This post was written by Lars Klute, Research Master’s student, University of Amsterdam
Interrogating the ‘Global’
What exactly does the ‘Global’ in Global Digital Cultures mean? Staking out this field, the website of the University of Amsterdam’s research priority area Global Digital Cultures (GDC) uses phrases such as “concerns the global variety of daily cultural practices”, “across the world”, and “different political-cultural regions” (Global Digital Cultures, 2020). But how do such intentions practically play out? Does the inclusion of research on and from other parts of the world lead to a global perspective? What are the unconscious, after-effects of how academia develops and executes such ‘global’ perspectives?
I argue against any tendency to uncritically integrate theory merely due to its non-‘Western’ origin, and call for a more nuanced understanding of the ways regions and borders ‘work’ for our understanding of the world around us. Merely integrating perspectives on and from other parts of the world does not necessarily or automatically lead to a more ‘equal’ or ‘global’ perspective, but might instead reproduce the very inequalities postcolonial scholarship attempts to deconstruct. In that sense, I follow Stuart Hall’s statement that we need to “decouple ethnicity, as it functions in the dominant discourse, from its equivalence with nationalism, imperialism, racism and the state” (Hall, 2006, p. 448).
Regions, nations, borders: The after-effects’ of ‘global’ perspectives
While the use of the term ‘Global South’ in academic publications has been exponentially growing since the 1990s, its constitutive counterpart, the ‘Global North’ has remained considerably less prominent. Such terms are exemplary of what Lewis and Wigen call a ‘metageography’, by which they “mean the set of spatial structures through which people gain their knowledge of the world: the often unconscious frameworks that organize studies of history, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, or even natural history” (Lewis & Wigen, 1997, p. ix). There is a tendency of regions, whatever form they take, to generate what Van Schendel calls ‘geographies of knowledge and ‘geographies of ignorance’ (2002). Scholars, rightly, critique its use as the term denotes an area that cannot be geographically located, with its precise meaning shifting from case to case, but most importantly it homogenizes a diverse and complex reality of widely different regions into a single container (Haug et al., 2021, p. 1930). Indeed, as Arturo Arriagada stated in his keynote presentation during the GDC conference of 2022: “Please don’t talk about the Global South, they’re different countries”.
Although academia increasingly criticizes the use of the term ‘Global South’, a quick look through the titles of the panel presentations at the 2022 GDC conference reveals that the use of supranational (Asia, Latin-America), national (China, Morocco), and subnational (South-India) labels on scientific research still seems a very natural occurrence in the academic world. With 45 panel presentation titles having some designation in them that locates the research in any specific region such as ‘India’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Danish’. Only twelve, however, refer to countries that would not traditionally be considered an ‘area’ in the ‘West’, for example: ‘UK’ or ‘Danish’. Out of 45, 33 countries belonged to regions that ‘Western’ academia regards as an ‘area’. The discrepancy suggests that Eurocentric universalism is still, though maybe somewhat unconsciously, present in contemporary academic research. In addition, the three countries China, India, and Brazil, the “locomotives of the South“, are somewhat overrepresented in these numbers (Haug et al., 2021, p. 1934).
Rey Chow observes that “against the current façade of welcoming non-Western others into putatively interdisciplinary and cross-cultural exchanges” there still exists “a continual tendency to stigmatize and ghettoize non-Western cultures precisely by way of ethnic, national label” (1998, p. 4). That, for example, Judith Butler is able to publish a work with the title Gender Trouble, which if written by a philosopher from China or a scholar writing on China would always necessitate the supplement ‘China’ or ‘Chinese’  is only the most superficial way in which we can see how Eurocentric and Anglo-American views manifest themselves in academia. Indeed, as Carrozza and Benabdallah point out, in the contemporary academic quest for diversifying disciplines “there is a practice to make room for […research] with creative adjectives rather than opening the mainstream canons to more diverse perspectives” (2022, p. 17). A book chapter by Ani Maitra and Rey Chow points to an important after-effect of such ethnic and national labeling as “unqualified emphasis on the local or the regional often gives rise to ethnoculturalist approaches that […] tend to overlook differences within these apparently homogeneous spaces” (2015, p. 18). What starts out as research on digital media practices in China, often results in research on the ‘Chineseness’ of digital media practices, as Thomas Lamarre states “the encounter between media studies and area studies does not challenge either field but merely reinforces received biases” (2017, p. 289). Indeed, Arjun Appadurai observes such terms tend “to mistake a particular configuration of apparent stabilities for permanent associations between space, territory, and cultural organisation” (2000, p. 7).
