Our history, large and small
LEE Weng Choy
Of the many cultural phenomena that are exemplary of late capitalism, spectacle and globalization, the international biennale (and similar exhibitions of contemporary visual art) has a certain pride of place. It is arguably the paradigmatic form of bringing together for display a certain 'us', at a certain moment in time, while eliding the great distances between. Geography and ethnicity are privileged in biennales, to the extent that one could describe their mode of knowledge as ethno-geographic. Moreover, there is an assumption that, no matter how great the distances - mainly in space, occasionally in time - art works from all over the world can be presented together; that is, seen together as part of an increasingly globalized world. But is this assumption valid? To think through this question, it is useful to turn to Sanjay Krishnan's book, Reading the Global (2007). While his subject matter is largely the literature of what could now be considered a bygone era - from The Wealth of Nations (Smith 1776 ) to Lord Jim (Conrad 1900 ) - my discussion here asserts the merits of applying Krishnan's reading lessons from the past for present day purposes, and for extending these insights across the humanities, from literary to cultural studies to art history and criticism (the last being my own particular area).
Krishnan's aim is to 'show how the global as a frame and an operation constitutes or produces the region it claims to merely describe, taking as [his] point of departure a group of prose narratives composed during the rise and consolidation of the British Empire in Asia' (Krishnan 2007: 1). He contends that in 'recent discussions of globalization, the adjective “global” is tacitly assumed to refer to an empirical process that takes place “out there” in the world' (Krishnan 2007: 2). Furthermore, in 'line with this empirical conception of the “global”, the term is also often used in a manner suggestive of normative ideas' (Krishnan 2007: 2-3). As members of the 'global community', for example, you can only wage war in certain ways; you must open your borders to transnational capital; and so on. These assumptions and implications are problematic, and have been, for the most part, 'uncritically assimilated, in the humanities and social sciences, to a transparent comprehension of the world', and arguing against this, Krishnan submits that one should understand 'the “global” as an instituted perspective, not an empirical process' (Krishnan 2007: 1, emphasis added). For Krishnan, at the crux of the concept is perspective: the 'term “global” describes a way of bringing into view the world as a single, unified entity, articulated in space and developing over (common) time' (Krishnan 2007: 1). The global is, arguably, the largest, and therefore most suspect of 'ours'. Widely institutionalized during imperialism and colonization, 'this powerful mode of thematizing the world has resulted in the naturalization of this perspective as “correct” seeing … It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that this unexamined use of “global” informs every empirical study of globalization' (Krishnan 2007: 4-5).
LEE Weng Choy is an art critic, and artistic co-director of The Substation arts centre in Singapore.