I’m not sure this makes sense

A friend of mine recently pointed me to this article and then went on to say that it made her embarrassed to be Indian because this is what Indians do. For a fraction of a second, I almost agreed because it seems in-built in us to be embarrassed of where we come from. I’m often anxious about being seen with my parents because they might be too Indian, I speak with an american accent (or ‘almost no Indian accent’, as I’m often told) so I won’t be too foreign and I’m frequently asked for my Indian opinion on Slumdog Millionaire, the kama sutra, and apparently the Salahis since Mrs. Salahi wore a sari while crashing Obama’s party. Finally, Trish also recently pointed me to this which definitely made me embarrassed to be Indian since the person who wrote it was Indian as well.

My primary questions however, are the following:

What purpose does the idea of a nation serve?
What kinds of discursive practices exist around national identities?
And finally, what power relations do these practices enact, who benefits and who doesn’t?

While I’m still not certain about answering the first question, I will try taking a stab at the second. As far as I’ve understood, the inherently contradictory discourses about national identity oscillate between the idea that there is a quintessential national identity (things that are essentially american, indian, etc) and the idea that we are ‘always already hybrid’ and now live in a globalized society. The extreme of this argument is to question the idea of authenticity itself and render this need for origins unnecessary. And yet, we cannot shake off this notion of ‘authenticity’; the ‘truth’ of our countries and nationalities. Even in today’s multi-cultural, multinational existence, we are still searching for the ‘real’. Often, I am asked to veto ‘Indian’ things: is this real Indian food? are these ‘real’ Indian clothes? and often, I even reply with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as if I, merely by being from the country, inherently know every single facet of my nation. This question of authenticity also plays out in other ways. For example, I was recently told (and often worry) that because I am from a city and I’m middle class, I’m not the ‘really’ Indian. The ‘real’ Indian is apparently rural, poor and lives in the hope of being saved by magical ‘development’ and I, by my presence in academia, am here to represent their voice in this important space. Hence, I often find myself wanting to speak for this rural poor or marginalized that I do not know of, especially in academic circles, merely because I have a vague, hazy picture of them at the back of my mind, inciting me to discourse. It is this “fragment of darkness that [I] carry within [myself]: a general signification, a universal secret, an omnipresent cause, a fear that never ends” (Foucault, 69) that leads me to constantly question both my validity as an Indian and at the same time, speak as an ‘Indian’ since it is a secret that only Indians understand and all Indians understand. The nation is thus a problem of truth. Hence post-colonial theory is described as an act of resistance, a method of ‘writing back’, explaining our position in the world in order to gain legitimacy. And hence, anyone who reads and sympathizes with post-colonial theory is in fact supporting the resistance, no matter where they’re from. Therefore, studying post-colonial theory or ‘development’ theory provides the academic with intellectual legitimacy. And yet, one cannot escape the same relations of power that existed earlier but manifests itself in different forms. The first concepts of development led to idealizing globalization and modernity, but now, there occurs a fetishizing the ‘local’, the ‘indigenous’. Everyone wants to let the subaltern speak. And yet, by doing so, are we not in fact reinstating the same power relations that already exist? By explaining ourselves over and over and still having our distorted truth misrepresented back at us (whoever this ‘us’ is) are we not, in fact answering this incitement to discourse that is in fact the cornerstone of a repressive hypothesis?

Now the question is, do we not speak at all? My answer is that I don’t know. My only way to navigate these situations that constantly arise (especially debates about cultural authenticity, development and being asked to narrate my identity) is to analyse what the power relations in such discourses are. As Lydia often tells me, we must constantly be aware of the situations of micro-power that constantly arise and not fall into patterns of discourse that reinforce them.

Foucault M., History of Sexuality,Vol. 1, An Introduction.


About this entry