Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Appadurai's "Imagined World"

“My own hypothesis, which can only be tentative at this point, is that the relationship of these various flows to one another, as they constellate into particular events and social forms, will be radically context-dependent… What I have sought to provide in this essay is a reasonably economical technical vocabulary and a rudimentary model of disjunctive flows, from which something like a decent global analysis might emerge.” (Appadurai, 21)


Based on Appadurai’s claim to be providing only a vocabulary and a model for the disjunctive flows of the current global system, and no “decent global analysis,” I will focus on the former in my own analysis of the essay.  The project of looking at the terms and models that define global flows reminds me of the essay “What is the Concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian's Perspective,” by Frederick Cooper.  Cooper, as the title of the piece suggests, is an African historian interested in the problematic of having a single, overall concept which purports to encompass the entire concept of “globalization,” whose piece was published about a decade after Appadurai’s piece.  According to Cooper, the term “globalization” (which, admittedly, Appadurai uses sparingly) has come to represent three dominant paradigms which, though incongruous, together (as the only options for defining the term) have a totalizing effect on the dominant paradigms about global flows.   Appadurai acknowledges all three concepts in his essay, although only refers to one of them by the name “globalization.”  For Appadurai, “globalization” refers to what Cooper calls the “social democrat’s lament,” which is to say, the fear of homogenization as the world ‘gets smaller.’  The second concept of Cooper’s “globalization” is the economically derived concept, most notably practiced by the World Bank and the IMF, which Appadurai mentions, but does not discuss precisely.  Finally, Cooper’s “globalization” includes what he calls “the dance of the flows and fragments.”  This third concept of “globalization” seems to me to be the model which Appadurai is putting forth in this essay: the unevenness and unpredictability of the various pieces of socio-political and economic forces which today determine the flow of capital.  My point is not that Cooper disagrees with Appadurai’s model, but that Appadurai’s model—which seems to have been somewhat revolutionary in 1990—had ten years later become such dominant part of the paradigm that it has arguably played a role in inhibiting a more organic determination of what the global landscape looks like now.  This essay perhaps stands as a testament to the power of vocabularies in the contemporary world, the world which it hopes to describe, to the extent that it has acted as a prescriptive voice as much as a descriptive one.  Thus, what seems most interesting to me about this article is not so much the ideas it puts forth, but the example it presents of the power of the prescriptive voice within this “imagined world” it discusses. 

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