Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Place, Time, and Power of Representation | Peter Polack

Where to begin? Representation is the power that comes from the dominance of a particular point of departure. In our discourse, our arguments, and our explanations, we must always begin from somewhere, and this conceptual starting point represses alternative conceptualizations of reality. It disempowers new beginnings with recourse to old ones, or masks the beginnings of others with our own. What is unique about critical theory is that it recognizes the characteristic power of representation, and so it can destabilize it. We see this in the work of Edward Said and David Hudson: their contention is that particular points of departure – “Orientalism" and “global information inequality” – have overshadowed particular circumstances, and that taking the latter as a new point of departure is essential to destabilizing dominant conceptualizations of reality. At first glance, there seems to be a paradox here: why should we take Said and Hudson’s own points of departure instead of those of the Orientalists or normative “global information inequality” discourse? It is because the former are critical theory: only they call attention to the distinctive power of representation; the latter merely employ it.

To call attention to the power of representation is to take a representation as one’s point of departure, and to locate the conditions of its development as belonging elsewhere; that is, in another place or time. For Said, the emergence of the Orient takes place in the West. Orientalism is developed within the West according to “institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding” that are absolutely removed from its subject matter. The Orient is thereby constructed and “restructured” in such a way that cultural or scientific representations of it take precedence over individual accounts of it. In this way, the West becomes the dominant point of departure for conceptualizing the Orient – for any scholar “to get at the Orient he must pass through the learned grids and codes provided by the Orientalist.” The critical theoretical move is to identify that Orientalism is a representation: it is a different entity than its subject matter, with its own rules, discourses, and internal consistency. That such a representation can take shape distinctly from its subject matter enables its power.

Accordingly, Hudson addresses the representations of “global information inequality” discourse, which take technological solutionism as their point of departure. To call attention to the power of these representations qua technological solutions, Hudson identifies that they mask historically contingent problems with invented problems of information access. For example, “good governance narratives” propose that certain nations are underdeveloped because they lack information technology solutions. At the same time, these narratives maintain paradoxically that information technology solutions are licensed by the developed nations that produce them. Therefore, “good governance narratives” deploy the solution of information technology to ostensibly resolve unequal material conditions without any mention of their historical emergence. By indicating that “good governance narratives” propose to solve longstanding problems with a scope of solutions that is framed by technological futurisms, Hudson demonstrates that their technological point of departure has developed distinctly from an understanding of material and historical conditions of inequality. However, he does not manage to elaborate how such a discrepancy can come to pass. What enables “good governance narratives” to take hold as a representation of material circumstances of inequality?

It is Said's critical theory that escapes the criticism of representation to address the conditions of its emergence, perpetuation, and power. Said acknowledges these conditions explicitly when he identifies Orientalism as “a system of opportunities for making statements.” To Said, Orientalism is not just a narrative constructed to dominate others (although its particular works have this tendency) as it is a self-perpetuating regime of discourse that rewards its adherents for “discursive consistency.” Whereas Orientalists are rewarded whenever they enforce or justify the legitimacy of their descriptions (herein lies their "didacticism"), non-Orientalists are also rewarded whenever they subscribe to or pronounce these prevailing conceptualizations. In this way, Orientalism is a system of representations that serves to penalize alterity – both in Western discourse and in non-Western ways of life – and every conforming contribution to Orientalist discourse can only “intensify, make more rather than less representative, the perspectives of the Orient.” The point of departure inaugurated by Orientalism exerts a centripetal force on thought.

The power characteristic of representation, then, is not an autopoetic force that emanates from singular representations of the Orient or the “developing world.” Instead, the power of representation is the condition of possibility that is produced and reinforced by a particular point of departure, which may itself comprise many representations. It rests not on the quality or the conviction of these representations but on their prevalence, their accessibility, and their inscription into cultural norms – in short, on their dominance over a field of possible places to start from. This is what Said addresses when he characterizes the Orient as “a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.” It is why Hudson asks us to “recognize that racialized difference is produced and reproduced contextually and often implicitly.” Representations frame our reality and shape our thought whenever we do not critically examine them as points of departure. Because whether these representations begin as accidents or conspiracies, they end in entrenchments. 


Hudson, David J. “On Dark Continents and Digital Divides: Information Inequality and the Reproduction of Racial Otherness in Library and Information Studies.” Journal of Information Ethics, 25, no. 1 (2017): 62-80. 

Said, Edward W. "Orientalism: western conceptions of the Orient. 1978." Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin (1995).

No comments:

Post a Comment