GaWC Annual Lecture 1999

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The Spatiality and Temporality of Globalization

Saskia Sassen*

I am going to start with cities but then I would like to move on to the subject that I am currently working on, which is connected but is not quite just looking at cities. So what I want to do is talk about certain aspects of the global city, especially questions of centrality and the spatial correlates of centrality which have changed because of the new technologies, because of a variety of issues. From there I move on to a notion of the spatiality which is produced for the global and the implications of that. I do think that if you are dealing with the new spatiality you are also dealing with the new temporality and how that juxtaposition between different temporalities in fact produces some specific types of economic projects (e.g. global finance as it exists today). Then, finally, I move on from there to the third point. If the global constitutes a specific spatiality and it is partly embedded in the national, in so far as the national has been constructed historically in terms of a fairly thick institutional apparatus that nationalizes territorial identity via citizenship etc., then there is an issue about the engagement, the necessary engagement, between the spatiality and the national as instantiated through the national state and its power. That is what I am doing research on now. I am going to talk for about 35 or 40 minutes and then I would love to have a discussion especially because a lot of the stuff I will be talking about is a bit, to put it kindly, experimental. To put it less kindly a bit rough, unfinished, unthought through. I am sure that there will be some disagreements and I look forward to hearing them.


Spatial Correlates of Centrality

Firstly on this question of the global city and centrality I really don't want to go into a deep discussion about this, a lot of it is written up, some of you have heard me talk about it already. The main point that I want to pull out is this could be formulated in terms of a question. And the question is set in the context of an era of globalization, of an era of information technologies, both of which signal dispersion as a key feature, both of which signal a dematerializing of a lot of conditions. I would like to ask the question, can this kind of economic system, and I am very much focusing on an economic system, operate without signs that we can think of as signs of centrality? Now my answer to that question is partly the global city model, I say no. The other part is, however, the way centrality is configured spatially, has been transformed because of the new technologies, because of globalization, because of, I would also argue, the privatizing of certain kinds of power that then get reenacted in the space of the city in a very peculiar way. Now let me then quickly run through this stuff.

Basically, again I have written about this, centrality has historically been constituted as a feature of economic systems in the western capitalist world through the materiality, if you want, of the city - the CBD, the central city, and all these kinds of images that we have, that remains as a crucial space, you know the image that I have global finance, the most digitalised, the most immaterialized, the most globalized of industries when it hits the ground. In other words although a lot of the markets are electronic, dematerialized product - when they hit the ground, they hit it in enormous concentrations of very material resources. I am including labour markets here as material - as a form of materiality - as well. So anyhow, that space remains, but there are additional spatial correlates, if you want, for centrality, and I'll just quickly run through them, and I apologize for those of you who have already read this, I have written about this in my Cities and World Economy book.

The second one is a kind of centrality that is constituted in a partly deterritorialized fashion as nodes of intense business activity in a broader regional metropolitan area. The point that I want to pull out of that, in terms of the research agenda that might attach to this, is that while these nodes of intensive activity (you can think of it as certain kinds of edge cities, certain kinds of suburban office complexes etc.) inhabit the territory of the suburb (or the metropolitan region, or the region), I think that analytically it is important to extricate it from that kind of territory which has been constructed historically. It's a fairly short history if you want, but it has been constructed historically as a certain kind of territory and even though these nodes look to an innocent eye (but it shouldn't to people who do my kind of work) like part of the surrounding territory, they actually are a space of centrality. So that there is a task of deep coding if you want. What is suburban about some of these zones of intensive economic activity? What is metropolitan about it? My argument is that it is partly a space of centrality.

