Summary

  • Appadurai’s essay develops a theory of terrorism in a networked, global age. For my purposes, his most useful insights concern the role of information and finance technologies in operationalizing and accelerating the flows of global capital in ways that contribute to the desire to harden borders (an argument that Bratton echoes in The Stack). He also introduces the dichotomy of cellular/vertebrate political organization as a refinement of the networked model.

Keywords

  • globalization
  • anxiety of incompleteness: “the strange inner reciprocity of the categories of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ in liberal social thought”: “Numerical majorities can become predatory and ethnocidal with regard to small numbers precisely when some minorities (and their small numbers) remind these majorities of the small gap which lies between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole” (8).
  • diagnostic or forensic war: the war in Afghanistan, conducted “to make discoveries,” to identify enemies and rout out allies (20).
  • predatory identities: “those whose social construction and mobilization require the extinction of other, proximate social categories” (51)
  • ideocide: “whereby whole peoples, countries, and ways of life are regarded as noxious and outside the circle of humanity” (117); alongside this is “civicide,” this tendency applied to civilizations

Notes

1. From Ethnocide to Ideocide

  • “This study is concerned with large-scale, culturally motivated violence in our times” (1); asking the question: “why should a decade [the 1990’s] dominated by a global endorsement of open markets, free flow of finance capital, and liberal ideas of constitutional rule, good governance, and active expansion of human rights have produced a plethora of examples of ethnic cleansing on one hand and extreme forms of political violence against civilian populations (a fair definition of terrorism as a tactic) on the other?” (2–3). Appadurai’s answer is “rooted in a preoccupation with the cultural dimensions of globalization”; the “darker sides of globalization” left unaddressed in his earlier work (3).
  • Some major ideas:
    • “there is a fundamental, and dangerous, idea behind the very idea of the modern nation-state,” “no modern nation . . . is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius” (3). Drawing on an anthropological archive, he suggests that “the road from national genius to totalized cosmology of the sacred nation, and further to ethnic purity and cleansing, is relatively direct” (4).
    • So then why do only some countries come to blood? 2nd idea, “involving the place of social uncertainty in social life” (5). “The speed and intensity with which both material and ideological elements now circulate across national boundaries have created a new order of uncertainty in social life” (5). “In simpler words, where the lines between us and them may have always, in human history, been blurred at the boundaries and unclear across large spaces and big numbers, globalization exacerbates these uncertainties and produces new incentives for cultural purification as more nations lose the illusion of national economic sovereignty or well-being” (7).
    • Why the “surplus of rage” and violence that accompanies these events? “I suggest that this excess has something to do with the deformations that globalization has brought to the ‘narcissism of minor differences’” (10); “the NoMD is now vastly more dangerous than in the past because of the new economy of slippage of morphing which characterizes the relationship between majority and minority identities and powers.”
  • “Minority is the symptom but difference itself is the underlying problem. Thus the elimination of difference itself (not just the hyper-attachment to minor differences) is the new hallmark of today’s large-scale, predatory narcissisms” (11).

2. The Civilization of Clashes

  • Post 9/11: “we have come to see that warfare has escaped the context of the nation-state and has exceeded the logics of any sort of realism” (15). The newness of 9/11 was “its effort to inaugurate a war defined only by an enemy, the enemy being the United States,” undertaken by a “new kind of agency” that had no interest in state affiliation (16–17).
  • Accelerating the leakiness of the nation-state (put into dialogue w/ Bratton): “Whole bodies of cross-border law, accountancy, and information technology protocols have emerged, many not known or used beyond specialized technocratic elites, to govern complex forms of global economic traffic” (21–22). We have lost “even the fiction of national economy,” if it ever existed at all, leaving “the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be enacted” (23). Cyberspace then provides a potent trans-national solidarity: “Collective imaginings and imagined collectivities, in the era of cyber technologies, are no longer just two sides of the same coin” (24).
  • Cellular vs. Vertebrate Systems:
    • Appadurai is theorizing beyond the limited visual metaphor of the network. Instead proposes cellular for the new order; vertebrate for the old (25).
    • Vertebrate order maintains control though “the large and growing body of protocols, institutions, treaties, and agreements that seek to ensure that all nations operate on symmetrical principles in relation to their conduct with one another, whatever their hierarchies in power or wealth” (25).
    • Global capitalism doesn’t fit neatly into cellular/vertebrate model: it is vertebrate in its material infrastructure, but that same technological inflection has grown “more sophisticated and portable” since the 19th century (26). Compare this flexibility with the work on knowledge work in Liu, Zuboff, and Turner.
    • “In the decades since the mid-1980s, these cellular features have been further accelerated by the linked growth of new information technologies and of the bewildering speed and scale of financial transactions that have made national financial markets subject to sudden and dramatic crises” (27). [Compare even just this sentence to Chun’s Updating and Hayles’ recent work on finance capital].
    • Terrorism learns its mobility and flexibility from the organization of the Internet and the “laboratory” of the capitalist system (28).
    • “Returning to the always fragile ideal of a world of national economies, we can characterize the current era of globalization—driven by the triple engines of speculative capital, new financial instruments, and high-speed information technologies—as creating new tensions between the wanton urge of global capital to roam without license or limit and the still regnant fantasy that the nation-state assures a sovereign economic space,” what Appadurai calls a “crisis of circulation” (30).

