The Condition of Transnationality

Exploring Implications for Culture, Power and Language [¹]

Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (*)

Introduction: transnationalism as an issue

There are six clusters of conditions that create the constraints through which transnationality may exist. They are historical, economic, technological, ideological-symbolical, social and ritual conditions. I will not summarize them here, since I did so in a previous text (Ribeiro 1994a). While I am convinced that there are several indications that transnationality already exists or is in the process of existing, either virtually or concretely, I’d rather talk about conditions of transnationality, in a sense analogous to David Harvey's (1989) discussion on post-modernity. In doing so, I want to avoid the temptation of falling into futurology, a rather common endeavor in the present.

My interest in transnationalism derives from different sources. I studied the political-economy of transnational corporations and its effects upon politics, development, migration, levels of integration and social actors' identities (Ribeiro [1988] 1994). Later, following the implications of my work for a critique of development, I started to discuss environmentalism and sustainability as new ideologies and utopias in late twentieth century (Ribeiro 1992). Particularly relevant for me were the claims of universality, of planetary integration and of the creation of a global citizenship often present in these discourses.

My trajectory made it gradually clearer that what was at stake, besides many other classical anthropological subjects such as local and supra-local relationships, was an issue that has long being central for anthropology: the modes of representing membership to socio-cultural and political-economic units. Why is this question to be retaken currently? Precisely because these modes of representation are suffering tremendous impacts caused by the presence of new transnational forces and are experiencing a transition period where previous models and institutions do not suffice to make sense of the world. In a context of deterritorialization, fragmentation, globalisation of industrial and financial capitals, transnational migration and massive flows of planetary information, space and territory became entities that need to be rethought [2].

Space and territory are central terms of the equation "the modes of representing membership to socio-cultural and political economic units". Where are you from? Political loyalties are often bounded by territories and technologies of identifying "authorized users' and "citizens" that became common in the modern world (ID cards, social security number, passports, driver's license, credit cards, passwords, IMS, etc.). The representation of membership to some spatial unit is often organized in terms of an inclusive logic that can be simplified as follows: local, regional, national and international levels. As cultural, political and historical constructs these classificatory categories are subject to change. Apparently, the reorganization of the forms of conceiving the relationships between territory, politics, economy and culture involves a tremendous amount of social energy and imagination since such a reorganization is simultaneously playing with the construction of subjectivities and collectivities of imagined communities. The appearance of novel forms in this domain is, thus, always potentially threatening of the status quo since historically it has meant a process of domination of larger areas and of more people.

This is where the discussion on transnationalism becomes important itself. The appearance of novel forms of relating space to politics (the Nation-state for instance) generally puts into jeopardy the previously existing ones. But transnationalism does not obey to the same logic of inclusivity as the older forms do. It crosscuts, as a transversal axis, the different levels of integration in such a manner that it is highly difficult to relate transnationalism to a circumscribed territory. Its space can only be conceived as diffused, disseminated in a web or a network. We can, thus, say that a transnational level of integration does not correspond to spatial realities as the other levels. In fact, transnationalism corresponds to a different articulation of real space and to the creation of a new domain of political contestation and cultural ambience that are not equivalent to the space as we experience it. It is the so called cyberspace.

Furthermore, to grasp the symbolic basis of transnationalism, it is necessary to understand the cultural and symbolical logics that seem to prevail within a "community" that, I presume, perfectly represents the most complex scenario for my analytical purposes. The imagined and virtual transnational community can only be understood if we tackle the difficult question of virtuality, a rather complex entity that intervenes in different ways in social and psychological life. From a symbolical perspective, the dynamics of virtuality is the hard core of the transnational community. This is why, as will be seen, I will emphasize its importance here.

