Sunday, 5 June 2011

Globalisation, Space-Time Compression and Symbolic Exchange. Part Three.

Seeing as so much time has elapsed since my last posting under the title of “Globalization, Time-Space Compression and Symbolic Exchange”, I think it’s as well to provide a brief reminder of the terrain.* My intention with this cycle of postings is to think about globalisation, paying particular attention to the way in which the apparent transparency of the term conceals assumptions regarding the character of the globe which is being globalised. On the one hand the process of globalisation, influenced by the demand for capital accumulation, is an indisputable reality that is affecting every area of our lives (See “What is Social Acceleration”). On the other, it conceals and disseminates, Eurocentric assumptions about the nature of space, time and subjectivity. I approached these themes first by highlighting a distinction, made by Heidegger, between the concepts of Earth and World. ‘World’ refers not necessarily to a physical reality, but rather to a field of meaning and signification, in the sense of ‘the world of medicine’ or ‘the world of football’. It is really, first and foremost, a world in which we live. Earth, superficially, might be described un-problematically as a physical entity, one planet amongst others in the solar system. The difficulty is that, no matter how much we may prioritise the foundational nature of Earth, to insist that it is the Earth upon which we live, it remains an entity which we do not, in fact, encounter, as such. Images of the Earth abound. However, in this sense, the Earth is only ever one more sign within the plethora of signs and meanings which constitute our worlds. My intention was, and is, to render the notion of ‘Earth’ questionable in order to then gain a different sort of purchase on ‘Globalisation’. Specifically I want to foreground the notion of ‘World’, as a system, or systems, of significations, references, and meanings, within which materiality plays a role, but not a founding role. In the last post I sought to highlight this by characterising the Yir Yoront’s relation to time in terms of social ‘homeostasis’. The ‘history’ of the Yir Yoront was determined not by objectively verifiable facts, but by what it was expedient to remember. To forget something is to annihilate it in its entirety, such that it never did occur. The only problem with this is that it is grammatically untidy. A related position can be adopted with regard space and geography, namely that the particular model of universal space with which we operate is very much a consequence of our literacy, which has enabled us to abstract from the immediacy of our apperception**.

I would imagine that, for many people, raising questions about our notion of space might seem like a rather pointless exercise in metaphysical speculation. We don’t practically have a problem with space. We aren’t bumping into things due to an unreliable model of space, and our model of space seems to provide us with a very functional and effective way of representing territory. The problem, I believe, relates to the second of these examples, not to the first. Our phenomenal apprehension of space, when making coffee for example, is of a categorically different order from the way we represent space, just as our unreflective apprehension of time is quite distinct from the ways in which we measure it. The point is that there is nothing “natural” about the notion of absolute, objective, quantifiable space which we take so much for granted and which is central to our ideas of territory and property. Once again, examples of resistance to, or alternatives to Eurocentric representations of space abound among pre-literate peoples. Marshall McLuhan cites Guinean born Prince Modupe who, in his autobiography, tells how he had learned to read maps at school and of how his father had been decidedly unimpressed by the flimsy sheet of paper which presumed to represent territory.

He refused to identify the stream he had crossed at Bomako, where it is no deeper, he said, than a man is high, with the great widespread waters of the vast Niger delta. Distances as measured in miles had no meaning for him. . . . Maps are liars, he told me briefly. From his tone of voice I could tell that I had offended him in some way not known to me at the time. The things that hurt one do not show on a map. The truth of a place is in the joy and the hurt that come from it. I had best not put my trust in anything as inadequate as a map, he counseled. ... I understand now, although I did not at the time, that my airy and easy sweep of map-traced staggering distances belittled the journeys he had measured on tired feet. With my big map-talk, I had effaced the magnitude of his cargo-laden, heat-weighted treks. (1)

This represents a striking illustration of the adage “the map is not the territory”.

Similarly, Daniel Everett, in his book, Don’t Sleep there are Snakes, describes how the Amazonian tribe, the Pirahã, have no conception of things that fall outside of their immediate experience, or the experience of someone with whom they have directly spoke (2). Hence their reluctance to listen to his evangelising about Jesus Christ on learning that Everett had never actually met the man. More relevant to a consideration of space is the Pirahã notion of xibipíío. This word might be used to describe a boat coming into view from around the bend in the river, a candle flame extinguishing or a plane appearing on, or disappearing, over the horizon. Everett managed to establish that xibipíío picked out a culturally specific concept relating to experiential liminality; that’s to say the state of something’s being on the border of existence and non-existence, experientially speaking. The contention is that the Pirahã don’t extrapolate from what is presented immediately in their experience and that concepts of arrival and departure presuppose the existence of a territory or space which lies beyond the field of their immediate experience. Things don’t so much appear from around the corner, as come into being. If that sounds impossibly improbable, imagining it from the point of “view” of the deaf person may make it slightly more comprehensible. It doesn’t offend against intuition quite so much to suggest that the plane pops into existence if ones only means of perceiving it is sound. This disjunction between the fact that experiential liminality is unacceptable when related to the visual field and yet plausible when related to the aural field illustrates another contention of McLuhan’s, that the absolute primacy of the visual is a characteristic of literacy.

