PRINT April 2003


“Catch the spirit of the decade?” she said. “Like how?”
“Maybe,” I urged her, pouring some fizzy water, “just think back . . .”

At first it was easy. Dates. Times. Places. Facts. The whole Afghanistan business started with the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and Zbigniew Brzezinski exhorting the mujahideen in the early '80s to fight back in the name of their God. The space shuttle Columbia was launched in '81, followed some years later by the Challenger disaster—shades of our times. Qaddafi was the much feared terrorist czar of those days, the pre-Sadaam on everybody's wanted list. In presidential parlance, we had much to fear from the “evil empire” (1983) rather than the “axis of evil” (2002). And, on the domestic front, the meteoric rise in the ownership of telephone answering machines (from 2 percent of the American population in '80 to 25 percent in '89) did much more to affirm Baudrillard's reflections on the simulacral surfaces of postmodern life than the weighty scribes who popularized prosthetic personhood in the pages of Artforum.

“Bottled water took off like crazy in the early ’80s,” she said, high on the game of guessing, her face distorted in the soft curves of the Perrier flask (the Absolut icon of the ’80s), her aquatic voice rising from behind the vitrine as if she were lip-synching (an ’80s fad) a refrain that came from far away and long ago . . . “And remember all that ‘gaze’ stuff? The male gaze . . . and the gaze of the Other . . . until we were all eyeless in Gaza . . .” We went back and forth a little on the importance (and import) of French thought—Barthes, Kristeva, Lacan, Foucault—crossing the Atlantic like a message in a bottle (hermetic, hieratic) until the genie of critical theory escaped into the very air itself and was reborn as “cultural studies,” “theory,” “media studies.” Mixed messages as macaronic as Barthesian mythologies. Which led us to observe that while wine and milk were, to Barthes, national totems, he was all but silent on water, the medium of illusion and transition. Deceptively transparent, almost glassy, water distorts the senses; it is the source of life and succor, but it is also the destructive element that throws you off balance. Water suspends reality. There was definitely something about Perrier.

And then it came to her like a flash. “People didn’t drink water—they drank Perrier.” Water diviner. It was the label that signified the sign of the times, as Tom Wolfe had so ably detected in Bonfire of the Vanities, that encyclopedia of an age of simulacral futures and bonds and derivatives that “insulated” (Wolfe’s word) the Masters of the Universe from the stenches and “trenches of the urban wars”: “himself, with his noble head, his Yale chin, his big frame, and his $1,800 British suit, the angel’s father, a man of parts.” And labels—Jeff Koons’s Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off), 1985, comes immediately to mind—were also the legends that some in the art world lived by:

Klaus Ottmann: How do you see advertisement?

Koons: It’s basically the medium that defines people’s perceptions of the world, of life itself, how to interact with others. The media defines reality. Just yesterday we met some friends. We were celebrating and I stated to them: “Here’s to good friends!” It was like living in an ad. It was wonderful, a wonderful moment. We were right there living in the reality of our media.1

Recalling the ’80s brings another kind of labeling to mind. It is the decade most readily tagged with terms associated with the culture wars—political correctness, the politics of identity, the postmodern, the postcolonial. The Eighties Club, a website devoted to the period, remembers only too well that “conservatives felt the nation had veered too far left since the ’60s and hoped that Reagan’s election heralded their victory in the ‘culture wars.’ Many were disappointed with the results by the decade’s end.” The culture wars were a consequence of the conservative fear that the liberal left had staged a bloodless coup on campuses, in the media, and in the art world. In The Closing of the American Mind (1987) Allan Bloom attacked the “spiritual detumescence” of the Academy populated by students and professors enslaved to sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll; Roger Kimball took on the “tenured radicals” while Hilton Kramer punctured public intellectuals, and between them this redoubtable duo tilted at the winds of change with such regularity that despite their healthy provocation they were in danger of sounding like windbags of woe. But there was a gale blowing in the direction of “differences,” and the museum and the art world were protagonists in this cultural display: “Difference: On Representation and Sexuality” (1984–85) and “The Decade Show” (1990) in New York, “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989) in Paris, and “America: Bride of the Sun” (1992) in Antwerp were only the most prominent exhibitions born of this impulse. To interrogate “identity” rather than assert its inviolability represented the best version of this minoritarian move. Identity art could, of course, be dogmatic and declarative in a way that was too desperate to become truly resonant. But the desire to open up issues of “subjectivity” as they were expressed in the pluralist political culture of the ’80s also gave rise to enigmatic and exploratory artistic practices. Adrian Piper, for example, was famously intolerant of stereotypical images even when their content was politically progressive, because they often led to identitarian assertions of nationalism and separatism. Anish Kapoor rejected images altogether in favor of an elusive quest for sculptural transformations that delved deep into the cultural traditions of the “void”—sacred and secular—to rise with new insights on the profound surfaces of perception and personhood. And a bit later, Damien Hirst’s early vitrine pieces—sharks and sheep pickled in formaldehyde—turned a demonic eye on the “Englishness” of still-life traditions, while also riffing on the iconic, allegorical works of the Pre-Raphaelites (e.g., William Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, 1854–56). What was ignored in the ire of the culture wars has, on reflection, become its major contribution: a concept of cultural community based on shared and negotiated affiliations.

