again, i point you to progpak

Okay, so I know you all might not share my love or interest in this blog (or the movement in Pakistan). But some great journalism is happening on this and other blogs. In “A Primer for the New York Times” on the recent movement, progpak outlines a problem with journalism, one I hadn’t thought of before: how in using narrative devices of fiction (“characters” and “scenes”), journalism often obscures the social processes behind movements. The result is a terrible misunderstanding of events, resulting in potentially disastrous consequences.

So, how does it happen that a mass-based movement becomes conflated with one man?  Mere credulousness on the part of the NYT is too simplistic an answer. It’s more than that. It’s about those technical requisites of  modern American journalism that employ the techniques of fiction to explain events. Journalists are familiar with having to find “characters” and “scenes” for their narrative. In so doing, the field sometimes breaks a cardinal rule of the social sciences: individuals are not stand-ins for social forces. Sharif is not the movement. It’s a theory of history that’s silly and deadly.  It’s what walked the US into Iraq and has it looking for Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda incarnate, now…

Once social forces are written off the page, it becomes easy to forget that they ever existed or can have an autonomous impact. The story that is ‘Pakistan,’ in the NYT, hangs together as a small cast of disparate, unseemly characters: the demagogic opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, an oily Zardari, a hapless Gilani, the inscrutable Kayani. It’s the actions of these great men, not ‘great’ in the normative sense of excellent, terrific, first-rate, but rather mammoth personalities that seem to drive events through their charisma and skill. Those who marched from Quetta, from Karachi, from Lahore only constitute a delirious mob, full of fury, signifying nothing. This is a particular kind of story about how change happens except that in ‘Pakistan,’ the story never changes.

In ‘Pakistan,’ these great-men unbound by institutions, social movements, networks, continually chance intricate political games in a space that’s only peopled by, well, bat-shit crazy extremists, an economic meltdown and a nuclear bomb…

Beyond the critique of journalism, this makes me think of the ways in which I employ fiction-like narrative devices in my own ethnographic writing, and how that might create some of the same problematics as outlined here. Now it’s clear that these are not necessary, if only because novels themselves employ these devices and often convey quite powerful social processes. So it’s interesting to think about the conditions under which these problems emerge. That aside, the entire post is worth a read, both for its critique of journalism and information on what’s a major (democratic) social movement over in “the most dangerous place on earth”.

One thought on “again, i point you to progpak”

  1. I have been thinking a lot about this post. How is it that novels employ these devices, as you say, yet are able to convey social processes? I’m thinking of The Jungle and The God of Small Things at the moment. Is the crucial difference the position of the “character” whose experiences drive the narrative? Following “great men” reveals very little about social processes, but describing the “scenes” in which a less powerful person experiences the events of social life can convey much more about social forces.


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