A significant number of anthropologists and sociologists are explicitly working with transnationalism or with globalization, its close relative [3]. Some of the issues involved are central for the understanding of the contemporary world and for the social sciences as a whole. Discussions on fragmentation, the emergence of the global fragmented space, of many polymorphic arrangements of interactions and determinations between global and local phenomena are having different repercussions on studies on identity, integration, diffusion, the understanding international division of labor, world system theories, etc. The dialectics of homogenization and heterogenization may be approached from economic or cultural perspectives, varying from the crude power games between powerful political and economic agencies to the circulation of international pop culture and commodities with the politics of signs that create the sense of "we are the world".

Here I want to emphasize aspects of the symbolic-ideological universe that will allow me to explore some of the implications of transnationalism on culture, language and power. I do not pretend, given the vast array of issues involved, to be covering all possible facets and problems directly or indirectly involved. I consider my main contributions to these ongoing debates to be related to the discussion of the existence of an imagined and virtual transnational community, and to some aspects of its symbolic internal logic.

Internet: virtuality and the symbolic-cultural basis of the transnational community

There are many social and symbolic processes concurrent to the formation of the transnational condition, many of them already mentioned by authors such as Sklair (1991) Appadurai (1991), Basch, Glick Schiller and Szanton Blanc (1994). They include the presence of transnational actors and practices, of different "scapes" and of processes of deterritorialization. But the main basis for the emergence of what I call the transnational imagined community, or rather, the transnational virtual community, is the global computer network. Benedict Anderson (1991) could, in retrospect, show how important literary capitalism was to create an imagined community that would develop into a nation-state. I can now suggest that electronic and computer capitalism is the necessary environment for the development of a transnation-state.

Perhaps the most impressive turning-point in the recent history of computers was their transformation into a powerful communication machine. First developed as part of an American defense project, Internet, the network of the networks, is presently interconnecting millions of people all over the globe and has become the most powerful symbolic transnational means of interactive communication. Since the electronic universe or frontier is always expanding, the possibilities, once more in human history, seem endless. Figures are as volatile as impressive: Internet grew 300t in 1994 and is supposed to grow 900k this year; it has over 40 million users in more than 100 countries; the market of electronic equipment associated with the Net was of US$ 70 million in 1993, US$ 476 million in 1994, and estimated to be of US$ 1,5 billion this year (Alcântara 1995) . Virtual reality now exists in a "on-line", "parallel" world, a sort of hyper-post- modern universe, where time, space, geography and culture are nonexistent or non-important (Escobar 1994, Laquey & Ryer 1994, Feenberg 1990).

I want to explore global computer networks as the basis for the transnational community, especially in relationship to the emergence of its own culture and space, that are frequently, but not exclusively, designated as cyberculture and cyberspace (Escobar 1994) . Later, I will consider the problem of a transnational language, or a means of linguistic exchange, that are central to the creation and reproduction of this community within its own environment.

For Arturo Escobar (1994: 214) cyberculture "refers specifically to new technologies in two areas: artificial intelligence [particularly computer and information technologies] and biotechnology". The diffusion of new technologies brings into light two regimes of sociality, technosociality and biosociality, that "embody the realization that we increasingly live and make ourselves in technobiocultural environments structured by novel forms of science and technology" (idem). Cyberspace "refers to the growing networks and systems of computers-mediated environments. As a spatialized, computer mediated network of interactions, cyberspace is seen as 'enabling full copresence and interaction of multiple users, allowing input and output from and to the full human sensorium, permitting situations of real and virtual realities, remote data collection and control through telepresence, of intelligent products and environments in real space' "([Novak 1991: 225] Escobar 1994: 216) [4].

Virtuality is a key concept in understanding the type of culture of the transnational community. Sensitivity to virtuality seems to be a general characteristic of human beings, since we are capable of being symbolically transported to other places, imagining what is not here and, more, to create realities from structures that are purely abstractions before they become empirical facts. Virtual communities and apparatuses have existed before the one created by computer networks. Movie spectators, radio listeners, TV watchers, radio-amateurs, can be listed amongst those. One result of the development of technology is the quantitative and qualitative enhancement of the virtual universe. This reminds us of Jean Baudrillard's statements on the full operation of simulacra in our times.

