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The Age of Empire

MJ Simpson

The Age of Empire

 

            One of the more recent contributions to cultural and social analysis is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work Empire, published by Harvard University Press. Many critics remain interested in the social, cultural and ideological impacts of globalization, for the simple reason that we now reside in an age in history where “global communities” and “transnational citizens” exist.

 

            The main thesis of Hardt & Negri’s work is of course their concept of Empire. According to these two writers, we no longer live in a world where the nation or the country stands out as the most important factor in the way the world functions. In the age of Empire, the nation becomes a vital yet small component in the larger scheme of things.

 

            Of course, we cannot say that they are completely correct. Like all critical analyses of culture, society or language there is no one truth.

           

The purpose of this critical inquiry is not to directly antagonize anyone, but let us point out one significant fact regarding “truth” itself- that it is constructed. It might come as a shock to some, who had lived for so long believing some things as essential or natural. However, in the end, every piece of human knowledge had been pre-figured, digested, regurgitated and refashioned before it reached our own modern epoch.

 

            We find that even human history itself, as a subjective occurrence rife with objective contradictions does not repeat as if in a naturalized cycle. We are not “trapped”, we never have been. We just choose to do or not do things. It is people who choose to give rise to certain repetitions of history. Often the cyclical repetition of even bad human habits (such as swerving from one lane to another) is due to ignorance, or much worse, the inability to understand the causal relation between changes in human events.

 

            The age of Empire, like all general theories of society and how it functions has its predecessors. Within the social sciences, the intellectual fathers of Hardt & Negri are no doubt Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault.

 

            A bit of history: Louis Althusser was Michel Foucault’s intellectual father. And yes, Michel Foucault had slain Althusser by rebelling against his thought.           Anyway, Michel Foucault is known throughout most of the academes for his work on human sexuality.

 

            Foucault was a “post-structuralist” because he did not believe that the objective system (society) completely controls the agents (people). In sociology, there is of course an unending battle between the adherents of objectivity and subjectivity. The premise is simple enough; one need not be confused between the two schools.

 

            We are going through the basic history to emphasize something- that for a long time now, people have been thinking of the best ways to act. By “act”, we mean “take control” or even “reverse” some things that have made the world an intolerable place.

 

            The age of Empire is strongly linked with the concept of globalization. Globalization is considered one of the key concerns of nearly everyone connected to just about anything. Environmentalists, economists, literary critics, sociologists and even hack writers consider globalization or mundialism a very real and very urgent object of scrutiny.

 

            Globalization, briefly, is the multinational expansion of corporations to all parts of the globe. Expansion means more production; more production translates to the consumption of more natural resources, non-renewable sources of energy and human labor. Both the global Left and global Right are contending with the consequences of globalization.

 

            Different people choose to be concerned with particular consequences of globalization. For self-proclaimed environmentalists, corporate globalization and the increased industrial output of the most polluted countries in the world means big trouble for the ozone layer, for potable water, for arable land and for exotic flora and fauna. For a long time now, organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have been exerting some effort to save habitats and species from extinction. On the larger scale, these organizations can only do so much.

 

            For sociologists, globalization means the centripetal movement of capital and profits from the poorer countries to the wealthiest countries in the world. Labor is carried out in the poorer countries (or in the old parlance of the social sciences, the “Third World”) and so is most of the production. But in the end, which country profits from the whole enterprise?

 

            Politicians from every country in the world are discussing the vicissitudes of globalization- because its effects are being felt now. The recession in the United States, the unstable price of oil in the oil-exporting countries in the Middle East and the near-death situation of companies like General Motors are clear signs of the coming of a worldwide economic meltdown. The measures taken by countries such as the United States are a clear indication that for once, the state is being used directly to regulate the largely unregulated, dollar-pegged economies. To simply put, the state is simply saving itself from spontaneous combustion.

                       

            For people engaged in the study of culture, there is an obsession with finding the intricate relationships between culture, political economy and literature- because globalization means the homogenization of whole cultures. We are not talking about simply languages- we are talking of whole ways of living.

 

A few years ago, a biology professor from the University of the Philippines made a joke regarding the possible state of the world without proper human intervention. He was talking about species of animals and the importance of wildlife conservation.

 

            He stated, “Would you like to live in a world with only cats, dogs and birds?” Gross generalization aside, he did have a point. Now if we are to relate the issue of intervention to human cultures, then if nothing is done to reverse the homogenizing or singularizing effect of globalization on national or even worse, ethnic or regional cultures, then what would we have in the end?

           

            To illustrate this point, let us take the German band Rammstein’s song Amerika as an example. The music video of Amerika featured the band portraying the Apollo mission to the Moon. They were singing, “We’re all living in America, America, It’s wonderful (It’s Wonder Bra)” while jumping up and down on the moon’s surface.

