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Title: The End of What?
Author: David Morley, Kevin Robins
Spaces of Identity. Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. Routledge: London, 1996
The End of What?
David Morley, Kevin Robins
The End of What? Postmodernism, history and the West
The travellers could describe the phonograph as a new and improved portable
god, and call upon the native kings to obey it. A god capable of speaking,
and even of carrying on a conversation, in the presence of swarms of listeners
could be something entirely new in Central Africa, where the local gods are
constructed of billets of wood, and are hopelessly dumb. There is not a Central
African who would dare refuse to obey the phonograph god.
(New York Times, 19 January 1885)
No one speaks English, and everything's broken . . . .
(Tom Waits, 'Tom Trambert's Blues')
In response to contemporary arguments that 'we' have now entered some notionally 'postmodern' era, Cornel West argues for the need to 'pluralise and contextualise the postmodernism debate' (1991: 3), and specifically to 'note the degree to which postmodernism is an American phenomenon' (ibid.: 5). However, when he says 'American', there is a certain slippage between the terms 'European', 'American' and 'Western'. West goes on to argue that 'postmodernism . . . is a set of responses . . . to the decentring of Europe – of living in a world that no longer rests upon (that) European hegemony which began in 1492' (ibid.: 6). Of course, if Europe discovered America in 1492, five hundred years later, leading world-power status had unquestionably passed from Europe to America itself, in the wake of the exhaustion of the European powers in the twentieth century's two major wars. None the less it can also be argued that the 'American Century', envisaged by Henry Luce at the end of the Second World War, in fact only lasted until 1973. In the wake of the oil crisis of that year, the dollar was symbolically disenthroned in the world currency market and, it can be argued, the postmodern era proper began – a period characterised, not least, by waning American confidence and increasing competition for world dominance from the burgeoning Pacific powers.
The question is, what did end in that moment in 1973? One possible answer would be that it was the end of the untroubled hegemony of the classic tradition of 'Western civilisation', initiated in Europe, but then transposed across the Atlantic. As West notes, that tradition was always perceived (under the continuing influence of Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot) as one in which 'the best of Europe was modelled on Periclean Athens, Elizabethan England and ... early imperial Rome' (West, 1991: 8). The problem has always been the threat posed to this 'civilisation' by the 'barbarians' surrounding it on all sides.
Towards the end of his account of Los Angeles as the Capital of the Third World, Philip Rieff recounts what was, for him, a troubling conversation with Nathan Gardels, editor of the LA-based political journal New Perspectives Quarterly, during which Gardels argued that LA's (and by implication the whole of the western USA's) 'European period' is ending:
'I don't really know. . . maybe it was after the defeat in Vietnam, or earlier, after the 1965 immigration reform. It's hard to say, but what I do know is that every time I go to Europe nowadays, there is a moment when I think to myself very little of what I'm seeing here has all that much to do with the future of Southern California. . . .' (Rieff, 1993: 258)
Writing in 1956, Christopher Dawson noted that, when Lord Acton had been planning the Cambridge Modern History, he had conceived it as a universal history – a study of universal historical forces, and yet simply took it for granted that this history would be a European one, and that 'it was only, or primarily, in Europe and its colonies that the movement of world history was to be found' (Dawson, 1956: 606, cf. also Mackinder, 1904). The presumption implicit in Lord Acton's conception of history has, of course, contemporary parallels. The television series shown in Japan under the title of Some Aspects of Western Civilisation, made and presented by the British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, had originally been shown in Europe (and in America) under the simpler, but rather more presumptuous, title of Civilisation.
As Eric Wolf notes, the term 'history' is often used as a synonym for a particular, retrospectively constructed, genealogy of the West,
"according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry, crossed with democracy, in turn yielded the United States, embodying the right to life, and the pursuit of happiness."
(Wolf, 1982: 5)
As Wolf argues, the basic problem with this kind of post-hoc teleological narrative, is that it turns history into a moral success story, in which the winners prove that they are virtuous and good by winning, and ancient Greece, for example, rather than representing a significant historical reality in its own right, becomes a 'prehistoric Miss Liberty, holding aloft the torch of moral purpose in the barbarian night' (ibid.).
At stake here is the overweening self-confidence of a notion of 'Europe' ('with and without the "North America" whose addition turns it from "Europe" into "Western civilisation"'(Pocock, 1991: 10)) which is seen as being 'formed by . . . the community of nations which are largely characterised by the inherited civilisation whose most important sources are the Judaeo-Christian religion, Hellenistic ideas of government, philosophy, ads and science and Roman views concerning law' (Pieterse, 1991: 3). Put the other way round, what this means, of course, is that a contemporary entity, such as the European Community, can be seen to have rather old historical roots – as a 'neo-Carolingian construct: a regrouping of Neustria, Franconia, Burgundy and Lombardy, in the areas defined by the treaty of Verdun in the ninth century . . . a regrouping of the lands of west Latin culture, as modified by the Enlightenment' (Pocock, 1991: 7).
The problem, though, is that while it is illuminating to trace the internal historical roots of the development of contemporary Europe in this way, this is still too self-regarding a story, from which certain crucial threads are absent. Thus Pieterse notes that, while official EC rhetoric speaks of an era of the transcendence of all narrow nationalisms, still this culture,
"reproduced in textbooks, declarations and media programmes, continues to be the culture of imperial Europe . . . its self image, its dominant culture, is still that of an Old World. . . . Certain key experiences are missing from this European culture: the experience of decolonisation, of migrations, post-imperial ('we are here because you were there') and otherwise, and of globalisation." (1991: 4)
The End of History?
In the context of these arguments, Francis Fukuyama's 'The End of History'
(originally published as an essay in The National Interest in 1989,
reissued in extended form as The End of History and The Last Man, 1992)
is worthy of comment, in three different respects. The first concerns the
question of cognitive relativism and the issue of the 'decidability' of anything
in history; the second concerns the question of the type of history which
Fukuyama attempts to offer; while the third concerns the adequacy (or otherwise)
of the particular historical arguments which Fukuyama offers to account for
the developments with which he is concerned. He defends the currently unfashionable
Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist claims that history is a coherent
or intelligible process, and that human life is philosophically intelligible
(cf. Fukuyama, 1992: xiii).
This approach flies in the face of the current intellectual tendencies towards incredulity in relation to all meta-narratives (which Lyotard (1987) takes as a defining feature of our 'postmodern condition'), and also in the face of the widespread cognitive relativism, which Gellner (1992: 29) characterises as a 'kind of hysteria of subjectivity', in which it is increasingly held that 'everything in the world is fragmented and multiform, nothing really resembles anything else, and no one can know another' (ibid.: 45) and which Geertz (1988) decries as a form of epistemological (and moral) hypochondria. Thus far, we would want to support Fukuyama's intervention, and would agree with Fish (1989) that, for example, the recognition of the textual status of history, in the work of the 'New Historicists' (cf. Veeser, 1989), while in itself opening up interesting lines of enquiry, offers no intellectual barrier to the making of historical assertions. These two activities (the development of general theories of knowledge and the practice of history) are logically independent (cf. Fish, 1989: 305-8), and see Norris (1991) for a similar analysis of Derrida, in which the recognition that philosophy has a rhetorical dimension is distinguished from the presumption that philosophy is therefore nothing but a form of rhetoric.