It is especially Etienne Balibar’s article ‘Europe as Borderland’ that calls for an understanding of the effects of the “working of the border […] which constitutes, or ‘produces’, the stranger/foreigner as a social type” (2009, p. 204). Balibar explains that such processes are not necessarily limited to the borders of the nation-state, but can extend to certain regions, such as Europe, as well. In such cases “there are no longer any ‘foreigners’ in a simple legal sense, because some are ‘assimilated’ […], they are less than foreign […] while others are ‘dissimilated’, they are more than foreign” (2009, p. 204). Indeed, as Zygmunt Bauman points out in Liquid Modernity: “the purpose of territorial separation being aimed at the homogeneity of the neighborhood” (2000, p. 107). The use of national or ethnic labels in academic research plays into a process of territorialization of the nation-state, which assigns “identities for collective subjects within structures of power” and thereby supports the “absolutization and sacralization of borders” (Balibar, 2009, pp. 192, 193).
Ien Ang rightly observes that “seeing humankind as a collection of nationalities, in short, is one of the most powerful mundane discourses through which people comprehend the world they live in” (2022, p. 766). Rey Chow employs Etienne Balibar’s concept of ‘Neo-Racism’, which “finds its justification no longer in the absoluteness of blood but in the insurmountability of cultural difference”, to argue that the constant “emphasis on cultural differentials has led to a situation in which ‘culture’ itself and the aggressive racist conduct that is adopted to fortify cultural boundaries have become naturalized” (Chow, 1998, p. 7). I simply can’t escape the idea that academia, instead of resisting the workings of borders, rather seems to simply buy into, and thereby strengthens, its logic. In sum, besides merely emphasizing that academic disciplines need more perspectives on and from different parts of the world, in addition, any attempt at a truly ‘global’ academic discourse needs to address not only that we tend to see the world in a certain way, through a certain ‘lens’, but also needs to take into account the more general ‘workings’ of borders and the ‘effect’ of the continuing ‘ethnic’ and ‘national’ labeling prevalent in academic research from around the world. Indeed, as Sabaratnam states: “It is imperative that a serious effort is made to dismiss not just the old crude versions of Eurocentrism, but the new manifestations in which it quietly re-presents itself” (2013, p. 274).
The manner in which academia handles such issues strongly echoes Slavoj Zizek’s argument in his seminal work ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’ on the mechanism of ideology as an ‘as if’ structure. In our case, while we all know that borders, by which I here mean the arbitrarily drawn lines which suggest some kind of cultural separation, don’t actually exist (reality nations from around the world try their very best to hide), yet we all act ‘as if’ they do exist, and ‘as if’ the border marks some kind of demarcation which signals some insurmountable cultural difference between the people living on the one side compared to the people living on the other side. As Zizek concludes on Pascal’s notion of belief: “Leave rational argumentation and submit yourself simply to ideological ritual, stupefy yourself by repeating the meaningless gestures. act as if you already believe, and the belief will come by itself” (1989, p. 38).
Naturally, I am not arguing that academic research can never include any ethnic or national label, rather I argue for a reconsideration of what exactly the value and relevance is of the label to the research. We need to critically ask ourselves why we are using such labels: Is the phenomena I am researching truly defined by the fact that it is happening within a certain region? What is the relevance of the fact that this phenomenon is occurring within a certain region that supersedes or falls within the contemporary borders of any nation-state? Or might the fact that it is happening there simply be accidental? While the phenomena in and of itself might be unique that does not mean that its conditions of emergence are unique or contained to this or that country or region. And does something we only see happening among, for instance, affluent urban dwellers along the East Chinese coast truly legitimize the use of ‘China’ or ‘Chinese’? Arguments that suggest such labels provide clarity on who, what, or where the research is talking about are shaky to say the least, as the sections above point out, such labels often hide more than they reveal. More importantly, by its use we are buying into nationalist discourses while reproducing and strengthening notions on the ‘insurmountability of cultural difference’.
