An A-Z of theory Arjun Appadurai
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, April 22, 2011 0:00 - 8 Comments
By Andrew Robinson
Arjun Appadurai is recognised as a major theorist in globalisation studies. Coming from a theoretical background in Marxist cultural studies, his work operates within a theoretical framework which assumes an increasingly borderless global economy.
Appadurai is highly insightful in seeing the disjunctures or lack of fit, the out-of-joint nature of many of the relations among different global flows today. He also provides an important analysis of the causes of the growing problem of majoritarian bigotry which is affecting so much of the world, not least Britain.
Appadurai’s best-known work is the article ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’. In this work, he claims that the world has now become a single system with a range of complex subsystems. Appadurai is broadly opposed to the account of globalisation as cultural imperialism which fuels much of dependency theory and world-systems analysis.
He believes there is also a ‘scalar dynamic’ in which lower scales are frightened of being absorbed in the imagined communities of higher scales. He is concerned that ideas of homogenisation can be used by local power-holders to distract from their own dominance.
Furthermore, he thinks capitalism has undergone fundamental changes and is now ‘disorganised’ and post-Fordist.
Marxist approaches tend to focus on articulations, connections and similarities. Appadurai’s alternative theory focuses instead on disjunctions, or points at which different logics or processes go in different directions and cause ruptures, tensions or conflicts.
In Appadurai’s theory, there are five main ‘scapes’ of global culture: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes. Each of these ‘scapes’ is constructed by particular perspectives, created by social actors as imagined worlds similar to Benedict Anderson‘s idea of the nation as imagined community.
Appadurai believes that we now live in such globally imagined worlds and not simply in locally imagined communities. We also live in a world in which deterritorialisation, the breaking-down of existing territorial connections, is a major force.
Ethnoscapes arise from multi-directional movements between local settings, including those of refugees and other migrants. Such groups are rarely able to form fixed imaginary identities because of constant movement. Technoscapes arise from rapid technological diffusion and flow across national boundaries. Appadurai believes these flows are increasingly complex and multi-directional, in contrast to older models of technological dependency. Finanscapes arise from rapid financial flows and the emerging global political economy.
Mediascapes are results of the diffusion of the ability to produce media images and the global spread of media images themselves. Mediascapes are deemed to provide ‘large and complex repertoires’ of images and narratives to local groups around the world, which are used in creating local narratives, and providing metaphors through which people live.
Fictional and factual representations often blur into each other in providing such repertoires. Ideoscapes are similar combinations of images used by states and opposition movements. They are often constructed from variants of Enlightenment ideas such as rights and democracy, used as ‘keywords’ in local ideologies.
Appadurai believes that global diffusion and new technologies have loosened the coherence of the Northern ideology in which these concepts were originally held together, turning them into elements for new combinations. Different ‘contextual conventions’ deploy each concept differently in each setting, giving it a different local meaning.
Local receptions of meaning will vary with the rough translations given to various concepts, the resonances with elements of local cultures and the different balance of hearing, seeing and reading in each context.
The relations among the ‘scapes’ create the contemporary cultural field. The different ‘scapes’ are in disjuncture. Each follows different trajectories which are ‘non-isomorphic’ – they are not similar in form. As a result, they destabilise one another.
For example, a dominant ideoscape in a particular nation-state can be challenged by very different deployments of similar concepts in the mediascape, and by population movements in the ethnoscape. Global ethnoscapes such as the ideas of Hindu and Sikh diasporas can reinforce or undermine ideoscapes in India. An imagined homeland providing a mediascape for a diaspora can create new local ideoscapes at their sites. Finanscapes create ethnoscapes through investors’ movements, and new local combinations through grey markets.
Pro-democracy movements involve clashes between ideoscapes. In small countries, there is often also a clash between local ideoscapes and global mediascapes. Finanscapes, which subordinate local states to global financial power, undermine local ideoscapes and states.
Mediascapes of consumerism sometimes overwhelm national political ideoscapes. New wars link mediascapes such as violent movies to aspirations for imaginary community. Ethnoscapes slip through borders and between states. An anomaly of the current period is that senses of primordial belonging to particular places have been globalised. They are now spread through diasporic groups.
Appadurai believes that it is the disjunctures between the ‘scapes’ which provide the conditions for global flows. Money, commodities and people chase each other all over the world seeking new combinations.
The composition in each site is different depending on the openness or closure and the specific construction of each of the ‘scapes’.
Also, the primacy of production in Marxist theory no longer holds.
