Airbrushed History: Photography, Realism, and Rushdie's Midnight's Children

Article excerpt

Informed by Rushdie's non-fiction, the social history of photography in India, and the work of Debord and Sontag, in this reading of Midnight's Children, I contend that Rushdie uses fictional photographs to stage a realist satire of colonial and nationalist ideologies, thus countering various attempts to label Midnight's Children as magic realism or exoticism.

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A media campaign for Macintosh computers that featured a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and the caption "think different" elicited a vehement condemnation from Salman Rushdie. Dismayed that such a complex and enigmatic figure, one who opposed the technological modernization of India, should be reduced to visual shorthand for an imperialist narrative of progress, Rushdie offered the following lament: "[Gandhi] has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a free-floating concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented, to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth" (Step 166). This induction of Gandhi's image into the catalogue of corporate clip art is a vivid symptom of the "society of the spectacle" featured in the title of Guy Debord's 1967 Situationist work. Debord astutely observes the manner in which the proliferation of images in industrialized society has evolved into the production of false realities. For Debord, a veil of images has been drawn between the individual and an authentic experience of time and history, thus concealing capitalist transformation beneath an emerging cultural amnesia and subjecting society to accelerating cycles of consumption.

The manipulation of photographs as part of the spectacle's validation of ideology and commodification of culture is a recurring motif in both the political history of India and Rushdie's non-fiction. Thus the photograph plays a substantial role in framing Rushdie's critique of spectacle, and it is through Situationist critiques of photography articulated by Susan Sontag and John Berger that Rushdie has been most influenced by Debord's discourse. Sontag and Berger both echo the vocabulary of Debord's concept of detournement, the process whereby the "despotism of a fragment imposing itself as the pseudo-knowledge of a frozen whole" is restored to "its context, its own movement and ultimately the overall frame of reference of its period" (Debord 145-46). In On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the photograph similarly as a "fragment," a "quotation [...] open to any kind of reading," falsely regarded as a "piece of reality" (71, 74). Just as Debord accuses the spectacle of naturalizing a socially conditioned way of seeing, Sontag writes that "photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism" (87). It is through photography, Sontag concludes, that "history is converted into spectacle," "people become customers of reality," and "every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption [and] promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation" (110). Applying the concept of detournement to photography, Berger argues that photography must be represented in a "radial system" of words and other images to ensure that it serves as a contextual aid to social and political memory and is not used to construct a linear narrative that substitutes in a fascist manner for memory (292-3).

What has not been so clearly understood is that this discourse on photography and spectacle informs Rushdie's fiction as well. In spite of the context provided by Rushdie's essays, the critical response to Midnight's Children has struggled to discern the novel's relationship to imperialist ideology and often suggests that the novel contributes, even if unwittingly, to the spectacle of India as an exotic "other." Certain postcolonial theorists regard the European geographical location and educational tradition from which Rushdie writes as grounds to disqualify his portrayal of Indian society as participating in the imperialist gaze, while others have indicted Rushdie's participation in a capitalist publishing scheme that markets Anglo-Indian writers within the discourse of the exotic (see Barnett and Huggan). …