The Poetics of Globalization: Reading Capital in Rwanda
I carried the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital with me across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Kigali by way of Brussels—and traveling from the territory of the once-colonizer to that of the once-colonized. Under the largest tree in Nkomangwa, a rural village in the heart of Rwanda’s Eastern Province, I read Marx’s critique of Western capitalism, which he says comes into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx 926). Tasked with developing a social enterprise in Rwanda whose eventual goal was market participation, I began to wonder why, if capital is laced with blood, I couldn’t see it.
I found a partial answer in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which I had also brought along in my backpack. Jameson argues capital has three historical stages; the second of these three is imperialism, at which “point the phenomenological experience of the individual subject—traditionally, the supreme raw material of the work of art—becomes limited to a tiny corner of the social world, a fixed-camera view of a certain section of London or the countryside or whatever” (410-11). The problem, Jameson contends, is that “the truth of that experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place” (411). Instead, the truth of what Jameson calls the “limited daily experience” of any place lies far from that place, in peripheral points that once belonged to colonial empires, like India or Hong Kong (411). For Jameson, in other words, globalization is an aesthetic problem as much as a political-economic one: how can this divergence of experience be represented? What forms are adequate to capturing this elusive experience of disconnected connection? Are these adequate forms ones that already exist—the realist novel, the mutliplot serial, the modernist daybook—or does globalization necessitate the invention of an entirely new form?
Proposal: The Form
Taking it to be true that globalization is a problem of aesthetics, this honors thesis wrestles with the challenges of representing a single subjective experience within a global network that is simultaneously universal and yet, invisible—or, at least unknowable. The object that would emerge from this process—a hybrid form that is part critical, part creative—would take its inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project: like that collection of fragmentary essays, quotations, and found objects, it would refuse the binary between creative and critical in order to construct a single space where shards of intellectual activity—including essays, personal narratives, photographs, and other forms of traditional representation—could exist simultaneously.
Proposal: The Content
It was always the same during every market visit on Tuesday in Nkomangwa. From heaps of clothing piles, we picked out shirts that loudly proclaimed the cultural dominance of America and the greatness of its losing sports teams. I saw a woman wearing a shirt at the Pentecostal Church once that said, “Porn Star,” but, unable to speak English, she remained unaware of the shirt’s message. Beyond the inappropriate or ironic shirts were the ones that came too close to home—the baseball jersey from Braintree High School, only a twenty-minute drive from my house. A shirt that I remembered seeing in a Wal-Mart or a Target six or eight months ago—one that I had passed up but had been purchased by another and subsequently donated, only to apparently end up on the other side of the world.
In its exploration of globalization and aesthetics, this honors thesis proposes to examine Rwanda as a case study of representation in the world. Connections between individuals are always being forged through a global market exchange of commodities, which, Marx notes, “[reflect] the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things” (165). If we take it to be true that commodities are not only the crystallization of human labor but also the concealment of social relations, then it becomes easier to understand why, as Jameson posits, the “structural coordinates” within the global postmodern system “are no longer accessible to immediate lived experience” (411). Jameson even goes so far as to argue that those coordinates “are not often even conceptualizable for most people” (411). The creation of art, then, becomes a political act, insofar as any single subjective experience is tied to a whole multitude of coordinate points that make up the world system.
In Rwanda, I caught a slipping glimpse of how my own “immediate lived experience” is bound to another place on the other side of the world, but I was left wondering what aesthetic form could coordinate these two points into one conceptual whole. Because globalization and aesthetics are abstract concepts, this thesis aims to anchor its argument about the relationships between the two in a single case study of Rwanda.
Tentatively titled “The Poetics of Globalization: Reading Capital in Rwanda,” this honors thesis poses the problem of representation while simultaneously taking a form itself that attempts to answer the question.
The project will include the following three components:
- A study of world systems theories to define globalization and give shape to the global network to which I allude in the above proposal.
