Since the 1990s, academic debates have revived modernity as a key concept. Tomlinson (1991) argued that much of what was labeled “cultural imperialism” was in fact a broader spread of a globalized pattern of modernity. This discourse argued, in particular, that beneath much of what was seen as Americanization or westernization lay a more general, deeper globalization of capitalism, “the broader discourse of cultural imperialism as the spread of the culture of modernity itself ” (Tomlinson 1991, 89 – 90, original italics).
A related question is whether modernity is a singular tendency or one with many possible versions and outcomes. A number of aspects of globalization tend to standardize certain kinds of economic modernity, such as financial institutions, trade rules and regimes, and commercial media models. However, Tomlinson (1999) also argued later that a “decentering of capitalism from the west” was taking place. A number of writers, e.g., Iwabuchi (2002), argued for distinct Asian or Japanese versions of both capitalism and media/cultural modernity. China has also steadily emerged as a major site and alternative form of capitalist production in the current neo-liberal system (Harvey 2005), with many features of current global capitalist modernity, but with a distinctly different emphasis. The fact that China has refused western prescriptions for the sort of democracy that is supposed to accompany modern capitalist development presents a long list of contradictions to traditional notions of modernity.
One problem with this new modernity-focused analysis in globalization, which relies on a rather systemic notion of modernity as the key concept, is losing sight of real issues of differential power between different parts of the world in economics, in politics, and in cultural industries such as television. Some forms of cultural production, e.g., commercial television genres such as soap opera, could be analyzed either as forms of capitalist production or as manifestations of modern approaches to media. The two angles offer somewhat different insights. Both imply limits placed on – and resources available to – cultural producers (television networks) and cultural consumers (television audiences). One virtue of cultural imperialism is that it reminds academics to consider that different actors within the world system have different resources and levels of power.
One problem with classic, neo-Marxist approaches, in contrast, is that they tend to reduce too many things to linear conceptions of political economic power. For some authors, e.g., Schiller (1969) and Herman & McChesney (1997), the power of ownership is paramount, but as the Chinese government’s limits on Murdoch’s attempts to enter China’s television market shows, simply owning a media conglomerate, even one as apparently powerful as Star TV, is no guarantee of obtaining access to a nation’s audience. In fact, this example shows that while China may be pursuing its own version of modernity, using television as a tool, it is seemingly trying to avoid as far as possible dependency on outside actors like Murdoch.
- Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Herman, E. S., & McChesney, R. W. (1997). The global media: The new missionaries of global capitalism. Washington, DC: Cassell.
- Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentering globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Schiller, H. I. (1969). Mass communication and American empire. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Tomlinson, J. (1991). Cultural imperialism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Tomlinson, J. (1999). Globalization and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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