Globalization and the Image
Session VIII
2001 MMLA Convention
Cleveland, Ohio
2-3 November


empire - Globalization - Empire

This roundtable and open forum will discuss Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's recent bestseller Empire (Harvard UP, 2000). The session will focus particularly upon those sections of Hardt and Negri's text that discuss the passage over the last century from older imperialisms, based upon the sovereignty of the nation-state, to Empire, which Hardt and Negri conceive as a new global form of sovereignty.

Preparatory readings should include the following selections from Empire. We excerpt here a few key passages that may serve as organizing topoi for our conversation.

The Preface (xi-xvii) -

Empire is materializing before our very eyes. Over the past several decades, as colonial regimes were overthrown and then precipitously after the Soviet barriers to the capitalist world market finally collapsed, we have witnessed an irresistible and irreversible globalization of economic and cultural exchanges. Along with the global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, a new logic and structure of rule-in short, a new form of sovereignty. Empire is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world. (xi)

2.3 The Dialectics of Colonial Sovereignty (114-136) -

We now need to take a step back and examine the genealogy of the concept of sovereignty from the perspective of colonialism. The crisis of modernity has from the beginning had an intimate relation to racial subordination and colonization. Whereas within its domain the nation-state and its attendant ideological structures work tirelessly to create and reproduce the purity of the people, on the outside the nation-state is a machine that produces Others, creates racial difference, and raises boundaries that delimit and support the modern subject of sovereignty. These boundaries and barriers, however, are not impermeable but rather serve to regulate two-way flows between Europe and its outside. The Oriental, the African, the Amerindian are all necessary components for the negative foundation of European identity and modern sovereignty as such. The dark Other of European Enlightenment stands as its very foundation just as the productive relationship with the "dark continents" serves as the economic foundation of the Ruopean nation-states. The racial conflict intrinsic to European modernity is another symptom of the permanent crisis that defines modern sovereignty. The colony stands in dialectical opposition to European modernity, as its necessary double and irrepressible antagonist. Colonial sovereignty is another insufficient attempt to resolve the crisis of modernity. (114-115)

2.4 Symptoms of Passage (137-159) -

The end of colonialism and the declining powers of the nation are indicative of a general passage from the paradigm of modern sovereignty toward the paradigm of imperial sovereignty. The various postmodernist and postcolonialst theories that have emerged since the 1908s give us a first view of this passage, but the perspective they offer proves to be quite limited. As the prefix "post-" should indicate, postmodernist and postcolonialist theorists never tire of critiquing and seeking liberation from the past forms of rule and their legacies in the present. Postmodernists continually return to the lingering influence of the Enlightenment as the source of domination; postcolonialist theorists combat the remnants of colonialist thinking.

We suspect that postmoernist and postcolonialist theories may end up in a dead end because they fail to recognize adequately the contemporary object of critique, that is, they mistake today's real enemy. What if the modern form of power these critics (and we ourselves) have taken such pains to describe and contest no longer holds sway in our society? What if these theorists are so intent on combating the remnants of a past form of domination that they fail to recognize the new form that is looming over them in the present? What if the dominating powers that are the intended object of critique have mutated in such a way as to depotentialize any such postmodernist challenge? In short, what if a new paradigm of power, a postmodern sovereignty, has come to replace the modern paradigm and rule through differential hierarchies of the hybrid and fragmentary subjectivities that these theorists celebrate? In this case, modern forms of sovereignty would no longer be at issue, and the postmodernist and postcolonialist strategies that appear to be liberatory would not challenge but in fact coincide with and even unwittingly reinforce the new strategies of rule! (137-38)

3.1 The Limits of Imperialism (221-239) -

For a large portion of the twentieth century, the critique of imperialism has been among the most active and urgent arenas of Marxist theory. Many of these arguments are today certainly outdated and the situation they refer to is utterly transformed. This does not mean, however, that we have nothing to learn from them. These critiques of imperialism can help us understand the passage from imperialism to Empire because in certain respects they anticipated that passage.

One of the central arguments of the tradition of Marxist thinking on imperialism is that there is an intrinsic relation between capitalism and expansion, and that capitalist expansion inevitably takes the political form of imperialism. Marx himself wrote very little about imperialism, but his analyses of capitalist expansion are central to the entire tradition of critique. What Marx explained most clearly is that capital constantly operates through a reconfiguration of the boundaries of the inside and the outside. Indeed, capital does not function within the confines of a fixed territory and population, but always overflows its borders and internalizes new spaces: "The tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome." This restive character of capital constitutes an ever-present point of crisis that pertains to the essence of capital itself: constant expansion is its always inadequate but nonetheless necessary attempt to quench an insatiable thirst. We do not mean to suggest that this crisis and these barriers will necessarily lead capital to collapse. On the contrary, as it is for modernity as a whole, crisis is for capital a normal condition that indicates not its end but its tendency and mode of operation. Capital's construction of imperialism and its move beyond it are both given in the complex play between limits and barriers. (221-22)