Production has been supplemented by a fetishism of the consumer. Indeed, production has itself become a kind of fetish, concealing subordination to global flows behind local control of production.
Consumption similarly creates illusions of agency and control which conceal global power. The consumer is at most a chooser, but appears to be an actor or creator through illusions spread by advertising.
Nations and states are closely related, but contested between groups with ideas of nationhood who seek to capture states, and states who seek to capture ideas of nationhood. Appadurai believes the relation between nation and state is now disjunctive, and nations and states are in constant conflict.
Because of ‘disorganised capitalism’ and the disjunctures between labour, finance and technology, national volatilities and state vulnerabilities come into conflict.
States have to let in hostile ideas to become open to global flows. States are thus ‘under siege’. Too much entry of global forces and they are threatened by revolt; too little and they exit the global field.
States seek to manage their position by ‘repatriating’ and ‘exporting’ those global flows which they can capture and localise. There is thus a constant struggle by sameness and difference to draw on one another – ‘mutual cannibalisation’.
This field of disjunctive ‘scapes’ has both positive and negative effects. Torture, ethnocide, refugee flows and ethnic pogroms are among the negative effects. Positive effects include expanded horizons of aspirations, the spread of useful technologies such as healthcare, pressures on states from global public opinion, and transnational social movement alliances.
Although some issues around ethnocide and the like are already present in it, ‘Disjuncture and Difference’ is generally viewed as a rather positive take on globalisation.
Appadurai gives more of a sense of the dark side of globalisation in his book, ‘Fear of Small Numbers’. In this book, he argues that globalisation has led to a proliferation of local hatreds and genocidal impulses. He rejects the standard argument that ethnic and religious identities emerge in reaction to globalisation, to defend local sites. Rather, he argues that the same processes producing global power also produce these kinds of effects.
Appadurai believes there is a virtually worldwide impulse towards genocide and violence against minorities, with fear serving as the basis for campaigns of group violence. He refers to a wide range of different movements, from Islamophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice in Europe and America, through political Islam and Hindu communalism, to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, to the ideology of Laurent Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire, known as ‘autochthony’.
This phenomenon arises from an underlying international struggle between ‘vertebrate’ (hierarchical, arborescent) and ‘cellular’ (networked, rhizomatic) social forms. States (and national in-groups) are viewed as the main bearers of a vertebrate form. States don’t necessarily have a centralised hierarchy in practice, but they always rely on fixed, regulative norms and signals, which function like a trunk.
The state seeks to maintain this trunk in a context where it is increasingly interconnected with cellular forms of global economics. States encourage violence against minorities, and identify with the US ‘war on terror’, because it is politically useful to be able to label minorities as terrorists.
The fear of cellular opposition groups, such as terrorists, provides an excuse for state intrusion into civil society. The state pursues a kind of war in everyday life against cellular power-structures. Appadurai thus creates a sense of a global social war between state forces and networked social forces.
The work sets out to explain why small minorities are often targeted for violence and hatred. He argues that it is, on the surface, mysterious that small, weak groups can be the target of anger when they are relatively harmless. The reason he gives is that permanent minorities are a constant problem for narratives of majority rule. According to Appadurai, the dangerous idea of a ‘national ethnos’ is fundamental to the modern state. This idea – that there is a common community akin to an ethnic group which is the basis for the nation-state – is always dangerous. But it becomes especially so in times of uncertainty, such as today.
This idea is dangerous because it leaves a gap between two categories which are meant to be equivalent – the nation as an identity-group and the nation as a numerical aggregate. Minorities exist in a grey area between citizenship and abstract humanity, part of the numerical aggregate of the nation but not the identity-group. They exist between the image of a pure national whole and the reality of the condition of majorities as one group among others.
Hence, they come to symbolise the gap between majority and purity, or between majority and totality. For Appadurai, all majoritarianisms (i.e. identifications with categories of a majority) contain within themselves the seeds of genocide, because majorities can be mobilised against the fear of becoming or being treated as a minority.
The fear of small numbers usually occurs around ethnic or religious identity-categories. Appadurai rejects the view that such ethnic identities are pre-modern, and the Hobbesian and Realist view of low-level intergroup conflict in all societies. According to Appadurai, majorities and minorities are inventions, resulting from modern procedures such as census-taking and population mapping.
Indeed, his account of ethnic and religious conflict is notable for doing entirely without explanations in terms of ‘ancient hatreds’. Such conflicts are, for Appadurai, a fundamentally modern or postmodern phenomenon.
