Speech by Professor Yudhishthir Raj Isar on 13 April 2012

"Culture, Society and Globalization:  Some Challenges for ICS"


Keynote address by Professor Yudhishthir Raj Isar at the Official Launch of the Institute for Culture and Society, at the University of Western Sydney Parramatta campus on 13 April 2012.

Mr. Chancellor

Madame Vice-Chancellor,

Professor Ang,

Distinguished Guests,


Before I start, as a visitor from afar, let me also acknowledge that we are come together here on the traditional lands of the Dharug people, pay my respect to elders both past and present, and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people present here today.

I am immensely honoured to be here this afternoon, and want to begin by expressing my deep gratitude to Professor Ien Ang, not just for the slot she’s kindly given me in this celebration but also, more importantly, for having proposed to bring me to the Institute in the first place.  And my equally deep gratitude to the higher authorities of this University for having agreed with that proposal.

During my time here I have become increasingly impressed by the uniquely collegial spirit that reigns; by the range of fields and topics explored by the Institute’s members; by the quality of their research; by the excellence of its staff; and, finally, by the caliber and variety of its post-graduate students, whose ranks now include candidates from many different countries across the world. 

From what Ien has told you about my hybrid professional trajectory, you’ll understand that I’m a multiple stakeholder in the work of this Institute:  in its task of brokering knowledge and knowhow for public debate and public policy; in its commitment to ‘inter-disciplinary, engaged and collaborative scholarship’; and as regards its service to the ‘community’, understood in local, continental, regional and indeed global terms. 

Now as the Institute’s service to the community is located at the interface between culture and society, my small service this afternoon will be to try and present the case for why this interface is such a key area.   For obvious reasons, my remarks are pitched more to those of you who aren’t members of the Institute than those of you who are.

To start with, the extraordinary currency the term ‘culture’ has acquired and without which we couldn’t even speak about culture and society in the same breath as we do so easily today.   The way in which what was once just a scientific concept, used by cultural anthropologists such as myself, is now a word on everybody’s lips, so much so that a recent survey of the topic is a book called Seeing Culture Everywhere:  from genocide to consumer habits.  No doubt the term resonates with each one of you too, but probably in many different ways. 

For our purposes now, I’ll allude to just two of those ways of seeing culture.  First, the idea of cultures in the plural, understood as different ways of life, as different patterns of meaning making.  The usage that allows us to speak, for example, not just of Australian culture or French culture,  but also of ‘youth culture’ or  ‘AFL culture’, or ‘the UWS culture’,  to name but a few… 

This notion of culture as the stuff of group identity has come to have a major influence over how we understand the world,  or explain it, or behave in it.  When, for example, we think we can’t do (or say) something to a particular group of people because of their culture or when we ask them please don’t do this or that to us because of our culture.  And here is it important to see this marking out of difference as a process, a process through which a society creates and recreates a sense of itself and of its cultural model.  Australia, for example, which has emerged out of many cultural flows, is right in the middle of this dynamic, as Australians re-imagine a nation that has grown out of European colonization and immigration but has to come to terms today with cultural diversity and its Asia-Pacific geography.

I have just come here to Parramatta, in fact, from Carriageworks, where an important ‘Multicultural Arts Forum’ is going on today and tomorrow, with the sub-title ‘Facing the Challenge, Creating the Future’.  And this reference to a current Sydney event allows me to introduce the second leading usage of the word ‘culture’, namely as arts and heritage, in other words as intellectual and/or aesthetic processes and products, both of the past and of the present.   If the ‘culture as identity’ meaning looms large in our world in epistemological terms, culture as arts and heritage has assumed a central substantive position in economic and social life.  This is so because such a great proportion of our human and material resources goes into this sector:  into the exponential growth of the cultural industries, into heritage conservation and cultural tourism, or into the museum boom.   As cultural goods and services are increasingly commodified and commodities are increasingly imbued with semiotic or aesthetic qualities, notably in such fields as design and fashion, the economic and the cultural converge to generate a cultural economy, in the broadest sense of that word.

These  interplays combined have given the field of culture its own agency and power – today, culture really matters, across domains  as diverse as economic development, international relations, the fostering of citizenship and social cohesion, human security and the resolution or prevention of conflict. 

Culture in both senses is imbricated with globalization, with its huge compressions of time, space and meaning, and its multiple encounters, flows and mobilities.  The outcomes are paradoxical, leading on the one hand to the homogenisation of ideas, ideals, and practices and on the other to the continuous production of heterogeneity.  By pluralizing every society, globalization arouses fears about the loss of identity, provokes  cultural resistance, and stimulates the rediscovery or invention of traditions to underpin and legitimise each society’s sense of difference.  And since it is thought that any society can compete more successfully if it has something distinctive to offer, globalization also encourages it to devise new ways of defining and distinguishing itself. 

Another example:  the ‘Culture is Great’ billboards put up by the British tourism promotion authority all over Sydney…

Under the perceived threat of dissolution or even extinction, the values of different ways of life have become the rallying cry of claims to a space in the planetary culture.   As the distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins put it when I worked with him for the World Commission on Culture and Development in the mid-1990s:   ‘before, culture was just lived. Now it has become a self-conscious project, as every struggle for life has become the struggle of a way of life.’

