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The Phantom of Globality and the Delirium of Excess

The Phantom of Globality and the Delirium of Excess

This article argues that globalisation requires an unanchored discourse of globality to mediate its disruptive effects. This phantom discourse does not merely disarticulate the real relations between neoliberal globalisation and the material realities it enters, transforms, or destroys. It also offers a mode of affiliation for its chief beneficiaries who are required to feel global in conditions that are a far cry from what that term supposedly denotes. What are some of the cultural factors that facilitate such a discourse being credible? What can we learn from some of the terms that have come into prominence in this context? The article is also concerned with the contradictions and tensions that mark the contemporary moment. It argues that hyperbole is not merely a feature of present discourse but also a symptom of what ails it.

PERSPECTIVE

The Phantom of Globality and the Delirium of Excess

Lata Mani

ostensibly disavowed. Adopting certain patterns of consumption or certain social or business practices is not deemed akin to becoming American or European. On the contrary, we are said to become “global”. At the same time, such developments are represented as heralding a par-

This article argues that globalisation requires an unanchored discourse of globality to mediate its disruptive effects. This phantom discourse does not merely disarticulate the real relations between neoliberal globalisation and the material realities it enters, transforms, or destroys. It also offers a mode of affiliation for its chief beneficiaries who are required to feel global in conditions that are a far cry from what that term supposedly denotes. What are some of the cultural factors that facilitate such a discourse being credible? What can we learn from some of the terms that have come into prominence in this context? The article is also concerned with the contradictions and tensions that mark the contemporary moment. It argues that hyperbole is not merely a feature of present discourse but also a symptom of what ails it.

Lata Mani (maillatamani@yahoo.com) is a historian and cultural critic based in Bangalore.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
september 27, 2008

“The IPL version of cricket will be

able to take the US by storm. It is

short, fast paced, played in the evenings, the perfect format.” The young man is confident his prediction will come true. I, on the other hand, am startled. While sport is central to the US national imagination, cricket is likely to be less than interesting to anyone, save immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, the UK, or other countries where the game has a history. His comment set me thinking.

1 Introduction

Discussions on the cultural impact of neoliberal globalisation by and large tend to be debates between two contrasting perspectives. The first proposes that globalisation is a juggernaut that rolls over indigenous cultures, distorting or destroying them, even as it imposes alien cultural practices that support its search for labour, raw materials, and a market for its goods and services. The second argues that globalisation is not unidirectional but unleashes mutually beneficial processes of economic exchange and cultural crossfertilisation. Both positions overstate their case. The latter does so by conceiving globalisation as a fundamentally positive and benign process. The former, in its t en dency to focus on the disruptive dimension, tends to neglect the complex specificities and tensions that characterise the process of cultural negotiation and struggle.

Any ideology or framework is characterised by contradiction. What is of interest to the cultural critic is how such contradictions are not generally perceived as such. In an important way, globalisation is supposed to render culture irrelevant. Even as its processes attempt to internationalise products and practices that emerge from particular locations and s pecific histories, the means of their export involves a simultaneous process of disavowal, and a reaffirmation of what is ticular conception of freedom of choice, technological advance, efficiency, best practices, and economic rationality, making the narrative of capitalist modernity normative. The sleight of hand in this simultaneous disavowal and what amounts to its recanting is what enables a young Indian techie to sincerely believe that a new format is all that is necessary to make cricket amenable to an American audience.

Obsession with Form

Post-1993 an entire generation in the middle and upper middle class has been invited to think of itself as global on the basis of its consumption patterns and lifestyle aspirations. Commodities and activities have become the insignia of belonging. This cannot surprise us since neoliberal globalisation is a market-driven process. After all, it did not emerge from a collective sense of dismay at our ignorance about each other. If it had, its trajectory would have been entirely different.