- A study of aesthetics to outline the problems of representation, accompanied by a critical examination of pre-existing literary forms—including the ones mentioned above—to test their fit as a response to the aesthetic challenges of globalization.
- A case of study of Rwanda in the world, to be done by examining the arc of Western narratives about Rwanda from the colonial period to today, culminating in a re-envisioning of my own subjective experience in relation to Rwanda.
Methods of Literary and Cultural Studies
Methods posed questions of representation and cultural productions, introducing me to texts of literary criticism. I first read Marx’s “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret” in this class with Professor Nathan Hensley. This essay has been the guiding force behind much of my thinking about this project, which I began to conceptualize in the spring after having taken this class. Other particularly influential ideas from this class include Foucault’s concept of power and Derrida’s writings on deconstruction. In an excerpt from The History of Sexuality, Foucault outlines his conception of power, arguing that power operates through means of discourse. The idea that power circulates in all relations was critical to the shaping of this project, which understands the social life that I shared with others in Rwanda as stemming from a global discourse.
My introduction to the problems of representation sprung from our reading of selected texts by Derrida. Deconstruction challenged me to think about the affordances and limitations of the written word as an adequate form of representation, driving me to explore alternate forms of representation in a mixed-media presentation about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which can be found here on YouTube. Both this project and my reading of Derrida have paved the way for me to think about hybrid forms of representation, which I plan to employ in the creation of my thesis’s form.
Victorian Literature & Globalization
During the spring of 2013, I continued examining the relationship between literature and globalization in this class, also taught by Professor Hensley. Both the critical texts and novels in this class have played an important role in the conception of this honors thesis. As part of an assignment, I “close-read” a three-sentence passage in Marx’s essay on commodities, which helped me realize that critical texts are also aesthetic tracts—displaying a kind of hybridity that I envision my own project as possessing. In this course, I also read about Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory, which will be a primary focus point in the first component of my project. I also read about the relationship between imperialism and the cultural development of the novel, as written about by Edward Said. Said gives voice to the absence of global connection that marks Victorian novels, providing the diegetic narrative of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as an example of a “limited daily experience” that is made possible by the funds from a West Indies plantation—one that never makes it into the narrative.
Additionally, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which wrestles with questions of representing a single individual experience within the micro network that is the “provincial life” of Middlemarch. A digital mapping project on character relations in Middlemarch solidified my interest in searching for new ways to map individual experiences within a collective space. The project, which is a digital remediation of Middlemarch, can be manipulated to place any one of the novel’s characters in the center of the map at a given time, demonstrating the dynamic nature of networked systems of individuals.
I continued thinking about questions raised in my Victorian Literature class by compiling my own reading list for the summer, which included the first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital, selections from Jameson’s Postmodernism, Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended,” and Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, among other texts on globalization, reification, and poetics.
During the summer, I also spent two months living in rural Rwanda as a GU Impacts scholar. While I was reading Marx in Rwanda, I noticed how the commodity fetish partially revealed itself in the t-shirts I saw community members wearing. Knowing that my Rwandan neighbors couldn’t read the inappropriate English phrases on their shirts made me begin to think about the limitations of Marx’s argument—or, at least, how his work predicted but couldn’t fully account yet for the global system in which we currently find ourselves enmeshed. These t-shirts, which were produced in what Wallerstein would term a “peripheral” zone, entered the “core” market in America and were sent back to the periphery once their exchange value in the core had diminished. It was at this point that I began to think about the narrative of globalization being written through these exchanges—most of which are invisible on a daily basis.
Problems of Postmodernism: Literary Hybrids, Remixes and Remakes
During this course, taught by Professor Edward Teitz, we examined what makes an object literary in light of a new emerging digital culture of humanities, connected to what Professor Teitz terms a “globalizing consumer culture.” The class presented forms that have appeared as responses to this culture, including graphic novels, music mashups, and literary remixes. Like many of the texts presented in this class, my project will similarly work through questions of remediation and the implications of representing experiences in the postmodern, global context.
