Global Studies Working Group

A group of Brandeis faculty will be forming an informal working group to discuss the topics of “globalization” and global-level processes in Spring Semester 2008.

Conceptualizing “The Global”: A Framework of Questions

Mark Auslander
Rick Parmentier
Ellen Schattschneider

December 17, 2007

In recent years the term “global” has been applied to certain natural and cultural phenomena that appear to engage the full extent of the earth. We are interested in exploring certain analytical and methodological dilemmas that these phenomena present and trying to pinpoint a set of “transcendental” questions, i.e., questions that must be asked in order to approach an adequate conceptualization.

l. Is there anything consistent across phenomena (pandemic diseases, environmental changes, interlocking economic institutions, etc.) so that the descriptive label “global” provides a fruitful handle; do these consistencies, in turn, merit the objectification of “the global”? The very pervasiveness or ubiquity of global phenomena makes it difficult, if not impossible, to gain a perspective that can critically monitor its own analytical bias; i.e., with globalization, the (metaphorical) refractive index of our analytical glasses cannot easily be determined, since those glasses can never be removed. On the other hand, there might be specific historical moments that offer dramatic (or traumatic) vantage points that comprehend the earth from what Emile Benveniste called the “impassive gaze of Sirius.” Some have pointed to the dissemination of photographs of the earth from space as one such moment. It is also difficult to figure out the difference between “global” and “universal” phenomena, since in many cases there is not a comparative test: e.g., human history provides a fortuitous comparison between the independent development of the Neolithic in the Old World and in the New World, but globalization by definition can only have one spatial extension. And the postulation of universal or essential features of human beings can easily fall, as Roland Barthes pointed out, into a tautologous appeal to Nature and a correlative dangerous denigration of History.

2. We wonder, therefore, if globalization demands a methodological phase-change when
moving from international to world systems to global, or is there a continuum as research moves to more inclusive categories? This might be usefully explored by looking at arguments that certain material representational forms, such as clock faces and calendars, are constitutive of modern conceptions of time, and that a space-time “compression”—with comparable representational forms such as maps, physical globes, and remote sensing photographs-- characterizes “the global.” Instantaneity, simultaneity, and non-localization might, then, render impossible certain forms of interpersonal or social interactions that require strategic temporization (e.g., exchange delay). Can this postulated space-time compression be identified as a final state in a punctuated series of intersections of space and time, distinct from the pre-modern or medieval and from the modern?

3. To what degree global phenomena have built-in certain epistemological blocks, at both the empirical and the ideological levels. Does a global perspective obfuscate causal or vectoral relations, since relatively small phenomena can have infinitely ramifying consequences (the “butterfly effect”), and globalization makes it difficult to localize a precise causal agent and, thus, to identify the site of moral responsibility? Linked to this is the question of whether or not the “global” label is used to mask other forces that are “really” at work, e.g., Americanization or Westernization.

4. How are we to evaluate the ethical valuations attached to various configurations of “the global”? Do current positive and negative usages of the term rest on similar or different understandings of global processes? We might consider the valences attached to "global warming" (vs. "global climate change"), to "the global war on terror," and the dialectical relationship between "globalization" and "anti-globalization." In this light should we pursue a kind of cultural archaeology of models of the global, with reference to previous discourses about overt and ostensibly covert worldwide institutions and networks, including the Catholic Church, Freemasons, Knights Templar and alleged banking conspiracies? Indeed, are contemporary discourses of conspiracy--most notably, the widespread apprehension of extraterrestrial intervention-- primarily the product of popular apprehensions of global forces and interconnections? That is to say, is the primary popular explanatory model for accounting for “the global” the positing of that which is specifically beyond the globe itself?

5. What are the "structuring structures" of global phenomena? Candidates include the U.S.
military system of bases, alliance and force projection; the world energy industry, especially petrochemical corporate interests; the post-war Bretton Woods economic system, and its related or successor entities, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization; the signs and practice of neo-liberalism, or "the marketplace" itself. What is the ontological status of various international institutions, such as the United Nations (especially the Security Council and its legal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court) and transnational corporate mass media conglomerates? Are these active structuring agents in their own right, or do they ultimately only ratify and reflect underlying global forces, networks and interests that reside elsewhere? And how are we to conceptualize "global" networks that appear to reside outside of formal institutional formations or legal regulation, such as: illegal international arms and drugs trafficking, the sexualized traffic in women, terrorist networks, smuggling operations, and underworld families. To what extent are these phenomena themselves conditioned or structured by the logic of global markets and labor flows?

6. Is it
legitimate to speak of a global war against low income and marginalized people, waged at
varying level of intensity with different local configurations and inflections?In "The Shock Doctrine," Naomi Klein
suggests that a vast range of seemingly disparate phenomena, including "low level"
ethnonationalist and genocidal conflict, environmental degradation, the proliferation of
torture, new military doctrines of "Shock and Awe" and limited state responses to natural
disaster, can be understood as consistent with the ideological commitments of neoliberal
market liberalization. "Disaster capitalism," in Klein's terms, grasps each crisis as an
opportunity for wiping the slate clean and jump starting capitalist take off, through the
radical shrinkage of the public sector and the relocation of low-income populations. In short, is there a global war against the marginalized?

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