I have been asked to address two subjects. What does it mean for a university such as ours to set up Global Centers across the world, and what are we getting at with the aspiration of being a global university, particularly in a global city such as New York. They are vaguely interrelated issues. But let me address them separately because going global for a major American university and being a global university in a global city are both complicated and tricky.
One—Tracking subterranean global trends.
Columbia’s project to go abroad and set up Global Centers in Beijing, Amman, Rio, Mumbai, and more could become a great innovation. In a way it is a mode of going beyond the relation that a great university often has with its surrounding city: a large shadow effect and a relation to that city as some sort of “backyard”—making more and more areas in the city into the equivalent of one’s backyard. (By the way, I have no backyard, so am on somewhat dubious ground as to what that experience might be.)
The key to the project is that these Global Centers be a frontier space between the foreign country and Columbia. It cannot work if the centers are merely extensions of the University abroad, as has been the tradition for great American universities—with their professors and students spending some time abroad. There are research projects that lend themselves to this. Not all do. And we at Columbia who are engaged in the global side of our University need to discover what works and can take us beyond the “term abroad” mode.
I am thinking here of research projects that need knowledge and understanding of how a global dynamic, or a dynamic that recurs in country after country, gets constituted in diverse countries, each with its specific cultures, economies, socialities. For instance in one of my projects, "Theatrum Mundi/The Global Street," supported by the Mellon Foundation, we need to work in diverse countries. The juxtapositions captured by this subject emerge and get constituted in specific ways. But I hypothesize that beneath these specifics lie subterranean dynamics that cut across traditional borders. It will take work with others across different countries to capture the local manifestations of these subterranean trends.
The temptation is to fall into familiar comparisons, falling back on the characteristics of known older tendencies in each country. But by doing so we may actually be camouflaging the fact of a global emergent trend. We trot out the familiar categories of meaning—this is American, this is Chinese—to explain it all. What would we find if we could delve in detailed research and conversation with the scholars and practitioners in those other countries?
The Global Centers are a great site or node for this project of working with, and learning how to base our interpretations on the deep knowledge of, scholars in those diverse countries, but with a larger collective aim in mind: tracking global emergent trends and avoiding the familiar categories of meaning which revert back to the specific histories and genealogies of each country. I am speaking of the Global Centers as a site for tracking the specifics of local manifestations of what is a deeper global condition.
Two—No matter how electronic and global, it needs to be made.
A central effort in my research is to capture the making of the global—economic, cultural, political, ideational, and more. The more common view is to emphasize the power of multinationals, of finance, and of digital technologies: globalization becomes a function of power. I am interested in the full range of making: making creative accounting rules and abusive financial instruments, making deregulations, the making of a global class of professionals that can move easily across today’s network of 100-plus global cities.
The capabilities for global operation, coordination, and control contained in the new information technologies and in the power of transnational corporations need to be produced. By focusing on the production of these capabilities, we add a neglected dimension to the more familiar aspects of the current global era, notably the power of large corporations and the role of the new technologies. The emphasis shifts to the material practices that constitute what we call “economic globalization” and “global control”: the work of producing and reproducing the organization and management of a global production system and a global marketplace for finance, both under conditions of economic concentration.
I emphasize also the enormous diversity of workers involved in this making, their living spaces and working spaces, the multiple subeconomies that arise from all this making. Many of these work cultures are typically seen as irrelevant to the global city, or as belonging to another era. A close look shows us that this is wrong. The economic production function of the global city depends on a surprisingly broad range of workers and products. We need to recover the role of these subeconomies for the city, for its people, for its neighborhoods, and for the visual orders involved.