Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism (2003) by Peter Hitchcock and Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999) by Bruce Robbins

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0814775136.

New York: New York University Press.

The Fate of Culture after Globalisation

Stephen Morton

The question of whether theoretical inquiry can and should enable the cognition of economic and geopolitical structures of inequality under globalisation, let alone facilitate the imagination of alternatives to those structures, is crucial to contemporary cultural studies. In a critique of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Gayatri Spivak charges Jameson with a ‘magical invocation of multinational capitalism without attention to its multinational consequences’ (1999: 330). The implication behind such a criticism is that contemporary cultural studies might allow us to do more than merely comprehend the circulation of commodities in the global economy; and that it might, at the very least, lead to an increasing recognition of a global economic division of labour, even if it does not offer any political solutions. For some theorists a focus on the transformation of language as a representational system underpinning the construction of the global economy offers one possible tactic for political resistance in the material world. However, as the contemporary poet Jeff Derksen writes in a riposte to the grand political claims made by some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers and postmodern theorists, a change in word order is not equivalent to a change in world order (2003: 34). Such a riposte does not simply discredit the argument that contemporary literary and visual culture offers one of the few relatively autonomous spaces for re-imagining the globe. Rather it insists that it is only in critical practice that the discontinuities between cultural politics, ethical consumerism and direct action are carefully acknowledged.

In some respects, Peter Hitchcock reiterates the demand for cultural studies to critically re-imagine the globe in his book, Imaginary States. In Hitchcock’s argument, this task is particularly challenging because the ‘major paradigm for transnationalism has not been provided by culture, but by economics’ (4). While he acknowledges the ineluctable complicity of culture with transnational capitalism and the crisis that the geopolitical structures of transnational capitalism present to the critical imagination of cultural studies, Hitchcock re-asserts the importance of the literary to help imagine the globe differently. Such a valorisation of the literary may seem rather odd in the face of the magnitude of global economic structures. Yet Hitchcock’s wager is that literary and cultural expression can reveal something profound about the transnational structures of exploitation embedded within commodities such as coffee and athletic training shoes. As Hitchcock explains:

By looking into the heart of capitalist logic, what Karl Marx calls ‘the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ of the commodity, one finds the imagination that is at stake in culture is also at issue in the commodity form, and that cultural transnationalism must account for the crisscrossing vectors of transnational trade and the more common conduits of cultural transaction. (26)

At the same time, Hitchcock insists that the literary cannot ‘exist outside the aura cast by commodity desire’ (25). In doing so, he counters Adorno’s view of aesthetic autonomy with an approach that comes to terms with ‘how cultural expression and commodity circulation can share the rubric of cultural transnationalism within the same cognitive space’ (25).

Imaginary States is divided into two sections that examine literary texts and commodities respectively. The first four chapters offer readings of four different postcolonial writers: the Caribbean writers Eduoard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite and Maryse Condé, and the Algerian writer Assia Djebar. Chapters five and six offer readings of two global commodities: the Nike trainer and coffee. While Hitchcock acknowledges the discontinuities between these sections, more could have been done to relate the search for a transnational cultural voice in the work of Glissant, Brathwaite, Condé, and Djebar to his materialist critique of transnational commodity aesthetics.

Chapter one examines what is stake in Eduoard Glissant’s opaque style. Focusing on Glissant’s concern with a poetics of location, Hitchcock proceeds to argue that Glissant rejects postcolonial identification in favour of a more complex style that can do justice to the economic situation in Martinique and many other Caribbean islands after the failure of decolonisation to bring about economic independence. In Hitchcock’s argument, Glissant’s opaque style works towards the articulation of an ‘imagined space beyond the old retrograde forms of nationalism’ (58). Chapter two focuses on examples of ‘nation language’ in the poetry of Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Hitchcock’s observation that Brathwaite’s poetic strategies in Barabajan Poems incorporate the ‘immediacy of environment into the very texture of the poetry’ (7) is insightful, but what is crucial is how the development of what Brathwaite terms ‘nation language’ can disrupt the hegemonic authority of the English language and interrupt the narration of the postcolonial nation. Hitchcock addresses this question with reference to Homi Bhabha’s distinction between the pedagogical and the performative in ‘DissemiNation’ (1994). For Hitchcock, Brathwaite’s poetic voicing of nation language is not the simple performative expression of a dominant national discourse. Rather, the spiritual and musical elements of Brathwaite’s nation language, which are drawn from calypso, jazz, blues and voodoo struggle, work to ‘name a process of identification that has been butchered in the name of civilisation’ (77). Chapter three explores two novels by the Francophone writer Maryse Condé. Focusing on the motif of crossing in Condé’s writing, Hitchcock contends that Condé engages with modernist strategies of writing and creolité to criticise the global and local practices of late capitalism in Guadeloupe. In this respect, Condé’s writing seems to be the most exemplary of the three Caribbean writers for Hitchcock’s critical agenda.

