a bimonthly publication of
progressive south asian politics

Volume 7: Number 1                      October 2, 1996
In this Issue...
IMF, Capital and Us: The Economics of Imperialism by Radhika Lal
Global Technoscapes and Unborn Voices: Gendering Globalization by Mir Ali Raza
The Structural Adjustment of Grassroots Politics by Sangeeta Kamat
Foil Briefs

"Other"wise?: The Selling of Global Cultural Difference

Sangeeta Rao

The era of globalization is here and with it a new concept - global culture. For those of us who see our task as one of responding to this phenomena of globalization, it is critical to unpack the meanings that surround the concept of a global culture. I understand globalization as a term used to describe the transformative activities characterising contemporary politics, the current world economy and the peoples and cultures of the world. The new global culture is the expression of deterritorialisation and a borderless world. Operating through the logic of late capitalism, it can be seen as the creation of powerful media empires and transnational companies with a culture of consumption or the capitalist agenda as one of the primary signifiers of the era of globalization.

In as much as "the new global" culture owes its existence to powerful media empires and transnational companies promoting a culture of consumption that announces the arrival of the era of "boundarylessness," advertising can be read as a global cultural signifier. But then advertising of commodities sold around the globe specializes in emphasizing boundaries, caters to a demand for difference and exploits "otherness" through its attempt to resurrect universalism under the aegis of global consumption. In other words, global culture seen through advertising signals a desire for the dissolution of boundaries in order that personal freedom and free trade be facilitated and at the very same moment articulates distinct cultural characteristics that are "innate markers of difference." The Coca Cola advertisement that features common every day folk from "exotic" countries across the globe - Black, White, Middle Eastern, East and South Asian - beating their own respective indigenous/local version of drums to the beat of the Coca Cola jingle "always Coca Cola" comes to mind immediately as the most compact example of this contradiction between "an universal" and "a particular" being the basis for selling a product. It is my contention that in understanding this contradiction we take our first steps in grappling with the phenomena of global culture.

Barthes (1973, Myhtologies, Paladin) explores the ideology of universalism and analyses the mythology at work in the conjuring of a universal human community out of examples of cultural diversity:

This myth functions in two stages: first the difference between human morphologies is asserted, exoticism is insistently stressed, the infinite variations of the species, the diversity in skins, skulls and customs are made manifest, the image of Babel is complacently projected over that of the world. Then, from this pluralism, a type of unity is magically produced: man is born, works , laughs and dies everywhere in the same way :and if there still remains in these actions some ethnic peculiarity, at least one hints that there is underlying each one an identical 'nature'.

The sentimentality of the notion that we are all brothers and sisters `under the skin' disguises the historical facts not just of cultural difference, but of domination and inequality - that it is under conditions of inequality that people experience birth, death, work and laughter and not some blissful "natural" condition. The questions that remain unasked, of course, are: Whose nature? and What is this Natural? At a broad level the answer is clear. It is the values of Western Enlightenment that are being universalised as natural, the notions of modernization and industralisation as the only "civilized" path to follow. Radhakrishnan (1992, in Nationalisms and Sexualities, Routledge) points to this as:

Third World nationalisms are forced to choose between `being themselves' and `becoming modern nations' as though the universal standards of reason and progress were natural and intrinsic to the West .....this divide perpetrates the ideology of a common dominant world where the West leads naturally and the East follows in an eternal game of catch-up where its identity is always in dissonance with itself.

And here the boundaries of this new "global" culture become more visible, for the question that needs to be asked is "Who really catches up?" or rather "Who is in a position to catch up?" While, invoking difference and pushing universality, global advertising, at its most common denominator is aimed at not the general mass, but at specific people. The model example is again Coke. Armed with essentially the same universal packaging, logo, taste and advertising, Coke has carried its carbonated beverages to over 160 countries and accounts for almost 50% of all soda pop consumed worldwide. It works primarily through the concept of global market segmentation. This form of segmentation involves defining markets in multiple countries based not on national boundaries, but on some other basis- most often, a life style or value system. Thus while the term global culture seems to suggest a politics of inclusion, we find that a great deal of commonality is actually found amongst certain classes of people across national boundaries rather than classes of people within any one country. The elite and upper middle class in India share similar values and lifestyles with similar social classes in the United States than with the working class or poor in India. There has emerged, thus, a new breed of identities based on mobility. This new breed popularly known as possessing the "hotel culture " are the cosmopolitan business people, bureaucrats and intellectuals. They are "the new class," people with credentials, "decontextualised cultural capital..." that "can be quickly and shiftingly recontextualised in a different setting" (Hannerz, 1990; Cosmopolitans & Locals in World Culture, TCS, 7). These are the sets of people that global capital works for and who global marketing segment-ation pertains to. This creation and mutation of classes fosters and reprod-uces the mobility of transnational capital.

