The Rumor of Globalization: Desecrating the Global from the Vernacular Margins by Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay
Mukhopadhyay, Bhaskar. The Rumor of Globalization: Desecrating the Global from the Vernacular Margins. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2012. 217 pp.
As Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay asserts at the beginning of The Rumor of Globalization, “[t]his is a book about ‘globalization’ — as imagined, experienced and consumed, contested, produced and invented by the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised people in India” (2). The book deals with how globalization has affected the local population of India: individual as well as collective consumption and reception of the global made all the more susceptible because of their vernacular (non-)understandings of ethnographic rhetoric. Mukhopadhyay observes the events and tendencies of the subaltern, and distinctively draws upon the absorption of the global into the local as he comments with conviction that what is found in the global is merely an inflated local. Seen from a cultural studies perspective, this book is essentially an ethnographic study that challenges the broader Western notions regarding the dynamics of democratic empowerment and consumerism, as well as commodity utilization and consumption in developing countries.
The introductory part of the book consists of insights from the author about how his approach differs from an elitist perspective of how the global flows. While studying the vernacular, the fact that he chooses the locality of a third world country as his subject of interest adheres to a “conjunctural” practice, a popular trope used by cultural studies practitioners (9). The book, however, attempts to delve into the grassroots of what it means to study the local from below. Western scholars suggest analyzing sub-cultural categories from a standard point of view when studying phenomena like globalization in diverse cultures. This approach is a point of criticism for many cultural studies practitioners — the method of standardization imposes dominance over the sub-culture (evident if only in its classification of its object of study as “sub”). Culture is not a monolithic concept even if globalization is seen as a global phenomenon; the basic assumption remains that the local would essentially resist or try to position itself in binary opposition. For Mukhopadhyay, this constant attempt of positing the global against the local is utterly flawed. Drawing connections to postcolonial theory, Mukhopadhyay echoes the words of Naoki Sakai while pointing out two major predicaments. The first is the incorporation of the particular into the universal, which hinders the procedure of separating the two. The second problem regards the issue of “difference”; for to be different from some particular thing in a definite aspect, one needs to bear a similarity with the former, which highlights the incapacity of the postcolonial theorists to move beyond empirical differences (9).
At one particular point while “desecrating” the global, Mukhopadhyay refers to George Ritzer, author of The McDonaldization of Society (1993), who “fores[aw] the death of the local” at the hands of the global (17). Ritzer surmised that the global follows a modern “grand narrative,” an idea that can be connected with Simon During’s observation of the lack of a metadiscourse as a characteristic feature of the post-modernist era (126). With capital ending up in the hands of only a few, the overall sense of unity inevitably breaks down. Given this theoretical heritage, Mukhopadhyay’s motivation for choosing Kolkata as his subject and his not-so-orthodox method of ethnography becomes overwhelmingly clear in his introduction: the basic reason is that Kolkata is the place of his roots.
Before proceeding into the crux of the book, I would like to draw upon Bakhtin’s concept of Dialogism, in which he implies any utterance is not a single monolithic utterance but a pluralist one, enmeshed by a minority discourse. This goes in synch with what Mukhopadhyay’s urges: to portray the vernacular true to its own tradition and not through the orientalistic tendencies of the West. Culture is a channel of communicating governmentality, a term coined by Foucault when he talked about a dominant political power that creates new possibilities by sabotaging old ones. This concept is also taken up by Mukhopadhyay as he opposes the process of making things seem — like the concept of the nuclear family — very natural and universal. He illustrates a process of “sinification” but not “globalization” by taking up the example of Chinese development and the way it has extended its network across the world (8).
The book has six chapters, each of which delves deep into diverse topics. The first chapter deals with the location of commodity and commodity fetishism — more precisely, with cheap Chinese consumer goods sold at low prices threatening Indian big business. Mukhopadhyay elaborates on the manner in which the global has been incorporated and rendered by the local with an example of Chinese bicycles being bought by some villagers in Midnapore who gladly acknowledged this event as the gift of globalization. This is how the battle of contesting visions about globalization has been presented: where cheaply made and imported commodities undermine the local economy, exploitation is reframed as gifting. An interesting argument is given here, as the author presents the contradictory actions of the Left Government, who should ideally be condemning the very practice of gifting and receiving gifts but is also hypocritically demanding the gift of vote to benefit itself in return to its act of benevolence. On that note, I would also like to draw upon Mukhopadhyay’s reference to the recent shift in the political scenario of West Bengal. He comments how the electronic debacle and media hype led to the sudden popularity of the Trinomool Congress Party (TMC), formerly the main opposition party in the state during the Left regime, prior to the 2002 assembly elections. The propaganda disseminated by the introduction of “foren” commodities is seen as an act of weakness, granting control of both market and individual interests to a foreign conglomerate (39).1 Through a Marxist interpretation, Mukhopadhyay takes a large picture approach to demonstrate how forces of the foreign market operate in pervasive and far-reaching ways.
