Sep 14, 2009

Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

Given my background in both media and ethnic studies (I did my undergraduate degree in Radio-Television-Film with a minor in Asian American studies), this week's Waisbord reading was particularly fascinating to me. His unpacking of the roots of culture and how media shape -- or create -- culture particularly intrigued me. By Waisbord's account, the media are both gatekeepers and creators of culture, selecting and perpetuating the canon by which we identify tropes of our own nationalism. Waisbord makes a compelling argument that media as a social institution reinforces our concepts of nationalism by being the means through which we share experiences larger than ourselves. However, what I found lacking in his discussion of media as selecting the images that define our cultural narratives is the human agency element: the editors, writers, producers, etc. of these narratives. In these contexts, media is not just a social institution, but is driven by individuals with great power. Ultimately their power comes through faceless programming boards, newspaper mastheads, a record label, etc, but behind all that, conscious decisions are made about what images to use, what narratives resonate, what motifs might convey the right feeling. I think a discussion of media as creators of our culture needs to consider these personal elements, and how individuals act as institutions to create institutional memory. (There is also something to be said for how cultural diversity amongst these people with power might also change the narratives and representations we see!).

I also found personal resonance with his discussion of cosmopolitanism posed against nationalism. Several different aspects of my life have contributed to my having a sense of identity informed more by my unique combination of world experiences than the American culture proclaimed by my passport. While my experiences aren't shared by the average American, I still, to some extent, self-identify and find most concordance with my American identity. When I travel abroad as an American, I feel the need to disclaim any impressions one might make of me with these explanations of the various influences on my sense of identity. Yet, at the same time, I defend this multitude of influences as a component of my American identity; no influence has had an effect on me to the exclusion of others. That is, I incorporate my non-American experiences into my American, primary identity, and defend it as American.

Where, then, does my nationalism come into play? By certain people's accounts, the views that I have, and the pride I take in my global experiences are distinctly un-American and tantamount to burning the flag. Yet, doesn't it speak to a certain ultimate homage to American culture that I eschew a nationally untethered cosmopolitanism in favor of uniting my global identities into a singular American identity?

That said, I also wonder if Waisbord's doubts for cosmopolitanism as a viable alternative to nationalism might not be because of a lack of a conscious critical mass. I used to think that my life experiences living and traveling around the world were unique, but I've come to find many other people with similar experiences, and shared world views even without similar experiences. One knows where to go to find Americans, Canadians, etc. But where does one go to find like-minded cosmopolitans?

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