In the face of postmodern presumptions, concerning the supposed 'incoherence' of the contemporary world, Comaroff and Comaroff invoke the anthropological tradition of writers such as Edmund Leach, who, they argue,
"would have scorned any postmodern suggestion that, because the world was experienced as ambiguous and incoherent, it must therefore lack all systematicity; that because social life seems episodic and inconsistent, it can have no regularity; that, because we do not see its invisible forms, society is formless; that nothing lies behind its broken, multi-facetted surfaces. The very idea would have struck (Leach) as a lamentable failure of the analytic imagination. . . We require good grounds for claiming the non-existence of a system or a structure – the fact that we are unable to discern one at first glance is hardly proof that it is not there. . . . Absence and disconnection, incoherence and disorder, have actually to be demonstrated. They can neither be presumed, nor posited by negative induction. "(1992: 23-4)
The politics of this 'new sceptism', about the very possibilities of any form of coherent knowledge of the world, have provided the occasion for acid comment by some of those who have always felt disqualified from the position of subject, rather than object, of knowledge. Thus Mascia-Lees et al. (1989: 15; quoted in Massey, 1991b: 33) observe that 'when Western white males – who traditionally have controlled the production of knowledge – can no longer define the truth . . . their response is to conclude that there is not a truth to be discovered'. The issue, as formulated by Nancy Hartsock (1989) is that
"it seems highly suspicious that it is at this moment in history, when so many groups are engaged in 'nationalisms', which involve redefinitions of the marginalised Others, that doubt arises in the academy about the possibility of a general theory which can describe the world, about historical 'progress'. Why is it, exactly at the moment when so many of us, who have been silenced, begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then, the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic . . . (that) just when we are forming our own theories about the world, uncertainty emerges about whether the world can be adequately theorised." (Hartsock, quoted in Massey, 1991b: 33)
In a similar vein, Linda Nicholson (1990: 6) raises the possibility that postmodenism may be 'a theory whose time has come for men, but not for women', and goes on to note that Di Stefano (1990) raises the possibility that
"since men have had their Enlightenment, they can afford a sense of decentred self and a humbleness regarding the coherence and truth of their claims. On the other hand, for women to take on such a position is to weaken what is not yet strong." (Nicholson, 1990: 6)
The Fiction of the General Amelioration of the World
For Enlightenment thinkers, such as Condorcet or Turgot, history was understood
as a linear progression of humanity towards a condition of perfection, ultimately
embracing he whole of mankind, based on he principles of reason. As Whitton
remarks, such a rationalist conception of history allowed Enlightenment commentators
to 'demean or deride those cultures, past or present, which lacked consciousness
of the principles of Enlightened Reason. Such cultures tended to be seen as
lesser stages in the development towards this enlightened perfect end' (1988:
15), and it was their good fortune that they would be able to acquire the
rational principles of the Enlightenment, direct from those societies who
had acquired such 'simple truths and infallible methods . . . only . . . after
long error' (Condorcet, quoted in ibid.: 150).
It was against the arrogant presumptions of such perspectives that the late-eighteenth-century social philosopher Gottfried van Herder developed his critique of the manner in which abstract Enlightenment philosophy might legitimise the stifling of different cultural communities all over the world, in favour of an externally imposed, European ideal. Thus Herder ironically notes that this idealised conception of Enlightenment society, with its
"general, philosophical philanthropic tone . . . wishes to extend our own idea of virtue and happiness to each distant nation, to even the remotest age of history. . . . (It) has taken greater sophistication for virtue, Enlightenment for happiness, and in this way, invented the fiction of the general amelioration of the world." (Herder, quoted in ibid.: 154)
The question for us is whether Fukuyama's own argument ends up inventing a fiction of a similar kind. In fact, his argument has been widely misunderstood, and some part of the criticism which it has received has been quite misinformed. As he notes in the introduction to the extended version of his argument, 'what I suggested had come to an end was not the occurrence of events, evolutionary processes' (Fukuyama, 1992: xiii). In this, he takes his cue from Kant's 1784 essay 'An idea for a universal history', in which Kant argued that history did have a final purpose, the realisation of human freedom, implied in human potentiality, the achievement of which was the goal towards which progress ran, which was what nude We whole of history intelligible. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel (1956) converts Kant's argument into the more concrete proposition that the creation of the Liberal State constitutes (literally) the practical achievement of human freedom. Fukuyama's contribution, is, in one sense, simply to shift the date at which the Liberal State is declared universally victorious – from 1806 and the Napoleonic conquest of Prussia (Hegel's chosen date) to 1989 – with the collapse of Communism, and the 'Victorious' emergence of the USA from the Cold War.
Fukuyama recognises that, as an evolutionary scheme, this kind of history, much like that of classical marxism, has its roots in Christian ideas of history – as the gradual working out of God's will on earth, leading to the Day of Judgement, which would usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth – as the final end of man, which would, retrospectively, make all previous events intelligible. However, Fukuyama does not seem to grasp the extent to which, in so far as his own evolutionary scheme replicates the model of 'the Judaeo-Christian tradition (in which) Time has been conceived of as the medium of a sacred history' (Fabian, 1983: 2), his argument is a fundamentally regressive one, in which faith in salvation is simply replaced by 'faith in progress and industry', as the meaning and motor of history. As Fabian notes, this kind of evolutionary history has a close counterpart in the Christian-medieval conception of 'sacred time' – time as the medium of salvation, the vehicle of a continuous, meaningful story. This was the very conception of time against which Enlightenment thought was initially pitched, in the attempt to break with this conception of time, in terms of a history of (potential) salvation, and to introduce a secularised conception of time – as natural history, a conceptual space of geological and palaeontological record, of potentially 'uneventful' data, rather than the medium in which some pre-ordained, evolutionary purpose was gradually 'achieved' (ibid.: 17).
Ultimately, Fukuyama's analysis represents an attempt to revamp the 'modernisation' theories of post-Second World War American sociology (see Rostow, 1960; Lerner, 1964), in which it is presumed that industrial development necessarily follows a universal pattern – that set by the leading capitalist economies of the West – a process which would 'guarantee' an 'increasing homogenisation of all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances' (Fukuyama, 1992: xiv). In this model, it is 'the logic of modern natural science' (the presumed motor of economic development) which replaces the will of God (or the human spirit, or the class struggle) as the motor force of evolution, and which, according to Fukuyama, 'would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of Capitalism' (ibid.: xv). This is held to be the case in so far as only the social arrangements of liberal capitalism are deemed capable of providing an adequate framework for the full realisation of the potential for growth provided by science and technology – at least in Fukuyama's view. Thus, he claims,
"all countries undergoing economic modernisation must increasingly resemble one another: they must unify nationally, on the basis of a centralised state, urbanise, replace traditional forms of social organisation (like tribe, sect and family) with economically rational ones, based on function and efficiency, and provide for a universal education of their citizens." (ibid.: xv)
At the risk of flippancy, it could be suggested that Fukuyama's grasp of the relations of cause and effect, in this analysis, is of the same order as that of any other cargo-cult devotee, who builds an airstrip, and then waits for good things to arrive from the sky. As Wolf notes in his critique of modernisation theories, the fundamental problem of this model is that societies are seen as endowed 'with the qualities of internally homogeneous, externally distinctive, bounded objects' (1982: 6), but are not understood in their relations to one another. In this model, there is the 'modern' West, the East only recently delivered from Communism ('a disease of modernisation' – Rostow, quoted in ibid.: 7), and the Third World of 'underdeveloped' societies, whose modernisation can only be achieved if ways can be found to help them break free of the stranglehold of 'tradition' (see Lerner, 1964).
The missing term, in Fukuyama's analysis, is the concept of imperialism. We shall never understand the relative positions of say, Britain and India, if we imagine that it is simply a matter of Britain having been 'more successful' in the world economy, and displaying traits which India must emulate, if it wants to 'catch up'. The theory of imperialism would suggest that, rather than the 'facts' of Britain's 'development' and India's 'underdevelopment' being incidental to each other, the former is, in large part, a consequence of the latter, and vice versa. That is the point of Rodney's (1972) work on How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and of Prebisch's (1950) and Gunder Frank's (1969) work on 'the development of underdevelopment' in Latin America. As Wallerstein (forthcoming: 5) puts it, 'underdevelopment is not undevelopment, a primordial, or pre-capitalist, or pre-modern state of being, but rather the consequence of the historic process of world-wide development through the linked formation of core and periphery'. In this dynamic, the colonies of the periphery, supplying raw materials to the 'core' industrial nations, are, on the whole, locked into a vicious cycle of low productivity, and a long-term decline in their terms of trade, which continually works to reinforce the advantage of the already 'developed' nations.
