Airbrushed History: Photography, Realism, and Rushdie's Midnight's Children
Barnaby, Edward, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
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.
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). Some have even questioned whether fictional critiques of imperialism are capable of prompting an ethical response from the reader or simply reinforce the spectacle of empire (see Rosaldo and Ahmad). Graham Huggan, for one, seems to recognize Rushdie's attempt to parody the colonial situation, yet dismisses this political gesture as "vulnerable to recuperation" insofar as the uncritical reader could potentially be drawn into "rehearsing a continuing history of imperialist perceptions of an 'othered' India" (81).
Rushdie's depiction of visual culture in Midnight's Children, however, achieves precisely the opposite effect, portraying how the spectacle was operative in both the colonial vision of India held by the Raj and the nationalist vision of India advanced by the independence movement. Often read misleadingly as fantasy or magic realism through a strictly postcolonial lens, Midnight's Children is more holistically understood as a realist satire of the neuroses of an Indian man who becomes convinced by the competing imagery and rhetoric of the spectacles of imperialism and nationalism that the events of his life mirror the historical narrative of modern India. To discredit Rushdie's abilities as a satirist precisely because of his access to the tradition of social realism in the European novel, or because the imperceptive reader might take too literally the more ironic or grotesque moments of the text, exhibits a certain willingness to misunderstand Rushdie's politics and his fiction. In order to gauge what Huggan regards as the novel's lack of "oppositional power" (71), perhaps clearer definition is needed as to what exactly Midnight's Children opposes. The narrative voice of this novel openly comments on the falsification of reality through propagandistic constructions of history. The novel in general satirizes the fascist spectacle of British cultural superiority that the Raj foisted upon the historical memory and visual culture of India during its occupation. Furthermore, it satirizes the way in which these dynamics were then adopted and perpetuated by India's own nationalist movement.
Rushdie accomplishes this by "replaying" for the reader (to use Anuradha Needham's term) the struggle of an Indian man to find meaning and authentic experience among these competing unrealities. Needham observes that it is typical for writers of a diaspora to advance "reconstructions [that] contest and/or call into question the truth …
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Publication information: Article title: Airbrushed History: Photography, Realism, and Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Contributors: Barnaby, Edward - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 38. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2005. Page number: 1+. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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