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Conference Calls: nations without borders

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"I had a slight America obsession," says Arjun Appadurai, who grew up in Bombay and now teaches at the University of Chicago. "I was in the first wave of people in India for whom the mystique of the U.S. was pushing aside the mystique of England."

Appadurai, whose father was a Reuters correspondent and minister of publicity and propaganda for an Indian government in exile during World War II, got his sense of America from Humphrey Bogart movies, Life and Time magazines, novels by Harold Robbins, John Steinbeck, and John Updike. His older brother went to Stanford University, and in 1967 Appadurai won a scholarship to Brandeis. "When I arrived in New York City it was like I was returning, as if I was remembering things that I'd seen." In 1970 he started work on his doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he studied social theory, including the modernization of postcolonial nations. "I wasn't learning about the modernization of somebody else," he says. "I was learning about my modernization."

Appadurai is now a professor of anthropology and South Asian languages and civilizations at the U. of C. and is the director of its Globalization Project, which was set up to study the effects of the rapid changes in communications, politics, and migration around the world. "There are societies," he says, "in which the very idea of what it is to be modern was generated--like Europe and the United States--where they don't feel like they are constantly catching up in the same way the postcolonial nations always feel as though they're coming very late into a game, the rules of which have been highly defined." But he also believes that national boundaries are now cracking and that people all over the world are busily finding new, nonnationalistic identities for themselves--even if those identities are shaped in part by American culture. He calls America "a huge, fascinating garage sale for the rest of the world...a vast free-trade zone full of ideas, technologies, styles, and idioms," though he also says, "The United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes."

Appadurai will be on a panel at a symposium on cultural identity in a world that's in flux, "The Global and the Local," held on Sunday, December 6, from noon to 4 PM at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. The keynote speaker will be Columbia University professor Edward Said, and other panelists will include Nigerian art curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, and theater artist Ping Chong; the moderator will be Rashid Khalidi, director of the U. of C.'s Center for International Studies. Admission is $15, $12 for students and seniors, $10 for MCA members; call 312-397-4010.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Arjun Appardurai photo by Nathan Mandell.

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