we’re reading a bunch of arjun appadurai on diaspora and the cultural this week and his thoughts on the subject are horizon-broadening. I haven’t read much appadurai at all before, but from what i gather one of his main preoccupations is with the ways mass culture (mass media, but also i would say the medias of various defined masses) shapes local cultures that are at the same time implicated in and affected by globalization at every turn. i have already long been leaning towards a skepticism of the notion of defined, bounded –especially nationally bounded– cultures. To me it’s essential to interrogate what we mean by culture at all moments– how much “culture” is inevitable or predetermined, to what extent is it truly reflective of those it claims to encompass, who, at the end of it all, is given the privilege to define culture? appadurai share this skepticism and prefers to refer to cultural in its adjectival form, the cultural, to refer to a regime of differences– the cultural is a tool to recognize and parse the ways difference is mobilized to spur the formation of group identities. this sounds vaguely similar to a definition of ethnicity, he notes, but objects to the charge that his definition of the cultural is one and the same as ethnicity. the key difference he claims in his definition is its move away from group formation as a historical process of development from filial or tribal ties.
what’s at the heart of this bigger argument is the role of media and transnational cultural flows mediated by, critically, diasporic populations. As I mull over these points, it becomes harder and harder to define what exactly composes culture when it is unbounded, but that may be due to our familiar theories and frames of reference more than anything else. It is exciting to think of the cultural as undermining the integrity of the nation-state formation, but it can also be scary. Scary because there’s nothing that prevents the same structures of power and privilege in defining difference from operating on a transnational plane. New cultural spheres may be forming in diasporas, but does their transnational-cum-local character automatically make them less problematic or potentially oppressive than any nationally bounded sense of identity? The ‘deterritorializtion’ of identity, as he calls it, can allow for original conceptions of group identity, but it can also allow for fantasy-lands of the imagination that don’t match the realities of the contexts from which these differences derive their ideological force. Most nationalisms rely on a highly selective understanding of history and a strategic denial of contingencies. Post-nationalisms could do the same, just in different ways, mediated by different instruments like mass media. Something to chew on.