The third spatial correlate for centrality if this notion of the network of global cities. Again, this is a partly deterritorialized kind of centrality. My argument here has two features that distinguish it from older discussions about whatever cross-border networks or zones one might be thinking about. Number one, it means that rather than simply looking at these cities - New York, London, Frankfurt, Paris as competing with each other. They compete but that is not the full story. The story that is I think different and specific to, if you want, the conditionality for globalization, is that it is one space of centrality. There is, in older language, a division of labour, a division of functions. I think that it is important again, at the level of a research agenda, to pull out the fact that this is not just a space where you have these cities competing with each other - that is one feature. The second feature is that I do think it overrides certain thinking about territoriality. This space if you want, of this global network of cities needs overriding older constitutions of territory - the national state, the geography of the national state is partly unbundled. Cities like Sao Paulo, cities like Bombay, get disembedded, it doesn't happen only in New York and London, from this broader spatiality and it means also that you can override the north-south divide, the core-periphery division, and other such geographic formulations. Those dualities remain as important for a whole number of research agendas, for a whole number of political agendas, but I do think there is one specific angle to an analysis of globalization that needs to disembed the spatiality of globalization from these divisions of poor/rich countries. The corporate heart’s geography is multiple: a city like Sao Paulo is not necessarily part of the formulation ‘less developed country, poor country etc.’; and the ghettos of New York, of Paris etc. etc., are not happily ensconced, I would say, in the notion of ‘rich country’. So, again these are things that I have written about, other people have written about it, but I just wanted to pull out for this very specialized group of people here some of the analytic implications and some of the research agendas that attach.

The Need for Centrality

Now so much of the spatial correlates for centrality. The second point under this first part of the talk is this question of does an economic system that has this capacity for dispersing its operations, this capacity for inventing ways of dematerializing more and more parts of the economy that can then be characterized by hyper mobility? Does this sort of economic system need centrality? I think it is an important question. It is not a question that I think has been confronted totally, because it means leaving the realm of the economy. It means entering the realm of power and here again I re-enter stuff that I have written about - I apologize for revisiting it. This is the notion that we are dealing with a very specific kind of global economic system. We are dealing with a global economic system which no matter how much it disperses, no matter how much it dematerializes, it still contains within it enormously powerful and shaping dynamics of centralized control, centralized management, ‘centralized property’ (the question of property used here is in quotation marks because the whole category of property is enormously complex right now) and centralized appropriation of not just profits, but a whole kind of other things that economists might describe as externalities, but sociologists should not describe as externalities. I don't know what geographers would do with it but there is lot of stuff happening here that has to do with concentrating And I would say in order to understand what I think might be a full answer to that question that I ask, that this kind of system needs centrality, we have to enter the realm of priority. I think that this is partly what I am describing, the other part is more organizational in terms of this power question.

Then there is a third more theoretical part. The organizational part is that familiar stuff, so much of what we call global trade is intrafirm, trade crosses borders but it has multiple locations, for me the main implication in terms of what I am trying to argue here is that that means you are dealing with an enormous amount of centralized functions. You can call them headquarter functions they are mostly outsourced etc., but it means that if a lot of what we call free trade (I don't mean you people here necessarily) is intrafirm trade no matter how complex that intra really is, then we are dealing with something that is a trade system that is quite managed. When you have said 'managed' you have also said something about power, centralization etc. etc.

Secondly, a less known fact for many people is that the financial markets are increasingly privately owned. They are a peculiar combination of a public market (you and I can move into them, I'm thinking stock markets), and there are all kinds of financial markets, that are at the end of the day increasingly owned markets. Now anybody who reads the newspaper has already detected one presence of that quote "ownership or management" which is the programmed stops, the halts that have to take place, you are all familiar with this when the level of pricing goes haywire. So in the United States, on Wall Street, if it changes by a thousand points, the market gets stopped by one hour, if it changes by two thousand points, it gets - and it depends on what time of the day - mind you talk about managing the market, then two hours and if it changes by three thousand points, it closes for the rest of the day. So yes these are markets and in some ways they are the most market market that you can imagine, the stock markets. On the other there are enormously sophisticated, it’s the precision of moral surgery that gets involved. We have a hard time calling that management, and we may need another name for it, but there is something that is happening.

On the level of ownership, there are many markets. Milan is now a privately owned market that has, moreover, bought up the other eight regional stock markets in Italy, and you know manages. Frankfurt, Paris, they have become privately owned. The private here has different contexts, it has to be handled carefully, but it is a change. Stockholm also, by the way, has change in what used to be the ownership structure, which used to be more like the Board of Trade lets say in Chicago, where you have members, and it was a different configuration.