3. Globalization and Violence

  • Globalization so difficult to understand b/c of its newness on three axes:
    1. the role of finance capital: “it is faster, more multiplicative, more abstract, and more invasive of national economies than ever in its previous history” (36);
    2. “the peculiar power of the information revolution in its electronic forms,” which are “part and parcel of the new financial technologies,” making national sovereignty itself an “unsettled” technical problem (37);
    3. “the new, mysterious, and almost magical forms of wealth generated by electronic finance markets [which] appear directly responsible” for income inequality (37).
  • These axes accompany new forms of roaming, migration, and leakage across national borders “both elite and proletarian” (37).
  • So why the rise of a worldwide genocidal impulse against minorities of all forms? Appadurai resists the idea that this is business as usual in the bloody history of the species. Rather, we turn again to information technology: “the first step to an answer is that both minorities and majorities are the products of a distinctly modern world of statistics, censuses, population maps, and other tools of state created mostly since the seventeenth century” (41). Minorities are a relatively new invention, and have had to be shaped nation-by-nation.
  • His hypothesis: “Minorities are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality (real or imagined) in a world of a few megastates, of unruly economic flows and compromised certainties. Minorities, in a word, are metaphors and reminders of the betrayal of the classical national project” (42).

4. Fear of Small Numbers

  • “Why kill, torture, or ghettoize the weak?” (49).
  • Small numbers “represent a tiny obstacle between majority and totality,” inflaming material possibility (53). Under what conditions does liberal thought turn to genocide? 1) “Liberal thought has a fundamental ambivalence about the legitimacy of collectivities as political actors” (57); 2) a list of historical contingencies that basically reads like Trumpism (58).
  • The role of the number (relevant to the digital): “Numbers have an ambivalent place in liberal social theory, and the relationship between numbers and categories is today at the heart of some central tensions between liberal social theory and democratic norms” (58). Liberal social theory is articulated as binary: the only important numbers are one, the sign of the individual, and zero, the figure for the masses (59–60). Collectivities emerge from the aggregation of individuals with shared qualities, but still thinkable as individuated. Masses become a problem for liberalism when the “masses” lose the “rationality” of the individual.
  • That’s the fear of big numbers. What f small? Small suggests “elite capture,” “conspiracy,” “intrusion of the private,” “secrecy and privacy” (62). The “special interests” of the minority are then always thought of as opposed to the general well-being of the majority and thus egalitarian democracy.
  • “In a variety of ways, globalization intensifies the possibility of this volatile morphing . . . The global flow of mass-mediated, sometimes commoditized, images of self and other create a growing archive of hybridities that unsettle the hard lines at the edges of large-scale identities” (83).

5. Our Terrorists, Ourselves

  • “The brutal ethnic violence of the 1990s is deeply inflected by factors which triangulate a highly specific sort of modernity: passport-based national identities; census-based ideas of majority and minority; media-driven images of self and other; constitutions which conflate citizenship and ethnicity; and, most recently, ideas about democracy and the free market which have produced severe new struggled over enfranchisement and entitlement in many societies” (90). Note how many of these factors boil down the textual and information technologies.
  • For the future: consider the focus on India for Appadurai alongside a similar focus in Ghosh (for reasons obviously beyond “they’re both Indian scholars”).
  • Two arguments re: “the geography of anger”:
    1. “In a world characterized by global articulations and tensions between cellular and vertebrate political forms, regions, nations, and cities can produce complex fractal replicas of larger struggles” (100).
    2. “There is now a freshly charged relationship between uncertainty in ordinary life and insecurity in the affairs of states” (101).
  • (Mass) media are crucial: alongside the flows of global economy, trans-national media forms are vital to the spread and concretization of opinion (102).
  • insecurity states: “In the realist world which we seem to have left behind us, the security concerns of states and the everyday uncertainties of citizens . . . were relatively clearly set apart”; “Today, the insecurities of states and the uncertainties of civilian spaces and persons have become disturbingly intertwined . . .” (103–04).

6. Grassroots Globalization in the Era of Ideocide

  • We have entered an era of war on ideology alone: “something global, elusive, and nonspatialized—indeed virtual—about the new enemy” (116).
  • In the final pages he turns to the positive formations of cellular politics: grassroots formations.

Archive & Impact

  • Appadurai is a social scientist / anthropologist, and his essay draws on an archive not only of trans-disciplinary critical theory but also political/anthropological work more generally. Fear of Small Numbers is not immediately about the digital; digital technologies are engines of transformation but Appadurai’s interest is political / anthropological, at the level of how these technologies model and allow new modes of being in the world. What I find most useful about this book is how it sets the stage for thinking of the network as a trans-disciplinary phenomenon, a figure that encapsulates technology, sociality, politics, and economy all at once. Networks are inherently political figures, organizations (infrastructures) of material and political possibility.
  • Appadurai’s essay also has important implications for my work on security in a networked and digital environment.
  • The role of information technologies in enumerating and construing populations as data: with the shit going down at the border today, I think of which tech companies collaborate with fascism: who helps governments count?