The importance of virtuality in our daily lives is impressive. Virtual university, virtual politics, virtual weddings and virtual sex, spark the attention of journalists avid for novelties of contemporary social behavior. But, at this point, I do not wish to refer solely to virtual systems related to the development of the communications technologies but also to what could be initially called a pedagogy for virtuality. For more than a decade now, children everywhere have been fascinated with video-games, spending more hours in front of these appliances than what most parents would like. At the same time, and equally important, the diffusion of RPGs (role playing games) amongst children and teen-agers is noticeable since the early 70's. In these games each player interprets the actions of a character in an imaginary world controlled by a referee, called the game master. A RPG consists of a narrative made by the master who creates the environment where the game will develop. In this simulated universe, participants have the opportunity to ritually play the roles they imagine for themselves within the limits of a set of rules and constraints loosely defined. According to Philippe Quéau (1993: 99) "The fascination with virtual worlds and with images of synthesis is particularly strong amongst younger generations. This fascination stems from the fact that we can not only create small 'worlds' out of nothing, but also, and more importantly, that we can, in a certain sense, 'really' inhabit these worlds. We can satisfy ourselves with these simulacra of realities ... There is no doubt that virtuality will then become a new opium of the people. This is precisely why we must follow its developments, to halt its ethically questionable uses and to think of its foundations".

I want to further discuss my designation of the transnational community as imagined and virtual. Actually, the difference between imagination and virtuality is very thin. I will try to be faithful to its subtlety. This difference is often measured against a common background: the status of reality, in its hard sense. Imagination maintains an empirical basis upon which it elevates itself - and from which it may even take-off: the image of objects. Virtuality refers more to potentiality and possibility of being, of becoming a force in the real world. If we can use the two words in the same reasoning, I would say that virtuality is imagination in the process of reaching completeness. The relationship between imagination, virtuality and reality is a complex one, but it needs to be seen as a relation of transit and not of opposition. Reality stimulates imagination, things imagined can become reality, virtuality influences the real world, and vice-versa.

But, then, what is the difference between an imagined community and a virtual one? The difference lies on the fact that an imagined community is an abstraction symbolically and politically constructed, while the virtual community, besides being that, is a reality of a different kind, a sort of intermediate, parallel state between reality and abstraction where simulation and simulacra have lives of their own. The virtual reality is "there", it can be experienced, manipulated and lived as if it were real. Once finished your presence in the virtual universe, you can reenter the real hard world. There is a "hybridization" between the "real and the virtual, between the synthetic and the natural" (Quéau 1993: 96). For Philippe Quéau "we can even talk about a hybridization between body and image, i.e., between real physical sensation and virtual representation. The virtual image transforms itself in an explorable 'place', but this place is not a pure 'space', an a priori condition for experiencing the world, like in Kant. It is not a simple substract within which the experience would come to inscribe itself. It constitutes the very object of experience, its own fabric and exactly defines it. This place is in itself an 'image' and a sort of symptom of the symbolic model that is found in its origin" (idem: 94).

Presently, virtual reality implies first the elaboration of mathematical models then its transformation into something that can be experienced. The most advanced examples of this hybridization are flight simulators for fighters' pilots and scientific laboratories. For Jean-Louis Weissberg (1993: 118) "the chain modeling-numbering-programming constituted virtuality as a space available for experimentation, intermediate between project and object, while the virtual remained until then prisoner of the imaginary activity. To see the virtual, as proposed by the informational programming of simulation, means to completely redefine our notions of image, object, and perceptive space". Jean-Louis Weissberg (idem: 120-121) thinks of the virtual not as a substitute for the real but as one of the forms of perceiving it. He proposes, thus to treat it as the real/virtual composition.

