Global Assemblages

I just heard Aihwa Ong talk at a conference here in Taiwan on transnationalism. She was drawing on her MacArthur funded research into “how neoliberal forms are taken up in the transformation of East Asian cities.” These ideas are presumably also discussed in her contribution to a new edited volume: Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics and Ethics as Anthropological Problems.

Her talk started off in a rather funny manner. Her microphone didn’t work and nobody could hear her, but the Taiwanese audience was too politely reverential to tell her. They tried rigging up a microphone stand, which didn’t work. Then they decided to send a woman on stage with a chair to sit next to Dr. Ong and hold a microphone for her. It was at this point that she began to realize that nobody could hear her, and she took up the microphone in her own hand, clearly freaked out by the idea of having someone sitting there holding it for her.

Even with the microphone, however, Aihwa Ong is still difficult to understand. I don’t believe that academic discourse need always be understandable to the non-initiated, but I do believe scholars should make an effort in that direction. Academic jargon and neologisms can be useful short-cuts for complex ideas, but they can also short-circuit the analytical process by allowing one to avoid critically reexamining certain key assumptions. Fortunately, once she moved from theory to the specifics of her research, her main argument became much more comprehensible.

At its core, Ong is applying the analytical techniques of governmentality to the discourse of management “gurus” in Shanghai and Singapore. That is to say, she is looking at how American management companies and experts attempt to reengineer the behavior of white collar workers in order to better align them with the needs of global capital. Central to this is the ideology of neoliberalism, which Ong defines as the promotion of self-governing rationality and entrepreneurial risk-taking.

What particularly interested me was the comparison between Shanghai and Singapore. In China the state remains officially critical of neoliberal ideology, even as it encourages the forces of neoliberalism, while Singapore openly embraces neoliberalism. In particular, the Chinese state counters neoliberalism with nationalism, while Singapore, Ong argues, is moving away from the ethnic state. Ong discussed how Singapore is actively encouraging expatriates and global talent, throwing out the “Asian values” rhetoric of the 90s.

In discussing the rhetoric of foreign management gurus in Shanghai, Ong said that any behavior which deviated from the standards of American corporate culture was treated as irrational, and blamed on “Chinese culture.” Workers were seen as lacking motivation, not identifying with the company, and lacking the communication and self-presentation skills necessary to function in a global economy. At the same time, Ong also made it clear that the workers resented the different pay scales awarded to foreign and local workers, and explained that many workers saw corporate work as a way of gaining the necessary knowledge to go into business for themselves, with no long term plans to remain within the corporation.

Ong seemed to take the ideological rhetoric of neoliberalism at face value. As her own account seems to make clear, these management gurus are not actually interested in producing rational self-motivated individuals. They want a disciplined white-collar work force. These workers “irrationality” is in fact rational and entrepreneurial. They would rather go into business for themselves than be treated as second class workers in the corporate hierarchy. Just as the Bush administration selectively invokes neoliberal ideology to promote its own agenda, quietly abandoning neoliberal principles whenever it suites them, so too do Shanghai’s management gurus seem to invoke neoliberal values in order to produce team-players willing to subordinate individual gain to corporate interests. It is when they act rationally in their own self-interest that they are somehow being “Chinese.”

Despite my reservations, it was a thought provoking talk, and I will definitely be checking out Aihwa Ong’s new book. Hopefully I might have a chance to meet her before she leaves the country, and maybe even discuss this further.

3 thoughts on “Global Assemblages

  1. I agree that the use of unexamined jargon can sometimes undercut the analytical process. First, it’s dangerous to assume that all of one’s audience understands the terminology the same way even if they are all academics or even anthropologists. I have found that people trained in different places sometimes have a different understanding of and use for the same terms. So if one doesn’t clarify their own use of it, it can lead to misunderstanding. THen, of course, there are the people from outside one’s field who may not even know the terminology at all. So what is a good balance between having to explain every single little term one uses and using discipline-specific jargon with impunity without any clarification?

    As for the subject matter itself, that is an interesting take on worker management. It does remind me of the tension in North American society in general of individualism vs conformity. In other words, it appears that people are trained to be independent and autonomous to a certain point . . . only to the point where it doesn’t interfere with them being easily manipulated and used for the profit and well-being of those who seek to control their actions.

    As with the Chinese workers mentioned above, one wants them to be “rational thinkers and workers” only insofar as that rationality serve the interest of those in control. If the thinking and working serves to benefit one’s own interests or the interests of one’s family, then it ceases to be rational and becomes a gesture of mutiny . . . ir irrationality.

  2. Re

    “Ong seemed to take the ideological rhetoric of neoliberalism at face value. As her own account seems to make clear, these management gurus are not actually interested in producing rational self-motivated individuals. They want a disciplined white-collar work force.”

    Can we take the critique in the first sentence a step farther? How do we know what management gurus want? Are we sure that management training is functional at all? Do we know what the receivers of training make of it? Once we see that we’re looking at rhetoric, doesn’t that create all the usual questions of interpretation? Are interests really quite so apparent? What’s interesting, as in Ong’s earlier work on Malaysia, is that we have interpretive battles over what things mean.

    I don’t want to suggest that one can’t do analyses in terms of interests, but I’m starting to notice the way that “neoliberalism” and similar words legitimate instant functionalism in analysis, and a deliberate turning-away from interpretation and toward the assumption that meanings are right on the surface.

  3. Howdy, looks like we were both there for Ong’s talk in Taipei. I arrived a little late so I missed the microphone scene. But following the talk I witnessed a little interaction outside the hall which perhaps illustrated some of the “Chinese irrationality” mentioned in her presentation. I am not sure if this is her first or second time in Taiwan, but I believe she was looking for a little more guidance/orientation (e.g., detailed itinerary) for the rest of her speaking tour in Taiwan. This is in spite of the repeating assurance from one of the coordinators that she would not have to worry a thing during her stay because someone will be coming to take her to the airport, the hotel, etc.

    Personally I enjoyed her talk and wished there was more time for Q&A. The questions that were asked were regrettably not very communicative. Some people did not seem too comfortable with her preference of “assemblages” over “flows” as a key trope in transnational studies. But it surely forces one to deal with multiple levels of power that all come together in a situation that perhaps encourage a bottom-up or an all-direction challenge on an idea as grand as “neoliberalism.”

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