Globalism and Its Discontents:
Notes of a Wandering Scholar*

by Ihab Hassan

They kept the imagination of Europe alive: held untouched by their rags
and poverty and squalor the Beauty that had made beautiful old rhyme.

--Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars

Though I aspire to no comparisons with medieval poet-scholars, they wandered in the cause of literature, as I have done. In the last five decades, I have lectured and occasionally taught on all but two continents, Antarctica and South America. The experience has been central to my professional as to my personal life. It has also caught, as in a mirror clouding, reflections of intellectual and geopolitical shifts in the last half century. What follows is a brief, extruded meditation on that experience, at a particular moment--globally anxious, locally fractious--in the world’s history. That my notes also nudge the third millennium at its start is a trivial historical accident, trivial yet indistinguishable from deeper mystery: time.

       In the same way, I consider my own birth in Cairo hazard, not destiny. But hazard may have a richer wisdom than causality knows. Thus, though my observations tap into a life, a temperament, they may also open to a wider sky. Is it too brash to hope that such observations may also discover in personal events or public trends the lineaments of what we profess? Here, in any case, is what I will conclude: though much, much has changed in the world, something in literature still demands our active fidelity.

       Our world is often described as postmodern. What is that? Put aside the sophistries and sophistications of the term, now a signifier floating in a sea of hype. Still, the term, contested as it may be in sober usage, yields consensus: postmodernism is pluralist, hybrid, ironic, an aspect of developed, media-driven societies, a feature of a globalized and localized earth.

       In 1977, I coined the term indetermanence (indeterminacy with immanence) to describe strong, contrasting impulses in postmodernism (Hassan, “Culture”). I meant to join, nondialectically, the deformative tendencies of that phenomenon (implying openness, fragmentation, decenterment, relativism, heterodoxy, among other cognate terms) with its dispersive codes (involving dissemination, diffusion, interaction, rationalized procedures, semiotic projections by technological means). The neologism applied best to cultural postmodernism, its artistic forms. I did not envisage then that it would become, with certain variations, a planetary fact.

       What I had hinted at has now become the daily grist of our news: I mean the fluent imperium of high-tech consumer capitalism, on the one hand, and the sundry movements of secession, decolonization, ethnic and religious and gendered and linguistic and political separatism, on the other hand--satellites here, cargo cults there, Madonna on one side, the Great Satan on the other. In sum, cultural postmodernism has mutated into, perhaps, has always implied, genocidal postmodernity (Bosnia, Kosovo, Ulster, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kurdistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Tibet...). And indetermanence has yielded to new relations between centers and margins, margins and margins, centers and centers, nowheres and nowheres (utopias?). At the same time, cultural postmodernism itself has metastasized into sterile, campy, kitschy, jokey dead-end games, media stunts, and parodic conceits.1

       Clearly, everywhere, the forces of globalization wreak as much havoc as those of localization, havoc of a different kind; neither allows human beings to possess their cultures or inhabit the earth, except under the sign of irony or of outrage. Nor does a synthesis--a Hegelian or Marxist synthesis, least of all--promise to emerge. How reconcile the aspirations, the loyalties, the interests that such conflicting forces demand? How maintain them in so-called dynamic tension? How achieve cooperation, let alone cohesion, in multicultural societies, within a multicivilizational world? (The answers have sometimes fertilized the killing fields of the earth.) And most pertinent to our profession, what is the role and burden of literature in this world? What, especially, its spiritual force, if by spirit we mean, as Philip Zaleski puts it, “the bedrock of human existence--why we are here, where we are going, and how [implicitly, I hope] we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way” (27)?

       In this space of discontent, which I describe abstractly and which travelers like Michael Ignatieff and Robert Kaplan have, through their books, recently filled with chilling detail, literature in English is read, written, taught--though sometimes written about in abominable prose.2

       Detail calls for riffs of autobiography. My first languages were Arabic and French, but English is my best, my most richly felt language. In this, I am like the millions who make English the most widely, if not natively, spoken tongue in the world--and in so doing alter it. How did English become the lingua franca of earthlings (to the constant chagrin of the French government)? Military, economic, technological power, which Britain and the United States imperially, serially exerted? The presumed ease of the language itself, which nonetheless ambushes so many foreign speakers by its capricious spelling and arbitrary pronunciation? Something about “Anglo-Saxon” institutions, ideas, attitudes, no less than “Anglo-Saxon” navies or microchips? I can offer some personal anecdotes in lieu of historical narratives.

