Theory Teacher's Blog

the loco local glocal

Recently, I was teaching a little introduction to the concept of globalization in my first-year-writing seminar, and one of the students said he was still a bit fuzzy on the concept of “glocal.” To explain this word, I started telling them about an essay I had just read by a student in one of my other classes about a small village in Africa whose economy is based on tourists who want to learn about a traditional African culture. In other words, the economy of this small village far away from any major city is intensely global, but the cultural tradition it supports is intensely local. Similarly, I could have my students read one of my previous blog posts here about the Masai market I visited in Kenya. This dynamic dialectic between local culture and global economy is what I wanted my students to pay attention to, because mainstream journalism usually represents culture inaccurately in static, essentialist terms.

What I realized when I left the classroom is that I had located the “glocal” in the third world. This was, perhaps, a mistake of mine, since my students may leave the classroom thinking that glocality is something that happens elsewhere. But we can also see the glocal down the road in any American town. If you walk into your average Wal-Mart, you will see men and women buying up clothing, guns, and other commodities that are all part of an intensely felt local American identity. The most extreme examples, I suppose, are cowboy boots, country music, hunting equipment (often worn indoors when they aren’t even hunting), and Harley-Davidson motorcycle stuff (not the actual motorcycles, but T-shirts, vests, and badges with Harley logos that all present the feeling of “American.”) Ironically, everything sold in Wal-Mart is made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, El Salvador, and other countries, not in the U.S.A. Wal-Mart is one of the largest and most ruthless multinational corporations in the world, but it is precisely the low prices it offers that enable people to buy so many expressions of “local” country culture.

The thing to notice here is this. The more that the Wal-Mart economy globalizes and moves factories and capital all around the world, the more working-class Americans react to the uncertainties of global economics by grasping onto what they feel is a distinctly “American” culture. I mean, seriously, who needs cowboy boots? This American culture and the commodification of American patriotism is illusory, of course, and is often made-up. There’s nothing especially traditional about the kind of country music that gets played on the radio in the mid-West, because it sounds more like 80s pop and 60s rock than authentic 40s country, but I often hear Minnesotans blasting pop music about the hills of Arkansas. Ironically, Wal-Mart’s headquarters is in Arkansas, so maybe that’s oddly appropriate, though I doubt most of the people sporting conferate flags and blasting “country” pop in their pickup trucks in central Minnesota are aware of that. What they are doing is affirming a somewhat racist attachment to their “roots,” even though they are (paradoxically) expressing their roots through a globally produced commodity culture. In a sense, their self-expression is an unconscious attempt to resist the negative effects of global capitalism (job losses, low wages, etc.), but is clearly an attempt that will fail to achieve much of anything except a vacuous pride and an insidious racism. So, in conclusion, the glocal is local — it’s right here, all the time — and it is sometimes a bit crazy (or loco, as the many Mexican-Americans who live and work down the street from the Wal-Mart in my town might say in Spanish.)

On the flip side, we can raise a reverse critique of the fake cosmopolitanism of the liberal elite, who love their Japanese sushi, their Indian yoga, their Australian wines, and their boutique coffees from Ethiopia, Brazil, and Sumatra (pretending they can taste the difference between the various coffee beans even though the roasting process affects the flavor more than its location.) This too is a cultural expression, an effort to fabricate an identity out of the many globally produced commodities. In contrast to the invention of an intensely local “country” identity, this is the invention of an intensely global “cosmopolitan” identity. The university tends to endorse this cosmpolitan identity because it believes students will be better prepared to succeed in a dynamic, global economy. However, this identity is just as fabricated (almost pre-fabricated) as the “county” one.

In my view, the real question is how to truly confront the global economy, resist its evils, build on its goods, and work towards a more just and equitable society. It seems to me that the glocal nature of postmodern cultural identities is often more a symptom of our capitalist economy’s paradoxes (like a runny nose is a symptom of the common cold virus) than it is a viable culture that might enable people to ethically engage with the world in which they live.

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October 24, 2009 - Posted by | global, teaching

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