Contrary to Fukuyama's 'evolutionist' scheme, Braudel (1988) argues that we are far too inclined to think of 'modes of production' as following each other, like some cortège or procession, in successive historical periods. Rather, he argues, 'the different modes of production are all attached to each other. The most advanced are dependent on the most backward, and vice-versa: development is the reverse side of underdevelopment' (ibid.: 70).
Maurice Godelier concludes the argument of his 'Is the West the model for humankind?' with a biting rejoinder to Fukuyama's celebration of the 'end of history', as represented by the final embodiment of Western reason, the US government and its 'victory' in the Cold War. As Godelier puts it, in this situation, what should our response be? What should we do?
Must we join in the applause or tip-toe off the stage? Leaving aside the people of the Third World, why should silence be required of those in the West who continue to believe that Christianity is not the only true religion, and that there is indeed no true religion; those who see that political democracy does exist, and welcome it, but know there is much to be done to extend social democracy, and that nearly everything remains to be done to ensure that the economy and the wealth produced by capitalism, or appropriated by it, are shared out more fairly, in the West and elsewhere? Why should we refuse to see these bad aspects, which are there and do affect our lives? What reason could there be for putting up with them? Could it really be because the end of history has arrived and we are at last living in the best of all possible worlds? (1991: 339)
From the End of History to the End of Ethnocentrism
Fukuyama proclaims the 'end of history'; various authors have spoken of a
crisis (or even an end) of representation; Lyotard, some time ago, pronounced
our entry into the 'postmodern condition'. In all of this, the question has
to be raised as to the degree to which this is, in fact, a deeply ethnocentric
perception of whatever changes are at stake. It is by no means clear that
'postmodernism' is a global (as opposed to a specifically Western, or even
American) 'condition'. Stuart Hall suggests that postmodernism is, on the
one hand, 'about how the world dreams itself to be "American"'(1986:
46) and, on the other, simply 'another version of that historical amnesia,
characteristic of American culture – the tyranny of the new' (ibid.:
47). As he goes on to argue, many of the grander claims made in respect of
any 'global postmodernism' can readily be seen to be ideological:
"what it says is, this is the end of the world. History stops with us. But whenever it is said that this is the last thing that will ever happen in History, that is the sign of the functioning, in the narrow sense, of the ideological – what Marx called the 'ideological' effect." (ibid.)
As Hall notes, the fundamental issue concerns the fact that 'since most of the world has not yet properly entered the modern era, who is it exactly who "has no future left"? And how long will this "no future" last into the future?' (ibid.) or again, in relation to Baudrillard's claims, concerning the 'implosion of the real', what significance does all this have when, as Hall pus it, 'three quarters of the human race have not yet entered the era of what we are pleased to call the "real"' (ibid.: 46)?
In a similar vein, Paul Gilroy (1989) has insisted that ideas of 'postmodernism', despite their grandiose claims, can usefully be seen as having their origins in, and being symptoms of, a more localised, rather narrower, crisis – the crisis of the downwardly mobile white intellectuals of Western Europe, working in the decaying public sector of those economies, during the period of the long slump that began with the oil crisis of 1973. Craig Owens (1985: 57) speaks of a crisis 'specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions'. Cornel West openly mocks Lyotard's tendency to uncritically generalise from local perceptions:
"when you actually look at (Lyotard's idea of) 'increasing incredulity towards master narratives' and see the religious and ideological and national revivals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union . . . you say . . . 'Who is he talking about, in terms of increasing incredulity towards master narratives? He and his friends hanging out on the left bank? Whom does he have in mind?' " (1991: 5)
As Julien and Mercer (1989) suggest, it is the ethnocentrism of much of the debate around postmodernism and the 'end of history' which is most worthy of comment. In all of this, of course, Fukuyama, Lyotard, and others, are simply heirs to the long tradition which, as Robert Young (1990: 2-3) remarks, begins with Hegel and is continued by Marx – the development of a universalising narrative of the unfolding of a 'rational system' of World History, which amounts to nothing more or less than a negative form of the history of European imperialism – a form of knowledge which, continually expropriates and incorporates its 'Others', in a conceptual mimicry of the geographical and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West.
As Foucault (1980) suggests, in this connection, it could well be that claims as to the universal validity of Western culture and rationality are no more than a mirage associated with economic domination and political hegemony. Certainly, as Said (1978) has argued, Western forms of Orientalism and historicism have often produced a kind of essentialist universalism, what Levinas (1983) calls a form of 'ontological imperialism', in which human history is seen from the viewpoint of (andlor as culminating in) Europe and the West – providing narcissistic forms of self-centred knowledge – philosophy as 'egology', as Levinas puts it (quoted in R. Young, 1990: 17).
It is this equation of 'knowledge', as such, with its Occidental forms; this 'Europeanisation' (or perhaps now 'Westernisation') of world culture, which is the object of much of Derrida's critique. As Derrida notes, we still live in a situation in which 'the white man takes his own IndoEuropean mythology, his own logos . . . the myths of his own idiom, for the universal form of that which he must still wish to call reason' (1971: 213). As Robert Young (1990) points out, the logocentrism which is the object of Derrida's critique is described by Derrida as 'nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism in the process of imposing itself on the world' (Derrida, 1974: 3) and, to that extent, as Young notes, Derrida's own deconstructionist project can be understood as deconstructing 'of the concept, the authority and the assumed primacy of the category of "the West"' (R. Young, 1990: 19) – much in the spirit of Toynbee's objection to the 'Late Modern Western convention of identifying a parvenu and provincial Western society's history with "History" writ large' (ibid.: 19). To remark on this recurrent slippage is also to insist on the explication of the centrality of the idea of 'whiteness' – as the usually unstated ethnic/mythic dimension of Enlightenment civilisation (cf. Amin, 1989: 89-91 and Malcomson, 1991, for an excellent summary analysis of the process through which 'Western' history projects the source of its supposedly unique rationality back onto a mythical Greek 'classical civilisation', whose actual African and Oriental roots are then denied. Cf. also Bernal, 1987).
Question of Periodisation and Spatialisation: Modernism and Imperialism
Quite apart from the critique of the ethnocentrism of 'Western history', there
remains, as we argued earlier, the need to historicise contemporary debates
about postmodernism. or the 'end of history'. One way of approaching this
debate is, in fact, to pose the question of how the significance of the 'postmodern'
is transformed, depending on how the 'modern' period (which it is presumed
to supersede) is dated. One possibility (which seems implicitly to underlie
Fukuyama's argument) is to equate the 'end of history' with the end of Communism,
and to focus on Communist 'modernism' as a 'blind alley' into which part of
the 'West' blundered in 1917: in that case, postmodernism represents the victory
of Liberalism over Communism. Another strategy is to read the modern period
back to 1789 and the French Revolution – in which case postmodernism
is effectively the end of Enlightenment thought (this seems to be the Lyotard/Baudrillard
position), and of its ideas of Reason and Progress in human affairs. However,
in either case, these are stories in which the West's development is seen
as sui generis (characterised by the march of Reason, from the Greeks, through
the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Liberal State).
Here, the story of the West is told as a dynamic of forces internal to itself
– even if it is sometimes recognised that the 'West' is a historical
rather than a geographical construct, including some societies (e.g. Japan)
manifestly in the East, and excluding others (e.g. Mexico or Chile) which
are about as far West as you can get.
Against all this, it can be argued (cf. Hall, 1992) that the rise of the West needs, in fact, to be understood as part of a global story, in which Western development has always to be posed in the context of the West's relation with the Others who were, variously, discovered, explored and colonised by the West. In that case, we can perhaps more usefully date the beginning of the 'modern' period from the time of the first Portuguese voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century, or perhaps, for convenience, from the 'discovery' of the 'New World' in 1492.
