Everywhere It Looks

I’ve made mistakes in my early interactions with Afghans, and I’m certain I will continue to do so. I’ve failed to sit down and have tea and chat for an hour, or two, when introducing myself, too eager in the Western way to hurry up and get things done. I’ve failed to ask about someone’s health and his family before asking about work. In Sarah Chayes’ account of her experiences in Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue, I find my own reflected, especially in her description of Westerners who

thought in institutional terms. Their mission, as some of them understood it, was to cultivate, encourage, and foster the fledgling Afghan government. And for most of them, that meant shoring up its ‘institutions’: its ministries, its courts, its provincial administrations.

Western political culture prompts us to think this way. Over the past three or four centuries, we in the West have designed and laboriously erected instituions as our bulwark against tyranny. And we have come to revere them, for they have indeed protected us. . . But Afghanistan is not there yet. In Afghanistan, loyalties and allegiances are to individuals. (169)

Individuals, not institutions. Not abstractions. As Chayes notes, “in Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men” (163). I’ve presumed that work and the institutions I’ve associated with my work here — building democracy, infrastructure, an educational system — are more important than other things in the lives of the people I’ve met here, a foolish and myopic assumption easily belied by even my own experience.

Some of the dissonance I’ve been encountering — some of the ways in which I’ve felt challenged, stymied, held out, unable to do what seems or feels like my mission — has been a result of my expecting to do things in familiar Western ways, in my expectation that the merits of whatever I might try to do would be as self-evident here as they are (not that they always are, but even on the many times they aren’t, they’re at least arguable in accessible terms and ideologies) back in the U.S. Which is of course a simple enough expression of cultural difference, but still a reminder to me that I ought not try to pin down or make falsely familiar cultures to which I do not have access and of which I do not have membership. And the thing is, I see a lot of that in the scholarship on composition and world Englishes under globalization to which I’ve been turning for assistance.

That’s a problem for me. There are assumptions about the self-evidentiary nature of other cultures in that scholarship, as well, that make me want to point out that Afghan culture is no more homogenous than American culture; no more authentic in its inwardly lived experience or meretricious in its gregarious and manifest outward appearance; no more situated at the teleological end of a familiar historical tradition than American culture; no more possible to subjugate via knowing or explaining than American culture. Rather, and it took Bhabha to get me to start to see this, it’s constructed, narrated into being by its contacts internal and external, always already forming itself in relation to that which is reciprocally always already there, simultaneously that which is itself and that which is not itself and in which it defines itself against. That’s the theoretical way to put it, at least. In lived experience, it’s the translator who asks to go home to his house in Kabul because it’s snowing and his mud roof will cave in if he doesn’t shovel it; it’s the instructors who shrug and profess that they can do nothing about students being late to class since the Americans have objected to beating the students; it’s all these ruptures and fissures and limit cases that are instances of cultural difference always as a function of relation.

Bhabha explains it better than I do, noting that

the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethnocentric ideas [“of the ‘grand narratives’ of post-enlightenment rationalism”] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices — women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: ‘Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses. (Introduction to The Location of Culture)

In my attempts to think about the ends of education as performed here in Afghanistan, what I’m running into is an experience of Afghanistan as the local and immediate space of difference between democracy and tribalism, village-building and nation-building, individual gain and communal advance. That’s fine: I can adjust, am adjusting, to that; doing my best, somewhat embarrassed at my initial arrogant assumptions about how little I might have to adjust myself, my perspective, who I am as a scholar and teacher and what I think I can be and know and do.

What’s not fine is that the more I read composition scholarship on multilingual pedagogies under the effects of economic globalization, the more I reject its remarkable eagerness to perceive its own privilege in others; the more I reject its unreflective emphasis on the privileges of “capital,” “networks,” “exchange,” “textuality,” “citizenship,” and especially the assumed privilege of traveling between. In these articles, there’s a narcissistic privilege that sees itself everywhere it looks, in the students who use computers just like we use them in the U.S., in the ways the homogenous capitalism just like we’ve produced in the U.S. is producing its homogenous effects in other countries just like we do at home.

I think of Pico Iyer’s description of the tourist and how we’ve replaced the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that nothing abroad is the way it is at home with the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that everything abroad is just like it is at home.

Everywhere It Looks
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3 thoughts on “Everywhere It Looks

  • February 15, 2011 at 12:24 pm
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    The most telling but nearly invisible word — in the quote from Sarah Chayes — telling in terms of imperial assumption — “yet”…

  • February 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm
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    Yes, that’s its own little teleological microcosm: we are our own idealized end-state, the narcissistic ideology of American culture as the end of history that Chayes can’t get away from either.

  • February 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm
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    Hi Mike, Nice to see you reflecting on your environment and mission… Not sure if it will make your mission easier or harder… probably depends on the flexibility of the “institutions” and the “strength of your person hood”… Best to you all…

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