East and Central Africa
I am currently enrolled in this history seminar taught by Professor Kathryn De Luna. This course has filled in the contours of my personal experience in Rwanda with historical knowledge that covers Rwanda’s longue durée. I have now studied the period of time from pre-Iron Age societies in the Great Lakes region to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During the remaining weeks of the semester, we will be looking at Rwanda’s current position in the world order.
Introduction to Creative Writing and Hybrid Forms
These two classes, taught by Professor David Ebenbach and Professor Dinaw Mengestu respectively, have provided me with a basis for creative thinking about the role of genre and how to construct and deconstruct various forms of literature. Particularly helpful to this project have been our studies in Hybrid Forms about mapping individual experiences in literature, with texts written by Katherine Boo and James Baldwin serving as examples. Both of these classes have also provided me with some experience in creative forms of writing, which I plan to employ in the form of this project—which will itself be a hybrid—and also in the inclusion of my own experiences as I work through my connection to Rwanda.
Globalization and World Systems Theory. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.
Hobson, John M. The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760-2010. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Hopkins, Terence K., and Immanuel Wallerstein. World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982. Print.
Tadiar, Neferti Xina M. Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
Territorial Conflicts in World Society: Modern Systems Theory, International Relations and Conflict Studies. Ed. Stephen Stetter. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
—. The Modern World-System in the Long Durée. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004. Print.
A World-Systems Reader: New Perspectives on Gender, Urbanism, Cultures, Indigenous Peoples, and Ecology. Ed. Thomas d. Hall. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000. Print.
Poetics, Representation, and Literary Criticism
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999. Print.
—. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Tran. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Print.
—. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Essays. Tran. Edmund Jephcott. Ed. Peter Demetz. New York: Shocken Books, 1986. Print.
Fabian, Johannes. Ethnography as Commentary: Writing from the Virtual Archive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
—. Memory Against Culture: Arguments and Reminders. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.
—. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Print.
Hart, Jonathan. Textual Imitation: Making and Seeing in Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2013. Print.
Lowe, Lisa, and David Lloyd. The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. Print.
Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Eds. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Print.
Yudice, George. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.
Rwanda: History and Representation Ghosts of Rwanda. Dir. Barker, Greg. PBS: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2004.
Dauge-Roth, Alexandre. Writing and Filming the Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda: Dismembering and Remembering Traumatic History. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010. Print.
Fabian, Johannes. Out of our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Print.
Schoenbrun, David Lee. A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. Print.
Vansina, Jan. Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Print.
Ferguson, James. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.
In his work, James Ferguson attempts to locate Africa within a new contemporary world order. Ferguson notes that talk about Africa today is not specific talk about localities but about the continent as a whole, usually inserted into a prepositional phrase, such as: “the crisis in Africa, the problems of Africa, [and] the failure of Africa” (2). Ferguson asks what is at stake in these discussions about the whole of Africa, noting in his introduction that Africa has generally been a place where the Western world can locate its radical other. In other words, what the Western world sees when they view Africa is a perverse reflection of the Western world.
Ferguson addresses “Africa” as a whole, but this thesis will employ his argument by looking at Rwanda as a particular extension—or specification—within this category. Indeed, Ferguson’s question about Africa—“Is there any meaningful sense in which we can speak of this as a ‘place’?—also applies to Rwanda. This thesis will use Ferguson’s work to inform its own understanding of Rwanda in the world by asking what is at stake in an attempt to represent Rwanda as a case study for the relationship between globalization and aesthetics.
Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004. Print.
In his work, Philip Gourevitch presents the short-term logic behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide, attempting to explain the origins of the Hutu and Tutsi identities while simultaneously delving into the acts of genocide and their immediate aftermath, including the situation in refugee camps following the end of the genocide in July of 1994.
