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|For more information on CNM and CARE, please visit www.fas.nus.edu.sg/cnm and www.care-cca.com respectively.|
On November 15, CARE researcher Dr. Kang Sun gave a presentation on his dissertation research. His ethnographic research focused on how the identities of factory workers in China are constructed in the material realm. Kang’s work was inspired by his own experiences growing up in rural China and studying in America as a graduate student. Below is a video of his presentation:
As part of a pilot study on migrant workers in Singapore, CARE organized several construction site observations. Here are some of my thoughts after one of my early morning visits: Urban construction sites can be filled with both the material matters necessary for the construction to go on and, even more importantly, imaginations of what the building will be like. The multiple spots of convergence for materiality and imaginations have pushed me to rethink the complicated meaning-making of urban space in general and of construction sites in particular. The construction site I observed is the Cube Capital. With its long-since-completed namesake supermall on the other side of the Jurong East MRT station, the two Cube Capitals, one up and running, the other under construction, are divided by three huge overhead MRT bridges. Together, they form an icon of the boom economy of this city state of Singapore. As is common in Singapore, the construction site is white-walled with either human guarded gates or micro-computer-chip guarded ones. As you might have imagined, my plead for entry to observe was denied. However, after doing my “beat” around the entire construction site once, I was constantly attracted by these bigger-than-life pictures of white collared, young and smartly dressed business men/women as featured in each of many mural advertisements. Usually carrying slogans like: “building our future,” “imagine you living in these places.” On the same wall around the construction site, there are also these signs of “keeping the injury to zero.” The space of the outside wall has made it explicit that the construction is about a future that “you,” however vague and slippery this “you” might be as a referent. Being around the site is becoming a captive audience/observer with a future that has been imagined for you. You are invited, visually appealingly, to an omnipresent image of a future and to become the eyewitness of such an imagination’s realization, by the migrant workers working on it. On one hand, migrant workers have to be in the “picture” of the whole construction so that the project is profitable for the stakeholders; on the other hand, migrant workers have to be excluded from the advertisement pictures, the ones that capture your imaginations, so that the building under construction has a clear middle class public image. Importantly, the contradictions lie in the fact that migrant workers have to be in the process of construction but not in pictures, mean that the visual imagination of a building, a city, a nation, and a society is really crucial to the ways in which power is organized. In this case, the visual power of image is both a progressive narrative and an erasure of dirty, heavy, and potentially dangerous construction work that such a narrative so deftly hides from publicity. Anderson’s Imagined Community considered the importance of the nation building through organizing imaginations by institutions such as national museums and monuments. However, common buildings that signify economic progress and development have increasingly become so suspicious to me. In a general celebratory tone, many a place’s urbanization process can be organized under the umbrella terms of “development,” “progress,” “hygiene,” “urban civilization,” etc. Under each of these terms are loads and loads of living experiences that are marginalized. The legalization of such ideographs of “development,” “progress,” “hygiene,” and “urban civilization” is exactly connected to the marginalization of certain living activities of people such as migrant workers, whose living experiences are considered exactly as the antithesis of the mainstream progress narrative. And these two parts form a pair of contrast that each time seems to remind people that, if we do not development, we would be like these people as migrant workers. Then, every community is imagined and because since imagination is often organized by the powerful stake holders, it is important to always realize in what ways a community can be reimagined, especially in a process that intently stays away from the mainstream imagination. Academia has this privilege of imagining a future for the society. Each economic model, political theorization, critical analysis, artistic creation can be connected to different futures that we are entitled to imagine. However, a society cannot really be a hospitable place for humanity if the space of imagination is only for some privileged people. The photo artists and construction management, possibly with some other designers, have posted on their walls a future for the building. When, where, and by whom, can we imagine a society in which migrant workers and other marginalized people, can join in a process of co-imagining a future. As critical scholars, we are constantly warned of saying “speak for” some people. However, the deep irony seems to me that without these people participating in a process of imagining a future, will a realized future, when a future becomes a present, has a justifiable living space that is decent for them? Being able to participate in imagining a future is really a right that is worth fighting for in a present. The right to imagine is to be included in a future image when that future becomes present.
In the first CARE presentation, Prof. Shiv Ganesh delivered two amazing seminars on the theme of Community Resilience, Social Justice Activism and the New Dialogic. Over two sessions, Prof. Shiv Ganesh took us on a journey into the fascinating world of research on the dynamics of social movement organizing. [Video clips after the jump.] In the first session, titled, Community Resilience: Resistance and Renewal in an Age of Ecological Crisis, Prof. Shiv Ganesh spoke about the need for new theoretical lens and vocabulary to understand community organizing and social protest movements emerging around the world, particularly in the context of global ecological and economic crisis. In the backdrop of “occupy” movement(s) and other similar protests—Prof. Ganesh pointed out that “Social theory is always playing catch up” and pointed to the need to “develop new vocabularies to describe and assess emergence, not just absence(s),” particularly in communication studies. Dr. Ganga Dhanesh, one of the participants of the seminar, pointed out that Prof. Shiv Ganesh “highlighted the need to create new vocabularies to articulate nascent theories of emergence as opposed to extant theorizing of absence.”
