Welcome to Contemporary Culture (HUM415-02)


Defining the contemporary period is an inexact project at best, and what counts as contemporary shifts between disciplines. Historians and philosophers tend to conceive of the period in larger terms: most world histories date the contemporary period as beginning with WWII. Philosophers are even further removed from our present moment and many date contemporary philosophy as beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. These periodizations are further complicated by dictionary definitions of “contemporary”: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “contemporary” as “belonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time.” In this sense of the word, contemporary has more to do with the condition of being contemporaneous. All of us are contemporaries, as are the texts we’ll examine in this course.

My argument for periodizing the contemporary from the 1970s to the present is based on changes that have occurred in economic, social and cultural life. Some of these transformations are difficult to explain as they entail major shifts in production and consumption. The Fordist model of production, for instance, which was predicated on the existence of major industrial centers and full employment has given way to new methods generally grouped under the rubric of “postFordism” (Harvey).

Key Dates of the Contemporary Period:


Credit card revolution.


World-wide insurgencies, protests and rebellions.

First ATM.


SFSC student strike.

The internet.


Shift from Fordism to “flexible accumulation”.


Energy crisis in Western nations creates “stagflation”

9-11-73 Military coup in Chile overthrows first democratically elected Marxist administration. Chile becomes the first neo-liberal nation-state.


Microsoft founded


Revolution in Iran


Deng Xiaoping initiates liberalization of Chinese economy.


Total eradication of small pox worldwide.


Identification of the AIDS virus.


Berlin Wall comes down

Tianenmen Square


Rwandan genocide.


Telecommunications Act changes the “mediascape” of the US.


Human Genome Project announces its mapping of the human genome.

March 9, 2003

US invades Iraq.

Dec. 5, 2006

World Institute for Development Economics completes its study on global economic disparities and states in its press release that

The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth…. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.

Jan. 21, 2008

Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States.


The greatest economic “contraction” since the Great Depression ripples across the globe. Trillions of dollars in wealth evaporate. Businesses and banks fail around the world. Social services, particularly in neoliberal economies such as the USA, shrink. The reverberations of this event have yet to end.

Dec. 1, 2008

In another clear indication that his administration will continue to prosecute the War on Terror (re-branded “overseas contingency operations”) President Barack Obama announces the deployment of 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, a nation which has been effectively occupied by the US for 8 years. The cost of this deployment will likely exceed $30 billion.

Jan. 21, 2010

In a split decision the US Supreme Court enshrines corporate personhood by embracing the notion of spending money as a form of speech. Corporations now enjoy the political rights of citizens.

Features of the Contemporary Period:

I. Growth of megacities (urban agglomerations, which are usually larger than the city proper)

1. Tokyo, Japan (32,000,000)

2. Mexico City, Mexico (25,600,000)

3. Seoul, South Korea (23,100,000)

4. New York City, USA (21,800,000)

5. Mumbai (Bombay), India (21,100,000)

6. Delhi, India (20,800,000)

7. São Paulo, Brazil (20,300,000)

8. Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Japan (19,900,000)

9. Shanghai, China (18,600,000)

10. Los Angeles, USA (17,900,000)

megacities are usually identified as urban centers of 10 million or more inhabitants

as distinct from megalopolis, which are extended corridors as in Houston to Lake Charles or Southern California

Suburbanization– the tendency toward population growth on the outskirts of a city. IN most of the world, as is increasingly true in the United States, ghettos are located on the periphery (Paris. 2005 Summer riots.)

II. Globalization of financial markets and “globalization” in a more general sense.

Globalization (1): “in economic terms… the worldwide domination of free-market capitalism and its local accomodations and resistances. In political terms… the changing nature of the nation-state and the emergence of NGOs both of which negotiate with border-transcending capital for the governance of peoples and the sustenance of their interests. In cultural terms… an individual’s inevitable mediation with the hegemonic regime of commodification and consumption that either universalizes desires or particularizes traditions” (“Introduction: Globalization and the Humanities”).

Globalization (2): is characterized by “‘time-space compression’…an extraordinary speed-up of social life on a global scale together with the shrinkage of physical space through technology and the reduction of time to a perpetual and schizophrenic present” (The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey”)

Globalization (3): “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by distant events and vice versa” (Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens).

III. New communication technologies that have transformed the place of culture in social life and impacted concepts of identity, including what David Harvey calls “time-space compression.”

IV. Rise of religious fundamentalism– while not peculiar to the contemporary period, there are some indications that religious fundamentalism (Islamic, Christian, Hindi, Buddhist, etc.) has become a more powerful presence in the world. Described by many experts as a response to modernity’s ills and alienations, fundamentalism is itself a product of modernity.

V. Further fragmentation of social life– In 1893 Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe the breakdown of the traditional social fabric in the face of massive changes occasioned by industrialization. This process seems to be on-going. Social fragmentation may, then, be a constituent characteristic of modernity.

VI. Massive migratory flows– people are moving on a scale which exceeds the huge waves of migration to the United States and South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Diasporic populations now circle the globe. For instance, South Asian workers and their families can be found in Toronto, Los Angeles, Bahrain, Surinam, London, and Tanzania.

VII. Shift from fordism to postfordism– a complex transformation related to a more general phenomenon usually designated as “neoliberalism.” See item IX.

VIII. The entrenchment of “risk society” and consequent growth of the security industry– the nations of the so-called “first world” are increasingly surveilled not only by the State’s security apparatus but by private corporations. The assessment of risk and the possible loss in (usually financial) value crises may incur has driven the growth of firms who “provide solutions” in the form of paramilitary contractors (whether rent-a-cops or Blackwater mercenaries), actuarial analyses, surveillance technology, etc.

IX. New world of multinational corporations. In the final decades of the century, the character of multinational business operations changed markedly. Production was de-centralized. Corporations were increasingly de-linked from their national origins. Yet in spite of the rise of trans-national corporations (TNCs) the nation itself, as a (relatively) recent means of organizing populations, remains intact. As Ellen Meiskens Woods has argued, “What global capital needs is not a global state but an orderly global system of territorial states, which maintain economic and political order within territorial boundaries and at the same time permit and facilitate the penetration of those boundaries by global capital, without presenting any dangerous challenges or competition.”

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