Post-hegemony or new-hegemony: knowledge production beyond the ‘West’
The previous section points to a problematic tendency in academia to constantly locate its research within a certain ‘imaginary’ region and the (after-)effects of such practices on the way that we comprehend the world around us. It is not necessarily how we see the world that has led to the Eurocentrism of academia, but rather such issues originate, in the first place, from our tendency to divide up the world, in whatever form that may be. Unequal power relations can only begin to emerge after the division of the world, otherwise, there would be no Other to constitute the Self. It is also in that sense that I agree with de Kloet’s et al. wariness of Chen’s proposal for ‘Asia as Method’ (2010), as it “runs the danger of reproducing an epistemological domination within ‘Asia’”, and indeed “it seems troubling to resist this dominance [of uneven global power structures] by a reductive categorization that sees the West as a collective and the point of opposition for the Asians (or the rest)” (de Kloet et al., 2019, pp. 5–6). As Hillebrand states: “a quixotic disavowal of Western theory makes no more sense than a blinkered infatuation with it” (2010, p. 318). And most importantly is that “to insist on the multiplicity of either Europe or Asia runs the risk of ignoring the power structures that render some Asian (or European, or Western) voices more vocal than others” (Chow & de Kloet, 2014, p. 9).
Recent research into how ‘China’ sees the world, especially taking its cases from the ‘Chinese’ field of International Relations (IR), proves insightful to understanding knowledge production beyond the West vs the Rest (Hall, 1992) framework as it orients “the investigative gaze toward the potential layers of asymmetrical representations and hierarchies […] from within the Global South itself’ (Carrozza & Benabdallah, 2022, p. 3). An article by Carozza and Benabdallah investigates the emergence of ‘Chinese’ theory in the field of IR. They, in short, argue that practices of ‘Othering’ are replaced by practices of ‘Selving’, which instead of playing on perceived differences between regions, rather they play on “a belief in the sameness in the experiences of people and nations across the Global South”, that “since anti-colonial struggles [have] adopted a language of inclusion, friendship, solidarity, and a community with a shared future” and put forward a notion of equal “experience of fighting imperial and colonial injustices” (Carrozza & Benabdallah, 2022, p. 7). The article concludes that “Selving is a hierarchical knowledge-production mode that despite its benign intentions places African experiences behind China’s own experiences in development”, as such an uncritical adoption of such theories “can lead to reproducing hegemonies and marginalizations” (Carrozza & Benabdallah, 2022, p. 9). In addition, through such research, we can also observe how the discourse of a more or less coherent ‘Global South’, constructed by ‘Western’ academia, is in turn used by ‘China’ to establish its own perspective on the world.
A study by Cheng and Liu on the field of area studies in China observes that, at this moment, the field is predominantly structured around the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese ‘cooperation’ with several countries on the African Continent. While such perspectives represent “a challenge to the dominant self/other imaginaries by transgressing established spatial-discursive-material hierarchies of who maps and who is mapped”, the authors also affirm that the field needs “to be provincialized” and needs to open “itself to alterity with a greater degree of ontological reflexivity” and that the field of ‘Chinese’ area studies has “much to gain from relational interactions and conversations with plural epistemologies from ‘other’ worlds, in every sense of the term” (Cheng & Liu, 2022, p. 14,15). Such research underscores Walker and Sakai’s statement that “to thematically postulate a region and its people as an area is to nonthematically postulate the position of area specialists as the West” (2019, p. 6), the ‘West’ could be replaced by any region or country. Indeed what matters in the study of areas is that “the ‘specialist’ is located in a temporality and epistemic regime that is separate and distant from the time of the indigenous” (Walker & Sakai, 2019, p. 4). There is no doubt about the issues that permeate research on other places and peoples, but that certainly doesn’t mean that research on one’s ‘own’ places and peoples is any less problematic.