The “politics of difference” (as the culture wars were called by aficionados) was indeed an attempt at creating cultural or political associations based on the articulation of a range of diverse interests rather than on the assertion of separatist group identities (be they race-, ethnicity-, or gender-based). When essentialist claims to identity become the organizational grounds for separatist or quasi-nationalist forms of sovereignty, we enter the realm of the politics of identity. In contrast, the politics of difference suggests that the playing field on which equality is negotiated cannot be leveled merely by equalizing or universalizing differences. This is because the pursuit of fairness and justice is a matter of judging between “cases” of oppression and acknowledging the specificities and contingencies of the historical “causes” of domination and discrimination. Freedom, equality, fairness, and recognition are not simply given ideals or ultimate goals; these “goods” come to be defined and transformed as forms of ethical and political progress in the process by which dialogue, negotiation, and affiliation make their claims on resources and rights “in the name of difference.” Such a complex aspiration to equality without equalization—to which I shall return at the end of this essay—is open to instability because it demands a continual adjustment of advantage and disadvantage, from a vantage point of judgment whose scales must be continually calibrated. Are those of us who still utter the shibboleth of “difference,” with something of an ’80s accent, foreigners to the decade in which we live today?

In every decade there are events that transcend their times and others that survive their histories. This is not a distinction between triumph and failure; it may be better understood through an oceanic metaphor, as the difference between a wave that rises above the horizon, coming to light as it catches the eye, and a deep current that moves under the surface, a forceful undertow felt inchoately as pressure rather than presence. Were the culture wars of the ’80s an epochal occurrence or an emergent event? Such a question, it used to be said, could only be answered in the fullness of time; but perhaps ours is now that threadbare time, insecure and anxious, filled with the fear of violence, terrorized. For the ’80s inaugurated a dream of difference which is now being haunted by horror and doubt: abhorrence of the “deterritorialized flows” of global terror networks; doubts about the feasibility of global politics with the increase in “homeland” security and international surveillance; doubts about preemptive strikes; doubts about war; doubts about our rights and responsibilities for the world and ourselves. What happened to the dream?

IN EMPIRE, MICHAEL HARDT AND ANTONIO NEGRI’S ENCOMIUM TO a deterritorialized global politics of the present, the authors provide an impassioned response to the proclivities of the politics of difference that emerged in the ’80s. The wide influence of this polemical work is a consequence of its commitment to understanding the emergent force of the “multitude” as it constructs a world that “continually transgresses territorial and racial boundaries.”2 From the perspective of Empire, the ’80s represent a moment of transition, an opening up of quests, and questions, beyond the static sovereignties of the “essentialist” modern “subject” and the “foundationalist” nation-state. Postmodernism and postcolonialism, the twin peaks of ’80s theoretical thinking, were symptomatic discourses of the period, providing a critical perspective on its immanent structures while being unable to keep up with the rapid transformations of globalized capitalism. They bravely battled against the Manichaean master narratives of modern sovereignty, Hardt and Negri concede, unsettling the binary logic of “Self and Other, white and black, inside and outside, ruler and ruled.”3 However, despite their fine intentions and critical intelligence, these post-masters who deployed postmodernism and poststructuralism in their critique of global capitalism failed to realize that corporate capital and the global markets operated programs of economic power that were themselves, in most respects, “postmodern” and had absorbed the lessons of mobility, indeterminacy, and hybridity avant la lettre: Patriotism is an enemy to profitability, once money takes on the multifarious colors of the multinational state. The butt of the postmodern or postcolonial attack on global corporate power loses its point because global markets have presciently absorbed the truths of postmodern and, in their turn, butt these time-warped theories in the . . . ocks. “Power has evacuated the bastion that they [postmodernists and postcolonialists] are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference.”4 Is the work of the ’80s done and finished with, as Hardt and Negri suggest, and is the politics of difference hoist by its own petard?