       In a memoir, called Out of Egypt, I recalled that schooldays were not happy days for me. But a “Mr. Miller, who taught us the King’s English, conveyed a certain hurt radiance even to the rowdiest spirit” and lightened my days. “He may have also inspired me to the first prize I ever won at school [...] ‘For Excellence in English’” (61). Somehow, some way, I became cathected then on both the language and the literature of England, and detestation for the English colonizer--technically, Egypt was only a “protectorate”--could not vitiate my elective affinities. How many writers, I wonder, from Morocco and Tunisia to India and Indonesia, have been drawn to foreign tongues? Is affinity the hidden face of imperialism, as power is its open face?

       Later, in 1943, when I was at university, a different kind of stranger began to appear in Egypt--Yanks. Like many of my fellow students, more frantic than informed in their idealism, I had seen Rommell in 1942 as a liberator. Surely, we thought, the enemy of our enemy must be a friend. Yet when the Allies defeated the Desert Fox at El Alamein, the same students, changing allegiance, found in Americans, if not liberators, new models for their aspiration. We consumed Coca-Cola, devoured Reader’s Digest, affected Ray-Ban aviator glasses, and gawked at all those gangling, loping, gum-chewing, foot-propping GIs who began to appear in Cairo, their drawl so different from any sound we had ever heard. Hollywood seemed almost within reach. But the Yanks, some of them, also brought books, fragments of the American Dream. America began to seem, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, “a willingness of the heart.” Half a century later, I would wonder if it had become a tyranny of resentments, an imperium of degradations.

       Then the day came: the Egyptian government sent me on a generous Mission Fellowship to study in America for a PhD in electrical engineering and return to help build the Aswan High Dam. I studied for a PhD in English instead and stayed. I have never felt exile.

       Anecdotes have their point, and the point here is double: my relation to America, the changing relation of America to the world.

       Like many voluntary immigrants, I have an abiding attachment to America, an attachment tinged by an idea or ideal, some dream or gleam, a promise of self-re-creation beyond material gain. But that promise has been fading as the lone superpower becomes a colossal lightning rod for all the stray, sometimes demented, energies of the world. For my generation, America stood for something other than capitalism or McDonald’s or Israel or the bomb. Does it still possess the gleam? Does its literature?

       Thousands, perhaps millions, from Asia and Latin America still risk their lives every year to enter the United States, legally or illegally. But immigrants, impelled by economic and political necessities, as did their forebears, now hug their origins. The motive is not only identity politics or ethnic chic; it is also, in an epoch of unprecedented migrations and cultural confusions, the fragility of self-definition in the world. “How do I know who I am,” a refugee from history once said to me, “if I don’t know whom I hate?” I thought to myself, “I am willing to find my identity in another person or the universe, but not in a group; home is not where you are first pushed into the light but where you gather it into yourself.”

       My relation to America, then, has never been as equivocal as that of some later immigrants (as Eva Hoffman, for example, suggests hers was in her autobiography), though I may feel crescively critical of its public life, its media and “idollartry.” This simplicity in my feelings complicates my professional task: to observe altering perceptions of America in the world, as these may affect the work of itinerant scholars or lecturers. The right, we know, believes America can do no wrong: “Love it or leave it.” But the left believes America can do no right: Out with triumphalism. In the academic climate, one can only speak for America delicately--can a critical mind, some argue, cultivate anything but the oppositional stance?

       I prefer an independent, an autonomous, stance, and partisanship ill suits my topic. Though we all know where our commitments lie, we all possess as well the faculties of sympathy and dispassion. In the current mood of global anti-Americanism--oh, exceptions like Ireland and Kuwait obtain--the mood of anti-American cultural and commercial imperialism especially, dispassion becomes the condition of clarity.

       To any American lecturer abroad, the accusation of Western cultural imperialism has a certain poignancy, for it comes couched in terms derived from Western thought itself and it is delivered in the languages of erstwhile colonial powers. I suffer no self-consciousness myself in speaking to a Moroccan, Indian, or Japanese in English or in lecturing about British or American literature abroad in that language. I do not believe that my life would have been infinitely richer had I never learned English or had I learned it as an engineer and then returned to Egypt to assist in its irrigation schemes. But I do feel sympathy for my interlocutors when they voice anger, humiliation, envy, and often genuine interest--sometimes all at once--anent things American.

       Once, in Morocco, in the fall of 1997, after a lecture on postcolonial studies, a Moroccan writer stood up to remark indignantly, “America just has too much power in the world.” I blurted out, “What is the alternative?” Then to mollify the speaker, I added, “Power to bungle, you mean?” Later, I wondered, What is the right amount of power? Should the world return to the cold war? or balance European and Japanese and Chinese power with American power? And how would this be achieved? Or should Americans reduce their productivity, disavow their technology, lower their standard of living--it’s not what it once was, anyway--liquidate Microsoft, and bequeath Pepsi and Ford to the Kingdom of Morocco? Of course, what that writer vented was her desire for an improvement in the conditions of her country, expressed as outrage about the perceived inequities and iniquities of the world.