If Marshall McLuhan (1964) imagined that the 'global village' was a new thing, in the 1960s, it is worth remembering that, as the work of Braudel (1988) and Wallenstein (1974) amply demonstrates, there has been some form of effective 'world system' or global economy, with an initial base in north-western Europe, at least since the fifteenth century, if not before. Even that periodisation is itself questionably ethnocentric: there is considerable evidence of fairly systematic Chinese trade with India and East Africa well before that date. However, it is also necessary to note that any attempt to understand the intersections of history and geography must deal carefully with questions of periodisation. Braudel (1988: 39) calls for a 'discriminatory geography' which recognises that, social developments being unevenly distributed in geographical space, there are always 'areas into which world history does not reach, zones of silence and undisturbed ignorance' (ibid.: 18), which remain 'outside world-time' (ibid.: 42). We should not make the mistake of presuming that it is the same 'time' everywhere (what we might call the 'Do they know it's Christmas?' mistake), and certainly not in relation to any fixed scheme of evolutionary development.
Telling History: the Story of the West?
The first questions, necessarily, are 'who speaks, of whom?'; 'who is empowered
to tell what kind of stories about who else?'; and 'who speaks and who is
spoken of, but silent?' In the preface to his study of The Writing of History
Michel de Certeau (1988) offers an analysis of Jan Van der Straat's famous
allegorical etching of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci encountering 'America',
represented by a nude woman, reclining in a hammock, on the sea-shore, where
Vespucci has just landed. De Certeau's argument is, in general terms, that
all of historiography has arisen from the European encounter with the unknown
Other. As he puts it:
"the conqueror will write the body of the other and trace there his own history. From her, he will make a 'historied' body. . . . She will be 'Latin' America . . . . she is a nuova terra, not yet existing on maps – an unknown body, destined to bear the name, Amerigo, of its inventor. But what is really initiated here is a colonisation of the body by the discourse of power. This is writing that conquers. It will transform the space of the other . . . this writing fabricates Western History." (ibid.: xxv-xxvi)
As de Certeau puts it, 'the past is the fiction of the present' (ibid.: 10) and, as Wright (1985) argues, the shaping of the story of the past always plays a crucial role in the determining of the historical present. Indeed, we have argued elsewhere that control over the franchise on the representation of the past is always a powerful resource in the construction of identities, and in the mobilisation of resources in the struggle over the direction of the future. The question at issue is, of course, one of power. As de Certeau notes, 'historiography takes the position of the subject of action – of the prince, whose objective is to "make history"' (ibid.: 17). Pocock develops this theme more fully, focusing on the association between sovereignty and historiography: 'a community writes its own history when it has the autonomous political structure needed if it is to command its own present, and typically, the history it makes will be the history of that structure' (1991: 8). Pocock questions whether historiography would exist without this connection to state and power, given the intrinsic connection between having a voice in controlling one's present, and in controlling the story of one's past. As he argues, without sovereignty, no historiography; without historiography, no identity.
These questions of power over the telling of history are, of course, in essence, the same questions at the centre of contemporary debates about cultural imperialism – which likewise centre on the question of who has the right (or the power – often a different matter) to tell the story of contemporary events – in the form of the flow of world news – or the power to control the dominant fictions of our age. To the extent that this parallel holds, we argue that the analyses offered (see below) by scholars such as Greenblatt (1992) and Todorov (1984), of the historical process through which the West has represented its Others, have much to offer the narrower debates, about contemporary forms of cultural imperialism, within media studies. However, before attempting to develop that argument, we want first to turn the matter round, and address the rather less well-worked (but possibly even more instructive) question of how those 'Others' have perceived the West. even if they have not had the power (or even, sometimes, the desire) to impose their visions on the West. in the same way that the West has systematically imposed its own visions on them.
Europeans as Exotica
From the point of view of contemporary presumptions of Western superiority
in relation to other peoples, it is interesting to note that the Arab historian
Ibn Khaidun, in his Prologomena (written in Tunis in the fourteenth
century), when contrasting 'us Westerners' with 'Easterners' elsewhere, actually
refers to the contrast between the Western (Maghreb) and the Eastern parts
of the Arab world (Khaldun, 1987: 5). While he offers interesting comments
on the cultures of important groups – such as those of the Jews and the
Persians (ibid.: ch. 2) – he does not find Europeans, of any sort, worthy
of comment. This should not, in fact, be so surprising, given the self-evident
superiority of the Arab world over what we call the 'West' at the time. Ibis
is no simple matter of Arab ethnocentrism. Certainly Roberts (1990: 326) notes
that the Arabs of the time 'regarded the civilisations of the "cold lands
of the north" as a meagre, unsophisticated affair' and spoke of Europe,
dismissively, as the 'land of the Franks', on the far edge of the western
seas – where 'Franks', roughly translates as 'barbarians', and the western
seas are, self-evidently, of less interest to the Arabs than the Red Sea and
the Indian Ocean, given the access those routes offer to the East and its
treasures. Moreover, this perception was shared by others, as well as the
Arabs themselves. Roberts also notes that the superiority of Arab goods to
those of Europe was so obvious to the inhabitants of Calicut that when Vasco
da Gama showed them what he had brought from Portugal to give to their king,
they laughed at him – as he had nothing to offer which could compare
with what Arab traders already brought to India from other parts of Asia (ibid.:
Watanabe (1991) tells the story of three Portuguese men, shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1543, being simply referred to by the Japanese as 'men of barbaric race from the South West'. This term, 'Southern Barbarians', was then used indiscriminately to lump together other foreigners, from other Western nations, with people from other parts of South East Asia. In this context, the differences between being Portuguese and being Dutch, or Indian or Indonesian, were immaterial to the Japanese: the barbarousness of such people, from the Japanese perspective, consisted simply in their non-Japaneseness.
Kramer (1993) offers a parallel analysis of the perception of the first European colonists by Africans (cf. also DeLiss, 1991). Kramer argues that the first Europeans in Africa were by no means perceived by Africans to be unique, incomparable beings, as they liked to regard themselves. Kramer notes:
A way of thought to which the category of the new is unknown, recognising in its place solely the return of that which has always been, could not avoid likening the curious appearance of the European with that which was already familiar, placing it in a relationship to the self which had been established at the dawn of time.The familiar, of which the European was seen as one variation, was the opposite to the cultivated person, and European culture was purely and simply the 'other' to the native culture in question. Where the epitome of the 'other' was the wilderness, void of man, the European seemed to be a part of what we call 'nature'; and where the 'other' was epitomised by a neighbouring people, the European seemed to be a representative of some other people, a stranger or barbarian. In other words, Europeans were for Africans as Africans were for Europeans: primarily, one further sort of savage, among other savages. (Kramer, 1993: x)
Compare this analysis with Todorov and Greenblatt, discussed below, on native Americans' difficulties in recognising the invading Spaniards as a form of human life.
However, beyond these conceptual difficulties, the 'white man' largely posed more practical questions, for many native populations. As an Apache Indian put it:
The biggest of all Indian problems is the Whiteman. Who can understand the Whiteman? What makes him tick? How does he think and why does the think he way he does? Why does he talk so much? Why does he say one thing and do the opposite? Most important of all, how do you deal with him? Obviously, he is here to stay. Sometimes it seems like a hopeless task. (quoted in DeLiss, 1991: 7; see also Basso, 1979)
Western Visions: Manifest Destiny?
Hobsbawm (1992) noted that 1492 was not only the date of Columbus' discovery
of the New World – it was also the date of the Spanish 'reconquest' of
Granada. Ibis represented the final repulse of the Moors, who had long colonised
what we now know as Spain. Moreover, this year – the date of the defeat
of the Infidels – was also the date of the final expulsion of the Jews
from Spain. Indeed, it can be argued that these two latter events constituted
a kind of 'inner purification, as a prerequisite to external conquest' (Stuart
Hall Lecture, 'Mapping the futures' Conference, Tate Gallery, London, 20 November
1992). Columbus' own understanding of his journey to the New World was, of
course, as an approach to the court of Kublai Khan, in order to raise funding
for the reconquest of Jerusalem. Thus, Todorov notes that 1492 symbolises
a 'double movement' in which Spain expels its 'interior Others' (the Moors,
the Jews) and discovers the 'exterior Other – that whole America which
will become Latin' (Todorov, 1984: 50).
