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06 March 2010

Discarding Scale: The Global is Local and the Local is Overflowing

Example 1: A week ago, I saw the closing ceremony of the Olympics. I was sitting in my living room watching a big screen TV as the ceremony was broadcast live on NBC. The ceremony took place in Vancouver, B.C., and athletes from around the world attended. In addition to the athletes, there were thousands of spectators from around the world and representatives of almost every nation were present as well. For better or for worse, there were many images derived from North American indigeneity as well as images of cultures from around the world. I must have heard a dozen national anthems, and seen the flags of just about every country, but all of it took place in a single arena in Vancouver, and I was sitting on my ass in a small living room in College Park, Maryland.

Example 2: I've mentioned before that every time I go into D.C. I am awe struck by all of the people and places that I see there. I've walked by the Heritage Foundation, and visited the Bureau of Land Management. The headquarters of the AFL-CIO is a few blocks from the White House, and I can see the Department of Education from the train. I even saw a giant emblem being placed above the door of the Church of Scientology.
Most of these are places where decisions of national or world wide consequence are made. I've seen them on TV, heard about them on the radio, or read about them in newspapers, magazines, and books. They have always appeared so vast to me, but when I see them it's clear that they're just buildings filled with people - ordinary people. Most of those people ride the same dingy metro trains that I do - some of them may ride in Limos or drive fancy cars, but I know that those cars are just as ordinary when it comes right down to it. I see the dirt and grime, I see the menial laborers who do much of the work to maintain these places, but who are pushed aside when the cameras come by.

My question is, what aspects of these examples are global and what aspects are local? Was my watching of the Olympic ceremony local because I was sitting in a living room? Or global because I was watching it broadcast live through a global satellite system? Was the ceremony itself global because it was broadcast across the world, and involved participants from many different nations? Or was it local because it took place in Vancouver, B.C.? Is the White House local because it's a specific building on a particular street in a particular city? Or is it global because decisions are made there that potentially affect the world? Who among the many people that work in those buildings downtown gets to be global and who gets to be local, and what exactly does that mean for them?

The concept of scale has never really been operationalized adequately, and geographers in particular have been debating the meaning of global and local for the last few decades. In fact, traditional conceptions of scale have been criticized for privileging those deemed "global" and marginalizing those deemed "local" and, as a result, reifying and naturalizing existing power structures.
Latour, in his usual way, undercuts the debate entirely by discarding the concept of scale all together. The global is a fiction, he argues, because everything happens in a place. The President of the US meets his staff in the White House, the UN delegates congregate in New York, the Olympics took place in Vancouver. The only difference, he argues, between these places and any other is the number (and I would add distance) of connections, and it is these connections that we must trace. These connections are not one-way and they are not acquired without incurring some cost. Transactions must be made along these connections, and something must be transferred. Very often what is transferred is paper or electronic signals, but these transactions take work and are not unidirectional.
The other thing that makes them different is that most of them engage in world-making, what he calls panoramas. They zoom out, seemingly effortlessly, to construct a macroimage. The UN depicts the many nations of the world, the US government, the many states. But these are images, and the zooming is not as effortless as it appears.
So he has discarded the global, but, unlike others, he doesn't stop there and merely claim that we should "see the local in the global." The local, too, is a fiction. The global must be situated, but every site is overflowing. In every place there are evident signs of outside forces acting over long distances in both space and time. The room I'm sitting in was designed by an architect and built 30 years ago (that's just a guess). The computer I'm typing on has evolved over several decades and gone through many incarnations to become the piece of machinery that sits on my desk now. The keyboard is a relic of typewriters - largely out of use now. The layout of the keys was set almost one hundred years ago to make typing more efficient - why isn't it Dvorak or AZERTY rather than QWERTY? All of these actors must be taken into account as well, for a full picture to be developed.
The implication of discarding scale in this way is that we can no longer assign the labels of Global and Local to individuals, organizations, events or places. Such a practice is politically problematic for the reasons mentioned above. Instead we have to follow the traces, keep an eye out for panoramas and account for all of the myriad actors involved in an event. It's a lot more work for social scientists, but it pays off in the end by providing a more realistic picture of the world and one that we can actually be engaged with instead of trying to resist vast structural forces that are far bigger than any of us and are so abstract as to be phantoms.


David J. Blair said...

You know, the QWERTY layout was actually contrived because it is the least efficient layout the typewriting manufacturers could make up. They wanted less efficiency because the secretaries and stenographers were typing so quickly on the initial layout that they were jamming the typewriters. Of course, within a week or so, everyone was jamming the qwerties too, and just had to slow down.

I also like this argument a lot, Jeremy. There's a great deal of stress put on simple words like local and global to mean much more complex things than they do. We gotta give these political words a rest and say what we mean a bit more often!

Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks, David. You're right, the QWERTY was designed to prevent jamming, I forgot that. As I understand it, once a person learns a different keyboard layout, there is no significant difference in the speed or accuracy of their typing.

You may be interested to know that Latour uses the same treatment on concepts such as power, domination, and the social in general. I may have another post on those later.

David J. Blair said...

I look forward to it.

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