 

            On the interim, they set an automatic camera to take their group picture with the American flag. The American flag itself came from a package, which even had a user’s manual. Unfurling a national flag, it turns out has a correct way.

 

            Aside from their antics on the surface of the moon, the music video showed children from a tribe (supposedly in Africa) adoring a fat, costumed Santa Claus. Santa Claus was seated in the afternoon sun in his red suit, giving away shiny presents with ribbons.

 

            If you watch the video, you would also be able to see a man from Tokyo riding a Harley in a slick leather jacket with an Elvis hair-do, young monks in orange garb, walking down from a temple while eating large hamburgers, a man stepping off a flying carpet (removing his rubber shoes) and smoking Lucky Strike.

 

            You would also be able to see a group of farmers watching the music video itself with a television set in the middle of rice paddies and again, African children jumping up and down while eating pizza and watching television.

 

            The video is funny some ways- but painfully ironic. We are used to appreciating cultures as they develop independently. Now it seems that this is already rendered impossible.

 

            There is a certain beauty with the way human culture forms. Unique cultures, unstained by corporate rule, develop heterogeneous components that serve to satisfy the particular micro social groupings within its larger collectivity. With the advent of just one ruling culture, the development is stunted. In some cases, it is completely obliterated.

 

            For people who have grown up in the homogenizing cultures of the West, this problem does not exist. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., a Filipino critic who had trained in Harvard, terms this as being “in the belly of the Beast”.

           

            It’s funny, considering that even in our own country, many of our fellow Filipinos are unable to relate the consequences of music and mainstream media with long-term effects on culture. Some simply don’t care. Perhaps this is forgivable, but it does not make it right.

 

            The assumption that progress entails the complete erasure of cultures is simply false. One only needs to look at the way national cultures are being enviously protected by larger European countries. In whatever way they can, they are preserving what remains. In the Philippines, we are seeing a reverse trend- what remains is being pounded to oblivion.

 

            Some people might ask, “You want us to start wearing bahag and start living in the mountains?” If one were asked this face to face, you could say “Sure, why not.” But for the purpose of this small attempt to make sense of the age of Empire, we would have to say “No.”

 

            Smaller cultures, or non-dominant cultures deserve to develop. Whether they would be obliterated by in-fighting or other intrinsic factors, it follows logically that these cultures should be left to their own devices. This is not making a fetish out of them. This approach would make sure that these smaller cultures and the cultural artifacts that they produce would not be made commodities in the end.

 

            The novelist, postmodern critic and nationalist Jun Cruz Reyes, always says, “I do not pretend to be an expert. I am just very, very curious.” To an extent this is a very effective way to approach the world in general. Expertise need not be a part of the picture when we think about things- because expertise in itself is mostly only self-affirming and masturbatory.

 

            What matters most is insight- the ability to understand what lies inside and outside of human events.  People should be more “curious” of the world at large. Many would be surprised of how much insight one can gain from simply “sitting down” and thinking about ordinary things.

 

            Take religion as an example. With literally thousands upon thousands of minor religions around the world, it is simply impossible to say that this religion is more superior than this religion. What are the criteria for the best religion or faith, anyway? Capital? Who’s got the larger temple? Who’s reading the Bible in which translation?

 

            The point here is that in no way can one belief simply stand out as logically superior to another through self-recognition. Modern religions (or adaptations of ancient religions) function because of the self-hypnotic mantras that have been devised to make certain faiths more believable than others.

 

            Religious fanaticism can also be questioned this way. When man comes to harm for the sake of religious dogma that is being preserved and implemented by higher central authorities, should it be followed or not? The answer lies on individuals themselves- because sometimes, people already know what’s best for them and yet do nothing to achieve a brighter, more tolerable existence.

 

            We are “the masses”. Being part of the larger mass of humanity, we are all held responsible for the ups and downs of human civilization. Apathy or plain ignorance is no excuse. In the age of Empire, anything and everything is implicated and no one is innocent. We all play our roles- we are agents or movers of this wild and unpredictable movie.

 

            A balance should be struck between belief of the overarching nature of society and government, and the potency of the Self.

 

            To end our little essay on the age of Empire, it would be appropriate to relate a tale told by Michel Foucault himself in a 1980s lecture at the UCLA in Berkley. In his introductory speech on “The Culture of the Self”, he told the audience of a story about a man who had a mentor.

 

            The mentor was a paid teacher, and the man being taught had been going to this teacher for twenty years. In the end, we learn that this man had been going to the same person as a paying student to learn about how to live his own life.

 

            When the laughter in the audience subsided, Michel Foucault continued with, “I’m sure none of us here is a modern version of that man.” But he says that he does believe that there are people like the man’s teacher in our own age. They are called philosophers.