Thursday, April 14, 2011

Politics of authenticity...who gets to ask the questions!

In reading Sirisha's post that poignantly addresses the pathologization of the Third in mainstream discourses in the West as epitomized in the Oscar winning productions "Born into Brothels" and "Slumdog Millionaire," I am reminded of a social gathering a few years back. "Slumdog" was released, was an Oscar nominee at this point, and was all the rage in the popular culture circuits. At this gathering, a colleague (you guessed it, Caucasian and male) walked up to me and asked if I had ever really visited a slum, because he referred to an NPR story that supposedly made the argument that it is Indians who haven't really seen the slums that have problems with the movie "Slumdog Millionaire." [Granted that the materiality in the frames of Slumdog do have a base in the deep-seated inequalities in contemporary India, the frames in the movie I would argue further perpetuate these inequities by participating in the circulation of a neoliberal reading of India through cinematic text...but that's for a different post]

Whereas on one hand I found the comment incredibly insulting, given my work with poverty in different parts of rural Bengal, and the years of fieldwork as well as activist work before I entered into the US academe, I also found the comment to typify a discursive move that embodies the arrogance of Eurocentric hegemony, particularly as it relates to the use of specific communicative processes through which discursive entries from the South are silenced through these assumed hegemonic positions of knowledge and evaluation occupied by our Caucasian colleagues in the Euro-centered mainstream. Note first in this comment the question of authenticity that gets used by this colleague to shut me out; possibilities of communicative engagement in a real sense are foreclosed through the interrogation of the authenticity of the scholar from the South in voicing a narrative about the lived experiences in the South. Time and again preceding this incident and following it, advising dissertations for instance that are based in the global South, I have seen this process of legitimacy-making unfold, as Third World scholars participating in the Eurocentric mainstream have had to take the extra steps to justify their legitimacy as participants in the discourse.

In asking me whether I ever visited slums or not, this colleague immediately puts me as a Third World scholar in a position of having to explain my legitimacy to him in order to earn my credibility to participate in the discussion of the "Slumdog Millionaire." Now this would have been a fairly harmless question that could be read as emerging out of ignorance, but chosing to read the interaction as a marker of ignorance writes over the politics of power and control that is embedded in the arrogance attached to this type of Eurocentric ignorance. It is precisely this ignorance that underlies (neo)colonial occupations. It is precisely this ignorance that undermines the "other" as a legitimate participant in discourse. It is precisely for this reason that for how petty this one incident seems to be, it is also powerful in throwing light on the communicative processes in the Eurocentric mainstream that work through our everyday interactions in silencing imaginative possibilities from the South, in discounting critiques from the South, and in thoughtfully engaging in possibilities of co-constructing development policies and programs that are fundamentally guided by the knowledge of actors from the global South who actually understand the terrains of lived experience in the South.

No comments: