In articulating his notion of the global ‘imaginary’, Arjun Appadurai famously writes of flows, of scapes – medias, technologies, financial worlds – as well as people and ideologies. All these forms flow. Appadurai’s global scapes are powerful – too powerful, perhaps, in the way they mobilize many millions of people in the world to aspire to urban life and to the golden west, where the streets are reputedly (but falsely) paved with money and the way to opportunity. Many a migrant’s tale has soured in the face of reality in a new, much-sought after location that offers more hardship, not less, of a new cultural variety, rather than a diamond-encrusted McDonald’s sign.
Appadurai’s point is that imaginaries are globally shared. True enough, but what about the everyday non-imagined – the thoughts, the raw symbols of the modern world that are not so much about aspiration and hope as about the way the world’s collective thought processes have increasingly converged upon a few choice ideals? Ideals are not imaginaries: they are real (if dynamic) symbols of the way things are, and ought to, work. (One remembers Clifford Geertz’s famous phrase defining worldview: ‘the picture [people] have of the way things in sheer actuality are’.) Things? What things? Oh, things like: religion; the individual; morality; human rights; capitalism: these things are thought to exist, actually, and even eternally, although historians of ideas can rightfully trace them (usually to modernity). We are so taken with what seems real about these seemingly fundamental, contemporary aspects of human life that we forget that they were not always everywhere. That is what culture – in this case, global culture – does: it makes us think the world actually is as we think it is – that there such a thing as an individual, or a religion.
How do these ideas get from one end of the earth to the other, like a storm blown by the wind? They are not imaginaries; they are current global realities: they represent what it means to be human today, for most people, in most places. They did not always. Arguably, many of them came from the west, and somehow got disseminated throughout the globe, as a tacit but perhaps definitive statement of Euro-American dominance or contemporary power: we may no longer be colonialists, but our ideas won (and sometimes via the even sweeter victory of having come back to us by way of you), so there you go. Modernity means that these are now social forms – ethnicity, the market, peoplehood, personhood, free will, choice – that are globally understood, accepted, seen as natural and timeless and definitive.
These social forms have nothing to do with our genes, of course, or our humanity, or maybe even the way we evolved, except by chance or by confluence. Yes, it is possible for human beings to act and to historically construct shared concepts – or to come to collectively embrace concepts that become shared over time and space – that have nothing to do with the evolution of the species, except in the temporal sense. These cultural formations are not natural, or real: they are our collective constructs, now global, having mysteriously dispersed themselves across the world, pan-geographically, as if they got on the planes themselves and got off and sailed through customs: ‘Hello! I am your new global thought form!’ They migrated all over the planet with subconscious ease, unspoken, and yet they are the very terms of global discourse. There is nothing definitive or final about them, and yet they make up the world as we know it, today, at this fleeting moment – movement – in time.