A journalist, Gourevitch grounds his investigation in interviews as well as in history lessons, making no effort to hide his presence as a shaper of the narrative. But Gourevitch’s adoption of the first person collective pronoun in the title of his work begs the question of representation and authorial authority. Taking the title from a story related to him by a Rwandan he meets, Gourevitch implicates himself in the “we” of his title—or, at least, he conflates his own voice with the voices of those whom he interviews.
Taking Rwanda as a case study for representation in the world, this thesis will look at Western accounts of Rwanda, including Gourevitch’s, to examine how the Western voice works its way into the presentation of Rwanda to the international community. Gourevitch’s book, as an example, essentially remediates the experience of the Rwandan genocide into a discourse that the Western world can absorb.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.
Fredric Jameson’s work attempts to delineate between the modern and postmodern periods by reviewing the postmodern features of a variety of art forms, including architecture and film. Postmodernism sees postmodern culture as linked to the third historical stage of capitalism, which Jameson notes that Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism,” and it endeavors to determine the role of the individual in this system (412).
Alongside Marx, Jameson’s writings in Postmodernism provide the central driving questions behind this thesis. Jameson argues that any individual daily experience is no longer contained only in the space in which that experience takes place. Instead, it is connected to other coordinates in the world system through the global exchange of commodities and discourses.
Jameson concludes, “It is evident that this new situation poses tremendous and crippling problems for a work of art” because artists are tasked with representing “enormous global realities [that] are inaccessible to any individual subject or consciousness” (411). This thesis will take up the challenge presented in Jameson’s work by looking for an adequate form by which to represent the universal, but invisible network of colonialism, which globalization has only strengthened and crystallized.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Tran. Ben Fowkes. I Vol. London: Penguin Classics, 1990. Print.
Karl Marx’s Capital attempts to present a total analysis of the Western system of capitalism. Though only the first volume was published during Marx’s lifetime, the work in its whole—despite its flaws—is able to point out the critiques of Western capitalism in a capacity that no other work has been able to obtain.
In the introduction the Penguin Classics edition of Capital, Ernest Mandel writes: “When Volume I of Capital was first published, capitalist industry, though predominant in a few Western European countries, still appeared as an isolated island encircled by a seas of independent farmers and handicraftsmen which covered the whole world” (11). In the Communist Manifesto, Marx imagined the eventual breakdown between barriers in the world economy, envisioning nation-states falling away as the proletariat united worldwide.
Though the proletariat has not risen up in global revolution, Marx’s presentation of the commodity—in many ways the foundation of Western capitalism—as the crystallization and concealment of human labor relations is integral to this project’s understanding of one of the ways in which the disparate coordinate points of two individual experiences in the world system can be revealed.
Rivoli, Pietra. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley, 2009. Print.
In her work, economist Pietra Rivoli explores the mechanics of global supply chains and trade by “following” the path of a t-shirt she has purchased. After tracing the raw materials from Texas to the shirt’s production in China, Rivoli looks more in-depth at the disposal of used textiles in the United States, which is the world’s largest supplier of worn textiles, having supplied the global market with over nine billion pounds of clothing between 1995 and 2007.
Of interest to this thesis are Rivoli’s chapters on the market for used clothing in East Africa. Rivoli takes Tanzania as a case study for her analysis, but I recognized bits of her argument while I was in Rwanda, observing sales in the village market. Shirts that are “donated” in the United States make their way to metropolitan areas in Africa, where middlemen purchase them for distribution to small entrepreneurs, who later sell the same shirts to people in villages like Nkomangwa.
In t-shirt terms, this means that the t-shirt represents the underlying connection between a whole host of individuals: the person who picks the cotton, the person who spins the cotton, the person who ships the cotton, the person who cuts the pattern and sews the shirt, the person who sells the shirt in the market, and the person who buys the shirt. This project takes t-shirts to be a single component of a revealed relationship between two coordinates in the global system, connecting people by leaving traces in the shared commodities that they consume while simultaneously hiding those traces.
