Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Response: Corporate Cosmopolitans and the End of Place

Matthew has a well-developed sense of place.

My good friend Matthew recently wrote an excellent essay in response to Manuel Castells's "The Social Theory of Space and the Theory of the Space of Flows," which I have not read.

A major point that Matthew highlighted was the creation by elite corporate society of a globally homogenous living space. Meaning, people with elite (consulting, managerial, etc.) jobs which jet them across the country and the world can find the same living arrangements and lifestyle wherever they go: the same diet, the same hotel furnishings, and the same separation from any locals who aren't serving them.

In this way, these people are freed from the demands that crossing between places of different cultures and histories would place on them, since everywhere that they go is part of what Matthew calls "one global, virtual city of the elite, with outposts all over the physical world" and what Castells calls the "space of flows."

This transcendence of culture and place is precisely what makes such people elite. Instead of traveling to different "places," each with its own unique nature, corporate elites merely inhabit extensions of the same "space." In this view, the value of different locations rests only in the sum of their consumable attributes; New York and Los Angeles become the only cities of worth in the United States. "Whatever they got here they got there, right?" Matthew says of anywhere else.

I notice such an outlook as a student here at Penn.

I was annoyed last semester when the Undergraduate Assembly announced that they would be bringing The New York Times to campus for free this semester. Why not The Philadelphia Inquirer? I realize the Times is larger and regarded as the nation's paper of record, but inescapable is a sense of widespread indifference about the city we live in.

It makes sense in light of the space of flows. Students at the visible top of the ladder at Penn are corporate elites in training, and New York is the nearest gateway into the space of flows. Penn's location in Philadelphia is irrelevant, since the University is just a clearinghouse for the big firms. So students spend four years without leaving the campus and don't look back after graduation.

Penn gives plenty of lip service to being part of the surrounding West Philadelphia community, but its claims are ridiculous in light of the indifference its primary constituency holds toward its surroundings. The University is in the business of attracting the most gifted graduate and undergraduate students, and it doesn't do that by caring about West Philly. The students that come are in turn just passing through, on their way to jobs that also couldn't care less about the city. So they don't care either.

It bothers me for several reasons. For one, as a native to the Philadelphia area, I know that there is a ton that people are missing by ignoring it. There's much of value to learn and experience here, and to see students close their eyes to it is frustrating.

For two, whether or not individual students and the University at large put anything into the city, they are certainly reaping its benefits. Instead of being part of the community, they are - you guessed it, Jon - merely consumers.

This outlook is reinforced by the same philosophy governing the space of flows: West Philly is the space that students inhabit during their time here, not a place. Its own narrative is something separate, parallel to their own lives, not something of which to collaborate in writing the newest chapters.

And the upshot is not that the West Philly community loses and the University community wins; rather, everyone loses, for to be divorced from place is a great cost to the student. Likewise, were the student body to view itself truly as a part whose welfare is bound to its whole, even if temporarily, everyone would benefit.

Penn's community indifference is a popular topic to complain about, but I thought interpreting it in the framework presented by Castells was insightful in understanding it and in linking it to the greater values that drive people through Penn.

Understanding is well and good, but what can be done about the problem aside from complaining? Well, let's think about it.


kavela said...

nyt has better crosswords.

l e i g h c i a said...

I think part of our reason for treating locations as “spaces” as opposed to “places” is our consumer mentality. We’ve been trained to go to different cities or regions for the sake of “consuming”, whether that be “experiencing New York City”, or going to some exotic locale, or going to some city in order to advance your career or education. Even our Peace Corps mission and short term mission trips are tainted with the lures of traveling to a different location and “consuming” the local culture. Our culture teaches us that it’s not appropriate to forsake a really good graduate school program in order to stay in the same city, or to stay in a relationship. Rare is it when we actually go someplace because we believe we want to serve that location. Rare is it that we move somewhere with the idea that we are going to commit to that location, to “plant gardens”. Instead, we go to a city, and take from it all that we can gain from it, and then when another “better and brighter” option comes along, we move along.

Jonathan said...

This is an interesting framework. What I find particularly interesting, as an economist, is the consequences for economic efficiency.

That is, if we conceive of the ambient culture as something resulting from the collective actions of the populace, then we have a case of negative externalities created by the division of labor, general mobility, and other features of a modern economy.

This implies over-investment in certain aspects of the modern economy, and too little investment in community health.

However, I'm not sure that this conceptualization is accurate.

One potential critique is that the generic 'place' inhabited by the cosmopolitan elite is merely a replication of that elite's preexisting culture. It's apparent homogeneity is the result of the high level of information transfer in the modern world. Given humanity's general drive to conform, the reduction in barriers to information exchange have lead to the propagation of an international standard of life, which incorporates the 'best' of all cultures.

Thus, modern culture is the amalgamation of diverse cultures, rather than their union.

