Home Political science Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction
The politics, structures and inequalities of the physical world are part of the very essence of the digital domain; a domain built by human beings with histories, standpoints, interests, morals and biases (Jurgenson 2012: 85-6).
In comparison to The Circle, Transmission addresses the more global effects of digital communication, capturing the shifting technological, financial and ethno-political developments of the contemporary moment. As in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, the novel engages with the ethical responsibilities of cosmopolitics across national borders, through which the reflexivity of socio-cultural interdependence, coupled with technological advancement, generate unparalleled global crises. Kunzru examines the iniquitous nature of cultural inequality and the difficulties of transnational engagement through the eyes of both an Indian digital migrant worker, Arjun Mehta, and a British entrepreneur, Guy Swift (Kunzru himself possessing both British and Indian heritage). By widening the scope of digital technology away from merely Western elites, the chapter will now demonstrate how Transmission focuses on the social practices of migrants and their complicity in corporate digital culture. In doing so, the narrative will be shown to confront what Boyer terms the ‘mounting digital divide’ in contemporary society ‘between those connected to and those disconnected from the electronic matrix’ (1999: 57).9 This technological deficit is argued to be increasingly reflective of the radical inequalities experienced by digital migrant workers.
The narrative opens with Arjun Mehta, a computer engineer from New Delhi, applying for a role in the digital sector through a corporation named Databodies. Even before his acquisition of a visa and relocation to the US, Arjun’s rejection and strong sense of estrangement from Indian culture makes him complicit with Western ideologies. In an interview for the position, he strives to emulate his interviewer Sunny Srinivasan - the embodiment of transnational assimilation within the cultural folds of the US - whose very linguistic idiosyncrasies even imply cultural aspirations: ‘his dragged vowels and rolling consonants returning the listener to the source of all his other signs of affluence: Amrika. Residence of the NonResident Indian’ (2004: 8). Sunny’s linguistic accommodation and mimicry of North-American mannerisms are not performed to mock or disrupt existing discourses, but function as an act of reverence designed to advertise his assimilation into Western globalised culture - an attempt at cultural hybridity to which Arjun aspires. Sunny is thus a manifestation of cultural interplay as a result of enforced globalisation and commodification in India, being ‘less a human being than a communications medium, a channel for the transmission of consumer lifestyle messages’ (8). Digital technology makes it increasingly possible for citizens to frame and reconceptualise their culture and locality in a global context, enabling what Harvey deems ‘a new type of cross-border politics’ in which the digital connects distinct localities (2009: 87). The presence of digital technology in Arjun’s life reflects a lack of cultural belonging and a desperate need for wider social connectedness, yet such selfenforced digital isolation prevents him from acting compassionately or empathetically.
Kunzru explores an escape from Indian culture through Arjun’s purposeful retreat into a private world of technology until he appears as little more than an extension of his digital infrastructure. The institutional network at North Okhla first affords Arjun a private digital space: a ‘secret garden, which existed not so much apart from as in between the legitimate areas of the college network’, forming ‘an interstitial world, a discreet virtuality that could efficiently mask its existence’ (29). Tomlinson notes that digital communicative technologies possess this capacity to ‘deterritorialize’, removing us from cultural connections ‘with our discrete localities’ and opening up ‘our lifeworlds to a larger world’ (1999: 180). And yet, he emphasises that digital connectivity must be mediated by an awareness and sensitivity to ‘the situated lifeworld of the self. Without this, no amount of technological sophistication can make us cosmopolitans on-line’ (1999: 204). The narrative quickly problematises personal complicity in the asymmetrical relationships of the global system. Arjun’s emigration to the US suggests a deconstruction of the family network through an undermining of cultural allegiances and suppression of localised Indian ties in favour of adherence to a Western model of globalisation. Digital communication in the narrative functions as both a destructive and emancipatory innovation which exceeds the nation-state system and destabilises the notion of cultural boundaries; global flows now operate within and beyond national space with little regard for territorial borders. When Arjun is accused of disloyalty to his nation by his Indian employer, he dispassionately muses: ‘if India had wanted him for something it would probably have asked’ (24). The connections fostered by his mobility seemingly hold cosmopolitan potential but also detach geographical space from the equation, thus depriving locality of its materiality. Through Arjun’s cultural manipulation, New Delhi becomes the latest site of vested Western interests; a small component in the larger pattern of outsourcing digital work in the private sector to countries with cheap labour.
Arjun is not the only member of his family unit subject to globalised culture’s disruption of non-Western locales. His sister, Priti, is employed by a call centre that trains her to adopt an Australian accent and identity, being renamed Hayley. She is required to memorise superficial knowledge of other cultures in order to raise empathy and customer trust, ensuring elite customers feel more comfortable with her ethnicity. Priti’s parents question why she needs to accommodate to white culture, neglecting her ethnic ties and becoming ‘one of these cosmopolitan girls’ (19). As Irr argues, in the digital migrant novel these generational differences are often defined by ‘media engagement’, ‘geographic dispersal’ and ‘degrees of linguistic assimilation’, that indicate the extent of Western influence on the wider world (2014: 29). However, neither Arjun nor his sister attempt to resist the commodification of their culture, suggesting that non-elite citizens are complicit in their oppression and sustain commercial hierarchies. The perils of the present are thus animated through an engagement with both local and global spheres. The practices of transnational corporations disrupt localised communities and family units, with individuals’ subsequent mobility or displacement becoming a by-product of globalising processes. Databodies effectively employ Arjun on ‘one of those slave visas, being paid a fraction of what it would cost [... ] to hire an American engineer’ (65). In an article for his former magazine Wired, entitled ‘Rewiring Technoculture’, Kunzru notes that digital workers are often manipulated by an ‘ideological smokescreen’ to ensure that corporate elites ‘live la dolce vita, while [... ] the majority of workers will be dehumanised technicians performing repetitive tasks to service the networked machine’ (1997: n.pag.). Arjun’s exploitation therefore exposes the extent to which digital technologies actually foster global inequalities.