Form has assumed new significance in the current context of economic globalisation. The ubiquity of the word “lifestyle” is a potent symptom of this. Within the semantics of globalisation, “style” does not merely function as a qualifier which refers to an aspect of life. Style has come to represent life itself, to determine its very quality. Style connotes outward trappings and their place in one’s daily life: cellphones, computers, Facebook or My Space accounts, cars, clothes, foods consumed, and the like. Style also refers to ways of inhabiting the self so constituted, its habits, dispositions, preferences, and to the manner in which one moves in the world in relation to them. Style is a term that bridges the inner and outer realms, the personal and social domains. It is in this context that we are urged to “live lifestyle”, as one billboard for an apartment complex puts it.

PERSPECTIVE

Other aspects of form have also gained equal prominence: form as structure, arrangement, format, blueprint, method, formula and protocol. These meanings of the term come to the fore in the workplaces that symbolise the new economy – information technology (IT), information technology enabled services (ITES), business process outsourcing (BPO) services – and in the new competencies that those working in them are expected to possess. Here the goal is a standardised, replicable set of procedures intended to ensure productivity by means of facilitating seamless communication via eliminating the noise of misunderstanding. Given the transnational publics served by these companies, these protocols are supposed to be “culture neutral”. Indeed, their supposed globality rests precisely in their so-called “cultural neutrality”. Never mind that these procedures are anything but culturally neutral. We now have a situation in which a young person schooled in these competencies can be led to think of form as culture. To put it another way, to think that access to a culture is the same as access to its forms. For it is by adopting certain forms (of consumption, communication, leisure, entertainment, career aspirations) that one lays claim to being “global”. All senses of the word “form” are pertinent here: form as form (the shell or outer structure) and form as content, as in the blueprint for a successful life, the arrangement of one’s home, of one’s furniture, and art work, and so on.

Evoking the Unreal

Globalisation as cultural ideology actively fosters this misrecognition. Everything from education to commodities to sports to health is marketed in terms of some notion of globality which is nothing other than the imagined lifestyle of the upper middle and upper class in the first world. Globality is self-evidently about aspiring to live as though one were rich and lived in New York, London, Paris, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam and not as though one were poor or lower middle class in these cities. And since one is aspiring to live in one place as though it were an elsewhere, the virtual can attain the status of reality, thus generating and sustaining illusions about both locales.

It is in this context that we should locate the increasingly frequent and rather odd use of the term “geographies” in lieu of the words “place”, “locality”, “city” or “country”. Geography is that very concrete subject which teaches us about physical features such as land, rivers, mountains, climate, and natural resources. In its pluralised form, this now preferred term foregrounds a hitherto repressed dimension of its etymology. Geography is formed from “geo” (from the Greek ‘gaia’, ‘ge’ or earth) and ‘graphien’ (to write). Here are two examples of the way the term is now used in certain quarters: “Vijay Mallya owns property in different geographies” or “The company has a substantial footprint in Europe and is looking to expand its operations in other geographies”. In its current usage, the term no longer refers to either a descriptive science or to the physical features of a specified landscape but rather to a mental or virtual location without clear referents, a space upon which things are written. The word “geographies”, like the term “global”, evokes rather than denotes. Its seduction lies in its suggestiveness. The resulting indistinctness is fertile ground for projection and fantasy.

To dramatise this point one need only substitute the rather ephemeral sounding “geographies” with the name of a country, such as Iraq, Venezuela, or Sudan. We are immediately brought down to earth (pun intended) and find ourselves in the terrain of history, culture, and geopolitics. While projection, illusion and fantasy are not precluded by such a confrontation with material realities, it does constrain one’s imagination from running away with itself. Globalisation is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. So it is hardnosed in negotiating the material realities of the economies and societies it is seeking to enter. But precisely because the economic and sociocultural changes that it initiates are so disruptive, it requires an unanchored discourse of globality to mediate its effects.

This discourse is principally about shaping the subjectivity of that generation which is its greatest asset, both as employee and as consumer. It is thus that we have witnessed the valorisation of youth. If this segment of the population and market can be persuaded of globalisation’s promise, a significant base of support for its project will have been created. A deterritorialised discourse of globality (being global, feeling global, looking global, acting global) offers such a mode of affiliation. And it does so in a way that relieves one from the burden of having to engage the actual material realities in which one undertakes to enact this new form of being and belonging. We will return later in this paper to the ways in which that which this discourse seeks to repress, returns to haunt it, thus complicating the will to power of a globalising agenda.

