“Where are the . . .?”

If only the “most oppressed” people would start blogging. Perhaps there’s a displaced lesbian mother of 10 whose “husband” was beheaded by Mungiki in the same week that she was forced out of her home by government agents intent on stealing the forest land on which she was “squatting,” and she is in especially dire straits because 5 of her children carry life-threatening diseases, ranging from malaria to AIDS. And, on top of it all, she is illiterate.

She really needs to start blogging. Because, otherwise, how will we know what she is going through? How will we “feel” her pain and join her “struggles” for justice? Without “hearing the voices” of “victims,” how can we “respond?”

I am often baffled by our demand that “abject” subjects speak to us in accents that we understand. As used by Julia Kristeva, abject refers to dirt, vomit, shit, that which we produce and discard. Butler’s readers will recognize the abject as an “individual” who does not fully materialize as subject, or, in my rendering, never makes the “transition” from discarded and invisible object to subject.

Of course, the tragedy here is that “we” continually abject individuals, render them invisible, even as “we” want to “recuperate” them to make a point about contemporary life. But the point is often lost. This is a well-known argument.

I am more concerned with our continual desire to hear (I want to write Caliban—I need to stay away from the Caribbeanists!) let’s call her “Wanjiku” speak, even as her moving lips simply allow for our dubbing, translation, voice-over. (Watchers of Anderson Cooper and Christiane Anampour have vivid examples.)

It is less the fact of “dubbing” or “voice-over” that disturbs me so much as our continual search, and all-too-brief encounters with people we otherwise discard. Street children in Nairobi (do they still exist?) become targets of short-lived sympathy when profiled in the papers or featured on national and international news reports; they are to be avoided when one actually walks the streets. (Or leaves the country to walk on other streets, in which cases they become occasions for a troubling, sanitized nostalgia; even though, foreign streets often smell no better.)

It is also the willful blindness with which “we” continue to chase after, ask about, demand to hear the voices of “the most oppressed” in ways we understand and can value—good for a documentary, an editorial, a feature piece. (I am articulating, my own sense of shame at middle-class philanthropy, one that is willing to chastise “big business” or, in Kenya’s case, “corrupt politicians” but remains indifferent to its own complicity with exploitation.)

In my perverse fantasies, $100 laptops will allow the “poorest children” of the world to blog. Like elaborate game characters, they will enter “our” world. Mastering “our” language, they will gain a hearing. As we helpfully translate, transcribe, dub over, and create “moving” documentaries (moving away from our subjects, that is) about those who are finally “emerging from the shadows.”

2 thoughts on ““Where are the . . .?”

  1. It would be good for the oppressed to be heard but wouldn’t a better channel be FM or AM radio than blogs? Blogs hardly reach 1% of the Kenyan population while radio on the other hand touches millions.
    But on the other hand a middle ground has to be reached, if too much is said we get audience fatigue and if nothing is said than nothing is done.
    I do think that we should concentrate on getting books and other teaching material first before jumping to $100 laptops. We should run before we fly.

  2. Like you, I do think it’s important to hear voices from the oppressed. What I take issue with is our seeming demand that they speak in ways we find compelling. “We” want their stories to be “interesting,” “made for tv,” all of which means we can avoid them until they “learn” to speak for us.

    Implicit in this post is the more controversial (perhaps romantic) idea that if we really dared to listen or see to the oppressed, we would not be able to confirm our own assumptions about ourselves, for we would see ourselves as complicit in oppression, not recorders or bystanders.

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