Literature and Globalization

Art, in all its forms, has always been a product of human mind processes, and the mind processes aren’t totally independent of the effects of the stimuli coming from the world out there. Human actions are affected by their milieu − social, political, economic and cultural − and affect the milieu in their turn. Thus, literature has a reciprocal relationship with the people and systems of its own time and before and after it. The degree and extent of the circles of influence in which the production, dissemination and reception of literature fall have been changing in types and radii with the changing times. Gone are the days when printed knowledge used to travel at snail’s pace and cover geographical distances in a world with frontiers and checks and restraints. Today, the dissemination of knowledge occurs at the speed of light through the World Wide Web in a world sans frontiers and nearly sans any kind of check or restraint on its movement or speed of dissemination. In a span of less than a hundred years, the world and kind of literature it produces have undergone a sea change. The central factor behind such a huge change is globalization. The technical innovations that belong to the age of globalization have changed the way human beings think and react. The intellectual horizon of an average individual − expanded post-globalization – has limits imposed only by the individual’s own thirst for knowledge. Globalization can not be given an all inclusive definition because the process has been perceived in various ways by different people. Moreover, its positive and negative effects too have been weighed against each other to make pronouncements ranging from rapturous optimism to uninhibited ranting about an inevitable doom that is the logical conclusion to the story of globalization. Taking the golden mean may prove to be the most fruitful. Globalization can be seen as a process that expands the economic frontiers in such away that trade and commerce are conducted keeping the overall world market in mind, and not mere national or regional ones. What began at the level of economy, spread at a fast pace to socio-political and cultural spheres and globalization started to indicate something like merging of spatial boundaries and shrinking of time taken in reaching from one point to another. Thus, globalization may be seen as an ongoing process that made it possible for the peoples of the world to overcome many barriers and come together. When one looks at the phenomenon of globalization, one finds that there is a lot that remains hidden and whatever is visible is only the tip of the iceberg. Equality is one of the desired objectives of globalization but the two World Wars and the post cold war scenario have shorn the world of any kind of faith in humanity. The post-postmodern world of the twenty-first century is characterized by the absence of any kind of faith. It doesn’t believe in the “invisible hand”. Neither does it trust the “innate goodness” of those in power to think for the welfare of others. Theories on globalization try to find out the dynamics that evolves out of the interactions between various nations and bodies that are definitely unequal in power and pursue diametrically opposite goals and conflicting interests at times. In many ways, globalization is a continuation of the scourges of colonialism and imperialism. It is seen as a means of exploitation of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful, e.g. the apathy shown by corporate giants towards the extent of exploitation and living standards in the sub Saharan Africa is not very different in comparison to that shown by the imperialist and colonial powers till the mid-twentieth century. Globalization has also been seen as a menace that threatens cultures, languages, and ways of life of the peoples away from the centre of the power discourse. Income, information and education gaps between the rich and the poor are widening not narrowing; economic crises, trade imbalances and structural adjustments have precipitated a moral crisis in many countries, tearing the basic social and cultural fabric of many families and communities apart… (Chinnammai) They are being marginalized and finally their culture, languages and ways of life are eliminated effectively through substitution by their counterparts in the dominant force. Thus globalization is a “homogenizing force that threatens to wipe out local cultures” (Jay). The corporate giants that function at trans-national levels have become immensely powerful in the age of globalization, and they have exploited human and natural resources equally dangerously and irresponsibly, without any concern for sustainability. All the disadvantages of globalization notwithstanding, this fact can not be denied that the advantages of globalization are many. Irrespective of which one weighs more on the scale, globalization is a process that doesn’t seem to be stopping or stoppable in the near future. Gutenberg brought the first revolution in the world of written words by inventing the printing press. He made it possible for the words to be reproduced with accuracy and with a speed resembling that of lightening, as compared to the speed at which hand-written books were produced before the invention of the printing press. The printed books could be produced very fast and in much larger numbers. This change in the means of production played a very significant part in bringing about the Renaissance of learning. With the increase in the speed of the modes of transport, the rate of dissemination of printed words increased and it brought about a very significant change in production, dissemination and reception of works seen as literature. The man who wrote in the medieval ages had in his mind people of his city, region or nation as readers. The Renaissance and post Renaissance writer wrote for that part of the known civilized world that spoke the same set of languages. The modern writer wrote keeping that part of the world in mind with which he had socio-political, cultural or linguistic affinities. The writer in the age of globalization writes keeping the global village in mind. Thus he produces a world literature. Al-Azm points out that Goethe was the first person who gave the idea of a world literature or Weltliteratur, “transcending national limits, cultural boundaries and provincial traditions”, and globalization has produced something akin to Weltliteratur, at least partially, if not wholly or substantially. It is written for a market that comprises real and virtual players and networks and whose forces determine the shape the writing will take. Decisions are determined by the market that has to be catered to and by the kind of reception a work will get. As Paul Jay asserts, globalization ensures that the “contemporary production and consumption [of literature] no longer take place within discrete national borders but unfold in a complex system of transnational economic and cultural exchanges characterized by the global flow of cultural products and commodities”. To begin at the beginning of the life cycle of the creative production, a writer conceives the idea of writing a piece of literary work with certain considerations in mind. Today’s professional writers are market driven – they have to be, as their survival depends on the circulation, reception and reach of what they write. They do not write in isolation from the society without thinking anything about the fate of their writing as did their counterparts not more than a hundred years ago. For them, market is the taskmaster and even their God. What happens to their writing career after their books hit the stands depends on who talks about them and what kinds of awards they get. As a result of rapidly accelerating globalization we are moving toward a world market for literature. There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she must be an international rather than a national phenomenon … the arbiters of taste are no longer one’s own compatriots—they are less easily knowable, not a group the author himself is part of (Park). As an author is in the process of creating a work, most of the times even before he starts working on it, he has to look into the matters like the prospective publishers and promotional campaign that the publishers will run before the launch of the book. The book has to be talked about in the right circles by the people who matter and must get the media’s spotlight, and if possible, a Booker or a Nobel. The audience an author targets is neither homogeneous nor fully known or predictable. It is an international audience whose tastes the author has to cater to, and such a heterogeneous set of people is not pleased easily. In addition to buying the book from various bookstores, the buyers also have access to the sites viz., from where they can very easily order and purchase the book. Moreover, an international market of the age of globalization also means that the work must avoid obscurity arising out of a need of background or cultural context linked knowledge. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension …Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator… culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments… (Park) Thus the reader has come to the centre of the process of production of literature. The consumers’ demand generates supply in the commodity world market. The same is true in case of literature too. Therefore, for an average international reader, “it has become easier to sidestep the slow and heavily institutionalized process of canonization” (Vriezen). Moreover it may also gives birth to an international literature: novels, poems, travelogues etc. Such a novel will be, as Rushdie put forth in his article entitled “In Defense of the Novel Yet Again,” published in the special issue of The New Yorker the kind of novel that globalization has given birth to is “postcolonial … decentered, transnational, interlingual, [and]cross-cultural” (qtd. in Al-Azm, 47) Such poetry will have, as Leevi Lehto’s Plurifying the Languages of the Trite puts it: independence vis-à-vis National Literatures, including institutionally […]; mixing of languages; borrowing of structures – rhythmical, syntactical – from other languages; writing in one’s non-native languages; inventing new, ad hoc languages; conscious attempts to write for more heterogeneous, non-predetermined audiences… (qtd. in Vriezen). Existing in a veritable pot-pourri of socio-cultural influences and especially exposed to them as their work demands it, a writer is always absorbing new ideas bombarded from all types of media. Being dependent on the successful and artistic synthesis of ideas assimilated in the course of life, their work is thus firmly shaped by the kind of exposure they had. The global market for the types of books in demand follows a trend. Once a technique or kind of work grabs public attention and best-seller lists, an avalanche of books following the pattern appear in the market in no time. Thus starts a trend that has a life cycle and span of its own e.g. “magical realism, which began as a recognizable signature from Asian and Latin cultures, over time has come to seem almost normal as it’s been embraced by Western writers.” (Black) Orhan Pamuk or Salman Rushdie are prime examples of the new breed of global writers whose origin owes to the openings availed to them by the forces of globalization. They are hailed all over the world as great writers but in their own country, amongst their own people, there are large sections that see them as mere panderers to the western tastes. There are many writers, e.g. Soyinka and Achebe from the continent of Africa, who react against the forced homogenization of literature that globalization has brought about. These writers go back to their roots and revive the traditional forms of the literature of their respective countries or tribes. This countercurrent in literature is a part of the larger post-colonial discourse. English being the language of the colonialist forces from whom their countries had won freedom painfully, these writers passed through three stages: unquestioned acceptance and imitation, partial questioning and alteration and rejection and creation of new forms of literature that they had inherited from their colonial masters. They are not the sole representatives of their countrymen or culture. They only represent a set that has chosen one way. The other set with different choices has writers that are “de-rooted and have to cure this handicap through ‘a cultural imagery,’ trying to overcome their fear of not belonging anywhere and nowhere. The writer adopts a caricatured identity…as ‘World’s Citizen,’” (Boneza). The hegemony of English language and literature is directly linked with the forces of globalization and polarization of powers – both military and monetary. English literature is published and launched by big publishing houses like OUP or Harper-Collins that belong to USA or UK. The literature of other languages is translated into English and enrich it. The reverse process of appearance of English books into other languages and countries does not reach global levels or standards in general (Black). Thus a writer has to write in or get translated into English so that he may reach a global audience. The big publishing houses determine to a large extent the types of books that’ll see the light of the day and their decisions are determined by market diktats. Thus globalization suppresses variety and does not give a level field to small or relatively less known names. Still, as globalization is to stay, literature must find ways of surviving and even thriving. Literature can’t ignore the forces of the globalized world that act on it as they are too strong to be ignored. The best way would be constant vigilance and openness to new innovations and ideas that originate through the processes of globalization thus getting affected by them but also trying to modify their effect an to make its survival as a genuine art form possible.

