“Just” a Student: A note on positionality and power

I am “just” a student, but as a student in a major public university in the United States, I have a lot of “power.” Below I have written a few thoughts that raise questions about my role as author of this website.

To begin with, I am literate and have a personal computer and internet access and grew up without fear of hunger and with reliable public infrastructure and with access to healthcare and without domestic abuse. I possess skills and knowledge that are fruit of my relatively bourgeois economic class; although I sense that I am generally much less affluent than the vast majority of my classmates, there is already a huge amount of affluence necessary to be here in the first place. I have traveled to Brazil twice – both times with some sort of scholarship or other form of assistance, but my ability to travel says something about my wealth and mobility.

As well, there are demographics; People who see me in “public” would categorize me as white, male, and American. Though I may not necessarily want to participate in any of these categories, I have learned that identity is formed through a dialogical process. In other words, while I have some say in my identity, so do others; it’s a sort of dialogue (hence “dialog-ical”), where no single party has complete control.

Because of my personal and economic circumstances, I have the freedom and ability to post things on this site and to form complex analyses of online media. True, there are thousands of people online posting things every second, and access to the Internet is widespread. Still, my characteristics and social position make my voice more likely to be “heard” by people in positions of power. There are certain skills – of language, of rhetoric, of “class knowledge,” of a pretty good university education – that allow me this potential audibility.

 

What does all of this mean for my project? Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it means there is a strong risk that my voice will drown out other people’s voices. Whatever I say here on the topic will give me a sort of “authority” simply as a result of being written. True, this “authority” of writing may be weak and conditional. It may be “invisible” since my social position may not seem immediately present in the text and images of the site. However, my authority’s weakness and invisibility does not mean it is non-existent. Quite the contrary; I feel that it is often the invisibility of authority that can make it so insidious and powerful. The idea of “neutrality” can be a strong justification of continued oppression by people who currently hold power. If deeply unequal and oppressive policies are justified by their “neutrality,” their problems can become invisible to those who implement them, thus soothing their consciousnesses, even while those who suffer from the same policies are acutely aware of the injustice built into this “neutrality.” In other words, because of the “neutral” and “invisible” sort of potential authority possessed in my work (due, among many other things, to my own characteristics that I have listed above), it would be easy for the mere act of creating this website to reinforce structures and patterns of power, where I am heard and understood without risking my own social position and without making any sort of tangible, active difference whatsoever, thus soothing my conscience even while reinforcing “post-“colonial, “post-” imperial, neoliberal, etc. etc. systems [of oppression].

[Side note: I don’t mean to imply that because of the potential power of my voice, other people are “oppressed” “victims.” Rather, I want to point to the particular political/power dynamic with which I {can} operate as a writer.]

 

So, if I gain a sort of “authority” simply as a result of writing, and this authority has the potential to drown out the voices of those who do not occupy the same positions of (unfortunate, depressing) social power that I do, what does my project mean? Why am I writing this? Will I try to “represent” the voice of the “other”? Why am writing about dis/placement violence without really having experienced it myself? (Or have I?)

One way to begin to address the problem of representation is to enter in dialogues with other people, to work at mutual understanding rather than an “us” representing “them” (or an “I” representing “them”), and to make every effort to embody this dialogical and contingent process of interaction in the work of “representation.” I have tried to incorporate the search for dialogue into my research in other projects, primarily through ethnographic methods. However, for the purposes of this project, despite all of my qualms with the “privileged” individuality and potential oppressive authority that I possess, I will not be doing any sort of direct dialogue, interview, conversation.

…Why? …Because working with “human subjects” in research requires approval of MSU’s Institutional Review Board, an institutional organ designed to ensure that research ethics are properly, carefully, and fully implemented. Since I just recently got approval for my other project and it took me a lot of time and energy, I decided to avoid interacting with “human subjects” in this website you are viewing due to limited time and energy.

So, what I’m basically saying is that it’s “not worth it” to enter into dialogue with people because of minor bureaucratic hurdles of a system developed to prevent gross violations of human rights and research ethics? …Unfortunately, yes. Hypocrisy at an extreme.

However, despite the absence of “direct” dialogue, let’s remember that even ongoing dialogue, respectful conflict, and conversation wouldn’t guarantee (by any means!!) that the author circumvent power dynamics. During the coursework that has shaped this website, one text we read was called “Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee,” by Prem Kumar Rajaram. In this 2002 text, the author discusses ‘Listening to the Displaced,’ a project by Oxfam GB that aimed to represent the “real” voices of displaced people. Rajaram problematizes the project, arguing that “Oxfam fails to consider that its interests as a humanitarian/development agency lead to the filtering of a particular sort of voice of the displaced” (247, from the abstract). He discusses how the humanitarian goals and the character of the Oxfam organization are profoundly important in the construction of the narrative of “refugees”  in ‘Listening to the Displaced.” Rajaram shows that the framing and voice of the project obfuscated the role of Oxfam’s interviewers, writers, editors, producers, and that this lack of reflexivity, along with (and in synch with) Oxfam’s humanitarian performance and participation in the globalized development/aid regime, led to a very particular and problematic representation of the “voices” of “the displaced.”