Violence against minorities is not simply a consequence of competing interests or different beliefs. Rather, it is a means whereby a majority can use an antagonistic construction of identity to ward off its own uncertainties, through violence against demonised others. Hence for Appadurai, majorities need minorities in order to exist. They need minorities as their shadow, as the target of the violence they unleash.
Minorities are targeted through a process known as the ‘narcissism of minor differences’, an overemphasis on small differences so as to define the self more rigidly. Minorities become discursive flashpoints for the anxieties and uncertainties arising from globalisation, particularly the tensions between global flows and local everyday situations.
These tensions have made the gap between majority and totality more anxiety-inducing for people with majoritarian identities. In such situations, majority identities become ‘predatory’. In Appadurai’s terminology, this means they seek the extermination of other social categories close to their own.
This process happens through a cross-reading of small everyday grudges and wounds with a larger narrative of inter-group conflict. Taking the example of Hindu communalism or Hindutva in India, which is extremely hostile to Indian Muslims, Appadurai argues that majoritarian discourses play on global flows (such as labour migration by Indian Muslims to the Gulf) and external threats (such as Pakistan) to give an extraneous significance to intergroup conflicts.
Minorities are distrusted, assumed to be covering their everyday reality with a mask. This discourse enables them to initiate violent attacks, such as the social cleansing of slums and street-traders, while concealing class and caste divisions within the Hindu constituency.
Minorities serve a function as scapegoats against whom anxieties can be acted-out. States and in-groups displace their own fears of marginality and decline onto minorities, who are portrayed as the source of the gap between the idealised self-image and the reality of uncertainty. Fear of minorities is used as a way to channel the desire to exorcise newness and uncertainty in response to global flows.
Social uncertainty combines with ideological certainty to create pressures towards ethnocide. Appadurai also believes there is a growing tendency towards ‘ideocide’. Entire peoples, countries, ideologies or ways of life are declared to be outside humanity. As a result, they are subjected to ‘social death’ – either direct destruction, or complete silencing and derecognition. The war against Afghanistan is taken to be an extreme example of this phenomenon, seeking to destroy a cellular network by destroying an entire landmass.
This produces a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence. Violence against minorities leads to violence by minorities. Minorities ‘morph’ into threatening forces by identifying with the labels attached to them. On a global scale, resentment against America is growing because of American control over such things as professional advancement.
Appadurai argues that cellular forces have certain kinds of social power, through cellular organisations. For instance, political Islam is terrifying to states because it portrays Muslim minorities as part of a terrifying global power. According to Appadurai, such movements threaten the nation-state as a global model of political power. They are, however, limited as opposition movements in that they reproduce the fear of small numbers in their attitude to outsiders. Appadurai believes the world is undergoing a proliferation of cellular alternatives which surround and throw into question statist and nationalist moralities. He uses the example of the social movement Shack/Slumdwellers International which he says has created a shadow urban government across many cities in India, creating a ‘third space’ outside the logics of the state and terrorism.
It is interesting that, like other scholars of globalisation and hybridity such as Stuart Hall, Appadurai has evolved from a view of globalisation as a force for affirmative hybridity to a more nuanced position in which violent reactions against hybridity are also recognised.
This seems to have been a common pattern, triggered in part by the loss of faith in globalisation over time. This said, Appadurai was always aware of issues such as communalism. It is his emphasis, rather than his views, which have changed.
One problem with his account is the absence of a clear model of systemic power. Even though problems such as US hegemony are recognised, Appadurai’s theory is uncomfortably unaware of overall imperial dynamics and ongoing hierarchical organisations of global power.
Appadurai broadly treats globalisation as a set of changes and forces, ignoring its origins in particular political projects and asymmetrical power-relations. Capitalism is strangely invisible in this account, with people and money chasing each other all over the world as if they really are autonomous forces, rather than one being an incarnation of the alienated labour of the other.
Appadurai is also rather prone to use complexity as an excuse for ignoring or denying structural forces. The implication is that it’s all too complicated, high-speed and multi-directional for anything to be made sense of beyond the level of simply recognising its complexity. Yet today’s complex global systems are also systems with clearly observable power-asymmetries, which are structurally reproduced in spite of local variation.
It is true, for instance, that technological flows are now multi-directional, but it is also true that powers over intellectual property and technological research are concentrated in the established core countries.
