The Role of the ‘Outsider’

The discussion this week raises the possibility of further debate about the role of “outsiders,” specifically privileged outsiders, when they come to less-developed countries.  Certainly in Dream Jungle, author Jessica Hagedorn offers a pointed and cynical view of the negative effects of a paternalistic, Western society (and, in her novel, represented mostly by male characters). She does so, I believe, in a captivating literary style that, as noted in class, challenges our traditional understanding of “history” as written by the usual WASPs.  Still, are Americans really so awful and insensitive?  The country that ran off the Native Americans to reservations, killed all the buffalo and nearly self-destructed in a civil war over (among other things) slavery is the same country that has welcomed millions of refugees and immigrants no one else wanted, defeated Hitler and enabled millions of low-skilled workers on the factory floor to join the middle class. 

The same issues might be raised in the context of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern.”  In Africa, writes Appiah, “the distinction between high culture and mass culture, insofar as it makes sense at all, corresponds, by and large, to the distinction between those with and those without Western-style formal education as cultural consumers” (435). Thus, he seems to be suggesting that a Western sensibility creates a “market” for certain African art (he specifically mentions David Rockefeller) and creates an “international commodification of African expressive culture” (442).  If Africa and African art represent the “other” to the American/European art collectors, is it a valid characterization of a continent whose identity is intertwined with colonialist occupation and influence? What is Africa’s “real” identity?  What, for that matter, is the “real” identity of the Filipino culture on the other side of the world?

Ultimately, if “historiographic metafiction,” as we discussed in class, offers a platform for “marginalized voices,” how do we know that these new voices are any more authentic or emblematic of a culture than voices that have come before? My guess is they would be provocative and challenging and at least broaden the canon, so to speak, but they could also be not very interesting and not particularly insightful.  It’s just like any artistic endeavor; there’s good stuff and there’s not-so-good stuff.  If the history and culture of any peoples is “mediated” by a Western European, is it by default invalid or somehow tainted?  Appiah’s essay prompts a lot of interesting questions and I look forward to more discussion in class.


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One thought on “The Role of the ‘Outsider’”


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    Professor Sample says:

    Thanks for bringing in the Appiah article. You raise a point that goes right to the heart of the matter: how do we know that a text that gives voice to marginalized people is not doing so in a way that reaffirms these marginalized voices as exotic “others.” It’s a great question to consider when thinking about Dream Jungle.

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