Title: Is Information Powerless?
abstract: The texts we have been focusing on this session have centered around an analysis of the structure of the global economy, and the role of the consumer. Largely, investigative documentaries, journalists, and photographers have built careers on exposing the hardships of those afflicted by extreme poverty created by the economic structure. In this essay, I aim to question whether the spreading of information in regard to extreme poverty provides any outlet for change in the individual consumer, or an alteration within the economic structure. Ultimately, as Martin's exploration as the example, knowledge does not translate into power for change. When it comes to dismanteling extreme poverty, spreading knowledge of poverty does not function as a catalyst for restructuring the the global economy.
In the texts and videos we have studied during this section, Zezik and Martin help to inform their audience of the position of the poor within the mechanics of the global market. The first detail in regard to their position, is that the poor make up the ground floor of the global market as the producers of cheap labor and resources. The poor’s second and potentially largest contribution to the market is that their extreme need for aid creates a huge flux on money under the guise of “humanitarian” aid. Lastly, in an unusual turn of education by a documentarian, Renzo Martin’s attempts to inform the poor workers in the Congo with the details of their role in the global market. In regard to the spreading of this information, what does the knowledge of another’s extreme suffering do to affect change in the individual consumer, and what does sharing this information do to encourage a restructuring of the global markets?
Ziziek tells us that tragedy is the staple of our economy, and that in an an attempt to liberate ourselves from the guilt of our consumer obsessions, we buy into products that claim to have a moral conscious. We want to be a part of an economy that runs with the ideology of fairness, equality, and of consideration for the planet. In reality, the ideology of any business is to maximize profit, and a way of doing this, is to create the illusion of morality and justness in order to maintain happy and comfortable clients. But in a world of transparency and investigative journalism, we are all aware that our favorite companies that pretend to help the starving children are directly responsible for starving children to death. How can this information be presented in a way that motivates a restructuring of our society, or is it possible for knowledge to be the catalyst for change?
In “Enjoy Poverty”, Martin lays out the structure of our global economy and explains that the primary factor in our global market is the exploitation of the poor. He outlines the way in which poverty is a structure of its own in which the rest of the global economy is built on. Those living in extreme poverty, specifically in Africa, provide cheap labor, and contribute to the exportation of valuable resources for at unimaginably low cost. The mechanics of the global market creates a situation for those in vulnerable areas to remain desperately poor, yet employed by those who keep them desperately poor. The work they provide is quite valuable, but because of their lack of resources, strength, and political position, they are powerless to negotiate for better wages, or a share in the natural resources coming from their own land. In our “western ideology” which believes itself to be moral, the initial suggestion to ease their desperation would be informing the public, and requesting aid. How does the spreading of information and the delegation of aid help the poor?
Our moral ideology inspires us to help those living in extreme poverty. As Ziziek states, we, while wearing our ideology glasses strive to give our money to charity Instead of rebuilding a system that created the circumstance for those living in poverty. In “Enjoy Poverty” Renzo Martin describes the role in which monetary aid is collected for the rich by the poor. We learn that not only does agenda of global capitalism keep the poor underemployed and desperate, but their poverty and their desperation creates a new stream of revenue for the rich. These highly informed donators are not simply sending billions of dollars with out the knowledge of where the money is going, and how it will be spent. They knowingly send the “aid” under the pretense of charity, and in 90% of the cases, more than 70% of that money comes right back to those who organized the distribution of the aid. So, what we have learned from the empathic, western man, investigating the poor, is that the existence of these poor communities does more than just allow the rest of the world cheap access to natural resources and cheaply acquired exports. It creates a global outcry which generates revenue under the pretext of humanitarian aid, but in reality, the money only furthers the oppressive agenda of those who are most aware of the suffering, and the most capable of changing it.
So what is the purpose of distributing this type of information, or of “spreading the word” about extreme poverty? In the case of extreme poverty, is knowledge power?
In an unusual approach to a documentary about the poor and exploited Africans, we see Martin attempt to turn the table on who he aims to enlighten. He shares his knowledge of the structure of poverty with his subjects instead of his audience. Martin attempts to enlighten the individuals employed by the corporations, and the unemployed locals. He describes to them that their suffering is a commodity in itself, and one that generates huge amounts of money for people other than them. He outlines the amount of money generated by the photos of their desperation, and the way in which companies raise money “for them” which they will never see. Again, what is Martin’s agenda? Does he believe this knowledge will motivate them to unite and rebel against those who have exploited their need for money, and the land that they live on? Will this provide them with the background information that they need in order to negotiate a better wage? As the story develops, we see Martin in his attempts to teach the poor some tricks they could use to manipulate their surroundings, but ultimately, the poor learn that they will always come out with a disadvantage, and are with out the power to manipulate anything in their favor.
After having gathered this information, and doing so in a way that the poor Martin is seemingly trying to help will see the logistics of their perpetual depression, Martin attempts to deliver a different, and unexpected type of information. Martin essentially tells the poor that, taken what he has learned, the poor will always suffer, they will always be poor, and that if they want that, than they should continue to hope, fight, and dream of a better life. If they do not want to be always suffering, than they must surrender to their situation and enjoy whatever it is in life than they are capable of enjoying. After all the knowledge that has been collected and distributed by Martin and by filmmakers, photographers, and journalists alike, the only piece of information that can be decisively applied to change anything, is to essentially surrender to the life you have. Do not want for anything, but want what you have. In the privileged Western fantasy of our practiced ideology, knowledge of another pain brings the dream for things to be different. But what Martin teachers the poor, and his audience, is that knowledge only gives us the idea for change, but it does not give us the will, the tools, resources, or strength required to make such a substantial change to our current system. The only thing this information can really give us is a share in the suffering of those we are now aware of, and the hope that magically, someone will come in and fix this all for us. Just as Martin’s information session with the employees of the corporations do not change their role in the economy, or with in their communities, this information will not change our role in the economy either. We will continue to be a consumer even after watching a child starve as a direct result of the cruel policy of the company we support. As Ziziek bluntly points out, we rather imagine that the minor alterations we make to our spending after watching a “informative” documentary will affect the individuals at the bottom of the economic system instead of directly attacking that system. To reiterate one of the first lines from the main worker Martin focuses on in “Enjoy Poverty”, to change our global capitalist market is just “too much work”. [to end on a less depressing note, what would happen if the the poor stopped accepting the ideology of the rich?- S]