Factors on the Ground

If one is said to access globality by means of adopting a set of protocols or practices, then one cannot be blamed for imagining that practices (forms) can be substituted for one another. For once you excise history and culture, all you have are empty forms which can travel and generate novel experiences in new markets: ergo our young man’s sense of the potential of cricket to entertain US citizens. But the matter is really not that simple; indeed matters never are and it is the modes of their occlusion (that is to say the ways in which things are obscured) that interests cultural criticism.

The most obvious point is the absence of a level playing field which means that the Indian engagement with Euro-American forms cannot be assumed to elicit a reciprocal response. After all, youth in the west are not being groomed to be “global”. There is a definite directionality to this process.

The next layer of complexity we note is that globalisation does not inscribe itself onto a tabula rasa or clean slate. On the contrary, it enters a complex sociocultural space characterised by hierarchy, diversity, and conflict. The processes it initiates can fortify, weaken or regroup these features in particular ways. Equally important, those invited to see themselves as global are not passive recipients of its discourse. They actively negotiate and n avigate it in ways that very much take into account local, regional, familial, cultural, political, social, historical, gender and generational considerations. Their sense of globality is refracted by all this, h owever unconscious they may be of it.

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The new economic opportunities afforded to many in a context where the hold of family over youth has been customary has made freedom and choice a reality, not simply an empty promise of globalisation. At the same time, the speedy emergence of an “aspirational class” is related to the upper class penchant for conspicuous c onsumption that predated globalisation in India. Globalisation has simply extended this experience to the upper middle and middle classes. And the capacity to quickly learn new modes of communication and repeatedly draw on them in a formulaic manner is aided by an educational system and culture which accord importance to memorisation and ritual. For instance, the mode of summarising key facts and figures PowerPoint style adopted by newspapers today (whether in reporting breaking news or in describing the places to which we should “get away”) easily extends our prior preoccupation with general knowledge per se, reflected in the popularity of such magazines as Competition and Success.

Fantasies and Fear

Culture also shapes our sense that cities like Bengaluru can genuinely lay claim to be “global” despite improper infrastructure. For plumbing and infrastructure are not integral to our notion of a city. This has everything to do with the history of caste. It is caste that accounts for our continued disregard for any form of hygiene other than personal. Caste also explains why our concern rarely extends beyond the boundaries of our properties, for our dwellings are construed as analogous to our bodies. Everything extraneous to their integrity is of no consequence. It is no surprise that our interest in bathroom fixtures and fittings is not matched by a similar enthusiasm or concern for what happens to whatever we pour down our sinks or deposit in our toilets.

What else can explain the indifference to sewage currently erupting onto the lawns and pavements of one of the most prestigious streets in Bengaluru? Everything proceeds as if nothing is amiss: shopping, eating, living, breathing. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board simply stands by and pumps out the sewage from particular spots at regular

Economic & Political Weekly

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september 27, 2008

intervals each day. This admittedly extreme example serves to make my argument that it is the tendency towards a widespread distaste for matter in our culture (particularly among the upper classes and castes though not entirely restricted to them) that facilitates our being interpellated by a phantom discourse of globality with a highly unstable relationship to facts on the ground.1

A related phantasm exercises severe pressure in that region of the world which we are urged to emulate. Multinational capital, as we know, is not patriotic. Its interests lie in making money however it can and wherever it can. If we in India are invited to embrace our status as global in conditions that are a far cry from the cities of our fantasies, it is globalisation as threat that is brandished before our fellow beings in the west. Let me take the example of the US. The flight of jobs to China, Mexico, India and elsewhere is real. But the idea that hard-working former peasants in China and clever software engineers in India have put US competitiveness to shame is simply untrue. What we have here is a clear case of capital seeking a higher rate of return and then unfairly holding those it has abandoned accountable for its decision.

