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« Globalization and the remaking of parts of this world | Main | An accurate if overwrought description of the Chinese economy »
10:51AM

Globalization and the need for a "second life"

An old friend Hans Suter sends me the link to the New York Review of Books piece by Tim Parks.  In the piece, he argues that globalization is favoring English-language literature in the reading lives of elites within countries (here, I am defining "elites" just as urbanites with access to bookstores and a strong desire to read). That description is probably a disservice to the piece, which presents the usual sort of density of a NYRoB effort (and I use that term in a flattering fashion).  You really just need to read it yourself to enjoy and take from it what you will.  I personally enjoyed it immensely in the way I enjoy such things: not being terribly all that interested in the subject itself but immensely interested in the thoughts the piece triggered in my head (which, when you think of it, is exactly how a literary piece - even analysis - should make you feel).

It reminded me of how much I like the English remake of foreign films (think of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") but how I still always prefer the originals in every instance.  I don't want a foreign experience translated for me any more than necessary (namely, the subtitles), because I like to immerse myself in the way they present themselves to themselves.  It's like eaves-dropping.  I mean, I've learned more about Iran in two movies, "Children of Heaven" and "Persepolis," than I have in all the non-fiction writing on Iran (to include serious political analysis) that I've ever come across.

So, where the Parks piece took me is this:

 

  • I really think non-fiction will predominate over fiction as globalization advances. I feel like non-fiction will do "more good," if you will.  
  • For now, I think English-language novels enjoy a dominance much like Hollywood does, and I think we're seeing now in novels the same things we've long seen in movies: increasingly, the purposeful structuring of literature for both a domestic and overseas audience. 
  • Much like in the movie industry, you see the same conclusion reached in literature:  tent-pole products seemingly "conquer" the world while subtly being productized in such a way as to exploit inherent advantages afforded by globalization's advance, and yet, there still will always be a highly heterogenous local supply of "smaller" versions (smaller books, smaller movies).  The local "language," if you will, survives in its own way, while bridging languages (especially English) connect publics across borders.
  • I think the more non-fiction and movies link up societies, we see the death of expertise on those societies within our own culture.  Notice, for example, how there really aren't any important Russian experts anymore - now that the Cold War is dead and buried.  Once the connections are made to the point where fiction and movies offer true connections (not a cause, but a characteristic of the connectivity I'm describing), you reach that point where the best experts are from the country itself - thus killing the local variety and relegating them to academia (e.g., we're so close to most of Europe now that you rarely see European experts on US news programs, because why not just ask experts on the subject from Europe simply to appear?).  Right now we're still dominated by experts on China and much of Asia and much of the Middle East and most of Africa, but in a couple of decades, those entire mini-industries will be erased from the public discourse - replaced by direct comms with the cultures in question.  And let me say that, in all instances, I can't wait!
  • I could say, as a former regional expert on the former Soviet Union, that this is a bad development, but, in truth, I think regional experts mostly misinform and mislead rather than create genuine understanding (primarily because there is such an odd mix of orthodoxy and arrogance in such communities). So I'm happy to see the novelists win out in the end, along with the filmmakers, because I see them doing far less harm and far more good.
  • Having said all that, I can still make a selfish argument regarding Wikistrat and its ability to amass expertise from the countries themselves versus relying (as we still do) too heavily on Western experts on the same.  Which is to say, I don't think Wikistrat is yet there, and yet I see it as a perfect vessel to increasingly "get there" over time - as in, diversity and numbers beat all.
  • I would also argue that translation skills increasingly trump traditional expertise on foreign culture.  I think we'll need oodles of translators amidst this shift, and that that will be a very good thing.  So when I advise young students going into International Relations today, I tell them to focus on their skills as translators (not so much in the mechanics of language itself but in taking that direct-conduit role and applying it to what is traditionallyt known as expertise - so seeing themselves more as translators than experts) and eschew the achievement of deep insight for personal professional achievement.  You might think that request too self-sacrificing and self-effacing for young people entering a field, but it's not for most Millennials.  They already think that way.
  • Personally, having just turned 50, I find myself thinking that my future ultimately lies in fiction, for all the logic cited here.  Part of me says it's like the old bit about necessarily being a liberal when you're young and a conservative when you're old: I feel like you write non-fiction until you can move on to a level of wisdom that allows more creative expressions. [As for those who start in fiction, God bless 'em because that ain't me.]

 

Anyway, a very interesting read that took my mind to a lot of places.  I think it might do the same for you.

Reader Comments (4)

so if you like those foreign films, and if you haven't already seen it,
check out "In a Better World"

June 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichal Shapiro

Nigerian movies are overwhelmingly more popular than Hollywood movies in Africa.

While it is true that many Nigerian movies are acted in English, the appeal of "Nollywood" over "Hollywood" is that Africans can relate better to Nollywood's portrayal of Africa.

The point is that "speaking English" isn't the same thing as "thinking in English". English is a useful tool for global communication, but it does not represent a standardisation of thought across cultures. So understanding different cultural contexts is even more important today than it was in the past and the "Anglos" are at a disadvantage because the rest of the World will have a good understanding of how Anglos think. Anglos, on the other hand will be hard pressed to understand and interpret events around the World.

I like your point about "the death of Western expertise on other societies". Nigeria, for example, has 44 million Internet users today. That figure will easily surpass 100 million in the next five years - so "Western expertise" on Nigeria, Kenya and other key African nations will die a lot sooner than we think. Already, Western analysts and journalists are being challenged in real time.

June 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Fiction is it? Well, I tried it. Did very well with setting and dialogue. Two agents told me to keep at it and finish. Then the "plot" muse fled. Still in hiding. I turned to watercolors to free up the other side of the brain. Now I just paint. Go figure.

June 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTed O'Connor

ha!
Now that is what I was talking about in an earlier comment, I love when you write like this...when you bring in creative trains of thought with world events you are wonderful....and I for one look forward to your fiction novel or trilogy when you write it...thanks,
sue

June 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersue

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