Chapter four offers a detailed reading of Assia Djebar’s novel The White of Algeria, which situates the text in relation to Djebar’s earlier fiction, as well as the brutal practices of the Algerian state in 1991. While Hitchcock cautions that Djebar’s text runs the risk of reproducing the barbaric stereotype of the postcolonial state by staging the silencing of women within Algerian society, he also emphasises that The White of Algeria uses blank space in the text to imagine an alternative to existing structures of masculine nationalism.

Chapter five is an expanded version of an essay on the production and circulation of the Nike athletic training shoe that was originally published in Hitchcock’s 1999 book Oscillate Wildly (1999). Drawing on Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the chronotope, Hitchcock tracks the compression of space and time embedded in the production of the Nike sports trainer. After a detailed overview of Freudian theories of fetishism and critical readings of Van Gogh’s painting, Peasant Shoes by Martin Heidegger, Fredric Jameson and Jacques Derrida, Hitchcock proceeds to re-assert the importance of the producer in the restitution of the shoe’s meaning (139). Mindful of the pitfalls of the anti-sweatshop movement in the United States, Hitchcock offers a balanced account of different attempts at solidarity between producers and consumers and the public relations strategies employed by Nike’s marketing think-tank. While Hitchcock’s Bahktinian call for ‘a new kind of answerability to the human costs of globalizing capitalist consumer desire’ (152) is well taken, the question that remains unanswered is how this ‘new kind of answerability’ would differ from the reformist consumerism proposed by Naomi Klein in No Logo and the U.S.-based anti-sweatshop movement.

Despite this limitation, however, Hitchcock’s sophisticated and witty readings of transnational commodity aesthetics provide an engaging counterpoint to the moralising tone that has vexed some contemporary Marxist writing. Indeed, chapter six offers a dazzling reading of the history of coffee consumption and production. Starting with a discussion of Immanuel Kant’s demand that ‘there must be coffee’ (a phrase attributed to Kant by Thomas De Quincey), Hitchcock proceeds to examine the class politics behind coffee drinking in eighteenth-century Germany, and traces the colonial exploitation of Indonesia by Dutch coffee merchants in Multatuli’s 1859 novel Max Havelar, or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. In doing so, Hitchcock demonstrates how the conditions of coffee production have not changed much since the era of European colonialism. What is more, Hitchcock even suggests that communism was an alibi for US foreign policy in Central America during the 1970s and 1980s, when what was really at stake was the U.S. control and regulation of coffee markets. Hitchcock also refers to pharmacology to explain how western consumers desire coffee to make them feel more productive as workers in the capitalist economy. While this myth has been perpetuated by the branding strategies of multinational coffee chains like Starbucks, Hitchcock’s cultural critique demands that we ‘look further than the moment of consumption for the ruse of commodity logic’ (183).

Hitchcock’s concluding appeal for a cognitive correlative that can comprehend globalisation may seem to recall Fredric Jameson’s demand for a cognitive mapping of late capitalism’s cultural logic. However the key figure behind Hitchcock’s approach to the global is the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. As Hitchcock argues in the conclusion, Bakhtin’s world of chronotopes, bodies and borders, and conditions of answerability provide an imaginative challenge to the cultural logic of globalisation. This is a rather tantalising claim, and would have benefited from more explanation of what ‘capacities for change’ writing and commodity aesthetics ‘keep alive’ (199-200), and how these capacities for change relate to the agendas of contemporary global justice movements. Nevertheless, Imaginary States provides one of the most thought-provoking and challenging attempts to situate culture in a transnational frame to date.

Like Imaginary States, Bruce Robbins’ Feeling Global attempts to account for the dominance of the economic in contemporary representations of the global. However Robbins text is much more focused on how actually existing internationalism is ‘local and conjunctural rather than universal’ (7). Starting with a poetic account of aerial photographs taken by his father from a U.S. bomber during military service in the Second World War, Robbins proceeds to argue that Kantian universalism and socialist internationalism have been replaced by an American internationalism, which selectively applies variant standards of justice to different nation states. What is more, Robbins contends that the figure of the cosmopolitan intellectual, like international human rights discourses, cannot be separated from U.S. national interests.