Certainly there is a crisis in public funding of education and of investment in fundamental scientific research in the US. But the causes for this crisis are to be found in domestic policy and have nothing whatsoever to do with whatever is happening in China or India, whose record in both arenas is hardly the reason for their economic growth. The so-called threat posed by Chindia is a red herring deployed by US corporations and politicians. It diverts attention from the fundamental fact that the US remains the largest economy in the world (five times the size of China’s economy) but simply lacks the will to galvanise its resources on behalf of the majority of its citizens. So the blame is directed e lsewhere. And most US citizens, ignorant of the realities in either China or India, find this explanation credible. And those who know otherwise, deploy the fear it induces to argue for the change they rightly believe to be necessary. In either event, the claim gathers a greater and greater veneer of facticity.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, these exaggerated threats, which are dutifully reported by our media, serve as confirming signs of the promise globalisation holds for India. A false sense of confidence gradually takes hold, at least among the beneficiaries of neoliberal economic policies. A tickertape of data containing growth rates, rates of return, sales v olumes, loans raised, investments made, companies sold or bought or merged, moves constantly across the screens of our minds, televisions and computers. An impression is created that we are a nation on the move. The atmosphere is frequently described as exuberant and optimistic. The idea of India as a soft power to be reckoned with begins to be taken all too seriously.

Even so there are signs that continually point to the instability at the heart of these developments. For example, it is no accident that we keep hearing of growth rates and not actual values: a high percentage on a small base — –9 per cent growth on India’s gross domestic product (GDP) of $ 703 b illion in 2006 is hardly impressive when compared to the actual value represented by the 2 per cent-3 per cent growth of the US GDP of $ 11.32 trillion in the same year. Going by market exchange rates, the US economy is more than 15 times larger than the Indian economy (five times larger when measured on a purchasing power parity basis). The per capita GDP of the US in 2006 was $ 37,791, nearly 20 times greater than the per capita GDP of India ($ 1,598 in 2006), which is $ 2,700. Many of those described as industry barons or IT czars by our media would be seen as running mid-sized corporations in the US, not to mention that the informal economy resoundingly trumps the IT s ector in its contribution to the GDP of India.

We begin to see that the true significance of the facts and figures to which we are continually subjected is not statistical but ideological. It may be tempting to d ismiss this phenomenon as simply illustrative of the hyperbole that has come to characterise mass media today. But that would be a mistake. For we would miss how such hyperbole is not just a feature of contemporary discourse but also a s ymptom of what ails it.

PERSPECTIVE

2 Culture of Excess

Excess: from Latin ‘ex’ (beyond) and ‘cedere’ (to go). Defined variously in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language – Unabridged as:

  • (1) Action or conduct that goes beyond the usual, reasonable or lawful limit,
  • (2) intemperance, immoderation, overindulgence, (3) amount or quantity greater than is necessary, desirable, usable, etc, (4) the amount or degree by which one thing is greater or more than another; surplus.
  • All four dimensions of the term “excess” are germane to describing the reality and fantasy of urban India in the current phase of globalisation.

    Neoliberal globalisation valorises a culture of excess. Proponents may disagree but it cannot be denied that within its logic one can never have too much of anything, be it money, goods, property, sex, leisure, or opportunity. Indeed the promise of neoliberal globalisation is that its beneficiaries are enabled to move from a want of options to a superfluity of them. Freedom is defined as the opportunity to avail oneself of these choices. The aspiration for ever more is naturalised as enlightened self-interest but equally as being in the service of the national economy. By some mysterious process, the cumulative realisation of desires is posited as the means by which the majority will be hauled out of their pecuniary misery. The centrality of desires is tied to the construction of individuals as consumers first and foremost: bundles of wants, needs and desires that the market can fulfil even as it provides jobs and meets an exponentially multiplying demand for goods and services. It matters not that the choices on offer – whether of jobs, brands or media channels

    – differ little in form or content. Variety is strictly a numerical issue.