As Hobsbawm puts it, '1492 marks the beginning of Eurocentric world history, of a conviction that a few Western and Central European countries were destined to conquer and rule the globe, a form of Euromegalomania' (1992: 15). Ibis was, of course, not simply a matter of material power, as the basis of invasion and conquest, but also of symbolic forms of power and domination, in which the 'New Worlds' were to be subordinated and incorporated, within the representational terms of European language. In this 'colonising of the marvellous' (cf. Greenblatt 1992: 25), it was the coloniser's power to incorporate and represent the Other, in their own terms, which constituted the (unrepresented) ground of the exercise of colonial power.
In understanding the significance of the 'discovery of the New World' we can draw on the parallel work of Todorov and Greenblatt. Todorov argues that it is
the conquest of America that heralds and establishes our present identity; even if every date that permits us to separate any two periods is arbitrary, none is more suitable, in order to mark the beginning of the modern era, than the year 1492. Since 1492 we are, as Las Casas (Historia de Las Indias) has said, in that time so new and like to no other. (1992: 5)
Todorov argues that, alongside the 'coincidence' of the victory over the Moors, the exile of the Jews, and the discovery of America, the year 1492 is also significant in that it sees the publication of the first grammar of a modern European language – the Spanish grammar of Antonia de Nebrija – who, notes Todorov, 'writes, in his Introduction, these decisive words: "Language has always been the companion of empire"' (ibid.: 123). The significance of the linguistic dimension of imperial power is also of concern to Greenblatt, who notes that
the founding action of Christian imperialism is christening. Such a christening (such as Columbus' first act of (re)naming Guanahani as San Salvador) entails the cancellation of the native name – the erasure of the alien, perhaps demonic, identity – and hence a kind of 'making new'; it is, at once, an exorcism, an appropriation and a gift . . . the taking of possession (and) the conferral of identity are fused, in a moment of pure linguistic formalising. (1992: 83)
Although Greenblatt differentiates his own analysis from Todorov's by somewhat downplaying the latter's emphasis on the importance of the conquistadores' 'literal advantage' over the Indians (in having at their disposal a superior technology of representation – writing) as the key explanation of the Aztecs' failure to mount effective resistance to the Spanish invasion, he none the less recognises the force of Todorov's analysis. Todorov's argument is that the crucial cultural difference between the European and American peoples was that the latter had no effective form of writing, and the most important consequence of this, he argues, was a fatal 'loss of manipulative power' in their dealings with the Spaniards. As Greenblatt puts it, summarising Todorov's argument,
"the absence of writing determined the predominance of ritual over improvisation, and cyclical time over linear time, characteristics that led, in turn. to disastrous misperceptions, and miscalculations in the face of the conquistadores (the Aztecs misinterpreted the Spaniards as Gods, whose arrival represented the long-delayed fulfilment of an Aztec religious prophecy: since their arrival and conquest had been foretold as inevitable , resistance was pointless). The unlettered peoples of the New World could not bring the strangers into focus: conceptual inadequacy initially precluded an accurate perception of the other. The culture that possessed writing could accurately represent to itself (and hence strategically manipulate) the culture without writing, but the reverse was not true. For, in possessing the ability to write, the Europeans possessed an unmistakably superior representational technology." (ibid.: 11)
As Greenblatt notes, Europeans of the time felt powerfully superior to virtually all the peoples they encountered. Quite apart from their developed and mobile technologies of power, they were also armed with an immense confidence in the centrality of their own culture:
"such was the confidence of this culture that it expected perfect strangers – the Arawaks of the Caribbean, for example – to abandon their own beliefs, preferably immediately, and embrace those of Europe, as luminously and self-evidently true. A failure to do so provoked impatience, contempt and even murderous rage." (ibid.: 9)
Greenblatt argues that the Spaniards' commitment to a form of 'Christian Universalism' – 'the conviction that (their) principal symbols and narratives are suitable for the entire population of the world' – commits them to imposing the 'unrestrained circulation of (their own) mimetic capital' (ibid.: 186, n. 2). More prosaically, Todorov simply notes that Columbus, a deeply pious man, 'who for this very reason regards himself as . . . charged with a divine mission', was principally animated by the desire to achieve nothing less than 'the universal victory of Christianity' (1992: 10).
However, this proved a frustrating task, for the Indians did not immediately respond, which both puzzled and infuriated the conquistadores: 'when taught the mysteries of our religion, they say that these things may suit Castilians, but not them, and they do not wish to change their customs' (Ortiz, quoted in ibid.: 151). This seemingly wilful 'blindness', on the part of the Indians, then becomes the justification for imposing Christian 'salvation' on them, by force, for
"although these barbarians are not altogther mad ... yet they are not far from being so. They are not, or are no longer, capable of governing themselves, any more than madmen or even wild beasts or animals. Their stupidity is much greater than that of children and madmen in other countries." (Vitoria, quoted in ibid.: 15)
The Spaniards' overwhelming and absolutist confidence in their own culture (which contrasts markedly with the implicitly relativist position of the Indians, whose rejection of Christianity – even if it might 'suit Castilians' – so disappointed Ortiz, quoted above) is perhaps most brutally displayed in Columbus' description of his intentions of taking a number of captured Indians back to Spain: 'Our Lord pleasing, at the time of my departure, I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses, that they may learn to speak' (quoted in Greenblatt, 1992: 171, n. 46). Not to be able to speak Spanish is to be deemed unable 'to speak'. None the less, such conceptual errors, when supported by material power, have profound consequences. Todorov reports that, when the Spaniards first landed on the peninsula which we now know as Yucatan, they asked, in Spanish, for the name of the place. The Mayas answered 'Ma c'ubah than', which means 'we do not understand you'. The Spanish transliterated the sounds they heard as 'Yucatan', and presumed that this was the name of the place. Ever since, the place has been, of course, known as Yucatan (1992: 98-9).
As Todorov notes elsewhere, the first spontaneous reaction to a 'stranger' is to imagine that his difference, from our own 'normality', necessarily takes the form of inferiority – that he is not really human or, if human, represents a savage or barbarian form of humanity. If he does not speak our language, perhaps that is because he speaks none at all, or cannot 'speak' (cf. Columbus' letter, quoted above). It is, Todorov argues, precisely
"in this fashion that European Slavs call their German neighbours nemec, 'mutes', the Mayas . . . call the Toltec nunob, 'mutes' . . . and the Aztecs . . . call those who do not speak Nahuatl tenime, 'barbarians' or popoloca, 'savages', because they share the scorn of all peoples for their neighbours." (ibid.: 76)
The notion of 'barbarism' is, of course, inherently relative: each of us is the Other's barbarian (ibid.: 190). To become such a thing, one need only speak a language of which the Other is ignorant – which is then merely 'babble' to his ears. Thus, Montaigne notes, 'we call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of options and customs current in the land where we live' (1990: 108-9). Late in his life, Las Casas, disillusioned with the imperial project in which he was initially complicit, comes to recognise that
"a man will be called a barbarian in comparison with another man because he is strange in his ways of speaking and because he pronounces the other's language badly. According to Strabo, Book XIV, this was the main reason the Greeks called other peoples barbarians . . . because they pronounced the Greek language improperly But from this point of view, there is no man or race which is not barbarian in relation to another man or race. As Saint Paul says . . . 'There are so many kinds of voices in the world' (but cf. McBride, 1980, on this point) and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me . . . . Thus, just as we consider the peoples of the Indies barbarians, they judge us to be the same, because they do not understand us." (Las Casas, quoted in Todorov, 1992: 191)
In fact, as noted above, the peoples of the Indies actually made the logically complementary, but practically fatal, error of classifying the Spaniards as gods, rather than as barbarians.
However, not all Greeks behaved as Strabo speculated – we can still learn from the principled stance taken by Herodotus on these matters. Herodotus did not deny the existence of the gods of foreigners. However barbarous and grotesque the foreigner's conception of his gods may be, it never seems to occur (to Herodotus) to doubt their objective existence. Furthermore, he never makes derogatory remarks or disparaging comments about them. He never once evinces the belief that there are no gods but the gods of the Greeks nor even that the gods of the Greeks are superior to the gods of other peoples. He follows his own principle, that none but a fool will laugh at the customs of strangers (Linforth, 1926, quoted in Greenblatt, 1992: 187, n. 6).
