On the Difficulty of Being Glocal
Universalism used to be a rather simple affair: the more detached from local
traditions, the more universal you became. If the stoics
could be called ‘citizens of the world’, it’s because they
accepted being part of the ‘human race’, above and beyond
the narrow labels of ‘Greek’ and ‘barbarian’. A regular scale
seemed to lead from local to global, offering a compass along
which every position could be mapped. Until recently, the
more modern you were, the higher up you ascended; the less
modern you were, the lower down you were confined.
Things have now changed a lot. What now is more universal: the American world
order or the French Republic? The forces of globalization
or those who call themselves anti-mondialists? Local farmers
daily influenced by the price fluctuations of commodities
or local teachers insulated behind the walls of civil service?
Amazon Indians able to mobilize NGOs in their defence or
some famous philosopher secluded on campus? And what about
China? Certainly a billion and a half people will add some
weight to whichever definition of the world they adhere to,
no matter how local it might appear to Westerners – if there
is still a West.
The situation is all the more confusing because, as many anthropologists have
shown, people devise new ‘localisms’ even faster than globalization
is supposed to destroy them. Traditions are invented daily,
entire cultures are coming into existence, languages are
being made up; as to religious affiliations, they may become
even more entrenched than before. It’s as if the metaphor
of ‘roots’ had been turned upside down: the more ‘uprooted’
by the forces of modernization, the farther down identities
are attaching themselves. Modernization, with its clear frontlines,
has become as confusing as a game of Go at mid-play.
Hence the success of the word glocal, which signifies that labels can no longer
be safely positioned along the former scale, stretching,
by successive extensions, from the most local to the most
universal. Instead of subtracting one another, conflicting
identities keep being added. And yet they remain in conflict
and thus have to be sorted out, since no one can belong to
all of them at once…
But if the compass of modernization is spinning so madly, how can we distinguish
between legitimate and illegitimate glocal attachments? First
we have to modify this bad habit of ranking all entities
of society from the largest to the smallest through some
sort of zooming effect. ‘Large’ and ‘small’ are devoid of
practical meaning. It’s wrong to assume that society is made
of Russian dolls fitting into one another, all the way from
planet Earth to the inside secrets of an individual heart.
Wall Street is not a bigger space than, let’s say, Gaza.
From the boardroom of IBM, one can’t see farther outside
than a shopkeeper in Jakarta. As for the Oval Office, who
could think it’s inhabited by people with ‘larger views’
than those of my concierge?
What we really mean by size is connectedness. Yes, the floor of Wall Street
might be more connected, through many more channels, with
many other places on Earth than my study, but it’s not bigger
or wider; it does not see clearer; it’s not more universal
than any other locus. All places are equally local – what
else could they be? – but they are hooked up differentially
to several others. Apart from those links, we are all blind.
Thus, it’s the quality of what is transported from place
to place that creates asymmetries between sites: one can
be said to be ‘bigger’ than some other, but only as long
as connections are reliably maintained. It’s never the case
that one site is more universal, more encompassing, more
open-minded than any other, in and of itself.
Once this radical ‘flattening’ of the land has been obtained, once every global
view has been firmly localized into one specific site, once
attention is focused on the connecting networks, it’s possible
to ask a second question: since we see something only thanks
to what circulates between sites, how can we be made aware
of the fragility of our own interpretations? A club is not
good or bad depending on its extension – the more inclusive
the better, or, on the contrary, the more exclusive the better
– but depending on its ability to fathom its own limitations
when it excludes or includes other members.
This is where the old label cosmopolitan could get a new meaning. Although Ulrich
Beck recently tried to use it as a synonym of ‘having multiple
identities all at once’, Isabelle Stengers has proposed a
much more radical meaning: politics of the cosmos. How can
we entertain not just many identities at various degrees
of extensions, but different cosmos? That cosmos are also
up for grabs is a new and unsettling idea. Before, there
existed a single nature and different cultures, some of which
were ‘limited’ to a local point of view while others were
broad enough to offer membership to ‘citizens of the cosmos’.
But how to build the City of which they are supposed to be
the citizens? Where is the common home that we could live
in? Such a task can no longer be simplified in advance by
saying that the wider the perspective the better it is, for
there is no ‘larger’ view anymore.
In the old cosmopolitan view, there were no politics and no cosmos because the
higher unit was already given: one had only to break away
from one’s own attachments in order to reach it. But in Stengers’
view, there is no more strenuous task than to invent political
tools capable of revealing how all cosmos differ from one
another. It’s an even more risky endeavour to imagine how
they could be gathered into some future common arrangement.
If cosmopolitan is an adjective fit for a fashion magazine,
cosmopolitics, on the other hand, is the duty of the future,
the only way to build the common Domus.