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Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Although it may at first seem paradoxical or counter-intuitive, the celebration of the United Nations, the desire to see a World Court take precedence over national legal systems, the project of establishing a United Nations Peace-Keeping Force, the call for the unification of Europe with a common currency and no passport restrictions within the EU, and the embrace by progressive Americans of Kwanzaa, Cinco de Mayo, and other artificially created or imported ceremonies are all manifestations of the same ideological orientation toward space that I have labeled the Internationalism of world capitalism [a fact that explains the ease with which corporations adopt these symbols for advertising purposes.]  The dispute now growing between Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama over the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a relatively rare rift in the seamless embrace of Internationalism by the American left.

Standing in opposition to the Internationalist orientation to space is Patriotism, which at its most elemental is a privileging of one space -- the patria -- over all others.  In its pure form, patriotism imposes on the world what logicians would call a lexicographic ordering of spaces.  Any space within the borders of the homeland, however benighted, backward, or unappealing, is given priority over any space beyond the borders, even though it might lie within a few feet of those borders and be indistinguishable in all its properties from what lies within the sacred boundaries.  If one walks through the woods or across a field from Canada to the United States, even the global positioning system of one's cell phone may not be suffice to identify the precise moment when one has crossed the border.  And yet, as soon as he comes upon some marker of the transition, the true American patriot will feel a sense of relief, a swelling of the breast, at the knowledge that he has come home.

There are many versions of the patriotic encoding of space, all of them sharing the same privileging of the patria over all other spaces.  The Chinese, for example, conceive of their homeland as the center of the earth.  As Owen Lattimore shows in his classic work, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, the Middle Kingdom expands in times of strength to absorb Manchuria, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, and then contracts during times of internal strife and division, gathering in upon itself until it can again expand its borders.  The present incorporation of Tibet into China is only the latest in this millennia long process of expansion and contraction.

The expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century to the "natural" boundary of the Pacific Ocean is our own version of this ideological encoding of space.  [I pass over as too well known for comment the famous "Frontier Thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner.]  The ideological encoding of space played an important role, of course, in the Nazi justification for the eastward expansion that launched the Second World War.

It is important to distinguish the orientations toward space of Internationalism and Patriotism from the quite distinctive meanings given to space by imperialism and the literature and philosophy written to rationalize it.  Imperialism is distinguishable from patriotism in adding to the lexicographic prioritizing of the homeland the idea of subordinate or subaltern, not merely foreign, spaces.  Imperialism is in its essence a military quest for raw materials, strategic advantage, cheap labor, markets, and available land for the establishing of colonies, but imperial powers almost always rationalize their expansion with self-congratulatory claims that they are civilizing the natives, bearing the White Man's Burden, or bringing democracy to benighted lands sweltering under the oppression of kings and satraps.

The ideological rationalization of empire is captured brilliantly both in the popular literature of the imperial power and in its great art, both literary and visual.  Let me give an extended example, excerpted from my tutorial on Ideological Critique.  Reflect, if you have ever seen any of them in movies or on television, on the literary conventions of the typical romantic account of explorations to the Dark Continent, or to the center of the earth, or to the New World, or to the South Sea Islands. I have in mind King Solomon's Mines [the earlier version with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger], or the television dramatization of the search by Speke and Burton for the headwaters of the Nile, or even the movie version of Jules Verne's Voyage to the Center of the Earth, with James Mason.

Typically, the voyage begins in safe, comfortable, familiar surroundings -- a well-appointed sitting-room in an upper middle class Victorian London home, or a centuries-old university building at Edinburgh University, or the Court of Elizabeth the First. The adventurers plan a voyage to a remote place, far from civilization -- perhaps not even locatable on any available map. They seek diamonds, or the rumored headwaters of the Nile, or some notional geographic position such as The North Pole.

The earliest stages of the voyage are physically easy, and proceed quickly: a ride in a Hansom Cab to the docks, a long sea voyage on a regularly scheduled ocean liner, perhaps a train ride. The farther from their starting point the travelers go, the harder their voyage becomes. Encoded into this literary convention is the notion that space is not isotropic -- that there is a privileged position [London, say] where the laws of nature make movement easy and comfortable. The farther one gets from that privileged point, the more effort is required to keep going. The travelers endure all manner of hardship -- shipwreck, train derailments, the decampment of native bearers [who, it should be noted, somehow manage, even in the hardest stages of the voyage, to walk the same distance as our heroes and heroines while also carrying fifty or seventy-five pound burdens.]

Eventually, when their energy is almost exhausted, their health almost ruined, their endurance tested to the limit, they manage to stumble upon the North Pole, the headwaters of the Nile, or King Solomon's Mines. This voyage is represented, literarily, as a movement outward in space and -- when the goal is some primitive tribe -- backwards in time. [Recall one curious variation on this genre, the travel to an island where dinosaurs still live, or, for that matter, a giant ape.]

Frequently, on the trip back, the voyagers take with them a native whom they have come upon at the end of their travels. As they return to their starting point, the valences are reversed. The voyage is difficult at first, and gets easier. They are, so to speak, going downhill now. And [this is a crucial point] the native who accompanies them experiences the trip in exactly the same way. That is to say, he or she does not find the going easy at first, despite the fact that they are in his or her home territory. He or she experiences the early stages of the return voyage as hard, and subsequent stages as easier and easier, thereby showing -- in the terms of this literary convention -- that the world is objectively structured anisotropically. For the native, as well as for the travelers, London is a central place and the jungle or the desert is a peripheral place.

