The Local and the Global

By Stuart Hall

The following article is extracted from ‘The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity’, which first appeared in Culture, Globalization and the World System, edited by Anthony King (Macmillan 1991). It was originally presented at a symposium at the State University of New York in 1989, which explains the wording of the first reference to Rupert Murdoch. But that is the only thing in what Stuart Hall says which we believe to be dated.

The debate about globalisation as a world process, and its consequences, has been going on now in a variety of different fields of intellectual work for some time. What I am going to try and do here is to map some of the shifting configurations of this question, of the local and the global, particularly in relation to culture and cultural politics. Global and local are the two faces of the same movement from one epoch of globalisation, the one which has been dominated by the nation state, the national economies, the national cultural identities, to something new.

What is this new kind of globalisation? The new kind of globalisation is not English, it is American. In cultural terms, the new kind of globalisation has to do with a new form of global mass culture, very different from that associated with English identity, and the cultural identities associated with the nation-state in an earlier phase. Global mass culture is dominated by the image which crosses and re-crosses linguistic frontiers much more rapidly and more easily, and which speaks across languages in a much more immediate way. It is dominated by all the ways in which the visual and graphic arts have entered directly into the reconstitution of popular life, of entertainment and of leisure. It is dominated by TV and by film, and by the image, of imagery, and styles of mass advertising. Its epitome is in all those forms of mass communication of which one might think of satellite TV as the prime example. Not because it is the only example but because you could not understand satellite TV without understanding its grounding in a particular advanced national economy and culture and yet its whole purpose is precisely that it cannot be limited any longer by national boundaries.

We have just, in Britain, opened up the new satellite TV called ‘Sky Channel’, owned by Rupert Murdoch. It sits just above the Channel. It speaks across to all the European societies at once and as it went up all the older models of communication in our society were being dismantled. The notion of the British Broadcasting Corporation, of a public service interest, is rendered anachronistic in a moment.

It is a very contradictory space because, at the same time as sending the satellite aloft, Thatcherism sends someone to watch the satellite. So Mrs. Thatcher has put into orbit Rupert Murdoch and the ‘Sky Channel’ but also, a new Broadcasting Standards Committee to make sure that the satellite does not immediately communicate soft pornography to all of us after 11 o’clock when the children are in bed.

So this is not an uncontradictory phenomenon. One side of Thatcherism, the respectable, traditional side, is watching the free market side. This is the bifurcated world that we live in but nevertheless, in terms of what is likely to carry the new international global mass culture back into the old nation-states, the national cultures of European societies, it is very much at the leading edge of the transmitters of the image. And as a consequence of the explosion of those new forms of cultural communication and cultural representation there has opened up a new field of visual representation itself.

It is this field which I am calling global mass culture. Global mass culture has a variety of different characteristics but I would identify two. One is that it remains centred in the West. That is to say, Western technology, the concentration of capital, the concentration of techniques, the concentration of advanced labour in the Western societies, and the stories and imagery of Western societies: these remain the driving powerhouse of this global mass culture. In that sense, it is centred in the West and it always speaks English.

On the other hand, this particular form does not speak the Queen’s English any longer. It speaks an English as an international language which is quite a different thing. It speaks a variety of broken forms of English: English as it has been invaded, and as it has hegemonised a variety of other languages without being able to exclude them from it. It speaks Anglo-Japanese, Anglo-French, Anglo-German or Anglo-English indeed. It is a new form of international language, not quite the same old class-stratified, class-dominated, canonically-secure form of standard or traditional highbrow English. That is what I mean by ‘centred in the West’. It is centred in the languages of the West but it is not centred in the same way.

The second most important characteristic of this form of global mass culture is its peculiar form of homogenisation. It is a homogenising form of cultural representation, enormously absorptive of things, as it were, but the homogenisation is never absolutely complete, and it does not work for completeness. It is not attempting to produce little mini-versions of Englishness everywhere, or little versions of Americanness. It is wanting to recognise and absorb those differences within the larger, overarching framework of what is essentially an American conception of the world. That is to say, it is very powerfully located in the increasing and ongoing concentration of culture and other forms of capital. But it is now a form of capital which recognises that it can only, to use a metaphor, rule through other local capitals, rule alongside and in partnership with other economic and political élites. It does not attempt to obliterate them; it operates through them. It has to hold the whole framework of globalisation in place and simultaneously police that system: it stage-manages independence within it, so to speak. You have to think about the relationship between the United States and Latin America to discover what I am talking about, how those forms which are different, which have their own specificity, can nevertheless be re-penetrated, absorbed, reshaped, negotiated, without absolutely destroying what is specific and particular to them.

So, the notion of globalisation as a non-contradictory, uncontested space in which everything is fully within the keeping of the institutions, so that they perfectly know where it is going, I simply do not believe. I think the story points to something else: that in order to maintain its global position, capital has had to negotiate and by negotiate I mean it had to incorporate and partly reflect the differences it was trying to overcome. It had to get hold of, and neutralise, to some degree, the differences. It is trying to constitute a world in which things are different.