       What kind of outrage precisely is that? Many Western intellectuals have developed--for reason, let me quickly add--a bad conscience, if not quite self-hatred, regarding the historical depredations of the West. But when I think of imperialism, cultural or otherwise, I think as well of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, China, India, Greece, Carthage, Rome, Byzantium, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Arabs, the Khmer, the Tartars, the Ottomans, the Zulus, the Ashantis ... This is not to excuse imperialism, if excuse is a word applicable to all forms of historical violence--myself, I will not excuse, say, the gulags or the Holocaust. Is it all, then, just a matter of personal outrage or historical opinion, a moralized private or public whim? Is what others do, however heinous, an aspect of their culture, what we do in the West an aspect of our oppressiveness? Or can we begin to discover, beyond censure and celebration, “the benefits of the creation of a global culture,” as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates call them in their sane introduction to The Dictionary of Global Culture (xi)?

       Here, however, we touch a dilemma--no, a raw nerve. How does morality apply to history? How reconcile the claims of interest, desire, power, on the one hand, with those of decency, reason, justice, on the other? How reconcile narrower needs with universal hopes? For instance, in the case in point, how do Moroccans feel about disempowered Berbers or Polisario rebels in their own land? Or must hypocrisy always prevail, even in intellectual discourse, and one man’s freedom serve as another woman’s oppression?

       Other instances, other questions come crowding to mind, hinting “agendas,” stirring political suspicion. Was the United States Information Agency, for which I lectured widely after the Vietnam War, consciously or unconsciously using my Arabic name to deflect the growing anti-Americanism of various audiences abroad?3 Did the “tilt” of India toward the Soviet Union during the seventies and eighties explain the unease with American literature that I sensed in a seminar in New Delhi in 1985? Did it further explain the palpable interest in American literature that I noticed at a seminar that same year in Lahore, given the countertilt of Pakistan? And what about all those shifts away from Faulkner and Hemingway, Bellow and Mailer that I remarked in Japanese students between my first visit in 1974 and my latest in 1998? Would Faulkner himself encounter today the same spontaneous warmth, beyond the famed formal courtesy, that he encountered in Nagano in 1955? Would I meet today that same bright readiness, that same keen, smiling interest, that I saw in Chinese students in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Jinan in 1982? Do Romanian students still quicken to American literature as they did in Bucharest when the leaden hands of Brezhnev and Ceausescu lay on the land? Do radical students at the University of Taipei still detest the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek as they did in 1986, before Tiananmen Square? Have Australian intellectuals become more Pacific-centric, thanks in part to works like Bernard Smith’s Antipodean Manifesto? And does the new European Journal of English Studies herald a new Euronationalism, observed in inter- but not intra-European relations, when it avers in an editorial, cited here at some length:

The plan is to create a space for Europeans to engage in dialogue first with each other, and second with specialists from elsewhere.

       This might seem to imply that we perceive a distinctive European identity. Perhaps. Or rather, we perceive a form of Unity which depends on difference. Here, for example, lies a crucial distinction between Europe and the United States: we Europeans like watching foreign films in their original versions, and do not need to relocate Le Retour de Martin Guerre in the American South at the time of the Civil War. [...] In Robert Altman’s Nashville a caricatural country-and-western star sings a patriotic song, the burden of which goes “We must be doing something right / To last two hundred years.” Once we have wiped the Eurocentric grins off our faces, we may come to realise both the advantages and the disadvantages of the centuries of cultural and national history that divide us Europeans. They encourage us to resist the intellectual melting-pot that the rationalisation and globalisation of late capitalism seek to impose on us; they may also tempt us to reject the process of unity-within-difference that is our only chance to stem the unavoidable tide of that same globalisation. (Belsey, Grabes, and Lecercle 4-5)

       ”Unity-within-difference”--or is it “difference-within-unity”?--rings a little hollow, a little pious, attuned as we are to Bosnia and Kosovo and to their background in ghastly genocides and two world wars. And when does “dialogue” cease, pogrom begin? Where does ethnic pride stop, ethnic cleansing start? Ask Kurds, Albanians, Armenians.

       But instances pall, as do the hermeneutics of geopolitical suspicion. I feel behind these particular discontents the pressure, almost the ache, of larger questions that I have barely scratched. The questions apply to the West no less than to--as some say--“the rest.” And, curiously perhaps, I feel the renewed relevance of literature.

