Danny Butt on Wed, 3 Mar 2004 14:33:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Some notes on visiting Sarai, Delhi, December 2003

Kia ora all

I had hoped to deal with my visit to Sarai in a more substantial way, but
haven't had time and so thought I should just forward something that makes
the the main point.



"The high-tech is an epistemological constraint I want to escape.
That's the secret of hybridisation. The biggest hybridisation is of
course the sexual encounter which you want to escape and at the same
time are seduced by. Yes, epistemologic constraints seduce me because
they are outside of me, while at the same time I want to escape them.
This is how the game of hybridisation in my life goes on."
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in interview with Geert Lovink

"Freedom... is an inherently diverse concept, which requires consideration
of processes, as well as substantive opportunities."
- Amartya Sen, _Development as Freedom_

The concept of 'manaaki', often translated as hospitality or generosity, is
central to Maori culture. Welcoming, hosting, and feeding visitors is
fundamental to the mana or status of the marae (meeting house and environs)
and its people. The most imposing whakairo (carvings) or spectacular
tukutuku panelling count for little without the 'ringa wera' ('hot hands')
of the aunties in the kitchen - or the men putting down the hangi - who
magically provide for what are sometimes large and unpredictable numbers of
visitors at special occasions.

For Pakeha/Europeans, there are often three stages to the experience of
manaakitanga in the Maori context. The first is an overwhelming sense of
amazement and gratitude. Secondly, it's hard not to notice the contrast
between that generosity and the severe *lack* of generosity evident in white
representations of Maori culture. Thirdly, white culture reveals itself as
somewhat bizarrely constructed of various exclusions and barriers in spite
of its professed 'openness'. [We might suggest that the West has led
development of 'technologies of freedom' that exceed its cultural capacity
to productively use them.]

There are two effects of manaaki that are equally significant. The first is
the 'ethic of care' which is directly embodied in manaakitanga. It simply
reiterates: people are worthwhile and their well-being should be paid
attention to. I'm reminded of a recent presentation by Meaghan Morris, who
noted that her main concern as chair of an academic department was the
*physical* well-being of her staff, who were working themselves to death to
meet institutional demands. This is not in her job description. It is a sad
indictment of our institutional forms that these basic processes are so
often neglected.

The second effect is more subtle, but important: manaaki diffracts the
"neutral", unmarked, authoritative positioning that is embedded in colonial
language and culture. For there to be good hosts (tangata whenua - "people
of the land"), there have to be good guests (manuhiri) - and one has no
choice but to be clear on one's role in any particular situation. These
roles are however not attached to particular people immovably: under marae
protocol, once the manuhiri are welcomed onto the marae and share a meal,
they take on the role of tangata whenua and are expected to assume the
responsibility of manaaki toward any other visitors who will arrive.
Therefore, roles are always *relational*, and no-one speaks from an
unsitutated position (there are also other aspects to Maori tikanga that
contribute to this that remain outside the scope of this piece). The logic
will be familiar to anyone associated with contemporary theories of cultural
identity in the wake of Marxism.

The combined impact of feeling cared for and understanding one's role
contributes to a subjectivity where social structure and individual agency
are not opposed in the same way as the ideology of European individualism.
[This holistic sensibility is embodied in the formal Maori greeting "Tena
koe" - which literally translates as "That's you". At that point of being
greeted, one is recognised as a person - "one becomes who one already is" -
one speaks from the position that we have no choice but to be who we are.]

I outline (and oversimplify) these processes for a reason, which is to
account for the distinctive nature of conversations I have when attending
hui/conferences etc. in a Maori context compared to European institutions.
The wide-ranging conversations routinely integrate discussion about
theoretical/ontological frameworks and real-life motivations, desires and
possibilities - compared to the bounded, disciplinary dialogues that
constitute much of Pakeha cultural life.

The Sarai New Media Initiative in Delhi (http://www.sarai.net) is the first
non-New Zealand environment I've encountered which facilitates dialogue in
a similarly rewarding way. "Sarai" in a number of Indian languages means "a
place for travellers to rest", or "meeting place" - perhaps like a mobile
marae. The twin themes of generosity and freedom of movement that the Sarai
concept implies, articulated through a distinctly Indian elegance of
thought, create a poetic theoretical language and a political approach which
is best described as "beautiful". Sarai's activities apply this sensibility
to the very real materialities of Delhi's location on global circuits of
capitalist exchange. They traffic, with exquisite reflexivity, between
"home" and the international flows of money and information in which they
are implicated. This situated perspective has the effect of "marking" other
new media initiatives which (particularly in Europe and the US) attempt to
make the "global" their home in some abstract way.

An example will help. The Cybermohalla project bears a passing resemblance
to telecentre projects which have been a staple of
ICTs-for-community-development. Computers are made available in a poor basti
in Delhi, loaded with open-source tools, and young people far outside
traditional educational structures participate in the labs discovering new
forms of media production. But in a typical Sarai inversion, the goal is not
to "train" or "educate", but to open an opportunity for the creativity of
the participants to emerge, and then travel on a broader circuit. The source
of value is located in the participants rather than the facilitators, and
Sarai document and disseminate the (often gripping) stories in book and web
form. It is a kaupapa of exchange and circulation, rather than transmission.
Against the Protestant logic of instrumentalism, where outcomes are
foreclosed before exchange begins ("we" must help "them"), we are asked:
"Before coming here, had you thought of a place like this?". Agency is
continually decentered, questioned. Those who seek to change must prepare to
be changed themselves (Spivak), to allow the narratives of the Other to
overlay and transform the narrative of the Self.

This logic - a "narrative upon narrative" that Sarai call "rescension" -
operates across all their projects: art, media theory, software development.
They are fluent in the language of Empire having been subjected to it all
their lives. But they also draw upon languages and resources Europeans do
not and cannot know. You get the feeling that their popularity in the North
trades on this exoticism a little, but then novelty is the frontier currency
of new media theory, and reputation capital is fleeting, so everyone makes
the most of it. In any case, it makes far more sense than being a new market
for European theory, which is more common. It's all part of the mode of
circulation. Like many historical trading ports, Sarai is a place of
exchange, diversity, and openness.

All I really want to say about Sarai is this: Sarai is the significant
centre for new media's future. It's a node that can potentially connect
Europe's new media initiatives to the massive social movements in Europe's
Asia-Pacific colonies (an articulation which desperately needs to be made if
European conceptions of media are to remain relevant).

I know I could take to Sarai the people from whom I learn - artists in the
Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori Sovereignty) movement in Aotearoa, the activists
behind the Indonesian Internet Xchange, the development communications
publishers in Penang - confident that they will feel welcomed, cared for,
loved. This is due to Sarai's processes as much as the substantive content
of their activities. Or more precisely, the values of the Sarai continually
reverberate through the organisation itself.

[I visited Sarai as a guest of UNESCO for the colloquium "Old Pathways New
Travellers: New Media Arts and Electronic Music in the Asia Pacific". I am
grateful to Chaz Doherty (Tuhoe) for discussions on manaakitanga - however
the misrepresentation of the concept I present here is my own and not
endorsed by him :).]


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