Monday, October 25, 2010

Learning About Globalization from Mozambique: A Keyword Reconsidered

It doesn't happen very often, but the developing world, where I live, came up in my American Studies reading the other day. "Neoliberal policies" imposed by "international banking and financial institutions," this scholar warned, threatened developing countries. Land, previously used for subsistence agriculture was being handed over to large-scale agriculture for export crops. "Millions of people…[have been left] without their traditional means of livelihood." I admire this scholar's work greatly, so I hope she will forgive me if I use her words to quarrel more broadly with the field. In many ways her declaration reiterated a highly conventional critique in American Studies of neoliberal globalization--or of the spread of global markets with limited regulation of the flow of labor, capital, and goods.

However much I sympathize with this critique of globalization, these statements gave me pause. I spent early October in rural Mozambique, traveling across the country from the Indian Ocean up to Lake Niassa on the Malawi border. I visited villages reliant on subsistence agriculture. And I passed signs of corporate tobacco and tree farms.

Subsistence agriculture should not be romanticized. Too often scholars sketch out a story of land displacement, export agriculture, and foreign demands for open markets that have lurking within them an idealization of traditional ways of living. In all honesty, I find myself angered by such simplified schema. They seem to imply that we should just let poor people continue living on subsistence agriculture, as if they are happy with back-breaking manual labor on poor soils, remoteness of education and health facilities, and lack of access to cash to buy commodities like mattresses, pots and pans, and other consumer goods.

In the village I visited, residents walk several hours a day to reach their fields, have a school in which the teachers have changed five times in the last two years, and have until recently had to walk three or four hours to the nearest health clinic. Infant mortality is high. Girls marry young--12 or 13. When asked when they had last eaten meat, villagers laughed and thought it was normally three or four or more months earlier. Land is cleared by burning, and in the days that I was there air quality would have warranted a high smog alert in any urban center in America.
All of this is not to say that large-scale export-oriented farming is the answer. Still, Mozambique, as one of the poorest countries in the world, with rich agricultural lands available for development (a population of twenty million occupies a country about twice the size of California, which itself has a population of thirty-three million), needs more large-scale, capital-intensive corporate agriculture, or it will remain poor. Agriculture is a potential strong suit for its economy. But large-scale corporate agriculture cannot be even close to the only answer for lifting rural Mozambicans out of poverty. Nor should it be expanded without good labor controls, fairer global markets (such as fewer trade barriers to the country's products), and efforts to reinvest reasonable proportions of the profits back in the country. But for the vast majority of rural Mozambicans, other strategies are also needed. Proposals I have seen that make sense to me stress building up small and medium-sized agricultural production--building on existing subsistence production. To do that, rural Mozambicans need "inputs"--better seeds, fertilizer, help with improving productivity, and access to credit to purchase those supplies. They need a vital trading network that collects their small outputs, and joins them with others, for larger, even foreign markets.

I reside right now in a peculiar interdisciplinary borderlands between American Studies and international development. I have learned from it, however, to shift in my seat suspiciously and to long for nuance when I hear indictments of neoliberal globalization.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Paranormal Activity

So, those of you who know me may know that I am a movie buff. My older brother graduated from Fordham in 2008 and since then the two of us have gone to the movies about once a week as a way to keep up with each other and keep our eyes on what is going on with our favorite visual medium.

Last year we went together to see a low budget movie that had become somewhat of a cult phenomenon, Paranormal Activity. This film was made in 2006 for a reported $11,000 and was wide released in 2009 earning $194 million, making it one of the most profitable films ever made.

The movie is presented as "found footage" that is, the movie asserts itself to be actual home footage of two people who experience a great deal of paranormal activity in their house as a result of a demonic possession. Most of the movie is night-vision home-camera style footage of a couple sleeping in their bed while paranormal activities occur around them, reaching climax in a demonic possession.

Both my brother and myself left the theater last year singing the praises of this low-budget horror movie which proved itself to be more intelligent and terrifying then most of its big budget competition.

When I saw a trailer for a sequel the other week on the TV, I knew this was an event we could not miss.

This movie does not disappoint, the suspense and fear of the first movie remain and the sequel has one of the most ingenious plots I have ever seen to both include and inform the action of the first movie.

This is a movie that could not exist at any other time in history. It relies not only on the technological ability of handheld cameras which can record large amounts of footage in high definition, but also on a culture which is not only accepting but desirous of filming its every actions for future viewing.

The movie plays on the Myspace and Facebook generation's obsession with recording and presenting itself in a digital medium for a potentially limitless audience through the internet. This movie would have failed in the 1980s, a period in which home movies were easily produced but difficult to present to mass audiences. The rise in digital media as well as social networking and sites like youtube both inform and provide the context for a movie in which families record their daily lives while extraordinary (or paranormal) events occur.

If you have not seen Paranormal Activity, see it first. If you have seen it, go now to the nearest theater showing Paranormal Activity 2, you will not regret it.