For a while now, globalisation as a concept has grown a tad stale. Most of us no longer interrogate its implications or underpinnings when it comes up. Beyond the term’s overuse to the degree that its purchase has been watered down, however, there are deeper reasons for thinking beyond it.
At its onset, globalisation appeared to be a phenomenon dismantling colonial domination and dispossession, and what’s not to like about that? Yet beginning in the 1950s, the wave of new social movements which transformed the way liberalism governed alternative forms of life evinced a new problem. This refiguration entailed the arrival of multicultural recognition as the basis for the political, in which multiculturalism suggested that difference was possible but only insofar as it was slotted into certain modes or codes that allowed for that difference in fixed ways. Purported expansiveness could be just as oppressive in its own way.
In fact, the glib claim to globalisation as an ethos we default to allows for continued insistence on the unintelligibility of the ‘other’. Take for instance the expectation of performing global citizenry and the accompanying righteous indignation of those who ask, “Why doesn’t everyone learn English?”, or the derision and ridiculing of non-standard forms of English adopted by non-native speakers. Further, many hold the related opinion that learning subaltern languages is inconvenient or unnecessary to our understanding of or functioning in the world.
On this matter, for the scholar of comparative literature and postcolonial theory Gayatri Spivak, language is inextricable from the broader human imaginary. Thinking outside of our language is thinking outside of our culture, and ourselves. The difficulty and impossibility of full native comprehension of an unfamiliar language, and culture, is precisely what frees the imagination—in undoing our complacency tied to literacy, we receive a “shock to the idea of belonging” which is productive and, according to Spivak, necessary.
Moving outside of ourselves first requires acknowledgement of the tracks we leave on the bodies and lands of others. In Death of a Discipline, Spivak writes, “what we can know about [others] always bears the traces of our own transference. To realise this may be at least a first step toward a less cannibalistic ethics of otherness.” This movement must not be about self-edification, but a relational practice that allows for understanding, ideally without appropriation. Pointedly in the case of the #wanderlust Instagrammer generation, we should eschew cultural tourism of the Eat, Pray, Love variety that pivots on feeling lost in the mystification of foreign cultures solely to find ourselves. Yet an ideal this undoubtedly is. After all, it is precisely the appropriation of globalisation by corporations (in literal acts of incorporation) which has led to its overuse and conceptual emptying in the first place. That said, what else is there, if we wish to turn away from globalisation?
"What we can know about [others] always bears the traces of our own transference. To realise this may be at least a first step toward a less cannibalistic ethics of otherness.”"Gayatri Spivak
The question is not “what’s next?”, for we will continue to live in its wake. Planetarity, the alternative supplied by Spivak, does not supplant or oppose globalisation, nor deny it as a phenomenon. Rather, planetarity has vastly different stakes. To me, considering what it means to live on planet earth, beyond the played-out conception of the global citizen, requires mobilising attention to and anticipation of radically shifting environmental conditions that we have never experienced. Extreme and aberrant temperature fluctuations, flash floods and droughts: if we stop paying attention, we naturalise and neutralise the natural disaster, and the unprecedented soon gets plotted as just another current of continuity. It’s especially easy to float along if we live in a supposed safe zone like Singapore. I do not want to wait for a “shock to the idea of belonging” that entails a literal destruction of the place I live before finding it in myself to cultivate a response to these changing times.
As to why we might think of the planet over the globe as our relational frame, Spivak supplies that we have by now presumed understanding of the globe as an abstract space “in our computers and allowing us to control it,” whereas we still maintain a healthy mystery of the concept of the planet, which is “in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; yet we inhabit it, on loan.” Thinking planetarity provides a distance that is both spatial and conceptual. When we think of the planet, contextualised by planets other than the one we inhabit, the association is of the unknown, but that which is worth trying to know, in spite of the impossibility of ever fully knowing. The cultivated knowledge of planetary alterity would likely be on its own terms, rather than ours. This, Spivak poses, is how we should come to think of the other. The other, in truly planetary relation, would include not only other people, but other species and organisms which populate the planet.
Thinking planetarity instead of globality is not to escape the notion of collectivities, but rather to reconfigure them from how they were once mapped and cleaved out by colonisers. Our current understanding of collectivity allows us to compartmentalise beings into categories of likeness or unlikeness that we have come to think of as defaults, and to use these categories as logics for comparing, dividing, reifying, essentialising, dominating, and obliterating entire groups. We are in desperate need of reimagining ways of coming and being together. (I was going to say “now so more than ever,” but though it may seem so, the likelier story is that we have been in need of it for far longer than we realise.)
Instead of seeing beings as entities to be grouped together and separated, and call it a day in terms of our understanding of each other, we might endeavour to pay closer attention to precisely what we do not understand, acknowledging ungraspable particularity without writing off difference as radical alterity. This continued struggle to try to understand heterogeneity with humility but not futility is at the crux of a planetary relational practice. Our persistent attempts in spite of shock, alienation, and discomfort to keep forging connections and possibilities of language, thought, and being are what will ultimately allow ourselves to be imagined by and in other cultures. What constitutes a movement outside of ourselves can also be framed as a new sort of collectivity, a being, and moving together.
Is ushering in the dawn of a new age then as simple as replacing globality with planetarity? Hardly. Spivak scales out of globalisation with planetarity in order to transcend appropriation while knowing full well that planetarity’s co-optation might well be coming. True enough, in the nearly fifteen years since the publication of Death of a Discipline, corporations have since developed sophisticated notions of planetarity, such as the transhumanist movement led by the likes of Elon Musk who have set their sights on colonising and mining other planets such as Mars. On to the next, it would seem. Yet I venture that the move is not to try to climb into an even higher order category, for in that lies escapism, but to work corporate logics of planetarity into our knowledge of it. Our efforts towards shaping and shading in a tacky, sticky relational web of uncollapsible difference should also enfold the texture and stakes of the precarity of cooptation. Furthermore, for better or worse, with the rise of artificial intelligence and strides towards understanding life on other planets that is now a reality far beyond a metaphor or thought experiment, an expanded ethics for being and becoming can no longer afford to exclude the mechanisms most central to the charting and manufacturing of new frontiers.