Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

La mondialisation

No. 227: Saturday, February 3, 2001

In Chronicle 209, I proposed the term post-millennial to describe the era now emerging from the victimary shadow of post-WWII postmodernism. (To the same end, but from a very different point of departure, Raoul Eshelman proposes the term performatism in his article in Anthropoetics VI, 2.) But the most common term used to describe this era is one that less clearly designates a break with the postmodern or indeed with the  industrial era: globalization--in French, mondialisation. Globalization/mondialisation is one of the most insistent buzzwords of the past few years, so much so that I am in the process of preparing a (French) talk on it. This Chronicle is a preliminary reflection on the subject, beginning with the words themselves.

Mondialisation recalls phenomenology’s world of experience, the "in-the-worldness" of Heidegger’s Dasein, literally, "being-there," the term by which he designates the human’s spatio-temporal situatedness (see Chronicle 226). Mondialisation is the coming-together in a single world of the insular human worlds of not so long ago. But we would not speak of mondialisation if we did not inhabit a globe, a surface on which continued expansion from a given origin is fated to close in upon itself while transforming the planar structure of center and periphery into a network of decentered nodes. If the pre-globalized world may be thought of as a conglomerate of circles each with its own center, the global network as a whole has a single center maximally distant from the surface. Humanity returns to its originary condition of a single world with a single center of transcendence, but one whose singleness reflects its maximal virtuality--its minimality.

In Things hidden…, Girard saw the beginning of mondialisation in the potential of nuclear arms for world-wide violence. The human world is brought together by the unthinkable possibility of its annihilation, bringing full circle the spread of humanity through the world made possible by the originary deferral of violence. Yet the one world created by weapons of mass destruction is chimerical; it remains an abstraction so long as the weapons are not used and would vanish as soon as they were. The Cold-War era seemed to have suspended mondialisation indefinitely--a powerful illusion that goes far to explain the overreaction at its end. Only after 1989 did we understand that beneath the apparently static configuration of "two world systems," the final conflict between the world market system and its centrally planned alternative was drawing to a close. The impossibility of military conflict that seemed to make the stand-off eternal blinded us to the decisive nature of the economic competition that would transform the abstract community of mutual deterrence into a world of economic and cultural exchange.

Many find this development disturbing. Rousseau is the patron of those who increasingly communicate about the evils of increased communication. For Rousseau, human intercourse inevitably spreads the contagion of mimetic desire, generating the vanity and oppression endemic to "society." His political solution for the modern world reflects this mistrust of exchange. One seeks in vain in The Social Contract any reference to debate or dialogue, even in the legislative system, which devolves upon a--singular or collective--"legislator," just as sovereignty is the province of the "sovereign" who expresses the "general will."

But where, consistently with his preference for originary simplicity, Rousseau attacked the proliferation of desire-objects made possible by the development of the "sciences and arts," the anti-mondialistes accuse mondialisation of leading to universal sameness. The unfettered exchange of goods and desires, following the "winner-take-all" nature of expanding markets, results in a deadening worldwide uniformity, with a Holiday Inn at every airport and a MacDonald’s on every square. For example:

. . . what is happening is the destruction of traditional culture . . . the flattening of cultural variations in the face of the pervasive model of economic well-being. Although these changes would not take place unless local people in some sense wanted them, this fact does not settle the question whether it is a good or bad thing. . . . It is for many a deeply worrying feature of the modern world that insufficient value is placed on cultural diversity . . . If then we recognize that people have a right to cultural diversity, what is happening in the name of ‘development’ is simply undermining this right.
    Nigel Dower, "Human Rights, Global Ethics and Globalization" in Globalization and Europe (London: Pinter, 1998), p. 121

This anti-imperialist defense of localism uses an imperialistic frame of reference, complete with (post?-)colonial disdain for "what [third-world] people (think they) want" (ibid). Aside from the fact that few things are more valued today than "insufficiently valued" cultural diversity, the kind of diversity that pre-industrial cultures are here granted a "right" to can be appreciated only by the cosmopolitan traveler. Such "diversity" is really a traditional sameness that must be preserved by refusing to give the population "what they (think they) want." Instead, the point has been made, notably by the ethnologist James Clifford, that the introduction of Western modes of consumption and cultural creation does not eliminate the local ones, but leads to interaction and interpenetration both locally and globally: Chinese jazz, French rap, California-Thai restaurants.

Another synonym for globalization is the "end of history," announced by Francis Fukuyama in a famous 1989 article celebrating the triumph of liberal democracy over Soviet socialism. This Hegelian term has an unfortunately apocalyptic resonance, as though human time had run into a brick wall. On the contrary, the end of the history that prevented mondialisation was inevitable only in the sense that it was the ethically inevitable equilibrium state of the one world’s interacting human desires--the outcome that, from the post-Hegelian perspective of history as indefinite opening rather than closure, we are bound not simply to accept but to choose. In this perspective, liberal democracy is less a specific form of political organization than the social configuration that imposes the minimal constraint on human exchange by making the exchange of representations (politics) a means for facilitating the exchange of things (economics). In comparison with pre-modern systems of ritual redistribution or even with Athenian democracy, where the economic was, on the contrary, an instrument of the political, liberal democracy maximizes the dynamic of moral reciprocity that is the originary accompaniment to the deferral of violence.

Mondialisation cannot be imposed by the West or even by the laws of economics; it can only progress as the resultant of the free choices of its eventual beneficiaries. In this sense mondialisation is dialogic rather than "dialectical" in the Hegelian-Marxist sense; the conflicting elements of world culture are not "lifted up and transcended" [Aufgehoben] in a final synthesis but continually transform themselves as increasingly equal partners in exchange. And because mondialisation is integration into a world rather than simply a global economy, we cannot hope to stand outside the process and grasp it as a whole.

The most valuable indicator of the cultural opacity or "thickness" that mondialisation must integrate is not the state of international trade but that of religion. The Enlightenment desire to reduce each religion to the doctrine of reciprocal morality common to all religions has been with us for 250 years or so, yet religions remain nearly as specific as ever, and despite various noble efforts at ecumenism, recent growth in world religions has disproportionately occurred in the least ecumenical sects of each.

Religion is based on the unjustifiable leap of faith from worldly fact to transcendental meaning that is also the modus operandi of the "arbitrary" linguistic signifier. The flaw in the Enlightenment view is in taking the flat, rational world of metaphysics as self-contained, whereas this world could only come into being, and only continue to be regenerated, through the constant reaffirmation and transcendence of anthropological particularity.

The irrational particularism that makes dialogic reconciliation among religious traditions so difficult is no mere residue of pre-modern times; it is a reminder of the fundamental human truth preserved by religion, one that can never be wholly absorbed by even the best-functioning, most egalitarian exchange-system because it is the foundation of that system. Religion’s lesson for mondialisation is that there will always be difference within the world because there is at the center of the human a difference between eternal signs and temporal things.

To see our Earth as one network of nodes around a minimally present center is to envision humanity’s maximally creative state of dynamic equilibrium. The most significant movement in this direction so far is, arguably, the ongoing unification of Europe, a transformation whose revolutionary nature may be measured by its lack of drama. Banality is the guarantee of the success of mondialisation, whether on the scale of a continent or of the entire world. It marks the end of history as macrohistorical spectacle and the beginning of the indefinitely dense microhistory in which every individual’s life is inscribed.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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