This latter explanation does not necessary indicate that this is a bad thing. Certainly, there are aspects of the 'modern' culture that are better than those found in many local cultures. It is unclear whether this is a good or bad thing.

M. Weed said...

Jonathan, re: 5th paragraph critique.

This is in fact exactly what Castells is saying, but he wouldn't agree with your value judgment of the elite culture being the "best" of all cultures. In fact, he'd probably say that the main issue is that this new international culture bears NO resemblance WHATSOEVER to any of the original local/regional cultures. It's almost entirely constructed --- constructed precisely to FACILITATE the information economy and the life of the global elite.

Thus the extreme alienation from places. If the new space truly incorporated the best of all places, it would feel integrated and at home in every place. Instead, it is alien everywhere, because it is of nowhere.

Additionally, the argument that the single amalgamation is superior to the individual parts smacks of an assimilationist paradigm that leads inevitably to cultural imperialism and the "white man's burden" (now it's the Ivy League's burden?). It ignores the fact that in any real/historical cultural encounter, it is almost impossible to avoid having a Dominant and an Other. We always assimilate TO something.

This is, in fact, a VERY bad thing.

Jonathan said...


Are you implying that the pre-existing diverse regional cultures now being supplanted were not constructed to facilitate the regional economies?

If they were, then the observed cultural homogenization is a consequence of the international economy replacing largely isolated regional economies, which is a good thing from an economic efficiency perspective.

I agree that alienation from place is an unambiguously bad thing. However, if what's going on is the replacement of diverse locally constructed realities with a single integrated constructed reality, it's unclear that alienation on the whole is increasing.

It's quite possible that there are economies of scale in alienation from place, since a regional economy is generally less capable of enacting full isolation from its environment than an internationally integrated economy (since its regionality implies that it is heavily influenced by its physical location).

However, I prefer the explanation that technology facilitates alienation, and that what we're seeing is the establishment of a highly alienated regional culture (the white suburban bourgeois upper-middle class culture) as the international norm.

So yes, it's unclear to me that conformity is by nature worse than diversity.

M. Weed said...


No, I wouldn't say that the regional culture are "constructed" at all. By this I mean that they're organic, and a product of HISTORY, rather than DESIGN. Culture and Economy are obviously inseparable and cyclically related, I wouldn't contest that. But "historic specificity" of place, as Castells describes it, encompasses both Economy AND Culture --- it is the overarching context for both of those things and more. That context is now being eliminated.

I also completely agree that alienation results in economies of scale. I said that directly in my original essay. I believe that this is unequivocally bad, and I believe that economies of scale are intrinsically less valuable (in a Judeo-Christian worldview) than the identity formation of human beings --- individually, corporately, and yes, regionally. Space is defined by the presence or absence of matter. Place is defined by human beings and our collective narratives.

I also wouldn't say that alienation "on the whole" is increasing. I speak rather of the specific alienation between the Space of Flows/its particular logic/its inhabiting elites, and the regional and local places/their particular logic/their inhabiting masses.

Alienation itself isn't the only evil here, although information society certainly accelerates it. It's the loss of historic specificity and the correspondingly widening gap between the elites and the masses that is troubling --- as well as the derision with which we are regarded when we make educated decisions to value this specificity over the privileges and comforts of the Space of Flows.

And yes, it is a techno-alienated white bourgeois culture established as the international norm --- sort of. That was the basis, but it has forgotten its own historical specificity just as much as it nullifies the specificity of others. That's what I was getting at earlier though --- there's a dominant and an exploited in this equation, and that's intrinsically unjust.

I would highly recommend that you read the original article if you can find it, or at least read my original essay if you haven't.

M. Weed said...

I just uploaded my own copy of the original:


Jonathan said...


I guess I don't see how regional cultures are less constructed than modern globalized culture.

The fundamental drives of humanity have not changed. People a millenium ago, and people a century ago, all sought the same sinful separation from their community and calling.

A regional community that, in isolation, is given the technology of the modern world would find itself no less alienated than our own.

So I agree that modern society is more 'constructed' than in the past. I merely disagree that this is the result of international integration rather than technological progress. We have a better ability to 'construct' than before because modern technology allows isolation from our environment that people even a century ago never dreamed of.

Also, when I wrote previously about economies of scale in alienation, I was not referring to alienation arising from economies of scale in production. I don't agree with the Marxian narrative that alienation arises from the division of labor (which is the result of economies of scale and comparative advantage) because I consider division of labor to be a God-ordained order of communal economies. (i.e. the distribution of spiritual gifts within the church)

What I was talking about was the possibility that there were economies of scale in the 'production' of alienation. That is, that a small community might be less capable of achieving a given level of alienation than an integrated international economy. I'm not sure that this is the case, but it may well be.

Jonathan said...


One more thing. You say that there's a dominant and an exploited. I don't quite follow you.