It would be heartening to believe—as Empire would have us—that global power has deserted the bastions of binary thinking. The aftermath of 9/11 has, I believe, made even more urgent the ’80s endeavor to think of issues relating to political and cultural difference beyond the polarities of power and identity. The reasons for such a revival of ’80s thinking are close at hand. Immediately after the World Trade Center attacks there was a worldwide resurgence of Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations,” with righteous Islam ranged against the liberal, Christian West—an argument that the author himself was in the process of revising. More recently, with Iraq in our sights, there is another ruling binary in our midst—this time known as the bipolarity of global power. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (February 16, 2003), Thomas L. Friedman argues that 9/11 has introduced a new division of the globe—the World of Order and the World of Disorder:

The world of order is built on four pillars: the U.S., E.U.-Russia, India and China, along with all the smaller powers around them. The World of Disorder comprises failed states (such as Liberia), rogue states (Iraq and North Korea), messy states—states that are too big to fail but too messy to work (Pakistan, Colombia, Indonesia, many Arab and African states)—and finally the terrorist and mafia networks that feed off the World of Disorder.

There has always been a World of Disorder, but what makes it more dangerous today is that in a networked universe, with widely diffused technologies, open borders and a highly integrated global financial and Internet system, very small groups of people can amass huge amounts of power to disrupt the World of Order. Individuals can become super-empowered. In many ways, 9/11 marked the first full-scale battle between a superpower and a small band of super-empowered angry men from the World of Disorder.

There is no old-style polarity here of East and West or North and South; nevertheless, the presence of a networked universe and diffused technologies doesn’t prevent the discourse of world power from becoming bipolar: the World of Order and the World of Disorder. Why the differences between superpowers and the super-empowered should somehow naturally assume a pattern of polarity is a question for another time. What is relevant in remembering the ’80s is that the critical labor of interrogating the binary bastions of world power still has an important role to play if we want to understand why the World of Order elicits such deep anger, anxiety, and ambivalence from those who belong to failed, rogue, or messy states. Why the failure? What is the history of the mess? To suggest that the world has moved decidedly into “global networks of power consisting of highly differentiated and mobile structures”5 is at best only half true. True perhaps for the Al Qaeda network and its operative nodes. But hardly true for much of the rest of the world; not true for the US and the UK; nor for that matter, of the worldwide demand, on the streets and in secretariats, that any hostile action should be undertaken under the supervision of the UN, fully ratified by international law, and supported by the community of nations. The two sides of the global truth amount to something less than a whole truth: First, that the specter of binary or bipolar explanation rises to exert order and meaning when we are confronted by realities that seem partial and indeterminate, in conditions that are contingent, contradictory, and fearsome. And secondly, that national territories and network societies coexist in relations that are conflictual and collaborative, problematic and proximate. It is to this latter issue, the life world of contemporary globalization, that I now want to turn, with a backward glance to the ’80s.

Has the bad old world of nation-states been subsumed, perhaps suborned, into a world order of global markets that make our attention to national hegemonies—both their interests and injustices—somehow irrelevant?

The global cunning of world markets must not be underestimated; nor, however, must the world’s trade zones be celebrated as a bricolage of borderless bazaars. (“Differences [of commodities, populations, cultures, and so forth] seem to multiply infinitely in the world market. . . .”)6 Financial markets and capital flows have been disproportionately globalized in comparison with other important sectors of the world economy, but nowhere near the extent to which the rhetoric of globalization claims. At a rough estimate, almost 90 percent of trade policies and tariffs worldwide are still controlled by nation-states rather than interregional bodies. The European Union and MERCOSUR are exceptions to this global trend, setting their tariffs according to “customs union” regulations, but this represents only a modest variation in the persistence of trade barriers across the world. The rhetorical zeal with which it is claimed that world markets are now postnational needs to be tempered by historical reality. A much more mixed, and complex, picture emerges in which the sovereignty of national control is only partially and strategically compromised.

When cultural-studies critics argue (with increasing regularity) that “postmodernism” is the logic of global capital or that “the world market establishes a real politics of difference,”7 they seem to turn the world into a metaphor of mondialisation in which the persistence of national or international governance is wrongly seen as the remnant of an archaic, atavistic force. Such arguments work through analogy by equating the conceptual language of cultural globalization with select aspects of the political economy—commodification, financial flows, capital transfers, outsourcing, flexible accumulation—that seem to resonate with the semiotic vocabularies of cultural studies. For the economic processes I have mentioned above can be appropriated into the spatial language of cultural description and representation. The circulation of commodities, the opening up of free-trade zones, the technological transfer of financial flows bear a certain formal resonance with (if not resemblance to) the circulation of images, the exchange of cultural signs, the excess of signification, and intertextual transfers of meaning. The elements of the global economy and polity that can be read under the sign of semiotic “circulation” are then mobilized for a wider political and ethical argument that suggests that the goal of global citizenship lies in “the struggle against the slavery of belonging to a nation, an identity and a people, and thus the desertion from sovereignty and the limits it places on subjectivity—is entirely positive. Nomadism and miscegenation appear here as figures of virtue, the first ethical practices on the terrain of Empire.”8

