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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Modernity at Large by Arjun Appadurai 
10th-Jan-2008 11:59 pm
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.
          Summary: In this scholarly monograph, anthropologist and South Asia specialist Arjun Appadurai argues that dual forces of mass migration and electronic mediation have created diasporic public spheres unbounded by shared locale and nationality. These diasporic public spheres, he argues, will lead to the eventual downfall of the nation-state as the organizing universal of modernity.
          Comments: Prof. Appadurai was among the first preeminent cultural theorists I had the privilege of meeting last semester. Though his lecture lacked focus and looped around a large set of semi-related topics in non-linear fashion, it did open up one a potential avenue of critical possibility regarding forms of circulation versus circulation of forms which may yet prove valuable in the future. But I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, then, that his book mirrors in written form his lecture style--non-linear in argumentation, highly-ambitious in scope, and stupendously hard to follow exactly from point to point. In anthropology, the everyday is fraught with symbolic and social significance; Appadurai thus resists reductionism as a matter of course, and I occasionally felt therefore that his theorization of global flows (all those "-scapes!") and post-nationality were unnecessarily over-complex.
          Not to mention unconvincing. While I would not dispute the contemporary facts of mass migration, diaspora, and the globalization of media, I do not think that these phenomena necessarily lead to the death of the nation-state as an organizing concept to the lived human experience of modernity. Though, granted, it isn't the only concept available these days or even, if I take a generous view of Appadurai's claims, the key one. In any case, the nation-state does not currently seem to be especially imperiled over a decade after this book was written. I recall hearing Latinos currently assimilate into American culture at roughly the same rates as immigrants from Europe did historically several generations ago. I also had trouble relating the two chapters comprising Part II ("Playing with Modernity: The Decolonization of Indian Cricket" and "Number in the Colonial Imagination") to the overarching thesis; both were about the recontextualization of appropriated/imposed forms in India, not about the denationalizing of India. While much of this book tested the boundary of self-evident relevancy, these crossed it altogether.
          Among the most interesting theories developed in this monograph was that of "imagined worlds," extending Benedict Anderson's concept of imagined communities. He notes that "locality" is no longer bounded to an immediate, shared space in the physical world and that this bears crucial significance to the modern project of ethnography. Appadurai, like pretty much all of the other theorists writing about media in the mid-90s that I've read recently, sees mass media as a potential resource for the imagination...of course leading to the expected conclusions about media objects divorced from their original national contexts. Yet unlike Thompson, for example, he quite specifically states that he views imagination as a social practice--suggesting that meaning and identity are constructed not on an individual level, but a collective one. This distinction does not eliminate my reservations about the truth value of this conception of reception of media, but it represents an intriguing variation of what I've seen so far.
          Notes: trade paperback, 7th printing
          Rating: 4.5/10 - Disorganized, dubious thesis that is distinctly over-ambitious in its scope. Occasional points of interest, but they were for me a bit too few and far between.
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