Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Let the other person speak

In the reading "Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research", Dwight Conquerwood cited Raymond Williams who talks about class-based arrogance of scriptocentrism, pointing to the error and delusion of highly-educated people who are so driven in on their reading (sic) that they fail to notice that there are other forms of skilled, intelligent, creative activity, such as theatre and active politics. This error resembles that of the narrow reformer who supposes that farm labourers and village craftsmen were once uneducated, merely because they could not read. He argued that the contempt for performance and practical activity, which is always latent in the highly-literate, is a mark of the observer's limits, not those of the activities themselves.

I was at once moved and excited reading this as this has always been a lingering thread in my mind. Over the last two decades, I have had many encounters, deep and extended, with farmers, labourers and villagers - or rural folk. To be honest, I had substituted "simple" with "rural" in the sentence that came immediately before this one as I became suddenly conscious about the use of the term "simple". Would it reflect derogatorily on myself? Would it reveal a horrible classist haughtiness in me that I at times suspected but would quickly shake away every time this thought entered my mind?

But I shall be perfectly honest in this post and revert to the use of the term "simple folk" to mean people from rural parts and who are defined by having little or no exposure to city life and who would generally have limited or no education.

Here I shall relate a particular friendship I developed with a Chinese farmer not too long ago, whose young adult son was involved in a bad accident that left him permanently brain-damaged. When I saw the son, his mental age was around four or five, and he could not recognise his parents or sister. In one meeting with me, the father, a peasant, said matter-of-factly: "He is damaged. He needs his mother for everything."

As I probed deeper into the story for my journalistic work, I came to know the father better. He was around 50 and had had elementary education. In his determination to seek redress for his son, he abandoned his farm, spent the family's entire savings. He sought the help of countless government departments and hospitals. To make a convincing argument, he studied all of China's labour protection laws as well as insurance provisions for work-related accidents. In one meeting we had, he produced a well-thumbed copy of China's compendium of labour laws. I remember taking the copy from him and marvelling at how a peasant, with only elementary education, could have so much grit and temerity to have gone through what he did, and to have achieved so much for his son.

Within the framework of the CCA, one would probably label this to be agency, the farmer's extraordinary agentic capacity. But what exactly do we find inside? Could this be what de Certeau calls "the elocutionary experience of a fugitive communication"? Conquergood goes on to describe this as a situation where "subordinate people do not have the privilege of explicitness, the luxury of transparency, the presumptive norm of clear and direct communication, free and open debate on a level playing field that the privileged classes take for granted."

I disagree with that description, I believe it to be a generalisation. In my dealings with people, my method has always been to put myself out of the picture and be an observer. I have always endeavoured to be an observer or a facilitator to help draw out the person's spontaneous expression of himself or herself. In other words, my method is to be a friend, an accepting ally who makes no judgements or assumptions. I let the person tell his or her story.

In fact, what I have observed is that rural folk are unusually forthcoming. In them I have witnessed extraordinary explicitness, transparency and clarity in communication. They are always able to say exactly what they mean in far fewer words than any city folk I have known. Why I am struck by this is because their economy with words is unique. It is a feature that has struck me time and time again, and when it happens, I always make a mental note. Their communication is clear, direct and they have always sparred with me as an intellectual equal even as we discuss topics that anyone would deem as sophisticated, for example, complex points in the law, circuitous judicial provisions and judgements, or whatever the subject happened to be at the time. Oftentimes, they would be enmeshed in a difficult situation which they need to find their way out of and to do this requires not only physical agency such as going from place to place, but working out problems, pointing out inconsistencies and laying out arguments that require mental dexterity.

Here I will relate another incident where I met a factory worker who was trying to launch a legal challenge against her factory who refused to give her what was due to her in accordance to labour laws in China. She told of how she went from place to place to find a lawyer who would be willing to help her. What she needed was for somebody to help her document, or textualise, her case - ie. to write down the facts of her case and appeal. As she explained, she told me how she could very well tell her story to the courts and that all she needed was somebody to put it in the language of the courts, or legalese. She eventually found a person who helped her and she won her appeal.

So in spite of the widely varying cultures between us – due to factors such as place and circumstances of origin, life encounters and experiences – I believe there must be some underlying, unifying, natural commonality which makes us understand the other immediately, allowing even the limited words we both share to cut across cultures. Of course, I am not arrogant to think that all that transpires is crystal clear all the time. All so often, something is lost in the exchange, but with patience and diligent checks that a researcher should always make, these blanks would be filled. In fact, such a situation can occur in any conversation with just about anybody.

If I were to put my finger on this “natural commonality”, I will choose to think it is our humanity. Our empathy, humanness, and the desire to reach out and to understand. It is the emptying of oneself in the process of the wanting to understand the other.

To revert now back to theory, I will think that this is what goes on in the co-construction process that CCA stresses. This is the part where a CCA researcher opens up spaces for subalterns to vent their voices and raise their issues. Here, assumptions such as subalterns not having the knowledge, the language, the communicative facility to help themselves are just plain false, and to continue to hold such a view is rather laughable. How then do you open up these spaces? To me, it is a willingness to be silent for once and to listen, to let the other person speak.

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