    To exceed is to go beyond. But what are the lines that are being crossed? The definition of excess marks out several of these boundaries: reason, law, moderation, necessity, desirability, and usability. The very values that neoliberal theory claims for itself (its necessity, its desirability, its reasonableness in both senses of the term, as logic and intelligibility) are v iolated by the processes it initiates and on which it depends. Consider the frenzy of h yperconsumption in that sliver of society that has benefited from India’s embrace of neo liberal economics as also the “reforms” that have assured corporate profitability. Place it alongside the displacement and disenfranchisement of the urban and rural poor, the crisis in agriculture, the widening of socio-economic inequality, increased pollution, and the depletion of groundwater, forests and n atural resources. Neoliberal globalisation begins to look like a reckless, immoderate, undesirable, and unsustainable path. The signs portending its failure are in the very things it celebrates and, as well, in those matters to which it is indifferent such as its impact on human and social ecology. Concern about the integrity of either arises only if a threat is

    INSTITUTE OF ECONOMIC GROWTH UNIVERSITY OF DELHI ENCLAVE, NORTH CAMPUS, DELHI - 110 007

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    p erceived to its unfettered access to labour or raw materials.

    Signs of excess abound in our cities. A sketch of Bengaluru would include the following. Mountains of garbage. Gigantic billboards competing for the driver’s attention and obscuring the road ahead. Glitzy malls guzzling monumental amounts of water and electricity. Round the clock movement of trucks and tractors bearing construction material. Excavators, cranes, cement mixers, hard hats, cloth turbans, picks and shovels. Labourers digging, pouring, laying, and smoothing cement, and throwing bricks in a rhythmic relay up and down rickety scaffolding. The resounding boom of borewells being dug. Day shifts seguing into night shifts. Tractor trailers laden with dirt, brick, glass and concrete blocks from demolished structures searching for empty plots or lakebeds that will serve as impromptu landfills until someone mounts a serious protest against such illegal dumping. Traffic clogging city streets at the beginning and the end of each day and at many times in between. Road widenings, one ways, underpasses, overpasses, magic boxes. Lives displaced, livelihoods destroyed, and communities rent asunder. Property prices climbing out of reach of the middle classes. Completed buildings lying empty as developers wait for the rates to rise even further. Overdevelopment, overvaluations, overheated markets, overtired and overwrought citizens.

    Antidote as Poison

    There is a distinct sense that things are out of balance. It is as if the city is in the grip of a fever with the rise in temperature being both literal and metaphorical.

    Fever:

  • (1) A disease characterised by a rise in body temperature and an accelerated pulse, with impaired functions, diminished strength and often with delirium.
  • (2) Heat; agitation; excitement by anything that strongly affects the emotions. (Webster’s Third New International D ictionary of the English Language – U nabridged).
  • The situation that confronts us today brings into relief crucial and neglected issues in urban planning and development: equity, balance, sustainability,

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    september 27, 2008

    limit, restraint, regulation, inclusivity and, most important of all, the specific social and cultural context of our cities.

    Neoliberal theory can only address these matters as dictum. It proposes more and more of the same medicine as if there will be a tipping point when its prescription will suddenly begin to work, as if it is not working only because our inefficiency, corrupt political system, and culture have conspired to undermine its efficacy. Like all evangelising discourses, it remains impervious to self-reflection. Its colossal failures in the past are not seen to indicate the improbability of present or future s uccesses. It sees itself as offering salvation to all who embrace its doctrines. Collateral damage is dismissed as regrettable but inevitable and the urban and rural poor who pay the greatest price are deemed dispensable. Thus the high priests of neoliberal development, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Manmohan Singh and P C Chidambaram, can remain impassive and take no appropriate action even as inflation soars and miseries deepen. Like converts to any form of fundamentalism (market fundamentalism in this case) they interpret all signs as merely affirming the basis of their pre-existing belief.

    The ideologues may have dug in their heels but all is hardly lost. Not only is there a groundswell of activism challenging the current development path, but also truth erupting even in the most unlikely of places, the world of advertising. Making exaggerated claims is par for the course in advertising. Fantasy as a narrative strategy for creating desire for a product is also common. But the kind of trafficking in the virtual that we witness in this period is unprecedented. Many advertisements border on caricaturing products, consumers, and consumption itself.

