8. Imperial Globalization – The Presence of the Past and the Crucible of Empire

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8. Imperial Globalization – The Presence of the Past and the Crucible of Empire

Andrew Thompson

Centre Director Andrew Thompson explains that if globalization is not to silence the past, we need to delve back into its history – its imperial history.

Almost a century before Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the Americas, Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty undertook voyages across the Indian and the Western Pacific Oceans. Photo credit: © Chris Hellier/Corbis
Admiral Zheng He. Almost a century before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty undertook voyages across the Indian and the Western Pacific Oceans. Photo credit: © Chris Hellier/Corbis

‘Globalization’ is among the biggest intellectual challenges facing the humanities and the social sciences today. It is a concept that conveys the sense that we are living in an age of transformation, where change is the only constant, nothing can be taken for granted, and no-one knows what the future might bring. But globalization is also much more than that. To borrow the phrase of the historical sociologist, Mike Savage, it is an ‘epoch description’, something that seeks to define for the current generation the very meaning of social change. By thinking of ourselves as part of a globalized world, we are saying something about how over time our identity has changed. We are locating ourselves in time, differentiating ourselves from our predecessors, signalling a break with what went before.

Champions of globalization are invariably concerned with the present. Their notion of time is unapologetically linear. Crudely exponential assumptions about the ever-increasing pace and scale of scientific and technological change are built into globalization’s teleology, and the belief that what we are experiencing today is as much incomparable as it is irreversible. ‘History’ is thus set to mean less and less for the present generation; the sense of the future as an outgrowth of the past is becoming less and less plausible. [continue reading]

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