Globalization is also a process of combined and uneven development – ‘combined’ because it draws huge differences, disparities, historical divergences and temporalities together; ‘uneven’ because it creates disparities and inequalities – in resources, in income, in welfare, in material well-being and in cultural flourishing.  And the disparities are often greater even than the inequalities its champions claim it is surpassing. 

So the impacts of globalization are both unifying and divisive, liberating and corrosive, homogenizing and diversifying.  They crystallize both positive aspirations and negative fears.

And in the process, the interplay between cultural change and globalization is all too often thought about in ways that are simplistic or illusive.  Understanding the complex, simplifying it without simplification:  this is one of the central ambitions of the Institute for Culture and Society. 

Because this has also been the purpose of a book series I co-edit, called Cultures and Globalization, I want now to evoke a few of the issues my colleagues and I have raised – as a counterpoint, as it were, to the sorts of issues that have been and will be explored by my new friends at the Institute.   

In a volume called The Cultural Economy, for example, we looked at how cultural goods and services such as books, movies, music etc., are now being produced on an industrial scale or under the distributive logic of the digital technologies that have transformed the relationships between creators, producers and consumers.  How vibrant is the cultural economy in different countries and regions?  What are the big ‘divides’ between world regions, or within regions and nations?  And what might be the ways to reduce them?

And how well, we might also have asked, is local government succeeding in its attempts to make Western Sydney a part of this global economy?

In another volume, we asked questions relating to artistic creativity and innovation.  What does the notion of ‘creativity’ actually  mean in a globalizing landscape?  What social and cultural factors account for variations in creativity across fields, regions and societies?  Are transnational milieus or clusters of creativity emerging?  What artistic, political or economic interests underpin such formations, and how are they inter-linked?

Questions of agency and dominance also arise.  How do certain official policies encourage or discourage creativity, wittingly or unwittingly?  How do reigning orthodoxies in the arts get challenged?  Who are the leading culturo-political entrepreneurs, in this respect?  And what are their strategies?

Behind this project was the ambition of unpacking ‘culture, society, globalization’ relationships in order to uncover the expectations they encourage, the illusions they promote and the anxieties they generate. 

The expectations are those of the growing number of people who, like us, are convinced of the central importance of the cultural.  

The anxieties arise, to put it schematically, from the simplistic understandings of the culture concept itself or what the economist Amartya Sen has called not just half-truths, but ‘quarter-truths, torn out of context’.  Here Sen was referring to the ‘clash of civilizations ‘ thesis that our world will be shaped by clashing cultures, based on the erroneous assumption that culture is a timelines container that traps nations and ethnic groups within it. 

The illusions are the result of overblown and overly instrumental visions of culture. 

The illusions can be dispelled, I would argue, the anxieties allayed (and the expectations justified), by research that engages innovatively and effectively with all the complexities of culture, society and globalization in our time.  Inquiry that is, as Ien Ang has so aptly put it, not the endpoint of analysis, but ‘the starting point for possible intervention.’

This is the difficult challenge for the Institute and the promise that awaits it. 

Finally, to close, a few thoughts on the ‘how’ rather than on the ‘what’ of such an agenda.  

The ‘how’ in the context of an increasingly ‘post-Western world, in relation to which Australia occupies such a privileged cultural and geographical position.

A world in which a cosmopolitan spirit is ever more urgently required.  A spirit that recognizes and empowers the different projects through which the global and the local are being combined, the social and the cultural constructed.  

That helps us understand that we are all of us outsiders and insiders at the same time, individuals and group members, Self and Other, local and global.  

That allows us to identify ourselves with multiple communities, and forms of belonging, to cross and re-cross borders, both real and figurative. 

The world is moving into increasingly uncharted directions that now escape the control of the erstwhile ‘centre’.  As it draws upon other narratives, dreams, aspirations and memories, thinking about culture and society can no longer continue to circulate in the same direction.  Agency must be given to other players who, by deploying their own imaginaries and applying their own perspectives, can truly diversify the ‘culture’ of cultural scholarship in the world. 

As an institution deemed to be ‘well above world class’, the Institute for Culture and Society should be confident of its capacity to do just that, of its authority to think globally.  To consolidate that authority, however, you will need henceforth to operate in ways that are truly international in scope and meaning.   Several of you are doing this already and doing so remarkably well. 

Yet, given your mission, there is room to both broaden and deepen your global remit – but of course from a distinctively Western Sydney point of view. 

For, after all, your condition is the global condition.

13 April 2012 

Professor Yudhishthir Raj Isar, Professor of Cultural Policy Studies with The American University of Paris, is an independent writer, public speaker and advisor on cultural policy issues.  He holds and has had positions with many of the world’s leading institutions including UNESCO, the World Commission on Culture and Development, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the World Bank.

He is co-founder and co-editor of The Cultures and Globalization Series published by SAGE, of which five volumes have appeared

Professor Isar is currently an Eminent Research Visitor at the University of Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society.