    Dire Scenarios

    I will briefly describe some advertisements and then comment on them as a group.

    t A woman is waiting on a station platform. Her hair is thick and lush, but in a way unreal, and only possible because of Photoshop. Not one strand of hair is out of place. The train pulls in and then out. She is left so thoroughly dishevelled that it seems as though she has been mauled by something. No train or wind could have produced this mess which is as unreal as her perfectly groomed hair had been to begin with. The man who had been interested in her turns away, put off by her messy appearance. The woman is crestfallen. The ad is for a conditioner.

    t 5IF DPPLJOH TUPWF JT mMUIZ VO believably so, caked with layers of dirt and grime in which one could conduct archaeological digs. It looks as if it has been cooked on but not cleaned for years and that rain, dust and windstorms have been sweeping through the kitchen all the while. A smiling man holds a brand of stove-top cleaner. He demonstrates to a young middle class housewife how it will cut through the grease to reveal a shiny white appliance. (There are similar ads for bathroom cleaners in which lots of germs are shown gleefully jumping up and down.)

    t /PUPOFOPUUXPOPUCVUDPVOUless mosquitoes swarm threateningly as dusk approaches. A well known Bollywood actress extols the virtues of a brand of liquid mosquito repellent. Its vapours rise and permeate every nook and cranny of the house. She breathes it in as if it were fragrant incense.

    t XPNBOCSVTIFTQBTUIFSNBMFDPMleague. He recoils when he apparently feels the hair on her arm against his skin. From the look on his face it would appear that his arm has been grazed by jute or twine, not just touched by hair. The woman looks ashamed as she is mocked by his companions. The ad is for a hair remover.

    t 6NQUFFOBEWFSUJTFNFOUTGPSDBSTBSF shot in what looks like California or Nevada or perhaps Ramoji Film City’s v ersion of these locations. No other traffic, silken roads. And, of course, no pedestrians or hawkers, no litter, no traffic lights. Newspaper advertisements for cars simply use unidentifiable first world-like skylines. Not Marine Drive or India Gate, or a nything that would have sufficed in the old days.

    Such television commercials and print advertisements are not exceptional but common. What is going on in them? There are a number of interesting things one may observe. First, whether it is the problem which highlights the need for a product or the solution said to be offered by it,

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    everything about these advertisements is excessive. And, at times, such as with the filthy stove, it is excessive in a way that violates existing cultural norms. Indian kitchens are traditionally clean places. No housewife would allow her kitchen to get that way. Showing a filthy kitchen is thus not necessary as a pedagogical strategy. Other contrasts are equally unwarranted. It is not as if those who purchase expensive items like conditioners are so clueless that it becomes critical to pointedly exaggerate what could happen to one’s hair if they are not used.

    If the unreality of the cleaner and c onditioner advertisements unwittingly seems to point to the virtual (as opposed to the real) nature of the need for these products, those for mosquito repellent or cars express the virtual nature of one’s enjoyment of them. I do not need to belabour the point about cars. But as far as mosquito repellents are concerned, it is worth noting that we all know we would suffocate if we did shut every window at sundown and breathe in the fumes as in the commercial. We also know that mosquitoes develop resistance to these chemicals far sooner than we do, which is why they can be seen casually circling the coil or dispenser, much to our dismay. We know this and we know it well. Advertisements explicitly rely on our competencies to read and interpret. How do we understand what is happening?

    Giving the Game Away

    I would like to suggest that advertisements are simultaneously manifesting and parodying the excesses of our current period. If we look closely at these examples, we notice that the relationship between humans and their social and natural environments is a theme common to them all. This is not surprising since consumption takes place in a social context. The advertisements represent this relationship between humans and their environments in two distinct ways. In one, the environment is benign, a kind of backdrop to the product or activity. The car advertisement would be an example of this. But the benign environment is also the virtual environment. Everyone knows that our actual roads and cities are nothing like what is portrayed.

    In the second kind of representation, the advertisements for conditioners, household cleansers, and mosquito re pellents, the environment is represented in a threatening manner. The threat can come from nature (mosquitoes and germs, the gust generated by a train) or from humans making fun of one’s so-called imperfections. In such advertisements, the natural and social worlds impinge upon humans in dramatic and fearful ways. There is a third category of advertisement that is a subset of the first. This is the one in which humans triumph over sudden danger – such as a motorbike sailing over a chasm unexpectedly opening beneath it. But this stunt is so obviously a visual effect that it becomes a virtual v ictory, a pyrrhic one.