None the less, as noted earlier, in relation to the naming of Yucatan, 'by mistake', fools are often powerful for their foolishness. As Todorov puts it, ever since 1492, Western Europe has attempted to 'assimilate the other, to do away with an exterior alterity, and has in great part succeeded. Its way of life and its values have spread around the world; as Columbus wished, the colonised peoples have adopted our customs, and have put on clothes' (1992: 248). Nowadays, one might add, they can all drink Coca-Cola while watching CNN on television. And so we pass from 1492 to 1992, via Umberto Eco's conceit of the televising of 'The Discovery of America':
DAN: Good evening, folks. Here it's 7pm on the 11th of October 1492, and we're linked directly with the flagship of the Columbus expedition. As of now, in a joint effort, all our TV networks will be transmitting round the clock, twenty five hours. We're linked with the telecamera installed on the flagship, the Santa Maria . . . First a word from Jim, Jim?
Jim: Well, Dan. . . . It's the beginning of a new age, which some commentators have already suggested calling The Modern Era. . . . But I'd like to hear from Alastair Cook, who has just arrived from London, especially to take part in this historic broadcast. Alastair? Can you hear me? . .
ALASTAIR: I didn't hear very well . . . . One of the engineers says it must have been interference. This apparently happens a lot in the New World. But. there we are! Admiral Columbus is about to speak!
COLOMBUS: A small step for a sailor, a giant step for His Catholic Majesty. (Eco, 1993: 135-45)
The Cherokee (or, as he would prefer it, Ani Yunh Wiya) artist Jimmie Durham makes the point that
colonisation is not simply the language of some political rhetoric of past decades. Europe may be passing through a post-colonial time, but we in the Americas still live in a colonial period. Our countries were invaded, genocide was and is committeed against us, and our lands and lives are taken over for the profit of the coloniser. (Durham, 1993: 172)
Or, as he puts it, more forthrightly, in one of his poems.
Look, cousins, you made the wrong turn . Ibis is not New Jersey and this is not the New World. You need to get your bearings straight. We live here and you are scaring the fish. (ibid.: 141)
Postmoderism: New to You?
As Doreen Massey (1992) has noted, contemporary writing on the question of postmodernity makes much of the fact that this period involves some supposedly new sense of dislocation, of hybridity, of displacement. The problem which Massey raises is the sense in which this perception is, in fact, very much a First World perspective. As she notes, the assumption which runs through much of the literature on postmodernity, is that this is quite a new and remarkable situation.
Massey's basic point is that, for the inhabitants of all the countries around the world colonised by the West, the experience of immediate, destabilising contact with other alien cultures has a very long historical resonance. What is new is simply that this experience of dislocation has now returned, through patterns of immigration, from the peripheries, to the metropolis. Ulf Hannerz puts it another way, when he remarks that 'it may well be that the First World has been present in the consciousness of many Third World people a great deal longer than the Third World has been on the minds of most First World people' (1991: 110). In a similar sense, Anthony King remarks that
"the culture, society and space of early twentieth century Calcutta or Singapore prefigured the future in a much more accurate way than did that of London or New York. 'Modernity' was not born in Pads but rather in Rio. With this interpretation, Euro-American paradigms of so called 'postmodernism' have neither much meaning, nor salience, outside the narrow geographical confines of Euro-America, where they developed." (1991: 8)
Again, as, Ien Ang puts it,
"the peripheries of the world, those at the receiving end of the forces of globalisation, where capitalist modernisation has been an imposed impulse, rather than an internal development, as was the case in the West, are potentially more truly postmodern than the West itself, because in those contexts the eclectic juxtaposition and amalgamation of 'global' and 'local' cultural influences is a necessity, and therefore an integrated mode of survival, rather than a question of aesthetics." (1991: 7)
Or, in the words of Salman Rushdie (1982), 'those of us who have been forced by cultural displacement to accept the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties, have perhaps had modernism forced upon us'.
For these reasons, as Massey notes, to characterise 'time-space compression', and the consequent sense of dislocation, as a problematically new and dramatic development is very much a Western, colonialist view, in so far as this sense of dislocation, as she puts it, 'must have been felt for centuries, though from a very different point of view, by colonised peoples all over the world, as they watched the importation, maybe even used, the products of the . . . European (and later American) colonisation' (1991a: 24).
There is also a further set of questions which we must address, which concern the tendency of theories of postmodernity to fall into a kind of formalist, post-structuralist rhetoric, which overgeneralises its account of 'the' experience of postmodernity, so as to decontextualise and flatten out all the significant differences between the experiences of people in different situations, who are members of different social and cultural groups, with access to different forms and quantities of economic and cultural capital. The point is simply that 'we' are not all nomadic or fragmented subjectivities, living in the same 'postmodern' universe. For some categories of people (differentiated by gender, race and ethnicity, as much as by class) the new technologies of symbolic and physical communications and transport (from aeroplanes to faxes) offer significant opportunities for interconnectedness. For those people, there may well be a new sense of 'wider', postmodern opportunities. However, at the same time, for other categories of people, without access to such forms of communications and transport, horizons may simultaneously be narrowing. Many writers have referred to the contemporary dynamic of simultaneous globalisation and localisation. However, for some people, the globalising aspect of that dynamic is the dominant one, while for others it is very much the localising aspect which is increasingly operative, as their life-chances are gradually reduced, and they increasingly remain stuck in the micro-territories in which they were born. To give but one example, John Singleton's film Boyz N the Hood (1991) dramatises the sense in which, for many of the most deprived Blacks and Latin Americans, locality is in fact destiny, where the horizon, far from being global, extends only as far as Te boundary of 'the Hood'. Indeed, the militant adoption of the position of the 'home-boy' can readily be seen as a defensive reaction to the absence of any other choices.
All of this is to suggest that we must be very cautious when applying any abstracted notion of postmodernity, and must resist the temptation to generalise our theories, in such a way as to ignore the continuing, significant differences in the experience of this era, by people in different social and geographical locations. However, there remains the fundamental claim that there definitely is something significantly new about this period. While not wanting to deny such significant changes as have, and are, occurring it would seem that we should be cautious in accepting, too readily, any claims that our contemporary experience is so significantly new and different from all that has gone before. Some of the claims that have recently been made for the distinctiveness of postmodernity are not, in fact, so very new. We refer, in particular, to the claims that the era of postmodernity is distinctively characterised by an increasing tendency to the 'mediation' and 'global interconnectedness' of social experience.
The first claim, concerning 'mediation', is largely associated with the work of Jean Baudrillard (1988). However, it can in fact, readily be argued that Baudrillard's work depends on, and draws on, in an unacknowledged way, a rather older tradition in American social psychology. As long ago as the rnid-1950s, the American social psychologists Horton and Wohl (1956) were arguing that our social experience is increasingly subsumed, and indeed supplanted, by forms of para-social relationships, which media viewers develop with the characters they watch on the screen. Indeed, it is Horton and Wohl, not Baudrillard, who originate the concept of the 'simulacrum' and its key place within the field of contemporary social relations.
The second claim, that postmodernity is characterised by an increasing sense of global interconnectedness, can equally be seen to have quite long historical roots. As noted earlier, it was thirty years ago that Marshall McLuhan was already claiming that the effects of modem communications technologies were such as to lead to a position in which effectively we all live in a 'global village' (McLuhan, 1964). It is this second claim which will be the key concern here. The issue on which we will focus concerns the extent to which the 'global village' is, in fact (and despite Japan's growing challenges to American predominance in the cultural industries) an American Village. We shall insist that the tendencies towards globalisation, stressed by theorists of postmodemity, cannot in fact be understood outside of the long history of American cultural imperialism. In the first instance, it is also well worth reminding ourselves of the extent to which a strategy of cultural imperialism has, in fact, been a perfectly conscious and explicit matter of American foreign policy in the period at least since the Second World War, if not since the 1920s.