It is true that different regimes spin ‘democracy’ in different ways, but the global media is selective in terms of which of these spins continue to count as ‘real’ democracy in spite of the various anti-democratic add-ons.
It is true that dense connections and flows occur through a web of global cities, including some in the South, but it is also true that command-and-control functions over the global economy remain concentrated in the core.
And it is true that consumption of homogenised products is given a local touch in each country or region, but it is equally true that such local supplementation is permitted only conditional on the flows of profit continuing to head towards the core.
Also strangely absent here is the sense of exclusions, of the parts of the world ‘forcibly delinked’ from capitalism’s global flows, and the local populations held in place by restrictions on their ability to move. It is mentioned briefly in relation to extreme cases such as North Korea, but seems to be denied in the case of marginal groups such as slum-dwellers.
This is a revealing gap, since the composition of cellular movements, both majoritarian and minoritarian, draws heavily on such groups. It is hard to understand such phenomena without considering the role of patron-client networks in consolidating political power.
This also raises the question of whether all ‘fears of small numbers’ are alike. On a purely ideological level, the dynamics of Hindu communalism, political Islam, Ivorian autochthony and European xenophobia are rather similar. On a structural level, however, there is a large difference between citizens of former imperial powers resenting postcolonial diasporas deemed to threaten their dominance, and members of historically excluded groups who fantasise about the restoration of an imagined Golden Age.
While in the former case, completely different sources of exclusion (such as class) are misconstrued as problems of losses to minorities, in the latter case, a real history of colonial trauma and real structural relations of oppression are being channelled into reactive identities.
Even in his recent work, therefore, Appadurai’s world is too ‘flat’, missing the dynamics of world-systemic power.
The vertebrate-cellular distinction repeats Deleuze’s arborescent-rhizomatic distinction, and Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s networks and hierarchies, in a slightly different accent. One alteration Appadurai has made is to recognise that state power does not always require a strong ‘trunk’ of an institutional kind. It nevertheless requires a weak ‘trunk’ in terms of recognisable rules and signals.
This helps to reconcile the network-hierarchy model with the work of scholars such as Joel Migdal. But isn’t it also true of capitalism? The recognisability of acts of exchange as forms of imagined equivalence is central to capitalist processes, however cellular.
The contrast between states and global capitalist forces is not, therefore, cellular versus vertebrate, but two different kinds of scales of vertebrate system. Appadurai’s theorisation of the differences between what he seems to see as good and bad kinds of cellular networks is also underdeveloped in ‘Fear of Small Numbers’. There is a need to think about how varieties of cellular power differ from one another: about the difference between cellular power deployed to reproduce or destroy hierarchies for example, and the differences between capitalistic cellular power which rests on last-instance equivalence and anti-capitalist cellular power with no such last-instance referent.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.
Leave a Reply
- Analysis | Billionaire Republicans and Professional Islamophobes: The Pro-Israel lobby in Brussels
- Analysis | Their Violence, Our Values: A History of European Responses to Political Dissent
- Comment | Education as Resistance: Western Sahara’s Rising Generation
- Comment | Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK
- Comment | David Cameron’s Jamaican Prison: A Show of Ignorance, Cruelty and Historical Amnesia
More In Politics
- Comment | The Government’s Extremism Bill will do little to prevent extremism and much to undermine democracy and civil liberties
- Comment | This victory shows we can, and must, shut down the DSEI arms fair for good
- Politics | “She did not die; she multiplied”: Honouring Berta Cáceres
- Comment | The Brussels Attacks: Our pain and rage are immense, but we need reason and understanding more than ever
- Comment | The Government’s Attack on Ethical Boycotts Is an Attack on Democracy
More In Features
- Special Report | From Women Refugees to International Students: The State’s War on Migrants
- Special Report | Bazaar Politics: Uncovering Social Cleansing In the Heart of London
- Politics | Interview | Director Kirby Dick: “Sexual assault on college campuses is an epidemic”
- Special Report | The Lawyer, the Mohammed Cartoon Exhibition and the ‘Civil War’ that Wasn’t
- Interview | Bridget Anderson on Europe’s ‘violent humanitarianism’ in the Mediterranean
More In Profiles
More In Arts & Culture
- Film | Review | The Journey from Syria: “I wish we could have this life in our country”
- Film | Review | Batman v Superman: Dawn of Nihilism and Mansplaining
- Books | Review | ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’
- Film | Review | The Big Short: Laughter in the Dark
- Books | Review | Settled Wanderers: The Poetry of a Landless People