Philippe Quéau, in his discussion on the era of the virtual issues a warning: "A tendency to desrealization invades all persons that adhere too much to the clean perfection of mathematics or to the playful rigor of computers. The technology of virtual simulation cannot but reinforce this risk of desrealization, by giving a pseudo-concrete and pseudo-palpable character to imaginary entities. (...) these techniques are particularly dangerous, since they seduce us through their 'ideal' functioning without the privation of any of the sensorial illusions the absence of which would quickly tire us. It is thus easy to forget the real world and find refuge in the flexible and efficient comfort in which these ideal means of idealization encapsulate us. On one hand, thus, they constitute tools to command complexity, propitiating a better intelligibility, on the other they have a certain propensity to encourage latent forms of illusion and even of schizophrenia. The more we recur to simulation as a scriptural means and as a way of inventing the world, the greater the risk to confound the world with the representations we make of it" (Quéau 1993: 98-99).

Fetishes, Illusion and Power in Cyberspace

As many members of other political imagined communities, the members of the transnational one, especially its ideologues, tend to have hyperbolic opinions about their role in the real world (see, for instance, Laquey & Ryer 1994). Homeless minds and faceless people now communicate in a decentralized web that cover the planet, dissolving space and time. They think of themselves as capable of freely manipulating the system, once they are entitled as "users" of this new order, just like, I can imagine, people felt in the pre-history of bourgeois democracy, nation-states and the liberal market. Indeed, this virtual community, as diverse as its planetary extension, shares, so far, much more of "primordial sentiments" - ties characteristic of emerging new states (Geertz 1963) - than civil ones. Children both of globalism and the computer age see themselves as creating a new world, a situation, mediated by hi-tech, where access to the network is at the same time a sort of post-modern liberation and the experiencing of a new democratic means that empower people to flood the world system with information thereby checking the abuses of the powerful. Non Governmental Organizations everywhere praise this potential of liberation.

However, what NGOs and other members of this community do not see is that every technological innovation is ambiguous, containing itself both the potential for utopia and dystopia (Feenberg 1990). Perhaps it is a common characteristic of all imagined communities to give the impression that everyone is equal once qualified with the necessary competence. However, underneath the prototype of a first transnation may lie the prototype of the first transtate. The Internet is not the image of a liberal free market, uncontrolled, or responsive only to individual manipulation. Although we should explore the idea of decentralized control, it may be argued that the network is controlled by a "hierarchy of connections" whose highest point is located within the American state, in the National Science Foundation or in security agencies, that in case of necessity may always exercise their electronic power. To illustrate how the power of new technologies continue to reflect inequalities at the international level, it suffices to mention that "all the Internet information in Brazil, for instance, passes through a node of the network in the United States, the Fermilab laboratory (Illinois). This node distributes the information to the rest of the world" (Sivestre Jr. 1994: 16). More prosaic factors, limit access to this democracy: the costs of computers, related equipment and services; access and knowledge to the codes of the network; education; knowledge of the English language; the control of the Suctioning of the system by many different computer centers.

The consolidation of a transnational community needs to advance towards a political discussion on the exercise of democracy in global scale that does not misrepresent the disparities existing within the world system power game, nor the new technologies and sociabilities they engender with new fetishes and illusions.

Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein (1994) point to the advent of new fetishes and power systems, of the "wired body", of what they call the "virtual class". Notwithstanding their quasideliriant rhetoric and hyper-criticism that sometimes reify technopower, these authors are acid demolishers of cyber- authoritarianism and of the hysteria created by technotopia in favor of the controllers of Internet, the privileged space for the exercise of power by the virtual class, the version of the dominant class in the electronic and computer era. Mainly composed of "pure capitalists" and "visionary capitalists specialized in computers", such a class is grounded in the communication industry. Once the force of the movement of the electronic frontier in expansion is installed, the virtual class seeks to subdivide cyberspace for the purposes of capitalist accumulation and political control. What is at stake is the competition for rights to intellectual property. The democratic possibilities of Internet are the initial seduction for the construction of the digital superhighway (the "privileged monopoly of global data communication") and for the subordination of the network to the "predatory commercial interests" of the virtual class.