The second chapter deals with translations, travelogues in Bengali modernity to illustrate how rumours and popular stories produce and perpetuate a preconceived notion in the minds of people. These oral tales are successful despite (or perhaps because of) the limited firsthand experience with the foreign: for most people, foreign lands are tasted only through tales or word of mouth. This is where the criticism of the colonizers comes up since they started this practice of naturalizing the culture of England on the Indian soil, giving it a ubiquitous effect. Mukhopadhyay’s considers Shyamlal Mitra’s travelogue on Egypt, which tries to relate the warmth and virtue of Egyptian hospitality to the Hindus’ belief of equating guests with God Narayan as an act of Dharma (82). This relation echoes Rabindranath Tagore’s take on the Mahsud villages in Afghanistan, where the natives’ commitment to their values was not hindered by a clear demarcation between a friend and a foe.
In the third chapter, Mukhopadhyay gives an account of Kolkata street food drawing close connections between (1) Bengali cuisine from older times to the “carnivalesque” modern elements of the Bengali culture, and (2) the elite hysteria revolving around it (100). Mukhopadhyay describes the shift from the sacrosanct Bengali meal to regular snacking as dematerialization, a post-Marxist discourse on late capitalism. Indian noodles become greasy chowmein, and India’s capacity to combine Western bread with “bhaji” to form “pawbhaji” is remarked as absolutely incredible (104). Mukhopadhyay argues against the fast-foodization of India, saying that the palate and pocket of the Indian youth is well-suited to spicy, savoury items and not to the bland food sold by McDonalds.
The next chapter is devoted to traditional scroll paintings — the “patua” or “pat chitra” of Bengal culture (106). The evolution of scroll painting from an historical art form of the folk tradition to its recent transformation in themes of the “Amricaner pat” about 9/11 and so on (111). Mukhopadhyay suggests that, here, these two cultures are at the crossroads of kitsch and dream; the two distinct narrative logics are synthesizing. The next section consists of a range of shabby slum photographs taken in black and white, consisting of half-naked children playing and poor men and women of the labour class. These images reflect upon the dwelling and survival of the subaltern.
In the last chapter of the book, Mukhopadhyay explores cyberporn as his final area of inquiry, sourcing data from Free Sexy Indians Forum. In this section, Mukhopadhyay points out the growing tendency of South-Asian viewers to indulge in Indian pornography and includes some graphic images, which some readers may find repugnant, as examples of the pornography being consumed by foreigners. The focus is on over-weight middle-aged aunties and “bhabis,” surprisingly one of the major Unique Selling Proposition (USP) factors of these “desi” or local/indigenous porn sites (147, 146). This entire phenomenon is shown to have emerged in response to the “industrialization of fantasy.” The creation of a mythical “desh” (meaning, country) for the Non-Residential Indians (NRIs) is one of the major factors for scholars interested in understanding the mystical effect created by these websites (146). Mukhopadhyay infers that the aunty pictures incite a kind of deep religious realization in the Indian mind which is known to worship prototypes of powerful and voluptuous female bodies. I, however, beg to differ as the present day’s female deity figures are essentially sculpted in accordance with popular notions of appropriateness (read buxom, slender-hipped beauties, straight out of a Bollywood movie), with a distinct erotic undertone. One of the most interesting parts of this chapter was Mukhopadhyay’s acknowledgement of Baudelaire’s condemnation of photography in the first place, which ends up making a spectacle of the body and thereby celebrates the quintessential “possessive individual,” a product of the bourgeois class (150).
Overall, it can be commented that Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay does not follow the traditional method of ethnography but rather indulges in a good deal of investigation and observation for the purpose of writing this book. Unfortunately, his argument is at times difficult to understand. His theoretical assertions could have been more accessible to students and readers had the background been provided with more lucidity. Nevertheless, this important work is worth the effort. Being an ideal work of cultural studies, this book moves beyond mere engagement with literary theories and presents the readers with some factual base, more like the manner cultural studies should be practiced, by positing theory on a parallel plane along with practice and real-life examples.
Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. Print.
During, Simon. Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge Publishers, 2005. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Eds. Graham Burchell, Collin Gordon, and Peter Miller. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. Print.
Ritzer, George. The Globalization of Nothing. London: Sage, 2004. Print.
Sakai, Naoki. Translation and Subjectivity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Print.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Talks in China: Civilization and Progress. New Delhi: Rupa, 2002. Print.
Debopama Sinha is a student of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is currently pursuing her M.A. and has completed a Bachelor’s from the same institution. She holds a certificate in the course offered by the School of Languages and Linguistics, and is currently doing a course in translation studies. She is also a freelance writer.
1. The spelling of foreign as foren is deliberate. This is how it is pronounced primarily by people belonging to the lower economic class. Several English words like this are often domesticated by the local population, who have not received a formal training of the language.