The Media are (still mainly) American
One of the fundamental facts of our postmodem era, as Jeremy Tunstall (1977)
noted some time ago, is that, of course, the media are American. Someone,
somewhere, is watching a Hollywood film every minute of the day and night.
These days, the American media dominate, not just in film, but in television
and in telecommunications as well. Again, this contemporary dominance has
long historical roots. In the 1920s, as President of the Board of Trade, Herbert
Hoover was quick to notice the potential of the American motion picture industry,
as a form of export-led advertising for American consumer products, and for
the American 'way of life'. To that extent, the American government was involved,
from a very early period, in subsidising and encouraging the export of American
movies, and the American movie subsequently became, according to the claims
of the Motion Picture Association of America, 'the most desired commodity
in the world' (Guback, 1979). The contemporary American dominance of the international
media runs on tracks established many years ago, in America's early dominance
of the international film business, not only in terms of its dominance in
production, but also in terms of control of finance and distribution systems.
However, it was during the period following the Second World War, when the
European powers were exhausted, that the American government came to see the
full potential of media export policies, as a way of furthering American foreign
policy interests in the world at large.
In his book The American Century Henry Luce, one-time editor of the American magazine Life, argued that we must accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity, as the most powerful and vital nation in the world, to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit, and by such means as we see fit . . . it now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which ideas spread throughout the world. (1941: 3)
Herbert Schiller claims that Luce, as the controller of one of the most powerful communication complexes in the United States (the Time, Life, Fortune magazine conglomerate) understood, earlier than many people, that 'the fusion of economic strength and information control, image making and public opinion formation was the new quintessence of power, international and domestic' (Schiller, 1969: 1). That is to say that Luce understood that the very availability of a developed international communication system, which the USA had at the close of the Second World War, was a unique instrument of power, and one which had simply not been available to would-be expansionist states in previous eras. American governmental strategy, in this connection, developed bet. The strategy was founded on a combination of economic and communications power, in the furtherance of what was understood as the project of 'the American Century'. Thus we find President Truman, in 1947, proclaiming 'we are the new giant of the economic world. Whether we like it or not, the future pattern of economic relations depends on us. The world is waiting to see what we do. The choice is ours' (quoted in ibid.: 6).
American strategy depended on the defence and expansion of 'freedom' – crucially, freedom of trade and freedom of speech. The problem, of course, is that, in a free or unregulated exchange between the strong and the weak, the strong tend to do better and to become even stronger. Thus, in Schiller's view, freedom of speech has, in fact, meant the opportunity of the American mass media to disseminate their message throughout the world arena. As he puts it, if free trade is the mechanism by which a powerful economy penetrates and dominates a weaker one, then the free flow of information is the channel through which the life-styles and the values of America have been imposed on poor and vulnerable societies. Schiller demonstrates, quite simply, the extent to which these were matters of conscious American policy, at key points in the post-war period. Thus, he quotes from the Congressional committee, set up in 1967 to consider modern communications and foreign policy. The committee produced a paper called 'Winning the Cold War: the American ideological offensive', which argued that
"to a significant degree, what America does will shape the emerging international communications system . . . to a very large degree, other countries will imitate our experience and will attach themselves to the institutions and systems we create. . . . Given our information technology and information resources, the USA clearly could be the hub of the world communication systems." (ibid.: 9)
This was also, straightforwardly, a matter of military concern. America had taken over the main role of 'world policeman', and the American military desperately needed effective international communications to coordinate their forces.
Out of this conjuncture emerged the very strong links which Schiller points to (and which still persist) between the American military and the big American communication companies. However, beyond this concern with with their own international communication needs (to co-ordinate military forces abroad), the same committee also saw, very clearly, the potential use of international communications as a means of influencing foreign populations:
Certain foreign policy objectives can be best pursued by dealing directly with the people of foreign countries, rather than with their governments. Through the use of modern instruments and technologies of communications, it is possible today to reach large and influential sections of national populations – to inform them, to influence their attitudes . . . to motivate them to particular courses of actions. These groups, in turn, are capable of exerting, noticeable, even decisive, pressure on their governments. (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1964: 6-7)
The crucial issue here is the ability to by-pass the control of national governments. At this point, the committee recognised that the very status of communications had changed, so that telecommunications had progressed from being an essential 'support' of international activities, to being itself a direct instrument of foreign policy.
Schiller argues that the contemporary situation exhibits two particular features of significance. In the first place, he argues, we see a significant move towards a situation in which information itself becomes a commodity for sale, and towards a position in which the communications and information industries serve as the dynamo of contemporary economic development. In this context, communication ceases to be a merely secondary adjunct, facilitating business, and communication itself becomes 'big business'. In this connection, he quotes the Director of the Pentagon's 'Information Processing and Techniques Office' who claimed that 'the nation that dominates this information processing field will possess the keys to world leadership in the twenty-first century' (Schiller, 1985: 18). The second development to which Schiller calls attention is the extent to which this new 'heartland' of communication and information technology is itself now increasingly controlled by a very small number of powerful transnational corporations, which may be based (as indeed a large number of them are) in the USA, but which operate, simultaneously in many different countries around the world, on a global scale. In Schiller's view, the problem here is that the activities of these transnational corporations depend precisely on the overcoming of national boundaries, and the opening up of the 'free flow' of information, across a world market. The concerns of national governments, to regulate communications in their own countries, therefore present an obstacle to the transnational corporations, and these transnational corporations are increasingly concerned (and increasingly able) to override national government policies, to the extent, perhaps, of posing a threat to the very sovereignty of individual nations. Thus, Schiller argues, we see contemporaneously, a 'vast extension in cultural control and domination a new global system of authority, on the basis of information control in which the transnational communications companies now bypass traditional forms of national political authority' (ibid.).
There are many dimensions to the question of media or cultural imperialism. As far as the world pattern of international television flow is concerned, the USA is indisputably the world's number one television exporter. The USA continues to export a far greater quantity of television programmes to the rest of the world than all other nations combined manage to do, while, at the same time, America imports only one or two per cent of its own television broadcast output. Moreover, this pattern of American dominance is even more prevalent in such crucial areas of television programming as prime-time fictional and news programming. To take the second of those examples, to this day, 'world news' is largely supplied by a very small number of press and news agencies, all of which are Anglo-American (cf. Smith, 1980). These agencies clearly shape the international political agenda by the way in which they define values. To this extent, in almost all cases, the flow of world news is mainly oneway, and in most cases Anglo-American video news agencies provide the core of broadcast television news. To that extent, it is in fact difficult to exaggerate either the direct presence or the indirect influence of Anglo-American materials and styles on television news throughout the world.
However, it is not simply a question of the export of American programmes, as such. The influence of the American media extends far beyond that. In particular, its influence can be seen in the extent to which the media of other countries throughout the world have either franchised from, or literally copied, American TV formats. There are, for example, national 'versions' of the television programme Blind Date in many different countries of the world. It is not simply that America exports a lot of television programmes – beyond that, America has written the 'grammar' of international television – the formats of television, developed in America, have literally 'set the frame' for the production of television, in most other countries.
Does the Subaltern Listen?
In recent years,
the cultural imperialism (or media imperialism) thesis has, in fact, come
under substantial criticism, and a number of revisions of the basic thesis
have been advanced. These criticisms are various, but among them there is
the point that the media imperialism thesis was originally developed, at the
height of American cultural hegemony, in the late 1960s. Ibis was a peak of
predominance from which America has most certainly since declined. In the
same sense, the original thesis tends to focus exclusively on the pattern
of American television exports, without paying sufficient attention to non-American
forms of cultural imperialism, involving, for instance, the continuing export
of cultural materials by British and French agencies to ex-colonies in Africa,
or in another context, the strength of Mexico as a television exporter to
other Latin American countries, or the position of Brazil, and its export
of telenovelas back to the Catholic countries of southern Europe. All of these
factors must of course be taken into account in any adequate version of the
thesis of media imperialism (cf. Mattelart, Delcourt and Mattelart, 1984).