Now the question is: is this simply the final triumph, the closure of history by the West? Is globalisation but the triumph and closure of history by the West? Is this the final moment of a global post-modern where it now gets hold of everybody, of everything, where there is no difference which it cannon contain, no otherness it cannot speak, no marginality which it cannot take pleasure out of?

It’s clear, of course, that when I speak about ‘the exotic cuisine’, they’re not eating the exotic cuisine in Calcutta. They’re eating it in Manhattan. So do not imagine this is evenly and equally spread throughout the world. I am talking about a process of profound unevenness. But I am nevertheless saying that we shouldn’t resolve that question too quickly. It is just another face of the final triumph of the West. I know that position. I know it is very tempting. It is what I call ideological post-modernism: I can’t see round the edge of it and so history must have ended. That form of post-modernism I don’t buy.  It is what happens to ex-Marxist French intellectuals when they head for the desert.

But there is another reason why one should not see this form of globalisation as simply unproblematic and uncontradictory, because I have been talking about what is happening within its own regimes, within its own discourses. I have not yet talked about what is happening outside it, what is happening at the margins. So, I want to look at the process from the point of view, not of globalisation, but of the local. I want to talk about two forms of globalisation, still struggling with one another: an older, corporate, enclosed, increasingly defensive one which has to go back to nationalism and national cultural identity in a highly defensive way, and to try to build barriers around it before it is eroded. And then this other form of the global post-modern which is trying to live with, and at the same moment, overcome, sublate, get hold of and incorporate difference.

What has been happening out there in the local? What about the people who did not go above the globalisation but went underneath, to the local?

The return to the local is often a response to globalisation. It is what people do when, in the face of a particular form of modernity which confronts them in the form of the globalisation I have described, they opt out of that and say ‘I don’t know anything about that any more. I can’t control it. I know no politics which can get hold of it. It’s too big. It’s too inclusive. Everything is on its side. There are some terrains in between, little interstices, the smaller spaces within which I have to work’. Though, of course, one has to see this always in terms of the relationship between unevenly balanced discourses and regimes. But that is not all that we have to say about the local.

For it would be an extremely odd and peculiar history of this part of the twentieth century if we were not to say that the most profound cultural revolution has come about as a consequence of the margins coming into representation – in art, in painting, in film, in music, in literature, in the modern arts everywhere, in politics, and in social life generally. Our lives have been transformed by the struggle of the margins to come into representation. Not just to be placed by the regime of some other, or imperilling eye but to reclaim some form of representation for themselves.

Paradoxically in our world, marginality has become a powerful space. It is a space of weak power but it is a space of power, nonetheless. In the contemporary arts, I would go so far as to say that, increasingly, anybody who cares for what is creatively emergent in the modern arts will find that it has something to do with the languages of the margin.

The emergence of new subjects, new genders, new ethnicities, new regions, new communities, hitherto excluded from the major forms of cultural representation, unable to locate themselves except as decentred or subaltern, have acquired through struggle, sometimes in very marginalised ways, the means to speak for themselves for the first time. And the discourses of power in our society, the discourses of the dominant regimes, have been certainly threatened by this decentred cultural empowerment of the marginal and the local.

Face to face with a culture, an economy and a set of histories which seem to be written or inscribed elsewhere, and which are so immense, transmitted from one continent to another with such extraordinary speed, the subjects of the local, of the margin, can only come into representation by, as it were, recovering their own hidden histories. They have to try to retell the story from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. And this moment has been of such profound significance in the post-war world that you could not describe the post-war world without it. You could not describe the movements of colonial nationalism without that moment when the unspoken discovered that they had a history which they could speak; they had languages other than the languages of the master, of the tribe. It is an enormous moment. The world begins to be decolonised at that moment. You could not understand the movements of modern feminism precisely without the recovery of the hidden histories.

These are the hidden histories of the majority that never got told. History without the majority inside it, history as a minority event. You could not discover, or try to discuss the Black movements, civil rights movements, the movements of Black cultural politics in the modern world, without that notion of the rediscovery of where people came from, the return to some kind of roots, the speaking of a past which previously had no language. The attempt to snatch from the hidden histories another place to stand in, another place to speak from, and that moment is an extremely important moment. It is a moment which always tends to be overrun and to be marginalised by the dominant forces of globalisation.

But do not misunderstand me. I am not talking about some ideal space in which everybody says, ‘Come on in. Tell us what you think. I’m glad to hear from you’. They did not say that. But those languages, those discourses, it has not been possible to silence in the last twenty years.

Well, I am not trying to help you to sleep better at night, to say it’s really all right, the revolution throbs down there, it’s living, it’s all OK. You just have to wait for the local to erupt and disrupt the global. I am not telling any kind of story like that. I am asking that we simply do not think of globalisation as a pacific and pacified process. It’s not a process at the end of history. It is working on the terrain of post-modern culture as a global formation, which is an extremely contradictory space. Within that we have, in entirely new forms which we are only just beginning to understand, the same old contradictions, the same old struggle. Not the same old contradictions but continuing contradictions of things which are trying to get hold of other things, and things which are trying to escape from their grasp. That old dialectic is not at an end. Globalisation does not finish it off.

© Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall is Professor of Sociology at the Open University, and formerly Director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. He was the first editor of the New Left Review.