Well, I’d at least like to be better at realising when a comeback is needed.
And by comeback, I don’t necessarily mean a quick and witty response to an insult. Rather, I’m referring to the times when someone says something, presenting an argument of sorts, and after you give it some thought you realise that it really needs challenging because, let’s face it, it was a rather lame argument to make.
One of today’s classes involved discussions on civil war, and how we are seeing the use of both ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ modes of warfare (think missiles and machetes). My tutor made some comment about how truly disturbing it is, that not only are we seeing the increase in such ‘barbaric’ acts, but that it’s occurred in regions of Europe, not just in Africa.
We all nodded and made little comments about the horrors of war and the discussion moved on its merry way.
Now, some hours later, I am reflecting on this particular comment and really wish my brain had been working awhole lot faster earlier on. So what’s my problem?
Well, his point wasn’t about the fact that such dreadful atrocities are occuring, but that such ‘barbarism’ has somehow spread from violent, primitive Africa to calm, peaceful Europe.
What are the implications? That Africans are overwhelming backward, driven by violence, naturally prone to horrible acts. That Europeans, who are clearly more advanced not just in technology, but in relating to one another, have somehow fallen down the black hole of horror that Africa has never made its way out of.
I’m not denying the existence of conflict in either regions. What I am denying is the fact that an entire continent can be assumed inherently violent.. or inherently peaceful. Just go back a few hundred years in European history. Heck, just go back 50 years and you’ll find a primarily Western war so huge in comparison to any current African conflict…
But you’ll also find ‘peace and goodwill’ amongst Europeans. And amongst Africans.
Anyhow, I shouldn’t be blogging, I should be essaying! But this little rant fits in nicely with a piece I wrote on the power of knowledge for a Politics class last year. I’ll throw up a few sections in the coming days – here’s the first.
Orientalism and Development – Part One
Edward Said, a Palestinian scholar and political activist, is well known for his work Orientalism (1978), a study of Oriental scholarship in the context of colonisation. Examining a great variety of texts about the Orient, including political speeches and classical literature, Said outlines the relationship between representation, knowledge and power. He highlights the way in which European knowledge created the Orient, arguing that ‘what gave the Oriental’s world its intelligibility and identity was not the result of his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledge manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the West’ (1978: 40).
Using a Focauldian theoretical understanding of the relationship between power and knowledge, Said argued that knowledge about the Orient had considerable power. There is no pure knowledge as such; rather knowledge is always inherently political (Said 1978, cited in White 2002: 412). Orientalism, therefore, was a way of knowing through which the Orient was experienced, powerfully shaping the language, perception and form of encounter between the East and West (Said 1978: 58). Power is no longer recognised as physical force or oppression, but domination through knowledge. By examining Said’s insights in regards to the politics of development, it is clear that like Orientalism, development can be recognised as a form of power and knowledge with substantial implications.
Said’s conclusions on representation and knowledge identify the way in which the development project has classified and naturalised the division between the ‘developed’ world and the ‘developing’ world. Orientalism, Said argued, assumed the East -West divide as the original separation; in a similar manner, development rests on a comparable categorical division of humanity into ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’, ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped’ regions (McMichael 2008: 45).
Importantly, Said clarifies that all cultures impose frameworks onto raw reality, changing reality from ‘free floating objects into units of knowledge’ (1978: 67). He suggests that the problem does not lie in the fact that such a conversion takes place but that the process of conversion is always ‘connected to and supplied by the prevailing cultural and political norms of the West’ (1978: 68).
Like the imagined East-West divide, the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ was shaped and guided by the West. Esteva asserts that ‘underdevelopment’ began on January 20, 1949, following President Truman’s proclamation of the division of the world, stating, ‘on that day, two billion people became underdeveloped…they ceased being what they were…and transmogrified into an inverted mirror of others’ reality’ (1992, cited in McMichael 2008: 45). Development itself, therefore, has been the ‘mechanism for the production…of the Third World’ (Escobar 1992, cited in Nederveen Pieterse 2000: 179), powerful in its ability to naturalise this division.