Most fundamentally, critics of the cultural imperialism thesis argue that the thesis presumes a hypodermic model of media effects. That is to say, it assumes that the effects of viewing American televisual material on audiences across the world can be automatically predicted. The issue here is that such empirical work as has been done in this field demonstrates not so much the direct effects of America media material, as the capacity of audiences in different situations to reinterpret the American-produced material which they view in a way which is influenced by their local circumstances. Mattelart and his colleagues (ibid.) give the example of the frequency of American-produced series, featuring 'Aryan' heroes, being subject to a process of 'reverse identification', when viewed by Third World populations, who will more often identify with the 'bad guys' in the story That should not suggest to us that cultural power does not exist, or that the American-dominated international media have no effect whatsoever – rather it should alert us to the complexity of the modes in which cultural power is both exercised and resisted (see Morley 1992, and, Gripsrud, forthcoming, for elaborations of this argument).
Cultural Imperialism Revisited
In 'Not yet the
post-imperial era' Schiller (1991) argues that the key change since the date
of his original Mass Communications and American Empire (1969) is that
today 'national (largely American) media-cultural power has been largely (though
not fully) subordinated to transnational corporate authority' (1991: 13) so
that if 'American national power no longer is an exclusive determinant
of cultural domination' and if it is 'transnational corporate cultural domination'
which is now the key issue, none the less, and against those who celebrate
the supposed 'semiotic democracy' of our supposedly postmodern and pluralistic
society, that domination still exists and still bears 'a marked American input'
Elsewhere, Schiller argues that American cultural imperialism, dominated by the big US companies, has simply given way to a form of transnational corporate cultural domination – under the sway of the big, 'stateless' transnationals. To that extent, he writes, today's world market economy 'has evolved from, but retains the central characteristics of, the original American pattern', in which what we see is a 'global system with many nationally based transnational corporations employing the communications and cultural practices and processes that originated, and continue to prevail, in the USA' (Schiller, 1992: 39). Thus, Schiller argues that
Twenty five years ago, U.S. media products flooded the world. Today, there is no diminution of American popular cultural exports. What has changed is that the producers have become huge, integrated, cultural combines . . . (who) . . . offer . . . a total cultural environment . . . to a global . . . market. . . . (But) the cultural conglomerates now are not exclusively American owned. U.S. cultural styles and techniques . . . have. . . become transnationalised. (ibid.: 12-3)
Schiller's argument is that, while American cultural imperialism is not dead, 'it no longer adequately describes the global cultural condition. Today it is more useful to view transnational corporate culture as the central force' (ibid.: 14-15).
None the less, the Third World's earlier dreams of the possibility of a 'New World Information Order', less dominated by a one-way flow of information from the West, seem little nearer to fruition than they were twenty-five years ago. It is still the case that,
"the overwhelming majority of world news flows from the developed to the developing countries, and is generated by four large transnational news agencies – AP, UPI, AFP and Reuters. Moreover, the West dominates the use of satellites, the electromagnetic spectrum, controlling the use of airwaves, telecommunications, micro-electronics, remote-sensing capabilities, direct satellite broadcasting and computer-related transmission." (Wete, 1988: 139)
Satellite Television: Glaobal Time and the Theft of History
Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi (1992) argues that, in discussion of media effects,
what is often omitted, in the focus on the medium's 'contents', is any concern
with the effects on our lives of what Cavell (1982) calls the very 'fact of
television' – in terms of its impact on cultural orientations, patterns
of sociability and modes of perception (cf. Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1992). Wilk
offers a useful extension of this argument. Wilk's principal concern is with
the transnational media as an 'instrument of global time' (forthcoming: 1).
His argument is that critics of media imperialism, in the Third World, have
focused too much, in the past, 'on the content of individual programmes and
on the developed countries' control of that content' and have failed to realise
that 'the greatest impact of television lies not in the content . . . but
in the concepts of time and distance carried by the immediacy of the medium'
Wilk's argument returns us to the questions concerning the cultural construction of time and history raised earlier in this chapter. Drawing on Chakrabarty (1992), Wilk reminds us that, just as it can be argued that Western linear models of history grew along with the development of the colonial world system, 'the expansion that turned the rest of the world into 'peoples without history' (cf. Wolf, 1982) gave the colonies a master narrative of progress, which left the colonial subject with a historical clock that could only count cultural difference' (Wilk, forthcoming: 7).
He argues that, before the coming of television to the colonies,
"time, distance, and culture are almost interchangeable concepts, in explaining and justifying the differences between the colony and the metropole . . . the colony is seen as primitive, backward and underdeveloped. . . . The ultimate effect . . . is to objectify the concept of tradition, of a kind of culture that is rooted in a distant time and a remote place. The colony is backward because it is dominated by unchanging tradition – timeless, isolated and pervasive. The flow of time, in this context, is the product of colonial agents . . . who collectively represent themselves as agents of 'progress' – a term opposed to 'tradition', that also merges time, distance and culture. Progress implies movement in time, from unchanging past to the dynamic future; in space, from the isolated hinterland to the bustling city; and in culture, from static tradition to fashionable modernity." (ibid.: 3)
The point here, of course, as Wilk notes, is that, while it is premised on the idea of progress, 'catching up' is never really possible (cf. Sangari, 1987), and while the time lag (or culture lag: measured, for instance, by the number of fashion 'seasons' behind the metropolis the colony is currently running) can get longer or shorter, the 'clock is always set in the metropole . . . and the colonies can never catch up' (Wilk, forthcoming: 3). In this situation, Wilk notes, the programming of much Third World television (cheap local programmes interspersed with outdated metropolitan cast-offs) seems designed as an object lesson in colonial time. The viewer is hardpressed to tell whether the differences between their own experiences and those depicted in Father Knows Best (an imported US sitcom) are the result of the passage of time, the geographic distance between their country and the USA, or real cultural differences between themselves and Americans. (ibid.: 4)
It is this temporal disjunction of social experience which is disrupted by the arrival of satellite television, according to Wilk, because the programmes (and especially the news and sports programmes) broadcast are so immediate:
There is no lag. The Belizean family, in their rickety house, in a swamp, on the edge of Belize City, is not only watching the same programmes as urban North America, but far more importantly, they are watching them at the same time. What the Belizeans are watching, is happening now. . . . Satellite television has removed an essential element from the equation of colonial time. Distance between the metropole and the colony can no longer be reckoned in terms of time. . . . TV time is now a single clock, ticking away a single rhythm, in every place it reaches . . . the direct experience of a flow of events, that was once far away, safely filtered, and only dimly and indirectly perceived. (ibid.: 5)
In consequence, of course, as Wilk notes,
"We can't just sit back and expect that problems will be solved when Belize 'catches up'. Between Belize and the U.S., the time lag is gone, the distance is closing; what remains are cultural economic and political differences, that require new explanations. "(ibid.: 6)
Ted Turner, head of CNN, has claimed (cf. Dowmunt, 1993: 1) that his company is the 'town-crier' of the 'global village' heralded so long ago by Marshall McLuhan. Certainly, in times of international crisis, CNN can come to play a crucial role. As Ang argues, 'It is largely through the representational practices of Ted Turner's CNN that the Gulf Warcould be dubbed the Third World War – a war in which the whole world . . . participated, through the electronic collapsing of time and space induced by satellite telecom technology' (1991: 4). For Schiller (1992), the central issue here concerns the control of sources of information. Thus, he argues, 'most of the world's understanding of what was happening in the Gulf, and what it signified, came from practically a single U.S. source – CNN. . . (which) in turn acquired its material essentially from the Pentagon and the White House' (ibid.: 1).
However, there is another dimension to the issue, which takes us beyond the question of the control over the transmission of information. Thus, Caldorola (1992) argues that, in the context of the Gulf War, the very visual immediacy of the medium of satellite television also had the curious effect of denying the viewer any historical perspective on events, submerging the 'real' in a fictionalised narrative, and effectively reinforcing the cultural distance between the rest of the global audience and those on whom the Allies' bombs fell. In this context, it is perhaps incumbent upon us to think a little more carefully about 'who is at the end of history, and how they got there' (Clarke, 1991: 39).