Friday, May 23, 2014

Él que tiene el copete como la Rihanna: Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large

Pájaro carpintero El Salvador - (Ryan Shaw 2009)
Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large (1996) is particularly useful for understanding the impact of global culture today in El Salvador and Central America.  As I read the book, I kept coming back to an experience that I had in the rural community of Cabañas in El Salvador where campesinos, who explained their challenges accessing an education, who had no electricity and only recently obtained running water, were using their smartphones to snap photos and pointing out local birds to me by comparing their crests with Rihanna’s hairstyle: “Ese allá.  Él que tiene el copete como la Rihanna.”  What does it mean for the marginalized rural poor to identify with a global imaginary and how might a campesino with limited access to electricity, water and education read a cultural symbol like Rihanna? 

Appadurai’s Modernity at Large (1996) responds to radically evolving media technologies as these relate to the historically longstanding human experience of deterritorialization.  For Appadurai modernity is not a large-scale project, but rather the quotidian and pre-theoretical experience of ephemeral desire for the “new.”  He gives the example of how when he was a boy living in Bombay and his brother was studying at Stanford, Arjun Appadurai associated his brother’s smell of Right Guard with America.  I found this to be a very useful example of a consumer object that confounds the local through human movement and contributes to the global imaginary of the “modern.” 

Later he discusses cricket as sport that became profoundly Indian despite its Western origins, “Cricket gradually became indigenized in colonial India.”  Media and especially television have socialized Indians into identifying with and understanding the game of cricket.  This example shows how media can turn a colonial cultural practice into something that represents the nation.

Sunday game of street cricket in Bombay
Appadurai stresses that the “modernity” that he is interested in is the almost intuitive engagement with newness of the masses (the working people and the poor.)  Modernity is imagined through global cultural flows tied to processes of migration and media practices.  Yet Appadurai is careful not to equate modernity with Americanization or with cultural homogenization, but rather he implies that cultural objects and practices take on a transcultural sense in local spaces.  His sense of transculturation stresses constant change and movement in a way that reminds me of Juri Lotman’s semiosphere which emphasizes a constant turning of the cultural field as in a vortex.  However, modernity does impose cultural hegemony or as Appadurai puts it, “Modernity...both declares and desires universal applicability for itself” (1).  At the same time he says that it is too simple to conceptualize media as the “opium of the masses” because media can provoke “resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency” (7).  One clear example would be the growing genre of youtube media parodies which can be understood as a form of resisting media’s effects by turning the system in on itself similar to what Guy Debord calls détournement.  After weighing human agency in response to the media, Appadurai remains rather ambivalent about the prognosis of modernity; he does not judge it as inherently good or bad, but sees it instead as a reality of social change. 

So, what?
Media and migration create a global culture that is post-national.  People imagine themselves globally as part of global communities in the same vein that Benedict Anderson argued that print-culture helped people to imagine themselves as part of national communities.  Modernity is “at large” because it is imagined through global flows of people and information and can no longer be anchored to the nation-state or a physical locality(19).  Appadurai adds that now deterritorialized peoples identify with diasporic public spheres and practice an idealized and fantastical long-distance nationalism.  People, fueled by images in media and by the migration experiences of others, partake in and imagine themselves in relation to global cultural flows.

Appadurai lays out 5 dimmensions (or scapes) of global cultural flows that drive global culture:
            ethnoscapes-migrations, diasporas, movements of people
            technoscapes-computer, internet, high speed communications
            financescapes-global capital networks
mediascapes-electronic ability?  Not sure how this is different from
            ideoscapes-state (political) ideologies in images; democracy, freedom



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