From ‘nowhere’ to ‘somewhere’

In her famous essay on situated knowledges, Donna Haraway writes about why the place of ‘subjugated knowledges’ is more politically privileged and ‘preferred’ over the position of established authoritative knowledge:

‘… they are preferred because in principle they are least likely to allow the denial of the critical and interpretive core of all knowledge. They are knowledgeable of all modes of denial through repression, forgetting, and disappearing acts – ways of being nowhere while claiming to see comprehensively. […] “Subjugated” standpoints are preferred because they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world.’ (1988: 584)

Donna Haraway. ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.’ Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599

What if you knew that your place of subjugated knowledge would give you cred and cachet in elite, intellectual spaces? You will, however, need to bypass the necessary gatekeeping strategies first; by getting the right, highest, most prestigious forms of academic qualifications (cultural capital), having enough confidence and feeling of entitlement that are helpfully enhanced by wealth and privilege (economic capital), and possessing the right connections (social capital) to get you through the door. Then, you speak from a place of ‘subjugated knowledge’…

A friend shared with me a curious story of hybrid privileged-subjugated knowledge that took place at a local literary festival in Malaysia recently. A speaker on a writing panel spoke wistfully about gaining inspiration from their indigenous background, alluding to their connection to some mythical, pristine place quite different from where most people in the room were assumed to be from. But you see, belonging to a widely-accepted ‘subjugated’ identity is one thing, repeated performances are quite another.

When the performance is good, audiences are going to be impressed. They will be impressed with how a person from ‘nowhere’ can get to ‘somewhere’. Until that ‘nowhere’ turns out to be a place of great privilege and was actually ‘somewhere’ to begin with. A more complete narrative reveals a less than impressive human-interest story; they were not in fact raised in the mythical pristine rainforest or subsisted on humble produce grown behind their longhouse.

Donna Haraway was referring to a different kind of ‘nowhere’ above; a place of purported objectivity, unencumbered by the messiness of social life. I am interested, however, in the ‘nowhere’ that scholars from the third world perform on the academic stage, whilst making good use of the claims to subjugated knowledge to arrive at that desirable ‘somewhere’.

As I’m writing this, I am compelled to reflect on my own transition from ‘nowhere’ to ‘somewhere’ as another scholar from the third world. My academic journey that began from a financially precarious middle-class upbringing, starting from the backwaters of Slim River and Bangi, then to Oxford, SOAS, Harvard, Leiden, and now NUS can reliably be used as an impressive performance material for the ‘third world woman done good’. To be frank, it’s still a very rare narrative of international social mobility, but I simply don’t have the moral appetite nor the chutzpah to wheel it out in elite spaces for credibility or cachet.

But performances are there for a reason. We’ve learned from Judith Butler that we perform our identities out of necessity, whereby every ‘act’ and reiteration of who we claim we are is a struggle against breakdown and failure.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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