Shiv noticed a novel “eschatology” to the global narratives of climate change, peak oil and other such “collapsitarian” discourses. Such narratives, especially in the context of globalization, foreground the need to understand the local in terms of its relations with the global economic and ecological impacts. At the same time, however, Shiv notices a shift in what constitutes as local—not in relation with global ecological and economic crises, but as a disconnect with such centralized global-scale change. Such focus on localized organizing—for example, farmers markets, carpooling, urban guerrilla gardening—privilege economic decisions by communities, in contrast to more centralized economic policy making process. This emergence of localized economies, in reaction as well as opposition to global economies and ecological crisis, is what Shiv terms as “Ecolocalism.” Shiv defines “Ecolocalism” as an awareness of disconnect between the global and local, that foregrounds self-organizing at the local level. Using the example of Transition Initiatives, Shiv articulated the shift from “high-energy, densely connected industrial economy towards local, loosely connected, low-energy” local economies.
In addition, Shiv examined the concept of community resilience in context of such “Ecolocal” movements. He started with a critique of the study of resilience in organizational communication studies for its overt focus on interaction among community members, and adaptation (to “negative” risks) as critical elements of resilience. Instead, he argued for the need to foreground material aspects of resilience over interaction, and to understand resilience as systemic renewal, and not just as adaptation to risks. Shiv asserted the need to adopt a more socio-ecological perspective of resilience, one that foregrounds the complex dynamics of self-organizing in communities.
He further elaborated that, in contrast to the globalized narrative that treats financial capital as scarcity, and ecological resources as plentiful, ecolocal movements such as Transition movements treat finance as plentiful, and ecology as scarcity. Here Shiv illustrates with the example of “Time Bank” movements where the shift is towards human and social capital from economic capital as the central theme of exchange in communities.
Finally, Shiv articulated three material challenges for such ecolocal movements:
Are all communities equally fertile ground for transition?
Do local communities own the process and outcomes of transition efforts or are such initiatives incorporated to the service of larger global forces?
Is the process of ecolocal transition possible without fundamental shifts in economic livelihoods, social practices and political relationships—given the global scale of ecological problems?
We invite you to watch the video recording of the seminar, and post your thoughts. Read the notes on second part of the seminar titled Coordination, Connectedness and Exchange: The New Dialogic in Social Justice Activism here.
During our twice-a-week CARE team meetings, I was so inspired and challenged by Kang, JT, and Dr. Dutta’s’ conversation about privilege and the idea of “whiteness.” I think their conversation answers a lot of questions (and invites more questioning) about our role in examining our own privilege while also moving forward with both awareness and purpose. I want to invite you into this conversation! Please have a listen: Feel free to post and respond. We would love to hear your voice as well! If you’re looking for more on this topic, please also visit Dr. Mohan Dutta’s blog: http://culture-centered.blogspot.sg/2012/11/more-on-knowledge-procedural-rules-and.html
I’m in total agreement with Sarah that to truly empathize with the less fortunate, we do need to have a healthy dose of humility. This is just my attempt to complexify the issues that she raised, because after all, the world is rarely so black-and-white. Sarah asks rhetorically: “Don’t think we have entitlement issues?” Why, yes, I’m pretty aware I do. I work hard, and I’m pretty good at what I do (I think). I pay taxes. I have some idea of my self-worth. So yes, in my head, I do toss around statements like what Sarah points out: “I DESERVE a job that pays $____ (fill in the blank) and the government OWES it to me to do ____.” However, I don’t think that makes me any less able to empathize with the less fortunate. In fact, the people who need help are likely to think this way as well – isn’t that empathy? So when someone works 12-hour work days at below minimum wage, are they not “entitled” to certain rewards? Since when did having an idea of what you deserve become wrong? The word “entitlement” carries so many negative connotations these days, especially in Singapore. Take for example this article criticizing Singaporeans for wanting to have “an easy life.” The writer claims a lot of Singaporeans, especially youth, carry a self-defeatist behavior and even hints at laziness. He brings up two cases, one of a university student who’s not willing to take class off-campus because she finds it inconvenient, although the writer points out that these classes could help her land the job that she wants; the other, a younger student who doesn’t want to read the writer’s recommended books because he doesn’t like to read. The writer cites these cases as examples of how our youth expect too much but are not doing enough. He writes, “The comfortable life isn’t a right — it’s a privilege.” Yes, it’s a privilege. But it’s a privilege not meted out with a fair hand. In addition, one has to be careful that such (anti-)self-entitlement rhetoric doesn’t drown out other bigger issues. Is our transportation system so poor that it presents itself as an obstacle to Student 1? Why does Student 1 need to take “extra” classes? Why does Student 2 need to read more? What does it say about what sort of book-smart/pragmatic education we privilege in our society? Rhetoric like this also raises huge questions when it enters national discourse. How much are we entitled to? How much help can the needy expect? Also, while I’m a firm believer in walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. However, are you able to lace up those shoes? Does someone else need to walk in your shoes? I think Sarah’s article unfortunately creates a false dichotomy between those who can help and those who need help. When you question how much you’re entitled to, do you need help, or are you able to help? For most of us, there will be people who are worse-off than us. There will also be those who are better-off. At what point do legitimate concerns become whining? I guess the whole point of this post is that it’s not so easy to empathize. After all, to have empathy immediately puts you in a privileged position. And not everyone has the luxury to that privilege, not when they need the empathy as well. This post, in effect, never really opposes what Sarah wrote, but is complicit with her recommendations. Self-entitlement talk cannot stop, but it must be made aware and reflected upon; after all, it allows us to commiserate with those less fortunate than us.