Such an emancipatory ideal—so affixed on the flowing, borderless, global world—neglects to confront the fact that migrants, refugees, and nomads don’t merely circulate. They need to settle, claim asylum or nationality, demand housing and education, assert their economic and cultural rights, and come to be legally represented—represented, that is, in certain legal jurisdictions; and in that sense monetary policy and taxation, which are more conjunctural or contextual than “circulatory,” provide the immanent infrastructure for enabling the ethic of free movement. It is salutary, then, to turn to less “circulatory” forms of the economy like tariffs, taxes, and monetary policy, which are much less open to metaphoric appropriation. And yet taxation and trade tariffs are no less a matter of concern for cultural globalization, which places the problems of migration and the accelerated movement of peoples and things, at the heart of the new global polity. Indeed, to the extent to which global equality and justice demands the free flow of peoples and goods, taxation has a crucial role to play in providing migrants and the “poor” with social welfare, public goods, medical care, and educational benefits at the national level. Positive global relations depend on the protection of these nation-based resources. To suggest that “the very idea of a [national] economy is becoming meaningless” or that the “world market is liberated from the kind of binary division that nation-states had imposed”9 is to claim too much too soon. For, as Saskia Sassen has repeatedly argued, the global economy is a transitional category that only becomes meaningful in a process whereby the national and the global are articulated in an intersectional and interstitial relation to each other. It is the “insertions of the global into the fabric of the national [that create a] partial and incipient denationalization of that which has historically been constructed as the national.” Our experience of the global is not a face to face encounter with a “new” social or cultural phenomenon: Global culture only assumes a representational form when the nation-space cedes its sovereignty in order to accede to the transnational or global reality that embeds itself, or intercedes, in the ongoing life of the nation.

TO THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE INTERESTS OF POST-colonialism and postmodernism coalesced as strategies of critical knowledge in the ’80s, their interest lay in giving shape and significance to forms of social agency and cultural identity that emerged from the “partial and incipient” conditions of minoritarian life. Such conditions do not belong exclusively to the margins of society or peripheries of the globe. They exist wherever there is an attempt to deny the choice of freedom, or to refuse the recognition of equality, on the grounds that there must be a normalization or neutralization of “difference” in order to ensure social order. In such circumstances the minority, always a partially denationalized political subject, emerges as a “partial and incipient” social force that seeks to recognize itself and represent its freedom through an identification with the other’s difference—its claims, interests, and conditions of life. Such a tentativeness in the description of the minority must sound strange in the light of the noisy debates about “political correctness” and the “culture of complaint” that became the Babel of the ’80s. The polemics of the “politics of identity” often misunderstood the desire for public recognition and respect as the quasi-nationalist demand of ethnic autonomy. This legitimate hope for cultural and political legitimation through a reversion to cultural authenticity or “essentialism” was poignantly misplaced—as if the discourse of racial or sexual discrimination, profoundly phobic and physical, had any sense of history or poetry at all.

At its best, I believe, the politics of difference seeks to rethink the minority not as an “identity” but as a process of affiliation (rather than autonomy) that eschews sovereignty and sees its own “selfhood” and interests as “partial and incipient” in relation to the other’s presence. This form of minoritarian identification converts the liminal condition of the minority—again, always partly denationalized—into a new kind of strength based on the solidarity of the “partial” collectivity rather than sovereign mastery. In this sense, as Etienne Balibar brilliantly suggests, seeking liberation is “‘a right to difference in equality,’ that is, not as a restoration of an original identity or as a neutralization of differences in the equality of rights, but as the production of an equality . . . [as] the complementarity and reciprocity of singularities.”10 The dream of the ’80s was no more than this: the desire for the production of equality and rights—not their prior presumption—as a process of freedom and self-expression claimed “in the name of difference.” For such rights and equalities to exist in the midst of a world of diverse peoples and things, we must possess the cautious virtue of political tolerance, but we must also go beyond it to cultivate the virtuosity of cultural poesis that allows us to speak of the world as we make it in tongues that are not our own.

Homi K. Bhabha is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and chair of the Program in History and Literature at Harvard University.


1. Klaus Ottmann, interview with Jeff Koons in the Journal of Contemporary Art [online] 1, no. 1 (1988). Available at

2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000): 363.

3. Ibid., 139.

4. Ibid., 138.

5. Ibid., 151.

6. Ibid., 150.

7. Ibid., 151.

8. Ibid., 361–62.

9. Ibid., 151.

10. Etienne Balibar, “‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Rights of the Citizen’: The Modern Dialectic of Equality and Freedom,” in Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994): 56.