are in the western art school.  I mean we are not that familiar with Japanese Manga. So please tell us about it. That is the good thing about this variety, isn't it?'

 Globalization is not just an interesting issue to discuss, but it is significant phenomenon that generates permanent changes in global scale. Globalization left us many questions. Gordon Mathews in his book Global culture/Individual identity, argues that contemporary global culture is becoming individual consumer choice and we are becoming consumers who pick and choose our culture from global cultural supermarket, ultimately resulting individuals rooting themselves all over the world, yet different from other individuals. But is it?


Aschroft, Bill. 2008, Post colonial studies: the key concepts, Routledge, New York.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996, Modernity at large : cultural dimensions of globalization, University of Minnesota Press, London.
King, Catherine. 1999, Views of difference : different views of art, Yale University Press in association with the Open University, London.
Mathews, Gorden. 2000, Global culture/individual identity : searching for home in the cultural supermarket, Routledge, London.

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