[In Greystoke: Tarzan of the Apes, a brilliant remaking of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan story, this convention is actually violated. Tarzan finds England a difficult place to live and when he returns to the jungle, he experiences a liberation. Things become suddenly easier for him again. The impact of this reversal signals, in a negative fashion, the hold the convention has on our way of thinking. In the original book, by the way, in one of the most marvelously wacky scenes in any popular fiction, the young ape-man learns to speak English by looking at reading primers in the ruined hut where his mother and father died years before! As a titled English Lord, he has upper class English in his blood. The movie invents a more plausible explanation for his acquisition of language.]

Perhaps the most perfect literary representation of the ideology of empire is Rudyard Kipling's delightful novel, Kim.  Kim, for those of you who have not read it, is the son of a British soldier and an Indian woman during the Raj, Britain's imperial domination of India.  Kim able, without difficulty, to pass either for Indian or English, as are a number of all-English spies, who are able to pass merely by darkening their skin, donning native dress, and mastering the local lingo.  But when an Indian who has gone to British run schools tries to behave like a proper English gentleman, the result is rendered by Kipling as comical, because quite obviously someone of the lower races cannot pass himself off as a member of the ruling class.  Now, we all know instinctively how hard it would be for someone from Boston to pass as a native of Chicago or Atlanta, and yet the nuances of regional dialect, which are immediately obvious to a native speaker, are treated as trivial to master for one of the superior race.  Think of The Four Feathers or Lawrence of Arabia. 



Jim Westrich said...

I know this is just a digression but your lines about the indistinguishable characteristics on the U. S.-Canada border made me immediately think "or walk across a room".

What could be more indistinguishable than the two sides of that reading room?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The world really is a great deal odder than our imagination! I love it.

mesnenor said...

In a comment to the earlier post one of your readers pointed you toward Heidegger. He's just one of the European philosophers who have discussed issues of space and place.

If you didn't find Heidegger to be your cup of tea, perhaps Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space might be more to your liking.

classtruggle said...

Great post. Glad to hear that you are approaching this with enthusiasm and excitement.

"manifestations of the same ideological orientation toward space that I have labeled the Internationalism of world capitalism"

Yes and worth pointing out that ideology follows property relations (hence the meaning of Upton Sinclair's famous line 'it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!') and so this ideological orientation toward a space that is increasingly global (which is different from the meaning of inter-national -- I point this out because in the literature the two are often confused) reflects the current state of self expanding capital in the form of the transnational which as you imply is now global in its organisation and operations, subordinating the nation-state and civil society to the imperatives of a highly globalised (as opposed to nationalised) form of the capitalist mode of production. I would also add that this period of transition from nationally-based capital accumulation to the global accumulation of capital free from or indifferent to national identities and interests marks the end of national capitalism and the declining sovereignty of the nation-state whose raison d'ĂȘtre has undergone a process of transformation from protecting the interests of its national capitalist class to furthering the consolidation of global forms of capitalist accumulation (see Robinson or Teeple for an elaboration of this argument). As a result, the political and social institutions associated with the national economy are being transformed and increasingly integrated functionally into a supranational institutional structure for the purpose of facilitating and advancing the interests of an international capitalist class with global interests. At the same time, and this is really the point I want to make, capital's move into a supranational space where labour lacks organisation, representation, and protection has redefined the possibilities and limitations of existing forms of working class trade union organisation. The working classes and their representatives the trade unions, as the embodiments of national corporate property relations, are effectively prevented from moving beyond the limits of the national forms in which they had developed, leaving them at the mercy of the structural power of free-floating global capital and its supranational political authority (e.g WB, WTO, IMF, NATO, etc).

Another digression -- it would also be interesting to reflect on the similarities and differences between the concepts imperialism and colonialism. The former derives from the Latin ‘imperium’ and in most definitions refers to the extension of a country’s power/influence through force, colonisation, ideology, etc. This is how you (and I would (correctly) define it). But I notice students in my tutorials and sometimes writers treat them as the same. Are they interchangeable? I tend to think Canada, for example, is a colonial entity initially created by (English) imperial interests for the purpose of furthering those interests at the expense of the indigenous peoples and their descendants. For Edward Said (who was a literary scholar and not a sociologist) imperialism refers to “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory”, whereas colonialism refers to the “implanting of settlements on a distant territory.” So imperialism includes colonialism but colonialism does not necessarily imply imperialism according to Said. BUT that’s not to say Canada does not have imperialist visions of its own. In 2010 Canada tried unsuccessfully to obtain a seat on the UN Security Council. Says a lot about how the Canadian government views itself, no?

classtruggle said...

In the end there is no right answer to definitions. The key is to define terms and defend the definition that one gives to them. The more closely I read the literature on labour standards, the more I see the frequent misuse of concepts -- poor definitions, same term but different meanings, etc.

No way around thinking it all through…

Amarnath said...

As an Indian I never liked Kipling. Please read books (My india, Man-eaters etc) by Jim Corbett based on his actual life experiences in Indian jungles. I was moved when the Govt of India named the area he roamed as Corbett National Park. amarnath