Barendregt identifies that in contemporary society in general, ‘[w]ith the digital haves better connected than the digital have-nots, gated communities have found their online equivalents’, exploiting ‘vulnerable groups such as immigrants’ (2013: 205). On arriving in the US, Arjun’s life is quickly defined by stagnation and immobility. Despite now being a globally mobile subject, he is dependent upon Databodies for his livelihood, with his movements determined by the transnational corporation. As in Open City, cultural engagement is often delimited by personal mobility. Databodies restrict their workers’ wages in order to deport them once they have served their uses as disposable digital labour to other corporations. The novel consequently positions the digital as the new manifestation of cultural imperialism, exposing the global inequalities of twenty-first century life. As Harvey argues, the internet possesses ‘no liberatory potential whatsoever for the billion or so wage workers [... ] struggling to eke out an existence on less than a dollar a day’ (2009: 109). After being offered only temporary work, Arjun remains captive and unable to return home to New Delhi. The corporation thrives on these dislocated foreigners whose identity can be shaped and defined by Western forces. The migration of social actors through digital corporations is a direct consequence of neoliberal globalisation. The economic exploitation of transnational migrants suggests that digital technology brings a reformulation, rather than reconstruction, of the global system as digital empires of corporate forces replace government structures. By remaining a dominant Western system of control, the digital produces new forms of cultural exclusion in the narrative.
Corporate regulation comes to undermine Arjun’s economic and cultural mobility, as Databodies neglect non-elite migrant workers who sustain their digital infrastructure. The living arrangements provided to Arjun prevent him from acquiring the socio-cultural capital he requires to assimilate into his new culture. He is housed with other Indian computer engineers, whose only access to American life is through the internet or television. The digital sector therefore engenders a perpetuation, rather than reduction, of racial disparities as non-Western actors are reduced to the human-circuitry of the wired world. Non-elite migrants essentially become mere ‘databodies’ themselves, stripped of their humanity and cultural idiosyncrasies in order to satisfy and sustain Western digital networks. Arjun’s situation is no better than back in India; he remains in a liminal state, gaining nothing except ‘a new and harder picture of the world’ (47). In this sense, Transmission points towards the need for a ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’, espoused by Bhabha and Werbner, concerning an awareness oflocalised, non-elite subjects to global practices.10 More specifically, vernacular cosmopolitanism emphasises the role of migrant workers or displaced subjects to the processes of cultural interconnection and interdependence. Arjun’s experiences of the US are consequently restricted and limited at best, and he becomes emblematic of those migrant workers who function on the margins of the global economy (even within US borders). Arjun commits to a daily walk in an attempt to forge some intercultural connection with his environment. His alienated meanderings mirror those of Julius in Open City, as he is limited to walking a desolate sidewalk ofthe highway over the course ofa year. His marginalisation contrasts sharply with the geographical freedom of the highway. The cars appear as ‘[m]ythical chariots’, a symbol of elite mobility from which he is excluded; To passing Americans he appears as ‘a blur of dark skin, a minor danger signal flashing past on their periphery’, as ‘alien and different as stars’ (41,38). The liberation of exploring a new culture subsequently jostles against personal isolation and communal fragmentation. Although Arjun aspires to achieve assimilation and belonging within the US, he fades into the background of the corporation, his ethnicity marking him as a disposable component of the global system. With no social networks to rely on, living in entropic closed-off housing with other digital migrant workers, he falls deeper into cultural marginalisation.
Eventually, Arjun is saved from stagnation by Virugenix, a global computer-security firm, who offer him a position in the digital sector. Arjun is relocated to Redmond in Washington State to work as a specialist in the ‘Global Security Perimeter’; the connections to internet security inferring his newly elite status. However, on arriving at his new position, he soon finds himself unable to imitate Sunny by appropriating American mannerisms successfully; his failed attempts at assimilation mark him as a disempowered and detached outsider, who is now socially and professionally excluded from all sectors of US life. Arjun’s co-workers mirror the employees of the Circle, retreating into their digital realms, and interacting via email in order to avoid face-to-face communication. The digital once again provides an escape from the social contract of interaction and civility. Engaging with others is simply perceived as a way of overriding an individual’s ‘access controls’ and lessening their ‘functionality’, reducing humans to an extension of their technological tools (57). The digital security specialists subscribe to the Virugenix ethos: ‘[s]ometimes it is noble to sleep in the crawlspace of your desk’, and many ‘had not ventured into a public space for years’ (57, 93), accusing Arjun of attempting to invade people’s personal space. Rather like the ‘rip’ in Mae’s chest, Arjun’s desire for social interaction manifests itself as a ‘hard ache inside, an alien presence which had formed in his chest like a tumour’ (110). The ‘sense of being diminished by this environment had become a suspicion of actual physical shrinkage’ as life in the US ultimately transforms Arjun into ‘a non-person’, marginalised from cultural connectivity (39, 159). This uncivil working environment strengthens his belief that other people: ‘were a chasm, an abyss’, with human interaction resulting in ‘a nightmarish social world’ (107). Due to this treatment, Arjun fails to develop a cosmopolitan empathy to complement his new-found transnational subjectivity and he once more retreats into his own private digital world to compensate for a lack of personal attachments.
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