We can at this point add a little more specificity to how exactly this transformation occurs - the "keeping in place" of difference but the simultaneous marking of a universal. One notion that transnational advertising draws heavily from in their attempts to penetrate third world markets is imagery that reflects the age old traditions and cultures of the nation they are marketing to. By appealing to sentiments of a glorious cultural, national and spiritual heritage, advertising tries to define for India its civilizational identity and great worth in the global context. It is possible to discern here that one of the major tasks at hand for transnational advertising is to reconcile two identities - the favored identity of "authentic cultural plenums" (Buell, 1994; National Culture and the New Global system, JHU, MD) or tradition has to be reconciled with a culture of consumption. Transnational advertising therefore makes strategic use of aspects of a selective Indian collective conscious, so that they might further their own ends. For all other purposes of course the cultural plenums of the Third World are kept behind tight conceptual and geographic boundaries. They are restrained definitionally as premodern, particularistic and firmly bounded primordialist cultures.

Let us take the example of the advertisement for Walls Ice cream. The advertisement works as a good example of a transnational commodity being marketed in India through what might be a global campaign. While the advertisement begins with a laughing Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower , and savvy executives going to work in France the advertisement within its allotted space of 30 seconds features an elephant in ceremonial attire, the Taj Mahal, kids playing cricket on a sunny day, a parrot (associated with good fortune in India), a regional south Indian costume dance Kathakali and the yuppie urban elite of India.

Locked in the advertisement are the dichotomous discourses of tradition and modernity striving to reconcile dissonant identities. The use of tradition as an operating concept is strategic and clearly these "essential" identities which have been so arbitrarily assigned are invidious. Just as the West has always looked to the East where the East is assigned the role of authenticating itself to the West, now in the form of transnational advertising comes along another oppressive force that decides and then defines what the Third world's authentic nature in its essence is and isn't. The advertisement is also representative of a popular orientalist tendency. The desire to "freeze" the "native culture" in the trappings of its own making is but a familiar hierarchial strategy for "othering" the third world. While this particular advertisement concedes to India's bow in the direction of modernity - the yuppie - this is acknowledged/accepted only after a necessary detour through its culture/traditions. In other words one can comprehend India's participation in the modernist project, or the emergence of the "Indian" yuppie only through a "freeze dried" national identity - a revitalisation of the idea of nationhood, but a nationhood over which a majority of Indians have no control.

At this point, it is necessary that I correct any impression that I may have given that this is all to do with multi-nationals only. Indian national capital, in as much as it is part of that "new global class" to whom "global" culture pertains, also reproduces this very same discourse. Here it is interesting to look at the case of Thums Up in India. Thums Up is a popular aerated beverage that has revamped its advertising strategy since the entry of Coke and Pepsi in the Indian market. Since the "masses" of India have always found this cola far out of their reach the Thums Up advertising campaigns had always targeted the urban youth with the "Taste the Thunder" slogan usually set to Western Rock Music and elitist sports such as billiards and so forth. The interesting development has been the response of this national campaign in the face of the invasion of transnational advertising. Thums Up ran a fresh new campaign using the theme song "Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara" - loosely translated it reads as "The finest land in the world, our India." Here we see how the themes embodied in the rhetoric of nationalism have been appropriated by a national firm in the face of the threat posed by transnational companies. The discourses of nationalism and transnationalism therefore work back and forth and play off against each other to ultimately further the capitalist enterprise.

The conjecture then is defined, as we noted above, by a culture of consumption that lies at its very base - commodities that traverse across nations - their appeal worked out through the idea of a `privileged' West/White-ness existing coevally and non-hierarchically with the underprivileged, but simultaneously specifically nationalist (the golden age) Other, all in the context of pleasure. The critical task therefore is to question all of the parameters that define the conjecture and their interconnections - the culture of consumption (thus capitalism), the modes of Othering within universalisms (and thus imperialism) and the essentialist heritages (thus nationalism). Paying attention to any one parameter exclusively could just as successfully subvert a progressive agenda as ignoring them all.

[Sangeeta Rao is a graduate student of Communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst]

proXsa home page