I do think that these switches towards ownership do have something to do with globalization, the liberalization of these markets etc. and the need at the same time - if you are going to open it up like that - to have control. So that is the second feature for you, and I said organizational feature in terms of this question of "does a system like this with its capacity for dispersal, and simultaneous system integration, because that's the trick really, needs centrality.

Excavating Power

The third point is more exploratory; it's a more theorized point. One way of thinking about it is (for geographers it should work, for some audiences it really doesn't work) to ask the question "does power have a spatial moment?" and I emphasize moment. And there you then enter a whole scholarship of theorization that has to do with the constitution of power. Power is an enormously abstract term. I always do find that is extremely interesting to study such terms that are capturing something that has such an enormously concrete impact on our lives. I will give you a formulation of an abstract that is extraordinary. So what happens very easily if you are not excavating power like I am trying to do now: power becomes an attribute - you have it or you don't have it, and I am not interested in that formulation of it. What I really want to do is enter the category, if you want, excavate it, do an archaeology on it, and understand what it is so important in asking this question "does power have a spatial moment?".

I am trying to excavate a particular set of features about power that has to do with somehow the intersecting, the connecting, between the condition that power might be and how it gets enacted. And here, in terms of this question of cities and spaces of centrality, you can latch on to a literature that is the old literature of elites. The need for elites to represent themselves and represent themselves (today that space would be the golf course) but there is again, again for me, a whole research agenda that attaches to this notion of trying to answer "does power have a spatial moment". Again, there are all kinds of things that I am working on now including this notion of debugging, the necessity for the continuous debugging of the global economic system. I use the term debugging because we are all familiar with what that means, vaguely at least. So those are the issues.

Global Management

I just want to specify a few points that have been dealt with very quickly that have to do with the organizational issues. The first point is of this notion of a "managed" system, that the global economic system is a "managed" system. I want to do that because it is yet a third way to get at this question of centrality. First, again, this is something that I have written about a lot, the question what does it mean for a firm to manage global operations? Well one of the things it means is an enormous increase in the complexity of its headquarter functions. So complex in that the best thing a firm can do is outsource a lot of these headquarter functions. I mention this because I always see this as what to me is a confusion of a lot of the literature on cities and the global economy.

To me, the space of the global city is not marked by headquarters. The headquarter economy is a Fordist economy in place of the city. For me the space of the global city is its productivity, it has to do with the capacities that it can bring together and we're talking about networked sub-economies, localized in some of their functions. The capacities it can bring together to produce enormously specialized headquarter functions, global management functions etc. etc. Again, what does it mean for a firm to operate globally, it has to negotiate different legal systems, different accounting systems, different economic cultures, so there is a lot self-specialization. The more global you are the more of this stuff you need. Why do it all inside headquarters? There is outsourcing.


The second issue is an issue of agglomeration. You have a networked sub-economy why does it have to agglomerate spatially. Indeed the issue for me has to do with two elements.

The first element, and this is a partial description or otherwise I could be talking for hours here, is stuff that I have really gotten into so I will be very brief. So two elements on this question of why this level of spatial agglomeration. And here, two points. One point is that information we all know is a crucial input, it's a crucial, it's more than an input, I think Marx might call it force of production in these particular settings. It is certainly an instrument of production. Very quickly, two kinds of information that I usually relate to the theoretical potential of what information means. First, information as a datum, no matter how complex, you can get it anywhere. You can be a trader on Wall Street and be out there in the mountains of Colorado. It is absolutely true. Second type of information is higher order, more complex. This is a marriage between that kind of data no matter how complex and something that is a combination of interpretation, judgement, evaluation. In a global economic system like the one we have, enormously dispersed, enormously variable and differentiated, subject to enormous uncertainty and speed, the task of evaluating, of interpreting, of judging and producing a second order datum that is made up of these two elements is strategic. So strategic that credit rating agencies which are in the business of selling this have become more and more important and more and more fallible.

I have just finished doing a little research piece on how successful credit agencies have been. We have had 76 financial crises between 1979 and 1993. How many of those have they predicted, I haven't even entered into it. Basically they miss it because they are so much embedded in the mentality of the market and the dominant discourse that they have no distance, they can't see it. Yet no matter how fallible they are - in this last financial crisis they were amazingly fallible - their importance has risen. They can charge more and more, more and more evaluation of governments, more and more corporations want to be evaluated, graded by them, rated by them etc. Why? Because of the strategic importance of this kind of information. However, that is not enough. A firm is buying as a product, as a commodity, this complex kind of datum that I am talking about, a marriage between a datum and an activity of evaluating. Buying it as a commodity is not enough. It needs to be (here I am sort of theorizing a bit - this is not stuff that has been empirically studied, and really pinned down) incorporated into your work process, and the site of the work process is not simply your office work. The sites it can move into are the weekend golf thing, into the lunch, into the cocktail party etc. etc.

Now that, to me, emerges as an enormously strong force for agglomeration that goes way beyond the face to face. This face to face stuff is something that I barely use as an explanation. I don't think any capitalist economy would go for what people like except if it can be monitised. This you could say is monitised not because they like it, but because they need to be dealing with each other. Because the kind of communication that happens when you are dealing with interpretation and judgement is multifaceted etc. There are many, many reasons why there is a need, when it becomes part of your work process to meet etc. It is that in combination with speed that is, I think, a new force for agglomeration. So this networked sub-economy which is basically highly digitalised and could be located you would think anywhere, has as a forceful agglomeration, as a gravitational force if you want. This thing that happens with the information, complex datum, the interpreting and judging and the fact that it is subject to enormous speed. The speed is a key feature of this system. It is the marriage between interpretation and time which creates a force for agglomeration which in the past might have been waived in all the basic models. So much on the first part. I am running out of time, but I did want to cover analytically all the main issues and I hope the part that makes this a talk rather than a written test is the experimental edges in it and the research agendas that are contained in it etc. etc.


Social Thickness

Yes this global economic system, which is about dispersal and simultaneous system integration, needs centrality as one of its features. That leads me then to the next point which are some of the issues that I am working on now. If we accept the centrality argument then we can make a second argument. This is a theorized argumentation that I am giving you now and that is that the global system constitutes its own spatiality of space because we are talking about what one could think of as social thickness in all these operations that I have described. This is just not a technical event; this is not just an organizational structure. There is a lot of stuff here, there is a lot of extra economic and extra technical that is part of the story and that is my argument that we really need ethnographies of global financing and not just all the kind of stuff that I do. We need what Nigel Thrift is doing with the cultural stuff for instance. That there is a lot of social thickness is one way of thinking about it. I'm playing here by the way on William Sewells who is a historian and political scientist at the University of Chicago. He has developed this notion of the need to thicken the social, so inverting his term a bit we can talk about the need to socially thicken our argumentation, our analysis about globalization. But anyhow if it is so, if one accepts that, then you can make the next argument, which is that the global constitutes a distinct spatiality. And that, to me, has meaning: there is stuff there of one kind of another, it is also non material, I'm not just talking about material stuff here.

Two issues attach to this position, two consequences two implications if you want, for theory, for method, for empirical specification, for politics. One of them is that if the global (at least in that part of its spatiality that I have been describing here and talking about centrality, because not all space is about centrality clearly, but that part that has to do with centrality) constitutes that kind of spatiality then it is distinct, distinct from the national within which it is embedded, then there must also be a specific temporality that gets enacted in this spatiality. That is a tricky leap I just took, but anyhow I'm working on it. One way of thinking, and this is something I am really struggling with (I just gave the Zimmer Lectures in Berlin, which were for me an occasion to really experiment on this stuff) and I realize that I am safer on the spatiality part especially that part of the spatiality that has to do with centrality than I am on the temporality part.

Let me just give you a few big broad sketches, basically two types of sketches. One is what one could think of as a stylized account (and economists always get by with murder saying stylized accounts, you see I have a much harder time doing that). The temporality of the national is a temporality that looks to the past. It needs a founding myth, it operates in encasements, if you want, that are specific. They are partial and they are partially constructed as an imaginary conditionality, no matter. The temporality that we have associated with the global is a temporality of the hyper mobile of the future. Both of these are partial representations of what the actual temporality is I would say. However, what is interesting to me is this juxtaposing of two temporalities and the cultural implications that might attach to it. I am thinking of in similar ways to whoever was here at the conference this morning who said ‘I am a Deleuzian’ These ways of representing, that's one way in which we could for now think of the way I am using culture here.

Juxtaposed Temporalities

The second sketch, which is something that is a way of revisiting what I have done on the global city, is that a lot of the new economic projects that I talk about, this new kind of economy, actually is made possible because of the juxtaposition of different temporalities. And again, for those of you who are interested, I have just finished a paper that I call the de-nationalization of time and space. I am dealing with these kinds of issues and I do think that the question of the specificity of the spatiality hooks up with capturing a specific temporality attached to the global. This revisits, re-enters the space of centrality part of which is urban, part of which has to do with city as studied by GaWC. I'm talking cities, through this notion of the economic projects that can emerge from these juxtaposed temporalities. I want to give you a concrete example of one of the things that I mean. The temporality of global finance, you know, can be shrunk to a minute, that rarely is the case actually, but still you can do it. Now we have day trading where you trade within a frame of six or seven hours, so you get the notion. The temporality of manufacturing capital, making airplanes, trains, cars, whatever (simple elements like ice boxes may take less time) is between six and nine months. And here one of the issues, one of the arguments that I make in this paper is that manufacturing fulfils a crucial function in this juxtaposing of temporalities. One of them has to do with the fact that it is an extraordinary mechanism for concentrating profit because this is forever a challenge I would say also in this system. How do you concentrate capital in a way that it can function as capital because not any pile of money is functioning as capital. Finance, of course, represents the ultimate frontier in terms of making any pile of money, even if it is a debt, work as capital, but still that is not quite enough: you can't just deal with debt. Finance basically deals with debt. You can't only deal with debt in this economic system you have also got to deal with actually positive money. That necessity is tricky and I think that gives finance the capacity to be the powerful industry that it is. What does manufacturing provide in its temporality of the national, in its Fordist form? (What we're really talking about now in these kinds of things, is partial not total.). It is this bringing together of capital for a period of nine months. What finance has is the capacity to dip in and out of this, not one hundred percent utilized, pile of money. So what I am trying to describe here is this notion that it is the juxtaposed temporalities of different kinds of capital that is at work in this assemblance of finance which is to me a crucial constitutive element of the global economy. Now I started out saying that the global constitutes this spatiality, this spatiality has a temporality attached to it that has its own consequences and implications.

The Denationalization of the National

The second implication, consequence, that I want to focus on in terms of this spatiality is the embedding, at least partial, of that spatiality of the global in a national that is not an innocent scale, it has been constructed over the last certainly hundred years in various specific ways. One summarizing image one can use, is the will of national states to nationalize everything, the administration of the territory, the right to reside, to occupy that territory, citizenship, law etc.. One can conceive, and one has in the past seen of course, the fact that territory can be subject to multiple rules. In multiple systems, you have a prince, you have a sovereign, you have the Catholic Church, you had some other intermediates probably, but what we have in the national state is an institution that has the will, however we deconstruct that, to nationalize everything. When I speak about this embedding of the spatiality of the global in the national this is a complex operation that happens, and this is what I am sort of teasing out now in this work on the state, again the way I am entering the national state is not as a political scientist, for me its not a clearly constituted object of enquiry. So I am sort of entering the national state via this kind of discourse.

Now for the purposes of this meeting I want to bring out two things about this embedding. First, that embedding produces inevitably a set of negotiations with internationals of the national state. This is an enormous research agenda as far as I am concerned and will vary from one country to another, from one institutional order to another within a given country etc. That engagement, that space of engagement one can think of as a frontier zone in the sense of a zone that is under specified, theoretically, empirically, legally in terms of who can control it, what all can happen. And the kind of research I am doing now thinking in that frame allows me then to, for instance, pick up on the fact that this is one place where NGOs can become active, civil society in one way or another, various kinds of institutional actors, or non-institutional actors, that represent forms of resistance the efforts by a first nation of people to disembed partly from the sovereign state in terms of their capacity to represent themselves internationally. There is an enormous bundle of issues. Methodologically speaking, thinking about this engagement between the spatiality of the global and the national as constructed historically the way I'm talking about it, means to me that you can engage in very specific and focused research on the dynamics that take place in that frontier zone.