Such a critique of the cosmopolitan intellectual is developed further in chapter one, where Robbins criticises the moral absoluteness of Susan Sontag’s solidarity tourism in Bosnia. While Robbins rightly points out that Sontag’s moralising about the atrocities in Bosnia offer no ‘account of how political action might take place’ (13), he also observes that ‘the ethical and sentimental dimensions that Sontag evokes are not a diversion, but a precondition of policy’ (17). In Robbins’ argument, Sontag’s internationalism, like human rights activism and the anti-sweatshop movement in the U.S., may seem to be culturally alien and removed from domestic concerns, but this is to disavow the various ways in which internationalism can productively cooperate with left-wing nationalist agendas such as the defence of the welfare state. As Robbins emphasises, ‘the success of the social welfare state at a national level is a necessary precondition for an [internationalist] ethic, rather than its antithesis’ (36).

Robbins’ thesis that there can be no American internationalism that is not American in its assumptions and interests is developed further in chapter two through a comparative analysis of four single issues of contemporary U.S. cultural studies journals published in the nineties: Diasporaboundary 2Social Text, and Public Culture. In Robbins’ account, Diaspora tends to identify internationalism with an idealised view of domestic multiculturalism, whereas boundary 2 equates internationalism with the U.S. national interest, which is in turn equated with global capitalism (41-2). Like boundary 2, Robbins argues that Social Text has been suspicious of the U.S. interests hidden away in moves towards the global. Yet he also notes Social Text‘s interest in the radical potential of popular culture at both a local and global level. Robbins’ analysis of Public Culture, by contrast, focuses on its gesture towards an international public sphere. This discussion prompts a broader critique of international civil society, and how rich and powerful NGOs tend to dominate international forums and claim representative status at the expense of poorer NGOs. If the current structure of international civil society is compromised in its ability to counter global economic inequality, Robbins suggests that culture could provide a space for mobilising international solidarity from within the nation (59). At the same time Robbins also emphasises that any demand for extra-state collective political action against overdevelopment in the U.S. would require a ‘quasi-religious fervour’ to win popular support (59).

Continuing with the critique of a perceived dichotomy between cosmpolitanism and nationalism, chapter three offers a challenge to the popular perception of the cosmopolitan as a ‘scapegoat category’ for globalization. Focusing on Mary Louise Pratt’s final chapter in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Robbins contends that Pratt’s reading of Mary Kingsley’s partial epistemological perspective as a European traveller in the swamps of Africa not only challenges the universalism/ particularism dichotomy, but also upsets the easy correlation of cosmopolitanism and globalization. While Kingsley’s advocating of free market economics without domination and exploitation in Africa may not seem to be a very plausible alternative to territorial colonial rule, Robbins suggests that Pratt’s reading contains a counter-intuitive argument that not only supports the cause of Third World national liberation, but also works ‘against the interests of world capital’ (67).

By contrast to Mary Louise Pratt’s situated account of Mary Kingsley’s free-market philosophy from the swamps of Africa, chapter four offers a Marxist humanist reading of John Berger’s texts and photographs. If the Marxist humanism of the British Marxist critics E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams omits internationalism from its critical purview, Robbins argues that the ‘experience’ of rural peasants and migrant workers depicted in Berger’s writing and photographs offers a privileged form of knowledge of the world economy. Yet while Berger’s images and stories may evoke a global structure of feeling, the question of how to organise and act in response to this global structure of feeling remains unanswered.

Chapter five attempts to counter the American right’s critique of elitists and so-called ‘tenured radicals’ in the U.S. by focusing on a different example of the non-western cosmopolitan: the figure of the diasporic au-pair. Through a comparative reading of Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine and Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy, Robbins emphasises that the geographical structure of the diasporic au pair narrative in Kincaid’s Lucy bears a similarity to the upward mobility narratives of nineteenth-century bourgeois fiction and reproduces an image of the Third World as a prison and the First World as a haven (102). Yet at the same time, Robbins contends that the genre of the au pair narrative has a real claim to a more progressive form of social mobility, which is based on tentative international social solidarities. In Jasmine, for instance, Robbins suggests that the au pair narrative ‘brings the international division of labor into the intimacy of metropolitan space’ and thus becomes a vehicle ‘for anger and confrontation’ (112).

