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Keyword: Global / International

Global is a word that bombards us in early 21C but which has a short history.  It underwent rapid transformation during 20C, and is now mostly used in the context of speed across space, new relations of finance capital, more interrelated international political institutions, and forms of satellite technology.  The related nominalization, globalization, is felt by many to have been so imprecisely used as no longer to have a definite meaning.  Global benefits from being read alongside or against international, which in many contexts of use it displaces. 

All but three OED citations for global come from 20C, most from the latter half of the century.   But the term entered English considerably earlier, in 17C, as part of mathematical inquiry associated with the Enlightenment. The first sense listed in OED, described as rare, is that of ‘spherical or globular’, as in  “I could challenge the best demonstrate...that they can so much as...frame a Global Circle without the least gibbosity or concavity therein” (1676:  R. Dixon).

OED’s second sense, which gives rise to the modern difficulties of global as a keyword, is ‘pertaining to or embracing the totality of a number of items, categories, etc.; comprehensive, all-inclusive, unified; total; spec. pertaining to or involving the whole world; world-wide; universal’.  This sense follows French, and the earliest example comes from the end of 19C: “M. de Vogüé loves travel; he goes to the East and to the West for colors and ideas; his interests are as wide as the universe; his ambition, to use a word of his own, is to be ‘global’” (1892: Harper's Mag. Sept. 492/2). Significantly as regards international post-war political ambitions, three associated compounds, from 1943 and 1944, are directly war-related, including global war and global warfare; another, from 1951, characterizes B-36 planes which carried the atom bomb as global bombers.

The most dynamic, and potentially complex associations of global emerge in the later part of 20C.  Together they suggest an increased speed of technological development:  complex warfare enveloping most of or the entire planet; telecommunications, including computer networks and searches; and, most recently, far-reaching if disputed climate change.  OED gives considerable prominence to M. McLuhan’s phrase global village and presents five examples from his writing. The first is from Carpenter and McLuhan in 1960:  “Postliterate man’s electronic media contract the world to a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time:  everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the minute it happens”.  Television confers this quality of simultaneity on events in that global village, hence the related words globalism as a kind of internationalism; globalization, ‘the act of globalizing’; globalize, ‘to render global’; and globalized.

Roughly contemporaneous with McLuhan’s characterization of rapid change in world communications, global took on new meanings in another direction: in relation to the massive and rapid expansion of computer languages and computer-mediated language, hence OED’s, ‘Pertaining to or affecting the whole of a program, text, etc.; esp. in global search, a search through the whole of a computer file, or for every occurrence of an item’; and global variable, ‘a variable accessible to and used by various parts or modules of a program’.

More recent sense extensions include those connected with the compound global warming, attested from 1977, following slightly earlier global distillation, attested from 1975 (as a scientific term pertaining to the vaporizing and condensing of volatile substances that causes an accumulation of pollutants, mostly created by humans). From 1973 there is also global positioning system (GPS), describing a system of navigation that captures something of McLuhan’s reinterpretation of people's location in changing non-spatial communities.  Satellite technology has enhanced an earlier, imaginative capacity to view ‘the whole earth’ as a round globe in space, so reconfiguring the earliest ‘shape’ uses of the term in now astronomical rather than geometric terms.  In early 21C, it is almost impossible to hear adjectival global  without an echo of globalization, a process undergone or action taken internationally whose agency and causation, because of the geographical and organisational complexity, can sometimes remain obscure.

Understanding global is much enriched when juxtaposed with older international.  Williams’ work provides a way into understanding relations between these two words through his three-way cultural dialectic of the rise and fall in prominence of practices over time between emergent, dominant and residual forms.  Dominant practices are those currently most active or powerful; emergent are those which are newer and not yet fully established; and residual are those which are older and at some stage of a process of disappearing. In Williams’ terms, global is now dominant, whereas international must be considered, across many if not most of its senses, to be residual. However, international is not as old a word as global; the now residual, ‘spherical’ sense of global came into use earlier.  International is attested in Bentham [1780], and OED has numerous 19c examples, testifying both to the word’s historical vitality and also to what will be described below as a kind of idealism associated with it. International has three first-tier meanings: ‘existing, constituted, or carried on between different nations, and so, pertaining to relations between nations or states’. Alternatively, with capital I., there is the sense ‘belonging to the International Working Men's Association’; and, when applied to various units of physical quantity (now mostly obsolete), there is the sense ‘agreed on by different nations and in some cases forming part of the formal name of a unit so as to distinguish it from a unit numerically similar but differently defined’. The first two of these senses are less consequential now than previously, and point to the word’s having become residual in these meanings.  An index of that reduced currency can be seen by juxtaposing global with international.  The definition of international at, for example, is limited to relations between nations or to communist jargon.  In the past several decades, however, the importance of states in general, and of ‘the State’ as an abstraction, has diminished, and along with it the idealized fraternity of men and women in forms of trans-nationalist socialist solidarity. 

Another way to grasp the changing relationship between global and international is to note that the term international community was coined in 1894; only a half-century later, in 1944, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was formed at Bretton Woods; and with that development were created the important beginnings of a world whose contemporary practices and meanings are partly forged in the term global. Instead of an international community based on a morally-shaped collective of states, or an International Working Men’s Association seeking to transcend state differences in socialist solidarity, what has emerged is a ‘global village’ consisting of persons and other entities (such as companies, especially multinational companies) acting collectively rather than states.  Towards the end of his entry on nationalist, Williams introduces internationalism with the words:  “Internationalism, which refers to the relations between nation-states, is not the opposite of nationalism in the context of a subordinate political group seeking its own identity; it is only the opposite of selfish and competitive policies between existing political nations.”  The second part of this quotation conveys an idealistic, even unrealistic, sense of relations between nation states that matches the status of the word international as now politically residual.  Globalization, a word of the 1990s, is in effect an assertion of post-communist euphoria.

The apparently emergent term planetary is also significant. Alongside the word’s other meanings, planetary has for many speakers an additional sense that bears on contemporary political questions. In literary studies, for example, Gayatri Spivak has invoked the word planetarity, in Death of a Discipline, in her critique of the limitations of Eurocentric comparative literature and as part of a call to reconfigure that field in order accommodate study of languages of “the Global South”, a call also made in Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia / After Empire and in Larry Buell and Wai Chee Dimock’s Shades of the Planet.