In many countries you will have had resistance especially at time A, by time B a lot of that has been defeated. Various actors that resist the, if you want, conditionality of the global (think of IMF conditionality, whatever the elements, I am speaking shorthand here) while others accommodate. It also means that the state emerges not simply as a victim of globalization, or as somebody who is as an actor that is not the global, clearly not the global. The state emerges on the contrary for me as a participant number one, so becomes one of the sites for some of the operations that are necessary for a global economic system, it produces some of the instrumentalities that are necessary for a global economic system.

For instance in the case of the United States, this is what I am doing now with my incredibly good doctoral students at Chicago. We are revisiting the legislative history of the United States in order to extricate from this "national legislative history" those products of the legislature (legislative items, acts etc: the famous tariff items) that made it possible for US preparations to internationalize their manufacturing production without paying an additional price for that. To extricate from that which has been constructed as a national legislative history of the United States government another history. This is a micro history of all the variety of products that the legislator produced, our representatives produced, but which really now can be read as the production of instrumentalities for the global economic system. I am doing the same thing with courts, I have a lawyer working on this, and I am doing it with the executive, and the executive (its the treasury, its the central, we call it the federal reserve, but the central banks). So what we are thinking about is the spatiality of the global because of this very dynamic process that happens in the space of engagement, when there is accommodation when etc. etc. you can think of the global as finding some of its institutional homes for a certain kind of very specific operation in various institutions of the national state. Think treasury which is in many countries the ministry of finance, think central banks, these are national institutions, no doubt about it. Most of what they do is about national whatever. However, they are also the institutional home for the implementation of some of the new rules of the global economic system in the territory of the national.

So, and I now conclude, there are a few summarizing images I want to leave you with, I must tell you that I really appreciate that you still in here listening to me because I'm running through all these complicated multi-research projects that I'm engaged in. I'm about to finish but I need another two years, I have been working on this for four years, so some summarizing images here. One is the notion of denationalized government agendas and this is part of what I was saying now that partly some of the functions of this global economic system inhabit institutions that are national. Hence, looking at it from their perspective you can talk about how they become the homes to denationalized government agendas. Another summarizing image, behind all these summarizing images lies a whole lot of stuff on the notion of privatizing norm-making and I'm emphasizing norm here. The notion that capacities for norm-making, that we have historically (this doesn't have to be in principle or generically) associated with the public sector, have been relocated to the private sector. This then enters into this whole analysis of also privatized power etc.. Finally, the other part of the picture for me of this necessary engagement between the global and the national is the notion that one of the agents that make the global, what is now very easily called the Washington Consensus, are ‘national elites’ from countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. They all accommodate to the ‘consensus’ in a way with more or less resistance to the new global game. I think that one of the agents really is something that I am calling tentatively etc. the denationalizing of elites, not only corporate elites but also government elites and media elites, by media elites.

I am now thinking about producing an alternative account that disembeds things partly from the national. And I am ending with the notion that I am taking this in a very dialectical fashion in the way I have presented this denationalizing here. It is an operation of power which succeeds in implementing a certain kind of project in a context where we have in the past a state that at least in its aspiration was the site for a social democracy. This denationalizing is partial, incomplete, but strategic and I emphasize partial. For me globalization is a very strategic event, it is not the McDonaldization that is consumer markets, fine, that's a different story from the story I'm telling. But I do think that this denationalizing, this partial disembedding that is made possible, opens, if you want, a can of worms, or it opens up the possibility of a whole variety of other kinds of projects.


* This text is derived from a tape of the lecture transcribed by Denise Lawton.

Edited and posted on the web on 30th November 2000