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)
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.
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.