Global Flows and Frictions in Southeast Asia and Beyond


“Globalization” has proliferated in scholarly and popular discourse since the early 1990s as a term referring to both the perception of the world’s enhanced interconnectedness and the increasing circulation of capital, labor, commodities, humans, and ideologies across national borders. For almost three decades, our minds have been preoccupied with defining, understanding, and assessing these structural and cultural transformations: What is unprecedented about globalization, and how does it resemble older forms of interconnection? How does what Ulf Hannerz (1992) called the “global ecumene” impact our historical consciousness? Should we imagine ourselves as the protagonists of a narrative of never-ending progress or as the inhabitants of the ruins of modernity? Drawing on a methodology originally designed to provide holistic, contextual, and fine-grained analyses of small and (preferably) self-enclosed communities, anthropologists have been seeking to explore the cultural underpinnings of global connections. Divided on whether to read globalization as an enhancement of complexity or as a form of cultural erosion, they have been exploring the effects of large-scale global transformations on local identities and on people's everyday lives. What are the aesthetic, cultural, and existential implications of a world where “difference is encountered in the adjoining neighborhood [and] the familiar turns up at the ends of the earth” (Clifford 1988)? Anthropological engagements with these questions have expanded our definitions of culture; rather than conceiving it as attached to and defining of particular groups of people, we have become skilled ethnographers of mobile, unstable, and deterritorialized “global cultural flows.” In this quest for more sophisticated theoretical tools to tackle the dynamics of contemporary cultural encounters, we have been confronted with the option of viewing globalization through metaphors of liquid flows or through the images of the clash of cultures. However, both models have their pitfalls in their incapacity to account for “awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2005). Focusing on global encounters in Southeast Asia, this course will engage intriguing ethnographic examples of what Tsing termed cultural frictions. Rather than postulating simplistic, binary oppositions between clear-cut cultural formations or pervasive and unimpeded flows of goods, ideas, and people, we will explore concrete instances of unequal exchanges emerging from unexpected intersections among global, national, and local forces. We will read about religious conversion and shifting notions of humanity in the encounter between Calvinist missionaries and Indonesian highlanders, changing experiences of sexuality among Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, and contemporary transformations of notions of gender and morality in urban Indonesia. We will explore the impact of the global touristic market on local notions of cosmopolitanism in Thailand and the impact of new technologies on the shaping of new conceptions of the moral person in Oceania. We will discuss instances of spirit possession in Malaysian multinational corporations and development-induced displacement in Laos, as well as the interplay of agreement and misunderstanding in the encounters among North American investors, NGO workers, and the inhabitants of the Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest. Through this anthropological journey, students will be exposed to key debates within the study of cosmopolitanism and will experience firsthand some of the challenges underlying ethnographic engagements with globalization.