Said, Edward W. “Narrative and Social Space.” Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. 62. Print.
In his work, Edward Said notes that the presence of empire and colonialism in the nineteenth-century British novel is absent, insofar as colonies are rarely addressed as anything other than exotic places from which characters gather the financial and moral underpinnings that order their social worlds at home. Literary criticism of these novels has similarly missed the connection between nineteenth-century writing and imperialism. Indeed, Said himself only devotes a few pages to it within his larger work.
Said writes: “As a reference, as a point of definition, as an easily assumed place of travel, wealth, and service, the empire functions for much of the European nineteenth century as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction…whose work is taken for granted but scarcely ever more than named” (63). Said points out that the problem Jameson introduces in his work of understanding the global nature of the second and third historical stages of capital is not a new one: representation of Wallerstein’s “peripheral” states rarely appears in Western novels, even as early as the novel’s conception as a genre.
This thesis asks if it is even possible to coordinate two distinct points in the global system by using traditional forms of representation, such as the nineteenth-century British realist novel, or whether new forms are needed to address the discrepancy Said sees.
Uvin, Peter. Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda. West Hartford: Kumarian Press, 1998. Print.
In his work, Peter Uvin centrally argues that the development enterprise of international aid contributed to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by building upon the systems of structural violence that characterized pre-genocide Rwanda, such as direct violence, poverty, repression, and alienation.
Aiding Violence positions the role of the development enterprise in Rwanda as both a problem of globalization and representation. Uvin presents graphs that display financial flows into Rwanda from between 1977-93, demonstrating that the “neither the machinery of the state nor the emerging structure of civil society could function” without aid, which came into Rwanda in massive amounts during the latter half of the twentieth century (40). Uvin argues, however, that these aid donations were “partly related to the very positive, generally accepted image of Rwanda as a model developing country,” complete with both cooperative citizens and a government “successfully committed to development” (40). In other words, the international community in pre-genocide Rwanda was committed to aiding the small nation because it fit a particular image of representation—one that the international community had constructed for Rwanda.
On a more micro level, Uvin addresses the role of aid workers in Rwanda, writing that these workers—in their large houses with Western toilets and SUVs parked in the driveways—saw themselves as positioned outside the Rwandan social, political, and economic spheres. Uvin’s findings demonstrate the opposite, but this phenomenon will be particularly helpful in the construction of this project as it will examine the ways in which individuals of the Western world have traditionally viewed themselves as connected—or unconnected—to Rwanda, even if they live among Rwandans.
Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice. The Modern World-System. New York: Academic Press, 1974. Print.
In his work, Immanuel Wallerstein presents modern nation-states as belonging to a single world-system of capitalism that depends upon a division between economics and politics to continue functioning. The world-economy system, Wallerstein argues, depends upon the extraction of goods from outlying nations, though the system itself is not bound together by a single unified political system.
Central to this thesis is Wallerstein’s conception of core and peripheral nations. Core nations, which hold military, political, and economic power in the world, are usually found in Europe and North America. Peripheral nations remain locations where raw materials can be extracted—or disposed of. Core nations often manipulate peripheral nations to their own gain, such as the accumulation of capital in their own nations or in the world-economy itself. Wallerstein also presents the idea of semi-peripheral nations, which fluctuate between assuming the role of the exploiter and the exploited.
I see Wallerstein’s division of nations into core, peripheral, and semi-peripheral as working beside Jameson’s conceptualization of a global network in which a single individual experience struggles to define itself in relation to a host of other coordinate points that belong to both the core and periphery. My own experience in Rwanda links together a core nation and a peripheral nation, witnessed through the disposal of unwanted textiles in the United States that were consumed into the Rwandan market. This thesis will look at this relationship and develop on Wallerstein’s ideas, asking whether or not the divide between core and periphery is as well defined as Wallerstein claims it to be.