A fierce struggle is going on within Internet between the virtual class and its opponents. For Kroker and Weinstein, the "wireless body" or the "hyper-texted body" is the locus of "the major political and ethical conflict of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century experience (idem : 17). A sort of humanist residue within the universe of cybernetic fetish, the "wireless body" is "a moving field of aesthetic contestation for remapping the galactic empire of technotopia" (ibidem). And more: "the hyper-texted body responds to the challenge of virtualization by making itself a monstrous-double: pure virtuality/pure flesh. Consequently, our telematic future: the wireless body on the Net as a sequenced chip micro-programmed by the virtual class for purposes of (its) maximal profitability, or the wireless body as the leading-edge of critical subjectivity in the twenty-first century" (idem: 18).

Language and the Transnational Community

The influence of computing in the construction of subjectivity, in communication processes and in the emergence of new forms of capitalism and power is an area hotly debated. Besides the appearance of new fetishes and power systems, there are also subtle forms of exercising micropower based upon individual competence. Some studies (Weber 1994; Edwards 1994 and Stone 1992, for instance) already indicate that people have to be "socialized" into newsgroups, or conference groups. "Lurkers", i.e., people that observe newsgroups without interacting, "first write in an apologetic and respectful fashion. Their writers may ask for welcome or claim membership. They explicitly acknowledge the rules and conventions ...[of the newsgroup], and the need for 'safety' on the group" (Weber 1994: 2).

In fact, the culture of the network, with its codes, protocols and emerging writing styles, presupposes the existence of a language and access to it, i.e. a linguistic competence, something that, as Bourdieu noted (1983: 161 and following) cannot be separated from power analysis. Who speaks, to whom, through what media and in what constructed circumstances are vital elements of any communication process.

Indeed, the interest in understanding computer impacts in writing styles and in the capacity and modes of communication, attracted the attention of linguists and literary critics. George P. Landow (1994: 2), for instance, initially inspired in the paradigm shifts promoted by Jacques Derrida, Theodor Nelson, Roland Barthes and Van Dan, agrees that "we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of renter, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks". According to Landow, "almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weakness of the printed book. This response has profound implications for literature, education, and politics" (idem: 2-3). Quoting Barthes, Foucault and Nelson, Landow defines computer hypertext as a "text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web and path", "it is a node within a network ... a network of references", "nonsequential writing - text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen", "including visual information, sound, animation, and other form of data" (idem: 3-4).

This new medium promotes radical alterations in the roles of author and reader. It equally promotes changes in the student/teacher relationship permitting access to malleable and countless sources of information that may be manipulated by the student without the teacher's authoritative mediation. Academic power and its internal relationships, pedagogical norms of linear and sequential use of information, the definition of producers and consumers of knowledge and information, the editorial industry, various types of hierarchies of status and power find themselves facing a challenge often compared to that represented by Gutemberg's revolution. We are confronted, once again, with the power/technology relationship. Landow is optimistic. For him "the history of information technology ... reveals an increasing democratization or dissemination of power" (1992: 174).

It is true that the diffusion of information is positively correlated to the democratization of access to power. However, if we take into consideration that books, public education and the emergence of the mass media did not destroy neither the profound existing social inequalities nor power abuses, we may suppose that networks of hypertexts grounded in the illusion of interaction and infinite availability of information will not represent a panacea for liberation. In spite of virtual reality's growing importance in the contemporary world, power is, in the last instance, defined by social, economic and political relationships that are enacted in the real world.

