Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How robust or tenuous is our data?

On reading Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?", I was jolted by her exploration into how we can touch the consciousness of the people even as we investigate their politics and on the assertion that what is important in a work is what it does not say. Here, she delves into what I consider to be a certain technicality and experience in the process of a researcher's interaction with the participant that I have sometimes encountered and which always leaves me breathless and at a loss for words afterwards.

Spivak describes: with no possibility of nostalgia for that lost origin, the historian must suspend as far as possible the clamour of his own consciousness so that the elaboration of the insurgency, packaged with an insurgent-consciousness, does not freeze into an "object of investigation" or worse a model for imitation. The subject implied by the texts of insurgency can only serve as a counter possibility for the narrative sanctions granted to the colonial subject in the dominant groups. The post colonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss.

In a recent encounter with an interviewee on the issue of income inequality in Singapore, the participant, a newspaper vendor, described at length his numerous run-ins with government officers who would harass him constantly about his stall being untidy and taking up more space than it was allowed to. This was a man with a great sense of humour and who was very animated in his manner of speaking. He described a time when he was so frustrated by their constant harassment that he climbed onto the stone bench behind his stall to wash it after a thunderstorm. He slipped and fell and broke his foot in several parts. The injury was so serious that doctors had to insert four nails permanently to hold it together.

I remember being very absorbed in this conversation and how I laughed at several junctures because he was such a good story-teller. And I also remember how I had stopped taking notes as I had mentally told myself that this or that particular story had little relevance to the questions I had asked.

And it was only after the interview that when I thought about it that I realised just how important these snippets that he described were. They had only appeared irrelevant because I had failed to recognise them to be so, because his answers did not fit into the replies I was expecting. Thinking back now, I believe I failed to recognise them because as Spivak describes, I did not possess the "nostalgia for that lost origin". She further talks about how in order to overcome this mental block, the historian must "suspend as far as possible the clamour of his own consciousness so that the elaboration of the insurgency" may emerge.

Here I get goosebumps whenever I encounter these moments. How in not being fully mindful of suspending my own consciousness that I could have so narrowly lost precious data and oral histories of the very people whom we want to give voice to.

As a researcher, I believe this to be the most humbling mental and spiritual exercise. If we are unable to do this, how truthful and how real could our data be? If our data is but a collection of notes that we expect - such as when we begin with a hypothesis or when we begin with research questions - then is it possible (and this thought is the most scary one) we may lose sight of the woods for the trees?

Here Spivak's "the postcolonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss" rings like a death knell.

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