    Such advertisements manifest the personal and social anxieties that have accompanied the globalisation process, and the forms of alienation from self and environment that they have engendered. Their excesses are but a symptom of the excesses that have accompanied globalisation’s stubborn refusal to take into account the “nature” of things, whether it is the character of urban spaces, the importance of lakebeds and tanks to water security, and rainwater runoff in Bengaluru, or the nature of the human body, its need for adequate sleep or sunlight, and its tendency to be a particular shape or size. This failure to take nature seriously (and I am using that term in its broadest sense) has produced a fearful repertoire of representations in which nature itself seems to be out of control and in constant need of being kept in check.

    Mosquitoes and germs act in improbable ways. Dirt piles up and solidifies on the cooking stove. One’s body, hair, and skin act unpredictably to open one to mockery and shame. These representations build absurdity into the very manner of their narration. Products meet unreal needs in unreal ways or offer impossible solutions to all too familiar problems. Such exaggeration and fantasy is enabled by Photoshop and related software technologies which can manipulate image and sound. Facts make way for fictions.

    After all, if one actually filmed mosquitoes or germs, one would be hard pressed to find them acting with the deliberate and malevolent intent these advertisements seem to imply. Mosquitoes may bite but only until their hunger is appeased; they are not greedy. And if they are c oming in droves it has something to do with changes in our environment related to urban development as is much discussed in the mass media. Germs are a fact of life. But our encounter with these organisms is the natural result of the dynamic processes of interaction and comingling to which we as humans are a party. Germs do not exist to undermine our health and well-being. These advertisements invert the line of causation. In them nature menaces humans.

    New Superstition

    Significantly, however, these advertisements circulate in a context where events (rise in temperatures, pollution, floods, environmental illnesses) are constantly demonstrating the very opposite of what they portray. There is widespread social consciousness of the roots of current problems in environmental degradation brought on by thoughtless human action and its catastrophic implications for life on the planet. Such understanding is now a cross-class phenomenon. It is to be found among the middle class which has at times been insulated from awareness of its interdependence on its environment. It is also unsurprisingly evinced by the urban and rural poor, whose lives and livelihoods have always required a dynamic knowledge of the environment and the most sustainable means of relating to it.

    It is in this context that I interpret these advertisements as symptomatic of our c ollective anxieties and as instances of social truths unwittingly expressed, even if in an inverted, and thus distorted, form. These representations do not merely embody what we customarily expect of advertisements, namely, awe and wonder about the products being advertised. They also contain dread. W onder, awe and dread are the three defining features of superstition. Superstition proliferates during periods of rapid and destabilising change.

    Superstition is usually dismissed as an irrational form of knowledge that is opposed to reason and it is frequently exactly that. But superstition can equally

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    be understood as a kind of sense-making effort when prevailing reason has forfeited is claim to being credible, when its explanations are patently partial, erroneous, or miasmic. I suggest that these advertisements be read as the superstition of a globalising middle class all too aware at some level of the violence of the project in which it has been enlisted and of which it is a key beneficiary. And given that the Latin root of the word “superstition” also incorporates the sense of standing over or near a thing, it is perhaps not surprising that its script writers are from the world of advertising, the industry most intimately involved in globalisation’s mythmaking.

    3 An Alternative Vision

    The seeming coherence of a discourse of globality is premised on disarticulating the real relations between neoliberal globalisation as process and policy trajectory, and the material realities it enters, transforms, destroys, or remakes. However the effort to deflect, repress or deny material facts simply does not work. As with any attempt to dismiss truth, the repressed merely returns to leave its traces even in the sanctum sanctorum of the wishgenerating dream machine of advertising.

    That said, globalisation cannot be adequately challenged unless our politics of resistance also take on the processes by which it produces subjects invested in a particular idea of modernity. The culture of globalisation must itself become one of the sites of counter-hegemonic activism. Curiously, this has barely happened. It is mainly the Sangh parivar that has periodically and publicly raised questions about the deleterious effects of consumerism or challenged BPOs continuing to work on national holidays. But the grounds on which they object are usually themselves objectionable.

    We need to articulate a progressive critique that directly addresses the worldview of capitalist modernity because this is what makes it possible for many not to see the violence of the project in which they are collaborating. Such a critique has not been forthcoming because even the Left remains deeply invested in it. The Left’s problem is not with this conception so much as with the diminished

    Economic Political Weekly

    EPW
    september 27, 2008

    sovereignty and minimal regulatory and of its vibrant history, people and subcul
    redistributive role assigned to the nation tures as opposed to the futuristic concep
    state in a neoliberal regime. The Left is tion currently propelling official decisions.
    not against capitalist modernity, merely Bengaluru’s heritage and conviviality
    against some of its excesses. This is what were honoured for making the city what it
    explains the role of the Left in its erstwhile is for its residents, not as unique selling
    QBSMJBNFOUBSZ BMMJBODF XJUI UIF 6OJUFE points for a putative tourist destination.
    Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its opposi- The contrast with the imaginary global
    tion to the nuclear deal. city with its empty streets and super-fast
    Those who believe this position is insuf highways could not have been starker. It
    ficient to our present predicament need to was people who were at the heart and soul
    articulate an alternative vision. This is of this discussion. Each story spoke to an
    already happening whether in the anti interconnected web of social relationships
    dam movement, farmers’ refusal to use and practices.
    genetically modified seeds, the return to It is one of the paradoxes of the present
    traditional farming methods, or the many that the word “connectivity” has exclu
    struggles to protect and nurture the envi sively come to mean the fastest means of
    ronment. A similar move to affirm the bridging the distance between two points.
    natural and sociocultural diversity of If the meaning of the word “geography”
    urban areas is also gathering force. On was transformed by its pluralisation, “con-
    June 19, 2008, a unique event called nectivity” has been altered by being nar-
    Namma Raste was organised in Bengaluru rowed. But the rush to shrink space and
    by the Environment Support Group and time for a small elite has brought death
    the Alternative Law Forum. and disability on the road to Devanahalli.
    The workshop was organised in the The expressway to the new international
    wake of a successful public-interest litiga airport in Bengaluru has split a commu
    tion (PIL) filed by the Environment Sup nity down the middle. Lives lie divided.
    port Group and CIVIC challenging the way Schools, homes, markets, friends, doctors,
    Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike has and families can only be accessed by cross
    proceeded to widen roads.2 The PIL ing a highway on which cars hurtle at
    pointed out that there was no public con unimaginable speeds. On being ques
    sultation, no consideration of the impact tioned about the wisdom of what has been
    the road-widening plan would have on the done and the absence of any provisions for
    life and livelihoods of those affected, and pedestrians, civil engineers and others in
    the needs of road users other than vehicle charge repeatedly invoke the term “con
    owners, or of the consequences of felling nectivity”. The word stands in for, rather
    a projected 35,000 to 40,000 trees. In as, a rational explanation. Apparently no
    response, the Karnataka High Court more need be said. There is no sense of
    mandated that all project decisions be irony that “connectivity” is equally appli
    referred to a committee that is duty bound cable to the community destroyed by the
    to take into account public views and the highway. It reminds us of the power of an
    public interest. abstraction to simultaneously narrow the
    field of vision and normalise violence. We
    Building Bridges urgently require a counter-discourse to
    The workshop sought to begin the process neoliberal globalisation. We need to widen
    of dialogue between different constituen our frames of reference and restore to the
    cies in need of representation: traders’ centre everything that it routinely dis
    groups, trade unions, slum organisers, misses as unnecessary and illegitimate in
    urban planners and non-governmental the pursuit of its version of modernity. Our
    organisations (NGOs) working on a range humanity depends on it.
    of issues from health and disability to
    pedestrian rights. The hope was to pull Notes
    back Bengaluru from its descent into hell 1
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    --
    in the context of the drive to make it a ter widespread in our society, see Lata Mani,
    global city. The intent was to articulate a Sacred Secular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, Routledge, New Delhi, forthcoming.
    vision of the city grounded in the actuality 2 The PIL can be accessed at www.esgindia.org.
    47

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