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Globalization as Fugue

July 14, 2011

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Arab American composer Mohammed Fairouz suggests the musical notion of “counterpoint” as a way to think about contemporary globalization.

Fairouz is the composer of Tahrir for Clainet and Orchestra, a lovely short piece performed by Ensemble 212, soloist David Krakauer, at Merkin Concert Hall, New York, June 9, 2011, which can be heard (and seen) via YouTube:

Fairouz is writing about the ways music from very different cultures are being put into juxtaposition by young composers. He uses the metaphor of “counterpoint” both to talk about this kind of musical hybridity, but also the larger processes of globalization in which it takes place.

Counterpoint in music involves a relationship between multiple voices which are rhythmically independent but harmoniously interdependent, Each musical element retains its uniqueness but when woven together by a skilled musician they form a polyphonous (rather than cacaphonous) whole. The fugue is a composition that derives its effect from the interplay of counterpoint.

There are three basic ways that people have articulated theories about processes of globalization.

The first might be glossed as differentialism. It posits deeply rooted, even essentialist cultural differences that are being brought into confrontation with one another through globalization, leading to increasing conflict across the globe. The most influential spokesman for this position is Huntington, who introduce the trope “clash of civilizations” to help articulate it.

The second is the widespread homogenization thesis. One looks about and sees a McDonald’s in Miami, and one in Munich, and another in Mumbai and still another in Ma’adi, and imagines that they are all the same, and that therefore the world is becoming increasingly the same. Far from being deeply rooted, cultural differences are seen as superficial, stylistic, and easily transformed by the real driving engine of the world, economics. This viewpoint is powerfully articulated by such figures as Thomas Friedman, who has introduced the trope “flattened earth” to help us think about it with him.

The third position, taken by most anthropologists ethnographically studying globalization from the ground up, as it were, should probably be glossed as the complexity thesis. According to this position, as new technologies of information, communication and transportation spread people and ideas around the world, and create countless new sites of cultural contact, people continue to create new institutions and systems of ideas to make sense of it so they can find ways to act in it. This view posits culture as something active, practical and adaptive, albeit always rooted in earlier cultural formations.

What the third position lacks is a good imaginative trope, a compelling rhetorical flourish with which to summarize and evangelize this position. “Creolization” has been offered, on the model of languages that have come into existence in sites of contact between two or more peoples. “Hybridity” has its supporters, as does “Mestizaje”.

In Connected in Cairo I definitely take an suggest the semiotic concept of indexicality–meaning something by being connected to it–as a way to understand and analyze the cultural dimensions of globalization. But it has limited application and, let’s face it, its just not going to capture the imagination of anyone not already trained in linguistics and semiotics. And as for its corollary term metadeixis… Not gonna win any fans.

But “counterpoint” and “fugue” might work. They have artistic and classical connotations, so writing of a “global fugue” might resonate with broader audiences, as Friedman’s and Huntington’s metaphors do.

And counterpoint actually has some analytical advantages as an extended metaphor. There are multiple kinds of counterpoints, that is, patterns of contrapuntal relations. And in addition to harmonious counterpoint, there is dissonant and inverted counterpoint. Counterpoint, that is, offers an extended metaphor that recognizes process, and offers a powerful alternative to hybridity because it can encompass more than just two “voices,” the voices can interact with different levels of emphasis, and the interplay of different elements can follow different patterns.

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