As a transnational communication means, Internet raises the interesting question about the emergence of an "international auxiliary language", to phrase it like Edward Sapir did in 1931. Sapir was interested in the creation of a constructed natural language, something closer to Esperanto, since he recognized that the transformation of a certain national language into an international means of linguistic exchange clashed with different national susceptibilities. However, today, much more than in 1931, English can be thought of as the creole of the world system, and within Internet it provides the basis from which the network's own grammatical and lexical structures arise. Sapir's insightfully appeals for the construction of a language closer to "mathematical symbolism", that be "in some sense a creation of all... equally foreign or apparently so, to the traditions of all nationalities", that "cannot be interpreted as the symbol of any localism or nationality", that "is as simple, as regular, as logical, as rich, and as creative as possible; a language which starts with a minimum of demands on the learning capacity of the normal individual and can do the maximum amount of work; which is to serve as a sort of logical touchstone to all national languages and as the standard medium of translation" (Sapir 1956: 48, 49, 50, 51). The existence of today's computer-English, a transnational creole that will not destroy the many other national languages, does not satisfy all of Sapir's expectations but is very close to another of his statements: "It is a good thing that the idea of an international language is no longer presented in merely idealistic terms, but is more and more taking on the aspect of a practical and technological problem and of an exercise in the cleaning up of the thought process" (1956: 63-64).

In such a context, though, we may imagine two likely scenarios. One where English gains autonomy as the Internet language, backed up by the consolidation of its commercial, military and diplomatic functions, and other phenomena of globalisation such as the expansion of cable TV and of mass pop culture hegemonized by the American production. The other scenario would be that where "computerese" gains autonomy, under the impulse of user-friendly softwares, mainly based upon the utilization of icons.

• • •

In sum, transnationality brings the following issues into the forefront of the discussion on culture, issues that can only be dealt with admitting the existence of the virtual and imagined transnational community: virtuality and its role in communication processes and in the construction of subjectivities influenced by the exchange of information; new forms of fetish and power; the emergence of computer-English as a transnational language and the creole of the world-system. Of course other parallel and intertwined factors, such as deterritorialization, fragmentation, the loss of effectiveness of forms of representing the relationship between territory and socio-political and cultural membership, together with the ritual transformation of the virtual and imagined transnational community into temporary real communities, need to be considered.


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*. O autor:
Prof. Departamento de Antropologia, Universidade de Brasília.
  1. This text is based upon a paper originally read at the session "Rethinking the Cultural: Beyond cultural imperialisms and parochialism of the past", of the 93rd Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Atlanta, December 1, 1994. It was significantly enhanced to be presented as a "Distinguished Alumni Lecture", at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, on April 6, 1995. I thank Dr. Jane Schneider for honoring me with the invitation to expose my ideas within the stimulating environment of my alma mater, and Paul E. Little for his many suggestions.

  2. This is certainly one of the reasons why geographers are amongst the leading discussants of globalisation. They are joined by economists, sociologists, political scientists and regional planners.

  3. For the purposes of making an analytical distinction, I consider globalisation mostly as a historical economic process directly related to the expansion of capitalism, to the "shrinking of the world" (Harvey 1989). Although it obviously has political implications, globalisation differs from transnationalism in the sense that politics and ideology are the privileged realms of the latter. The Organisation of people within imagined communities, their relationships to power institutions, the reformulation of identities and subjectivities as well as of the relationships between the private and public spheres are the main thrust of the discussion on transnationalism. Citizenship, thus, is an issue more pertinent to transnationalism than to globalization. But, truly, there is much of prospection at the present point of debate.

  4. Allucquère Roseanne Stone (1992: 609) defines cyberspace as "a physically inhabitable, electronically generated alternate reality, entered by means of direct links to the brain - that is, it is inhabited by refigured human 'persons' separated from their physical bodies, which are parked in 'normal' space. The physical laws of 'normal' space need not apply in cyberspace, although some experiential rules carry over from normal space - for example, the geometry of cyberspace is, in most depictions, Cartesian. The 'original' body is the authenticating source for the refigured person in cyberspace: no 'persons' exist whose presence is not warranted by a physical body back in 'normal' space".

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