Such case studies exemplify Hillebrand’s statement on ‘Asian theory’ as “a field that has now shrugged off its subaltern epistemological status, so much that parts of it have developed colonizing ambitions themselves” (2010, p. 319). In short, perspectives on the world from those regions considered to belong to ‘the Rest’, are not necessarily less problematic than ‘Western’ views on the world. Indeed as Callahan asserts: “rather than guide us towards a post-hegemonic world”, it rather “presents a new hegemony that reproduces China’s hierarchical empire for the twenty-first century” (2008, p. 750). What I essentially attempt to point out by this, admittedly, a rather brief observation of knowledge production in China is that we need to acknowledge that ‘the Rest’ is as much capable as ‘the West’ to produce epistemological hierarchies. To be sure, from the perspective of abolishing the West vs the Rest framework, (theoretical) knowledge production in China can only be considered a force for good, however, shifting the perspective to a South-South framework, a wholly different image emerges in which epistemological hierarchies are not deconstructed but rather reproduced on a different scale and in other forms.
It is, unfortunately, outside of the scope of this essay to outline some of the possible ways to think through this issue, though each of them proposes something similar to what Morris-Suzuki calls ‘Anti-Area Studies’ in which the “object of exercise […] would not be to ‘understand Asia’ […] but to gain a better understanding of an unintelligible world by viewing some of its key features from widely separated points of the globe” which “would link geographically dispersed places in terms of relevance to a common theme” (2000, p. 22). Maitra and Chow, in a similar vein, argue that “locality must be examined through the material and infrastructural differences” (2015, p. 21), or consider Haug’s proposal to “discuss experiences of (material) deprivation that, potentially, take place everywhere” (2021, p. 2023).
The problematic of ‘global’ perspectives
That we can discern similar practices of ‘epistemic violence’ from different parts of the world means the solution cannot lie in cutting up the world into ever more divisions or creating divisions that are seemingly more coherent or make more sense than others. Rather, what is necessary is an understanding of the process of ‘regionalisation’, by which I mean the observable tendency to divide the world up into areas, and what ‘effects’ this regionalisation has on the way that we perceive and understand the world.
I, essentially, argue against the notion that integrating perspectives on and from different parts of the world logically and automatically leads to some sort of ‘global’ or ‘equal’ perspective. We need to address the less obvious ways in which scholars from all over the world unconsciously uphold the ‘Western’ hegemony of knowledge production, or how rising powers create ‘new’ hegemonies. Although this short essay is nowhere near answering it, the question I am probing here is whether something of a ‘post-hegemony’ can even be possible so long as we keep dividing up the world, in whatever form that may be. In the end, all regions, be they supranational, national, or subnational create the ability to think in different temporalities, enabled by the spatialization of the world and the homogenization of that which lies within its imaginary borders. I think, and this is just speculation, these effects originate not from how we carve up the world, but rather originate in the act of carving up the world itself. As Stratton and Ang argue “neither the universal nor the particular are natural categories”, and we need to “reflect on the concrete processes of particularization itself, and to interrogate its politics” (2006, p. 366).
I am not denying the importance of unequal power relations in the matter, yet I feel we need to re-direct some of the overwhelming attention given to power relations to the more mundane and quotidian ways in which we unconsciously categorize the world and thereby uncritically ‘buy into the logic’ of the Westphalian system and as such reproduce and strengthen nationalist and supranationalist narratives of belonging and coherence. Instead of revealing its rather problematic foundations, the unqualified and unnecessary use of ethnic and national labeling strengthens this logic. I follow Walker and Sakai whose call for ”the end of the area” means the end of the area as an “epistemic poietic device through which knowledge is ‘nationalized’ and thereby rendered ‘inherent’ and ‘natural’” (2019, pp. 20–21).
List of References
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 An example which I take from Chow and De Kloet (2014, p. 14).
Lars Klute has a bachelor’s in China Studies and a master’s in Asian Studies from Leiden University. He is a research master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.