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by Valerie Sartor
2013-09-08 12:06:01
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Bakhtin was right: Nothing sits separate. All major ideas and social forces in our vast human history are connected to something earlier, something analogous, something in the past. No break exists between the past and the present. We just think so, because, as humans, we must perish.

Today’s modern world has increased the speed in the way we as individuals and as cultural groups, think, feel, and respond to our world and the people in it with us. This is because of two forces that can be simply described as enormous changes in media and migration. Digital media (Internet, cell phones) and the freedom to migrate now offer savvy youth in particular more access to more kinds of resources, both tangible and intangible.

The tangible are easily guessed: e.g., consumer goods, from Wal Mart to Gucci, and vacation trips, from Expedia to Conde Nast. But the intangible are of more worth in this discussion, because they belong to the realm of ideas and imagination. Our digital age, combined with advanced mobility, has transformed the way we as people communicate and the way we conduct ourselves in relation to others. It has, in effect, enhanced our chances for an expanded communicative competence - which implies not just linguistically correct communications but also socially appropriate ways of speaking and behaving. In China, where I live, it is easier to be bilingual and bicultural than ever before.

The Internet and cell phones, moreover, have transformed our everyday discourse styles. They allow us as communicators, to give additional agency to creating a unique and dynamic identity for ourselves. These tools give us more opportunities to interact with a more diverse set of people, anywhere in the world. That’s pretty amazing. I just watched a cool Chinese teen SKYPEing to several friends simultaneously, all in different cities of the world.

And like these new media, motion - or migration, also has the ability to generate a new way of viewing others in relation to one’s self, of interacting with others and to be viewed by them. This, essentially, is identity making. As a guest here in China, I can watch a French film while sitting in Hohhot eating a Mongolian meal with my Han friends. As the great Indian thinker Appadurai said, media and mobility generate “diasporic public spheres; phenomenon that confound those that depend upon the continued salience of the nation state as the key arbitrator of social changes.” Thus, mobility and media have the ability to set us free.

How can this be? We all know the woes of globalization, of how cultures are being destroyed and everyone will end up speaking English before they are 50. There are truths in the arguments of global capitalism and the media, walking hand in hand to create consumers of pap, drudging workers addicted to fast food, and serving mindless major corporations.

But mobility and media also can be viewed as powerful influences on the way people imagine their worlds, their selves, and their futures. Myriad cyber-spaces, instantly available online, allow us to access and choose ideas from a global repertoire. We may utilize them to transform our local, everyday practices. Imagination, and in effect - identity & culture making - has become easier, a more public, collective reality.

This also implies that cultures, and the people belonging to them, are more dynamic, more transformative, than ever before in human history. The logic of everyday life, the stability and certainty of a community or group, is no longer a given, no longer sequestered. Media and migration have opened avenues for immediate and powerful social change.

This kind of change is also more socialist in nature. A society in need of change no longer depends upon one charismatic leader, a Sequoia or a Castro; we no longer need to wait for a rare genius, a Graham Bell or a Steve Jobs. Instead, anyone can go online and tune into endless sources of creative ideas that can be be employed to positively stimulate imaginations and support societies.

In China and other parts of Asia, parents routinely tell me that their children are going to study, work, and live in places far away from home. Clearly, migration at all socioeconomic levels has increased globally. Whether based on wretchedness - a diaspora of terror for refugees, or of hope - a diaspora of Chinese post-docs, all these migrants take their cultural imaginations with them. Such narratives and world views are fusing and transforming the people they will live alongside, and vice versa. Hybrid cultures, like mushrooms after a rain, are created by these migrants.

I am not ignoring the wretched or the fact that mass media does go hand in hand with global imperialism. The modern world is trying to teach us all to consume more, and to use English, and to work until we die, to support the needs of some mega corporation ruled by those without conscience. Those in league with them create adverts that seek to convince you to believe such consumption is pleasurable, and always must be increased.

I advocate selective consumption, which also generates pleasure. This kind of conscious consumption, a thoughtful chomping down, offers agency to the consumer. Moreover, it can also generate freedom. How can I make such an assertion? Just as thoughtless consumption brings escape and even addiction, so does aware consumption give rise to the creative imagination, which in turn may stimulate action, and pleasurable escape. And what is freedom but getting out of ourselves in a very creative way? I listen to Mongolian rap or read contemporary Chinese fiction, and get  a sense of the freedom that comes from the fusion of ideas, the global consciousness interacting with the so-called mundane world. Imagination via media and mobility means action as well as consumption. Revolutions come from ideas, just as spare-tires come from too much McDonald’s.

Another benefit of today’s media and mobility is the ease in which we may form affinity groups with others, anywhere in the world. LIfe is so short, but our hearts and minds can travel quickly now to meet with others. Interactions can be conducted online or in person; face to face contact is facilitated by modern transport systems. The collective sharing of ideas though sound and image, via cell phones, tablets, computers, all keep us wired to those we love and respect. For gleaning ideas, we build, using these devices, our own private universities and libraries, by connecting and sharing ideas with the people we meet online and through our travels. The era of seeking out a lone guru on a mountaintop is over.

Many Chinese tell me that the modern world, the developed world, is out of their reach: they must go to the west to find it. But is this really so? Globalization, in synch with media and modern technology, has constructed bridges between ideas and academia, information and intellectuals, as well as producers and consumers. Certainly, I urge my youthful Asian friends to travel to see the world, whether it be through cyber space or on a jumbo jet. Both are gateways to transforming and expanding one’s identity.

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Leah Sellers2013-09-08 16:19:10
Yes Ma'am,
Insightful and 'Nail-on-the-Head' Observation.
Thank you

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