Personally, I have more training in ethnographic methods than in other “fields.” Despite my generally quite interdisciplinary activity, I feel a particular affinity for those contemporary ethnographic methods that seek to problematize and question the “observation” and “interaction” and “writing processes” in order to openly bare the power dynamics of representation/authorship, hopefully to transform those power dynamics in favor of less colonial, imperial, and oppressive societies.

Thus, when I read Rajaram’s piece, my first reaction was that he had used very basic contemporary ethnographic principles of self-reflexivity, and applied them to an international aid organization. Just like the growing emphasis on ethnographers’ representations of their own positionality and their attempts to transform power dynamics through writing, Rajaram was stressing that “Listening to the Displaced” required, as a most basic step, an awareness of (and representation of) Oxfam’s political positionality in relation to the people interviewed and interviewing.

While reflexivity is a fundamental, however, it is not a solution. While it recognizes problems, and is thus “operative” in circumventing the hegemonic neutrality that I mentioned earlier, I consider it only one small step, one that can be rendered somewhat fragile and meaningless if such reflexivity doesn’t manifest itself in the form of different structural and representational (and etc.) dynamics in the authored work and its mode of production. As Rajaram notes, “‘Listening’ to refugee voices may have a less than remarkable effect on the workings of a humanitarian/development organization if the broader concept of development and of the purposes and agenda of aid organizations remain unproblematized” (262). The idea is not just to be aware of one’s political positionality, but to undermine its existence and seek fundamental transformations in the political, representational, and intersubjective system of which it is a part. As I said before in a criticism of this website you are currently reading, a self-reflexivity that fails to “risk” or undermine the author’s social position in systems of oppression has the potential to simply end up as a conscience-soothing performance, one that makes not just the author “feel good” but probably also the reader, if the reader is participating in a similar political positionality.

So, back to my point from earlier… With the help of Rajaram, it seems (to me, at least) that entering into dialogue (as Oxfam’s interviewers did with those who would end up being represented in ‘Listening to the Displaced’) does not mean a movement away from one-directional authoritative authorship that re-performs unequal power dynamics. Dialogue does not mean the circumvention of voicelessness.

 

I might say that the very act of self-authoring a written work, because it inherently creates “author-ity” as I mentioned before, creates and forms unequal voice/power dynamics, and the only solution I can see currently involves collaboration and an abandonment, to some degree, of a sense of “control” and “possession” of the work, allowing it to be riddled with – and characterized by – conflict, inconsistencies, plurality, complexity, ambiguity. It would involve a dispossession of authorship, and thus of the “unitary self.” [I am sort of referencing  Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. More on this later… hopefully.]

But have I done this (dispossessed my authorship) on this website?

…Not really.

I am openly questioning my possessive authorship, and thus operating with a self-critical discourse, but I’m not sure if I’m taking any other “action.” Like Oxfam’s existence as a humanitarian aid organization within the global system of development/aid, I also write as a specific type of political actor in a particular, performed context.

Am I undermining the reproduction/re-presentation of oppressive power dynamics through my unitary authorship? …I don’t know. You tell me. Probably not, though. =\

 

~~~Cited/Referenced Authors~~~

Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Authority.” Representations, 2(Spring 1983) 118-146. University of California Press. JSTOR. Web.

This piece discusses the transformations and manifestations in ethnographic authority over the past century, discussing the role of ethnographers in representing and constructing their authority. In the 1920s it was a sort of “experiential authority,” where “You are there because I was there” (i.e., the author’s presence in the represented scenes was “evidence” of the authority of their representations). Then, there was a movement towards “interpretation,” where cultures were viewed as texts to be read and interpreted (and “cultures” were “textualized” in order to be interpreted), but this trend tended to obfuscate the particular, contingent, performed roles of every person with whom the ethnographer(s) interacted during the course of the research. More recently, Clifford notes, there have been other foci, such as dialogical writings in which authors attempt to represent the contingent and multi-authored and contested character of dynamic cultural performance. Clifford ultimately suggests a move towards collaborative, multi-authorship, and away from the individual author/ity of the ethnographer, which is problematic even during attempts to represent conflicting and contingent dialogue with critical “informants.”  . . . I cite this piece here because it was influential in my above discussion, such as in my mention of the problems of simple dialogue, as well as my reflections on reflexivity. The text has been shaping a fundamental chapter of my thesis, about authority/authorship/authenticity, that I am currently writing.

Butler, Judith (and Athena Athanasiou). Dispossession: The Performative in the Political: Conversations with Athena Athanasiou. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013. Amazon Kindle Edition. Web.

Rajaram, Prem Kumar. “Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee.” Journal of Refugee Studies, 15.3(2002) 247-264. Oxford University Press. Web.

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