Friday, May 3, 2013

Attraverso Review: The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition by Arjun Appadurai

By Professor Jeffery Atik

In this collection of essays, Arjun Appadurai links his role as leading globalization scholar to his practice as activist on behalf of the slum dwellers in his native city of Mumbai (or Bombay, the abandoned name Appadurai seems to prefer). Appadurai redeploys globalization theory (and more generally modernization theory, of which globalization is a part) as an ethical practice. He calls for cultivating the capacity to aspire among the world's poor -- an unabashedly cultural project with political and developmental implications. Appadurai argues that the poor must be enabled to aspire -- these aspirations will, in turn, define new and different trajectories from those promised by the passé globalist.
Globalization has failed in its predictions -- and so has failed as science. Globalization, it was thought, would lead to convergence and homogenization, more democracy and tolerance and less nationalism and violence. Yet the world we now see displays strong (and growing stronger) national states and continued developmental disparities. Those enabled by knowledge migrate; their home countries capture disappointing returns from their educational investments. New digital capacities have been harnessed by jealous ethnic groups to reinforce local identities; they can encourage aggression and conflict.

These phenomena play out in Mumbai, as elsewhere. In the central essays on Mumbai, one sees Appadurai's personal disappointments and hopes for the city he left many years ago. His portrait of Bombay -- the wonderfully cosmopolitan possibility of his youth -- is a new city, where peoples from many parts of India and elsewhere mix. The clearest example of Bombay's promise of co-existence is the presence of large and intermixed Hindu and Muslim communities -- but there are Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Syrian Christians and the ever-charming British colonialists adding flavor to the stew. Appadurai insists on the inherent capitalist foundation of the Bombay of his youth -- built on the production of textiles and other industrial goods for export markets. Bombay is thus twice cosmopolitan -- by the inner composition of its multi-ethnic population and by Bombay's full engagement with (and  dependence on) international trade and capital investment.

Appadurai captures this fading Bombay in three delightful depictions. The first is his portrait of Bombay as the City of Cash. Cash in Bombay is not a cold technical concept -- rather it is the species of sociability, displayed and celebrated. The value of cash lies in cash's flashy visibility. One of the functions of cash, of course, is forging social linkages -- and this it does spectacularly well in Bombay. His second Bombay sketch renders the strange linguistic brew spoken there: Marathi at base, but filled with exotic elements provided by the various sub-groups arriving from other parts of India. And the third image of Bombay is colored via the neverland of Bollywood (a name that still incorporates the discarded Bombay) where most of India's ethnicities are featured (though not the local Maharastrians as such), either denatured ("vaguely North Indian") or stereotyped. The music of Bollywood -- its defining element -- flows from the northwest and its traditional ghazal into the streets of Mumbai.

This Bombay exists no more. And so Appadurai asks "What killed Bombay?" The renaming of Bombay marked more than a rejection of a colonial style; Mumbai, the new name, is an artifact of the Shiva Sena, the ruling party that projects a Marathi primacy at odds with Bombay's cosmopolitan past and multicultural present. Mumbai has been scarred by the 1992-1993 Hindu-Muslim riots. One of the thematic challenges of raising the hopes of Mumbai's poor is overcoming these divides.

The View from Mumbai is the core of the book. It reflects the engaged nature of Appadurai's intellectual projects and many of his convictions. Appadurai recounts the actions and practices of a constellation of slum-based NGOs devoted to improving housing for the city's poorest residents. He sees housing as a primary social need, the key to citizenship. Yet Appadurai rejects elite-controlled planning in favor of spontaneous design by the poor themselves -- the model children's toilet celebrated by Kofi Annan being a prime example.

Appadurai notes the internal innovations of the Mumbai NGOs: their patience, their "bias against 'projects'", their nonhierarchical styles, their strategies of precedent. He sees these groups fostering improvement to the lives of Mumbai's slum-dwellers. The central contribution of these housing activists in Appadurai's estimation is increasing the poor's "capacity to aspire."

Improvements in the capacity to aspire can result from deliberate political and social action -- by and on behalf of Mumbai's poor (and by extension the world's poor). These hopeful possibilities result from modernization/globalization -- they depend on e-mail and cell-phones, and the formation of transnational networks of activists, which distribute notions and celebrate achievements. The Future as Cultural Fact is a hopeful book; it suggests that social science can indeed contribute, in a modest manner, to social progress.

Follow me on Twitter @jefferyatik

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