What characterises the oral cultures that I have discussed in this and the previous posting is that their societies are not grounded on absolute notions of time and space, which means that they provide a radical counterpoint to Eurocentric, or literate, historiography and geography. *** What they reveal, and what gets concealed within literate cultures, is the homeostatic nature of society and culture. Time and space are not containers into which we are thrown and in which we set about constructing culture and society. Rather time and space are inseparable from our practices. Just as the Yir Yoront collectively conspire to adjust their past to the exigencies of the present, so Europeans collectively conspire to sustain their historiographies. **** Of course we are a little uncomfortable with the idea of adjusting them to meet the demands of the present and yet all recounting and dissemination of the past is clearly carried out in the present and must serve some current purpose. Sarah Palin’s recent reinterpretation of American history, and the way it is being defended by her acolytes, provides a cheap, but illustrative, example of this. The principal differences between the Yir Yoront’s mythological past and the historical past of European peoples, leaving aside the crucial divisions we make between personal and public history, are:

· the externalisation of knowledge (knowledge is not contained in the body of the knower, but on parchment, manuscript, in book or database form)

· the degree of coordination involved in reinforcing and disseminating that history (the homogenising effect of the media through which that history is narrated, be that books, academic disciplines and museums or more recently, and more shakily, docu-dramas, quiz shows and internet forums *****)

· the regulatory mechanisms through which relevance or obsolescence are determined (selective memory in the case of oral cultures, academic coherence, political expediency and potential for commodification in ours)

· The mythological past of the Yir Yoront is unapologetically symbolic in nature, whereas the goal of European thought has been to replace the symbolic with the factual. A better way of stating this might be to say that the aim has been to systematise the symbolic such that it becomes undeniable, unquestionable and, hence, impersonal.

On this last point, the heyday of factual, objectively verifiable knowledge was from the renaissance to the late 20th century; a period which coincided with the invention of the printing press, the extensive dissemination of books, the rise of mass literacy and the technological innovations that facilitated first a Europe-wide and then a global reconfiguration of culture and society. However, for all the coordination and dissemination of Eurocentric concepts and practices, they remain no better grounded than the mythological past of the Yir Yoront and no more compelling as a model for living than that of the Pirahã of the Amazon. In each case, each one of us embody and are the product of the entirety of our culture. Technological changes within the culture give rise to more or less subtle reconfigurations of that culture in its entirety and concomitantly reconfigures us and our mental conceptions, histories and value systems.

The social structure of the Yir Yoront was irreparably disrupted by the encounter with European people, not because Europeans colonised their territory or spread disease, but rather through the introduction of alien technologies and associated mental conceptions. The paradigm example used by Lauriston Sharp is the introduction of the steel axe into the world of the Yir Yoront by missionaries (3). The Yir Yoront had been using stone axes for millennia. The stone axe was not simply a utilitarian object, it held a key position in the symbolic economy of the Yir Yoront. There were implicitly understood codes which governed how the axe was produced (involving intricate trading relationships with other tribes and rituals for its fabrication) and who had ownership and access to the axe (women and children could not own an axe but had to borrow it from the male head of the family). Introducing steel, factory made, axes into this symbolic economy had the effect of de-structuring the economy and the social relations that it implied.

In subsequent postings I will consider how technological innovations in Europe generated a reconfiguration in its symbolic economy that accelerated and intensified with the development of money as a universal medium of exchange (clearly symbolic, and yet sufficiently standardised and universalised to conceal its symbolic nature). This, along with the reconfiguration of mental conceptions that this transformation implied (in the fields of geography and cartography, for example), contributed to what David Harvey refers to as space/time compression and the elaboration of a symbolic economy which annihilates geographical distance.

* Notice how territorial metaphors suggest themselves so readily (map out, chart, navigate). This is neither incidental in terms of language, nor in terms of the project that I am engaged in. Can the ideas I’m describing be rightly equated with a territory? They probably can if I will insist on that highly abstracted and literate practice of developing ideas over a series of postings / chapters / paragraphs, etc…

** I choose ‘apperception’ as opposed to ‘perception’, because whereas the later has a clear visual bias, the former refers to a much broader field which makes no clear distinction between the sensory and the cognitive.

*** This ‘Eurocentric’ / ‘literate’ division is interesting. By choosing the former term as the opposition to oral cultures, a whole discourse of cultural relativism is activated along with its concurrent limits to thought. If the later term is chosen, I feel the nature of the European colonial project is better revealed. Europe is not one culture among others in the cultural soup that makes up the world. Rather, the world becomes world to the extent to which it can be metabolized within the structures and terms of a totalising conceptual / system, the source of which is overwhelmingly European. From this perspective, America is also essentially European.

**** I use the word ‘historiographies’ to highlight the heterogeneous nature of the writing, recounting and dissemination of the past.

***** Also important are strategic devices for reinforcing certain narratives, such as using bullet points.

1. McLuhan, M. 1962, The Guttenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press
2. Everett, D. 2008, Don't Sleep there are Snakes, Profile Books
3. Sharp, L. (1952). Steel axes for stone age Australians. Human Organization, 11(1 )

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