Thursday, November 8, 2012

Working out a politics of change from the Third!

My talk in CNM titled "Returning the White Man's gaze: Reimagining social science research" generated some amazing conversations with my colleagues, who pushed me further through their questions to imagine what a politics of change might look like that works through a project of decolonization.

One of the questions raised and that stayed with me was, "What about Third World oppressions that are carried out by indigenous subjects on other indigenous subjects?"

Working out a politics of change from the Third is a dance of hope and hopelessness as Ambar Basu so eloquently writes about in his work with sex workers in the SHIP project in Sonagachi.

You see, resisting the colonial gaze has to be the starting point in a poltics of social change as much of the inequities at the structural level are embedded within the Eurocentric logic and the foregrounding of Euro-centered rationality that privileges private property owning subjects as participants in the public sphere.

The logics, rules, and games of participation and civility in the Euro-centered public sphere need to be interrogated as the language of civility and participation is in and of itself also the language of oppression, violence, and colonization.

Moreover, the fixing of the gaze on specific Third World subjects and the making up of the Third World subject under this gaze is essentially a political move that is imbued in violence, physically, ontologically, and epistemologically.

What then are the possibilities for interrogating various forms of oppressions that are carried out within indigenous spheres?

What then are the possibilities for engaging critically with questions of power and exploitation in indigenous communities where one indigenous group is the perpetrator?

In working out this question, the Western scholar (and here I will say that I see myself as a Western scholar with brown skin) has to begin by interrogating his/her position of privilege that locates her/him in a specific relationship of power with the indgenous community she/he is commenting about. Humility and dialogue are the starting points.

What is my relationship as an observer or commentator with the field of observation that I am observing and commenting about?

You see, this position that I occupy is not an apolitical objective position, but is very much a product of specific privileges that constitute me and my identity, and put me in this expert status of being the one that makes the observations as the community is turned into some form of  a monolith and arguments for a politics of social change are laid out. In this sense then, my journey as a scholar has to begin by interrogating this very position of privilege.

From this entry point of interrogation will arise a politics of solidarity that listens to community-based politics of change that depict the threads of resistance within communities in the Third, seeking to invert the inequal terrains of knowledge production and praxis.

In my fieldwork across multiple communities that otherwise emerge in texts as subalterns, I have been humbled by the various ways in which local community members work toward interrogating the oppressions that are carried out locally. For me to even find a footing in starting to understand these local forms of resistance though, I would have to work through a frame of humility and listening, an inviting frame that opens up possibilities rather than foreclosing them.

Even more, I have to locate my ontology in relationship to the ontology of colonialism. Because terms such as freedom, justice, liberty, oppression, power, democracy and participation are often used markers of Eurocentric violence, in working out a language of social change from the Third, I have to seriously look at how my very presence and privilege are attached to the reproduction of the status quo. 

The politics of change from the Third is not a culturally relativist project that begins with an isolationist stance of cultural sensitivity. It is not a project that asks the reader to suspend judgment.

Rather, a culturally-centered project begins precisely in the understanding of the structured nature of discourse and methodological tools. The journey in culturally-centered work therefore is imbued with the interrogation of oppressions at multiple levels and multiple layers, beginning with an interrogation of the oppressions built into the researcher's own privileges.

In working out a politics of change from the Third, I am aware of the political economy of the business of saving the Third in the form of interventions, programs, and  projects.

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