Category Archives: globalization

163: Roger Bilstein’s Flight in America

In Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, Roger Bilstein places the technological developments in aviation, space exploration, and the American aerospace industry in a broad social, economic, and political context.  This survey relies heavily on archival sources from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the FAA, NASA, and oral history, aviation, and transportation collections in Denver, New York, and Wyoming, as well as his personal experiences learning to fly in 1972.  

While Bilstein’s sources and approach are somewhat top-down and conventional, his narrative does provide a clear history of aviation in the US.  He traces aviation’s early start in stunt planes (the Wright Brothers couldn’t get the military to buy their invention, so they sold planes to the circus), post-WWI innovations in military aviation; 1920s mail routes, crop dusting, photography, professionalization, long stunt trips, crashes; 1930s streamlined passenger planes, trans-oceanic flying boats, and German rocketry; Fordist mass production, WASPs, and American air dominance during and after WWII, along with post-war fear of ICBMs, tech innovations by the military, and American desires for an intercontinental passenger network; the development of helicopters and the expansion of passenger travel and “jet setting” in the late 50s and early 60s, tech evolution of private planes (renamed “general aviation” in the 1960s to look less bougie), and the impacts of Vietnam, space exploration, the Cold War, and pop culture on flight.  Deregulation and international collaboration across globalized aerospace industries in the 1980s led to some pretty incredible tech developments along with growing fears of bombs on planes and Soviet/US competition that led to the Challenger disaster.

Throughout, the book is illustrated with photos (though some, like those of the early stunt pilots, are creepy because you know they died flying), and Bilstein works to contextualize flight in American cultural history.  He does spend a lot more time talking about military and defense projects and developments in industry and technology than he does talking about popular responses to flight.  I wonder if that was a conscious choice, if it was conditioned by the archives he chose, or if it truly is difficult to link such capital-intensive and seemingly distant technologies to everyday life?


162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.

But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

124: Duncan & Duncan: Landscapes of Privilege

In Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb, James Duncan and Nancy Duncan examine the landscape of Bedford, a wealthy community in Westchester County, to understand the relationship between aesthetics and the production of place and identities, and to think through the “wider social consequences of such an aestheticized view of the world.”  Via interviews and first-hand landscape observation, they explore several interrelated issues:

  • the ways people produce their identities in and through places, especially homeplaces, such as houses, gardens, and home communities,” particularly some of the more “conservative, defensive attempts at using one’s surroundings to establish individual, family, and community identities…. against and in contrast to an outside world” or ‘constitutive outside.’
  • the effects, intended and unintended, of a virulent, reactionary politics of anti-development in Bedford in response to all the stars moving in and buying up properties
  • the role of Bedford landscapes as symbolic resources used in the quest for social distinction: how residents are invested in Bedford socially, psychologically, economically
By focusing on the creation and maintenance of exclusionary landscapes in Bedford, Duncan & Duncan show that “such a high degree of attention on the part of suburban residents to the visual, material, and sensual aspects of place and place-based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion.  A seemingly innocent appreciation of local landscapes and desire to protect local history and nature can act as subtle but highly effective mechanisms of exclusion and reaffirmation of class identity.”  In other words, making a landscape look a certain way always excludes some people even as it includes others.

The particular landscape that Bedford residents work to maintain is that of a pre-globalization rural village, with rolling hills, manicured lawns, horses, wealthy gentlemen’s estates, a quaint village downtown, and a self-contained community that is economically independent.  Unfortunately for them, this nostalgic landscape derives its meaning (and its economic sustenance) from the global economy: against the placelessness of globalization, it claims to have roots in the past, an air of authenticity and a whiff of history; it’s more an aestheticized landscape than a living one, and anyway, it’s only 44 miles from New York.  No wonder movie stars buy houses in Bedford, and no wonder residents are so virulently anti-development: Bedford is both a retreat from the world and an integral part of it, a way to escape the present by consuming the past.
Scratching the surface of this aestheticized landscape reveals just how much work (and how much contradiction) goes into its production.  While the Bedford newspaper happily conflates Jeffersonian farmers with aristocratic estates and celebrates the beauty of Bedford’s “natural” environment, Central American laborers from nearby Mount Kisco maintain the lawns and gardens; highly restrictive zoning laws regulate lot size and types of construction; the Historical Preservation Committee maintains the white wooden shops in Bedford Village; and conservationists have worked to create nature preserves around Bedford that restrict future growth.  Creating this aesthetic of local privilege requires both integration with the global economy and exploitation of the very people Bedford seeks to exclude.
While Bedford can’t truly stand for all small country towns, the contradiction between the aesthetic of rural, pre-globalization wealth and the ways that landscape is constructed surely speaks to many places, as does Bedford residents’ treatment of the laborers from Mount Kisco as unwanted, but necessary, eyesores. 

112: David Harvey’s From Space to Place

In “From Space to Place and Back Again,” David Harvey theorizes the relationship between space and place as they relate to capital and globalization since 1970.  Coming out of the Marxist tradition, Harvey argues that capitalism since 1970 has become global, and places are both nodes in the network of capital flows that are set up to catch and keep capital for as long as possible AND potential sites of resistance.  These dual purposes of places are reflected in their material forms, representations of them, and symbolic landscapes within them, because places are constructed via struggle between residents and capital.  Places thus exist somewhere between the universal and the particular in a global network of historical-geographical difference.  Space, on the other hand, is abstract and wholly constructed by capital.

Harvey jumps through a lot of theoretical hoops to make this argument.  The one that I least expected from him is also the most interesting: that Heidegger and Marx can be reconciled into a definition of place within global capitalism.  Here, Marx’s argument that repression, misconception, and exploitation are the result of a “purely place-based politics in a spatially dynamic capitalist world,” combined with Heidegger’s emphasis on place-based dwelling as an escape from modern capitalism, creates a definition of place as the site of both global capitalist exploitation AND place-based resistance, a site mutually constituted by the struggle between the global and the local.

My only question in all of this has to do with the nature of space.  If place is the point of struggle between local dwelling and global capital flows, what is space?  Where in the world is there no resistance to outside domination?  I imagine even Monsanto cornfields in Kansas and the office buildings on Wall Street contain seeds of dissent somewhere.

111: Mike Davis’ City of Quartz

Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles is about “the contradictory impact of economic globalization upon different segments of Los Angeles Society,” where LA is both a specific place (that David clearly loves and is frustrated by) and a global city that “has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.”  Davis researched this book in the 1980s, when Reaganomics, the crack wars, increased socioeconomic disparity, law-and-order policing, and other anti-urban developments were wreaking havoc on LA; by putting LA in a global economic context, he is able to show that many of these problems are related to globalization, not poor domestic policy, and that fighting capitalism will have the biggest impact on urban welfare.

In an allusion to LA’s film industry, Davis calls his method “noir,” because 1940s film noir “insinuated contempt for a depraved business culture while it simultaneously searched for a critical mode of writing or filmmaking within it.”  Accordingly, the book is both a critique of LA and an investigation of how to make it better.  Davis details the migration of LA’s power elites from a post-WWI Downtown/Westside divide to suburbia to international banks, land monopolies, and global real estate holdings; the development of SoCal homeowners associations as racist, classist privatization; “fortress LA” and the privatization and militarization of urban life as a spatialized class war; the history of cocaine in LA as evidence of increasing wealth disparity; the dirty politics of LA’s Catholic archdiocese, which is a huge employer and landholder in LA that prefers to be a space of law-and-order rather than one of resistance; and the plight of the suburbanized working class in an era of deindustrialization and decay.  

Throughout, Davis’ muckraking journalism digs through LA’s many layers of complexity in expose after expose.  As against other urban studies folks who write about globalization (like Saskia Sassen, for instance), Davis brings LA alive, reminding us of the power of its residents even as he implicates the city’s elites in global networks of power.

109: Tim Cresswell’s Place

Tim Cresswell’s Place: A Short Introduction is a lovely lit review of cultural geography debates on the concept of place.  While Cresswell is clear and thoughtful about each of the geographers he discusses, his own definition of place is as a “meaningful location,” which he likes because it is both subjective and objective, both physical and cultural.  In addition, his research focuses on social difference and place, what it means to transgress a place, and what it means to be out of place – “anachorism.”

The three levels of place:

  • Descriptive; visual; surfaces
  • Social construction; practice; social difference
  • Phenomenological; essential; humanist; universal
At one point or another, cultural geography has embraced one or more of these levels.
Debates/ paradigms in cultural geography, in chronological order: 
  • Regional geography (Sauer, Hartshorne); 
  • Humanistic Geography (Tuan, Relph; universals); 
  • Place as home (Heidegger’s dwelling; feminist critiques); 
  • Radical Human Geography and the Politics of Place (Marxist critique of essentialism; Harvey; Cresswell); 
  • Place as Being-in-the-World vs Place as Social Construct (whether place has a physical component?); 
  • Place, Practice and Process (bodily mobility; place-ballets; return to essentialism; structuration theory and place as becoming; Thrift and non-representational theory; Soja; de Certeau; place as event, openness, change); 
  • Place, Openness and Change (Harvey’s static places; Massey & Cronon’s place as node; Lippard’s place as sediment); 
  • End of Place (Relph; Auge’s place as fantasy, Thrift’s place as frame; Lippard’s local as hybridity)

Cresswell’s summary of “a global sense of place:”

  • Massey: place is open, hybrid, and extroverted, but it is still unique because it also has accumulations and networks connected in a certain way; permeability is not vulnerability
  • Harvey: place is reactionary exclusivity, a stopping place for capital flows; capital reshapes place when it no longer permits for accumulation
  • Jon May: empirical research shows that place is neither of these two extremes; the people on the ground all have their own perspectives on what a place is and usually it’s some combo of the two

From section 4, short summaries of research that uses place as a central concept:

  • Geraldine Pratt: Filipina migrant workers in Vancouver create a sense of place in their fragile living situations; making place becomes marking boundaries and communicating them.
  • Gentrification: in New York’s Lower East Side, gentrification means making a neighborhood a “nice place to live.”  But gentrification also means “urban genocide,” depending on whose side you’re on
  • Place and manufactured authenticity: planned housing developments, garden cities
  • Regions and nations as places or “imagined communities” 
  • How redistricting requires creating new histories and new meanings for new regions
  • In Place/ Out of Place, or anachorism (Cresswell’s jam): place and what’s appropriate; Cresswell uses gay communities, refugees, and homeless people as folks who use place in ways they’re not intended, including queering space through performance, and using the homeless, refugees, and other deviant users of space as a constitutive outside that constructs and reinforces normative ideas of place
Wasn’t that nice?

108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a

smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.