Currents and Currencies

In the collective project of 2014-15, the Working Group on Globalization and Culture explored two words that course through our stories and maps of the contemporary world: currents and currencies.

In a not-unusual desire to be current, we began a conversation in the fall of 2014 about the currents and currencies of the planet, those socio-natural forces that circulate power and measure value. We explored the social life of money and finance, the climatic effects of ocean currents, even the battle between alternating and direct current. But we were also drawn to the temporal dimension of the “current,” its use in current events and current affairs, and to the metaphorical uses of currents and currency to think about migration and diaspora, rights and ideas: intellectual currents and current opinion. Together we tacked from Emily Rosenberg’s suggestion that the idea of “transnational currents” captured the dynamics of the early twentieth century’s “age of electricity,” to Alan Sekula’s bleak film of the current of container ships moving across the forgotten space of the ocean.

Though our papers have swirled in the same currents, they are offered here neither as a comprehensive account of the world’s currencies nor as a single current of opinion; as we move from the Rio Grande to Lake Cocibolca, from Crab Key to Robben Island, from the lecture circuit to the radio airwaves, from financial thrillers to household accounts, you may discern cross currents and undercurrents, even some against the current.

Currents and Currencies

The Working Group on Globalization and Culture is currently exploring the cultural meaning of two linked keywords of contemporary culture: currents and currencies. From the “hot money” of financial markets to the respective accounts of cultural flow given by Raymond Williams and Arjun Appadurai, currents and currencies have become central to our stories and maps of globalization. Currents signal both the flow of ideas, moods, media, courses of events, inclinations in public opinion, and prevailing atmospheres, while also marking the temporality of the present, the transactional aspects of everyday life, and financialization of the planet. But beneath these flows of time, media, discourses, feelings and finance lie the bodies and movements of liquids, air, and energy from which these other meanings borrow their metaphoric energy — oceans, air streams, and electric circuits. This year-long collective research project explores the socio-natural currents and currencies that circulate power and measure value globally, as well as their representation in visual images and narratives. Collectively we ask how we understand the flows and circuits, the pulse of globalization, from remittances to grey markets? How do we understand the cultural meanings of ocean currents as they shape steamship lines, container ships and the great canals? How might we think around ossifying “money talk” and jargon to better understand the complexities of monetary systems where currencies are undergoing monumental material, political, and social changes? We question what it means to be “current” or for ideologies and cultural movements to gain “currency.” Charting both a sustained and expansive historiography of “currents” across the sciences and humanities opens further dialogue for the ways that crossings, crosscurrents, countercurrents, and other literal, metaphorical, and spatial flows are a central concern for cultural studies.

Crosscurrents of Imperial Desire: Sexual Minority Rights, Memory and the ‘New’ South Africa

by Andrew Dowe on July 1, 2015

The narrative Proteus (2003) ends exactly where the film’s circuitous trajectory begins: with the sentencing of two men, long been imprisoned off the shore of the Cape Colony on Robben Island, to death by drowning in Table Bay for the crime of sodomy. The sentencing of these men, an African of indeterminate origin named Claas Blank and a Dutch Sailor named Rijkaart Jacobz, is one of the...

Speculative Fictions: Crime, Currency and the Financial Thriller

by Peter Raccuglia on July 1, 2015

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, a spate of popular financial thrillers appeared, many of them written by former Wall Street bankers and money managers. Behind the high-octane intrigue of their potboiler plots, these novels typically share two related ambitions: a didactic impulse to demystify the social and intellectual world of high finance and a moralistic impulse to...

Uncertain Denomination of Crab Key: Currency in James Bond’s Jamaica

by Tao Goffe on July 1, 2015

Where the sky meets the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Jamaica, Ian Fleming peered towards the horizon and he saw an island, Crab Key. The private island of the German Chinese super villain Dr. No, Crab key is the setting of Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr. No. [slide]

It is here—30 miles north of Jamaica and 60 miles south of Cuba—that swirling oceanic currents...

Currencies of Daily Life

by Michael Denning on July 1, 2015

SLIDE “Money is the god of this world,” the young Engels wrote; “the bourgeois takes the proletarian’s money from him and so makes a practical atheist of him.” (MECW 4:412) The marxist theory of money usually begins with Marx’s account of the social origins of money. In this part of our presentation, I will begin instead with Engels’ account of the cultural effects of money. BLANK SLIDE
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‘Venderemos!’: Rama Territory and the Nicaragua Grand Canal

by Jorge Cuellar on July 1, 2015

The Nicaraguan Canal project has primarily existed in the abstract space of national possibility. It percolates Nicaraguan popular imagination as a missed economic opportunity, a historical turning point, an emblem of an unrealized splendor, the missing contribution of a peripheral country to the all-important circulation of capital. This paper examines the current Nicaraguan Canal project set...

‘What Muck and Filth is Normally Flowing through the Air’: Orwell’s National Poetry Service

by Edward King on July 1, 2015

This part of our presentation explores how the new cultural currents of radio produced in George Orwell a new kind of cultural imaginary, charting how he came to understand radio as not simply transmitting culture across time and space but as a constitutive act in itself, reimagining the relationship between the circulation of cultural forms and the communities that form around them. This...

Rabindranath Tagore on the Lecture Circuit: Steamship Routes and the Currency of Ideas

by Courtney Sato on July 1, 2015

Retracing the twelve transcontinental lecture circuits undertaken by the Indian poet and intellectual Rabindranath Tagore incites a number of questions: How did early twentieth-century lecture circuits facilitate the long distance circulation and currency of ideas? In what ways did steamship routes, like the Japanese steamers on which Tagore traveled, dictate the sites along these circuits?...

Mojados Moving Against the Current

by Sigma Colon on July 1, 2015

This part of our presentation explores the current of the North American Rio Grande as water flowing down river as well as a stream of processes that occur as the river is embedded in human culture. Paul Horgan’s Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Rio Grande documented centuries of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American people living alongside the river and entering into...