Works Cited

Al-Azm, Sadik J. “The Satanic Verses Post Festum: The Global, The Local, The Literary”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. vol. XX Nos. 1&2 (2000). n.d. Web. 15 March 2011.

Black, Shameem. “Is There a Global Literature?” The European Business Review. n.d. Web. 15 March 2011.

Boneza, Rais Neza. “Ghettoization or Globalization Of African Literature”. . 2006. Web. 15 March 2011.

Chinnammai, S. “Effects of Globalisation on Education and Culture” University of Madras.. . n.d. Web. PDF file.

Jay , Paul. “Beyond Discipline? Globalization and the Future of English”. PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1, Special Topic: Globalizing Literary Studies (Jan., 2001), pp. 32- 47 MLA. 31 August 2009. Web. 15 March 2011

Vesajoki, F. “The Effects of Globalization on Culture: A Study of the Experiences of Globalization among Finnish Travellers”. 16 December 2002. University of Jyväskylä, Department of Ethnology. Web. 15 March 2011.

Vriezen, Samuel. “Globalization in Literature – Vierde Column Voor Vooys”. Vooys. issue 27-4, December 2009. Web. 15 March 2011.

Park, Tim. “Tim Park On The Globalization Of Literature”. 09 February 2010. Web. 15 March 2011.


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