       Consider a question I have lightly touched: the relation of power to truth, interest to morality, politics to pleasure, narrow need to universal spirit. The second of my deliberately binary terms (binary only for the moment) energize culture, especially literature. But they are also what power--call it the demands of the self or, according to Nietzsche, the demands of being itself--no less than language, must continually mediate, modulate in the world.

       A lecturer on literature becomes acutely aware of this fact in a conflictual global context. But a lecturer becomes even more acutely aware of something else: not only the responsiveness but also the resistance of literature to power, the resistance of literary texts to their contexts. Otherwise, we could never read Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, Sappho, Austen, and Morrison, Gilgamesh, the Bhagavat Gita, and The Tale of Genji, which come to us from other times, other places. In all such works, in all such writers, a transhistorical, transcultural element compels our reading.4 This is also to say, as I have repeatedly discovered lecturing in Western or non-Western countries, that whatever is lost in translation--translation of language or moment or mores--comes through in another way: all literature is translation by other means. Is this due to the spiritual element in literature? To its debt to pleasure?

       I do not mean to deny the quiddities of human responses, deny individual, cultural, or historical singularities. I mean only to recognize that beyond--no, through--such singularities, literature, like all other art, possesses us: African masks, Balinese dancers, aboriginal paintings, Arabic architecture, Japanese prints, Persian poetry, Indian music, Chinese vases, Hamlet, Moby-Dick. For it is simply untrue that nothing survives cultural translations and that no pragmatic universals exist--universals like language, ritual, gods or spirits, social status, matrimonial customs, the pursuit of satisfactions, as well as hunger, copulation, and death. Excessive particularism not only stymies value judgments but also, more drastic to human communities, inhibits the faculty of human empathy, without which no reciprocity is possible. Why should I care about someone wholly other, when even animals practice reciprocal altruism? Only Buddhists, perhaps, can answer, by invoking the interdependence of all Creation.

       Let me swiftly conclude. The globe may endure its vast discontents, but a reader or teacher or writer of literature can still experience the “truth of the text.” This truth is a felt force in the work, a stubborn moment experienced as transcendence or emptiness (kenosis), at once deeply private and cosmically impersonal--perhaps akin to the moment Ivan Ilyich experiences as he falls through the trapdoor of death at the end of Tolstoy’s eponymous story. Political as it may be, existential as it often is, formal as all recognize, literature, however skeptical, continues to persuade its lovers--must it persuade its enemies too?--that this earthly ride of ours is mystery and misery and glory beyond all our human reckoning, beyond human bounds.

       This, as an itinerant lecturer, I can routinely avow: literature is the site where the local and the global, the concrete and the universal imaginatively transact the enigma of the human. That is why a beautiful sentence may contain more love than a mind full of isms. That is also why Saul Bellow strikes a perennial chord, in his Nobel Lecture, with a simple, spiritual remark: “When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too” (93). Yet I would not say that literature redeems. Nor would I say that it redeems nothing. On this, the jury has been out for three thousand years. But we can do our work.


           1Not all stunts are American. Here, for instance, is a French example of cultural imperialism and postmodern irony and pastiche: Main Ducasse, high priest of French gastronomy, has opened in Paris a restaurant called Spoon Food and Wine, featuring the cuisines of the world, with an American accent! And the idea seems to work--if money is work.

           2See, for instance, the Bad Writing Contest, which the editors of Philosophy and Literature annually conduct and which some graduate students have denounced to me as politically incorrect.

           3Let me say that I found the agency, though sometimes inept, to be liberal in spirit and responsible in action as it played a key cultural role during the cold war.

           4In this sense, the new historicism often succumbs to the mimetic fallacy--that is, the belief that literature can only imitate something outside itself. But I hope that the vapid terms of a compulsive debate are well behind us, the debate about texts and contexts, art for art’s sake and art that cannot exist in a vacuum. All human activities, by virtue of language, are transactive. The problem is, transactive just how?

Works Cited

    Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Dictionary of Global Culture. New York: Knopf, 1997.

    Bellow, Saul. It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1994.

    Belsey, Catherine, Herbert Grabes, and Jean-Jacques Lecercle. “Cutting EJES: The Editorial Policy of the European Journal of English Studies.” European Journal of English Studies 1.1 (1997): 3-9.

    Hassan, Ihab. “Culture, Indeterminacy, and Immanence: Margins of the (Postmodern) Age.” Humanities in Society 1.1 (1977-78): 51-85. Rpt. in The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987. 46-83.

    ____. Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1986.

    Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1990.

    Ignatieff, Michael. Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. New York: Farrar, 1993.

    Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Random, 1996.

    Smith, Bernard. The Antipodean Manifesto: Essays in Art and History. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

    Zaleski, Philip. “God Help the Spiritual Writer.” New York Times Book Review 10 Jan. 1999: 27.

    *Used with permission from Profession 1999

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