Imagined Globalization by Néstor García Canclini

Canclini, Néstor García. 2014. Imagined Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 288 pages; $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

In Imagined Globalization anthropologist Néstor García Canclini (2014) ambitiously employs anthropological, sociological, and economic discourses to tackle the “unidentified cultural object” of globalization (20). His rather nebulous definition of the concept speaks to the difficulty in providing a singular explanation for globalization, a process whose ever-changing nature inherently resists one concrete understanding. While he makes it clear that globalization does not mean the same thing or things to everyone, García Canclini does define the phenomenon as the structural, recognizable process of cultural diffusion. Globalism, in contrast, is more fixed as it homogenizes the same distinctive cultural products—music, literature, clothing—that globalization spreads. This distinction is necessary, as the author both repeatedly notes the numerous, evolving implications of unequal power relations brought about by globalization. Instead of enforcing a binary between identity politics and globalism, he advocates for us to consider and understand how we can better engage with inequalities, each other, and otherness. García Canclini argues:

By moving the debate on globalization from questions of identity to the discrepancies between supranational integration policies and citizen behavior, we reject reducing it to the opposition between the global and the local. […] Rather than pitting essentialized identities against globalization, the issue at hand is to explore whether subjects can have agency in larger social structures. (14)

Although he contends that the continued dissemination of community and cultural knowledge and traditions is inevitable, the author’s emphasis on individual and group agency suggests the possibility that a less empowered group may be able to take advantage of globalization’s unstoppable force.

Through a triangular focus on Latin America, North America, and Europe, García Canclini’s comparative methodology is effective in decentering Western narratives and illuminating the limitations of a singular analytic lens. He provides an especially revelatory examination of the limitations of economic analysis in exploring cultural knowledge transmission and the ensuing tensions it causes between producers and consumers of culture. The author cleverly reveals the futility of discussing the kind of society that mass media shape based solely on ratings. Rather, he argues, “We need to study consumption as the expression of the agency of subjects, as the process that favors their emergence and interpellation, that supports or obstructs their interaction with other subjects” (11). Accordingly, re-focusing on the content of consumption rather than its volume will yield truer findings as to sources of cultural and individual agency.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in the author’s recognition of narrative and metaphor as important and multifunctional tools: in addition to their common usage for communicating within and across cultural boundaries, metaphor in particular is uniquely suited for alluding to what cannot be explained in a singular concept. Moreover, García Canclini views both literary devices as the foundations that “create the imaginary, produce knowledge in their attempt to grasp what becomes fleeting in the global disorder, that which cannot be delimited by borders but rather crosses them, or believes that it crosses them but sees them reappear a little farther on, in the barriers of discrimination” (35). In an expert gesture, García Canclini turns to artists and writers, not only for their usages of narrative and metaphor, but also as producers of the very culture that is marketed and sold in the global market. He draws the necessary parallel between the structural work of narrative and metaphor to grasp at ideas that cannot be fully contained within rigid disciplinary strictures, such as the fluidity of identity and changing notions of home, belonging, and migration. Additionally, his keen look at artistic and cultural production reveals globalization’s dependence on the very specificities of a given culture as the material that becomes homogenized once they are introduced to and accommodate market demands. To be sure, he argues the contemporary emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity is nonetheless driven by market expansion as opposed to truer attempts at a polyvocal, pluralistic global society.

Where the book loses a bit of potency is in its incorporation of so many, albeit tangentially related, anecdotal passages. One such passage is found toward the end of the book, where the author muses about the loss of awe or astonishment in our continually globalizing world. As he goes on to detail his curious discovery of the placement of anthropological and cultural studies texts in either the religion or travel sections of bookstores, one fails to see how this and other such asides do not ultimately detract from the complexity of his arguments. Nonetheless, even though some of his meanderings can occasionally veer off course, his guiding principle remains clear: an argument for the fruitfulness of his multi-disciplinary approach.

Ultimately, Imagined Globalization’s innovative and multidisciplinary approach results in a product as enlightening as it is complex. García Canclini succeeds not in answering the questions he puts forth but rather in choosing which questions to ask, along with bringing great nuance to the immense and ongoing discourses around globalization. Thus, this book is particularly suited to anthropologists, as well as scholars of literature and cultural studies. Originally published in 1999, the author's and translator’s updated footnotes in this new edition help to contemporize what remains a very relevant and engaging read.

Jehan Roberson is a writer and recently received her MA in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University.