Robbins’ analysis of non-western diasporic cultural production as an exemplary case of cosmopolitanism is continued in chapter six with a discussion of Edward Said’s ‘voyage in’ to the western academy as a postcolonial intellectual. Dismissing Marxist critiques of postcolonial theory as complicit with global capitalist restructuring on the grounds that such critiques ignore the tenuous position of postcolonial theory’s ‘toehold’ in the western academy, Robbins focuses instead on Said’s secular criticism and emphasises the progressive, internationalist dimensions of Said’s work.

Robbins’ analysis of the political implications of the public/private dichotomy in the work of the American liberal philosopher Richard Rorty in chapter seven offers a striking contrast to his account of Said’s work. Focusing on Rorty’s critique of the unpatriotic left-wing American intellectual, Robbins proceeds to identify the political problems inherent in Rorty’s relegation of cultural and human rights issues to the private sphere. Against Rorty’s reformism, Robbins emphasises that revolutionary transformation resides in the realm of culture.

In a passage from chapter eight that recalls his 1990 essay on Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, Robbins compares Martha Nussbaum’s universal humanism to the liberal reformism of the Dickensian character Mrs Jellyby, whose philanthropic gestures are projected telescopically towards the hungry and homeless in the colonial world, while her own family are left to fend for themselves. Rather than simply joining the chorus of critical voices on Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism, however, Robbins contends that many of those critics who align Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism with global capitalism tend to be rather conservative in their implicit defence of American national economic interests, and ignore how the riches of America’s economy are produced by an active ‘underdeveloping’ of the non-western world. Yet instead of defending Nussbaum’s position, Robbins proceeds to call for transnational cultural critique to move away from the purity of normative, universal concepts such as Man and to embrace the impurity of already-existing cosmopolitanism in its non-elitist and non-European forms.

Such a fetishisation of the non-European cosmopolitan as a redemptive figure who can counter retrograde forms of western nationalism may sound attractive, but it can create its own set of problems if it ignores retrograde forms of postcolonial nationalism. For this reason, Robbins offers a commentary on Tagore’s Home and the World, which highlights the tensions between nationalism and cosmopolitanism in India by criticising the elitism of the Swadeshi movement. Furthermore, he invokes the criticism of nationalism and imperialism in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient as a productive response to the crisis of contemporary internationalism. In a lyrical and rather codified reading of The English Patient, Robbins argues that the text’s representation of love as a cosmopolitan value that transcends national affiliations offers an affective political structure in which contemporary intellectuals and activists could begin to feel the global.

How such a global or internationalist feeling could bring about alternative forms of extra-state collective political action is a ‘distressingly difficult’ question that remains unanswered in Feeling Global. In a subsequent article entitled ‘The Sweatshop Sublime’ (2002), however, Robbins has attempted to address this question further in relation to ethical considerations about the burden of responsibility that is sometimes felt by the individual western consumer in relation to the magnitude of the international division of labour (2002). While Robbins suggests that the magnitude of the international division of labour is analogous to the experience of terror that one feels in relation to the abyssal structure of the sublime (as theorised by Longinus, Burke and Kant), he also emphasises that it is precisely this feeling which increases the potential of individuals to act collectively against global structures of economic inequality. This is a persuasive argument, but it could have been more forcefully articulated if it was contrasted with Kant’s notion of the beautiful, and its conceptual similarity to the surface appearance of commodity culture and exchange value in Marxist thought.

In highlighting the conceptual affinities between the overwhelming dimension of the sublime and the magnitude of the global division of labour, Robbins highlights the importance of structures of feeling in the movement from ethical recognition to political engagement. While Robbins stops short of addressing how to organise and sustain new forms of international socialism, Feeling Global offers a productive intellectual response to some of the problems that have vexed contemporary global justice movements, as well as clarifying what is at stake in feeling global.


Bhabha, H. (1994) ‘DissemiNation’. In The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Derksen, J. (2003) Transnational Muscle Cars. Vancouver: Talonbooks.

Hitchcock, P. (1999) Oscillate Wildly: Space, Body, and Spirit of Millennial Materialism. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Robbins, B. (2002) ‘The Sweatshop Sublime’. PMLA 2002 1117(1), 84-97.

Spivak, Chakravorty, G. (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a Critique of the Vanishing Present. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Stephen Morton is Lecturer in Anglophone Literature and Culture at Southampton University, UK. He has published articles and reviews on cultural theory and postcolonial literature in Public CultureInterventionsAriel, and the Atlantic Literary Review, and is the author of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.