Over at n+1, Anand Vaida has a piece worth reading on criticism of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Here’s the set up:
The book was met with a storm of praise in both India and the United States — for the extent and depth of Boo’s research, for her empathy for her subjects, and for avoiding the trap that several recent “big India books” fell into when they took the entire country as their subject and ended up capturing nothing. An almost solitary discordant note came from Mitu Sengupta, a political science professor in Canada. In a review published on the progressive Indian blog Kafila (and later republished on the Dissent website), Sengupta charged the book with having a “subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative”—that is, a muted but consistent anti–welfare state and pro-market agenda. The chief evidence of Boo’s neoliberalism, according to Sengupta, is the curious fact that none of Boo’s characters participate in any kind of collective activity; when someone does attempt to assert control over her life, it is always in isolation.
Vaida discussion is both helpful and reasoned, and I don’t have much to add to it. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I do have some confusion about the criticism and its ultimate disposition for those who write about bad conditions. I do have to admit that I have not read Boo’s book, as I am concerned about it being another version of poverty porn.
Because I tend to write about institutions and social justice, I get a lot of criticism from reviewers that I do the same thing that Boo does: that is, I don’t provide descriptions on what people experiencing injustice to fight it. As a result, the writing robs victims of the agency they demonstrate and maintains focus on the institution.
I can understand that. However, in much of my wrting, I am trying to get how institutions should fix their damn selves. While I understand the impulse to focus on how collective action affect change in institutions, I have several concerns about making that the point of what I write about when I write about injustice and ethics.
1) Describing social movements or what people do when they respond to injustice may or may not be part of the story about why an institution should fix its damn self.
2) If there is a community response, and there often is, I don’t feel like that it’s my story to tell. Surely there are people, analogous to Derrick Bell and Julian Bond, who can and will write and speak for the movement themselves. While I am happy to be resource and support to that writing, it’s not my story and I don’t feel comfortable appropriating it for my own ends–e.g., publication and career advancement.
3) I do want to create the expectation that institutions and the planners within them should fix (did I say this?) their damn selves without reinforcing the notion that institutional change can not happen unless oppressed people take on the burden of fixing.
4) Plenty of “Oh, lookit what those little community organizations are doing to fight the man!” narratives produced by academics strike me as patronizing, condescending, and reinforcing of the notion that democratic and advocacy coalitions are ‘handling’ the problem and thus, those of us who hold power and privilege don’t need to bother.
Other writers, like Vandana Shiva and James Scott, do an amazing job of writing about people’s movements. I rather feel like that material is covered: it’s obvious that when you treat people poorly, they find way to call you out, and that people power is actually a source of power. I don’t feel the need to echo that in my contributions, as that’s there. It’s evident.
Directions and comments on how I am wrong would be most helpful.