The construction of suffering

By Dr. David Nally

When considering starvation, context is everything. This fact is easily illustrated. Consider, for a moment, the actions of David Blaine, the US magician, who in 2003 spent 44 days in a six-foot-by-three-foot plexiglas chamber suspended in the air near Tower Bridge, London, without any food.

Blaine was seemingly motivated by Kafka’s short tale, The Hunger Artist – and perhaps in the magician’s mind this endurance test was the logical extension of being entombed in a block of ice or buried alive in a coffin – but for the watching public this caper was in bad taste. To wilfully starve oneself seemed to many people to be a perverse and disgusting show. Blaine was booed and jeered on a regular basis before he finally abandoned his stunt, weary and exhausted.

Now consider a second, more common image of hunger – the anonymous, starving black child. We’ve all seen her picture at some point: semi-naked, flies gripping eyelids, stick-like limbs, parched lips, sunken cheekbones, balding head, and sightless eyes. The child is obviously severely undernourished and requires food, but we do not get the sense – at least from this image – that she is being compelled or forced to go hungry. The picture is a stark one to be sure, but when it speaks to us it says only, “I starve”. We are presented with raw biology or “bare life”.

When our mind’s eye reflects on such images we may feel the urge to donate money to a charity, but at whom do we direct our collective indignation? Who would we challenge for violating this child’s “right to food”? This picture – replicated hundreds and thousands of times – presents a victim without an oppressor.

To extend this imaginative exercise just a little further we might ask ourselves: why did large sections of the public get angry with David Blaine and why do the public generally feel pity when images of starving children are shown? Why not the other way around? Why not pity the magician for his tasteless stunt and feel anger at the sight of a child so deprived that her body is forced to slowly cannibalise itself?

The verb “to starve”, as Alex de Waal usefully points out, has both an intransitive and transitive meaning (see his important book Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “to starve” means “to die or lose vitality for lack of proper nutriment” or “to suffer extreme poverty and want”. However, the verbs intransitive meaning, “to subdue by famine or low diet; to force into … starvation”, is hardly ever used in popular parlance, giving the impression that starvation is not something that one person or social group inflicts on another. We may seek refuge in pity when culpability is erased and no one is deemed accountable.

The construction of suffering

The fact that the very terms used to discuss famine tend to mask and mystify the violence of deprivation is significant also in terms of how we perceive, and indeed socially construct, the suffering of distant strangers. For Susan Sontag, images of suffering carry a “double message”. On the one hand, “they show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired”, while, on the other hand, “they confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place”. This powerful imaginative geography, Sontag goes on to explain, “cannot help but nourish the belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world”.

Unfortunately, it is all too common to depict the starving as voiceless victims. Inert and apathetic, they wait for us to intervene on their behalf. In these depictions, little mention is made of the coping strategies or daily struggles the poor undertake in order to survive a bit longer. In many cases, families are forced to sever their bonds: the men travel miles in search of work in the hope of sending remittances home; women and children forage for food and water or travel large distances for medical assistance in relief camps and urban centres.

This isn’t merely an academic matter about accurate reporting. Images of suffering are not “passive illustrations”, as Susan Moeller insists, but “ideological constructions designed to justify national ideals resonant today”. The portrayal of the passive victim enables NGOs and Western governments to assume the role of rescuer without having to ask uncomfortable questions about their own complicity in the suffering that is unfolding. The “send in the blankets and food” response may indeed save lives in the short term, but it certainly will do nothing to address the deeper inequalities that produce famine in the first place.

This failure to historicise vulnerability is perplexing given the commonly accepted distinction between “trigger factors” (which, being immediate, are deemed newsworthy) and the “underlying causes” of famine that slowly bring a population to the point of collapse. The Indian scholar Amrita Rangasami, for example, understands famines as aprocess, not an event, while historian David Arnold maintains that they are “a symptom rather than a cause of social weakness”.

Actually, these sorts of arguments have a long genealogy. Writing during the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s, for example, the Catholic Archbishop, John MacHale (1791-1881), insisted on distinguishing the “antecedent circumstances and influences” from the “primary” or “original causes” of famine, although it was the radical nationalist, John Mitchel (1815-1875), who most memorably captured the difference in his colourful aphorism: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” Indeed, the insight captured by these Irishmen is as least as old as Shakespeare, who gave Shylock the memorable line: “He takes my life who takes the means whereby I live.”

But how are whole communities rendered vulnerable to exogenous shocks? If there is “no such thing as a natural disaster”, as geographer Neil Smith maintains, the important question to ask is what sort of “political violence” creates and exacerbates famine? The answer here is less obvious and requires some explaining.

It is relatively easy to imagine situations in which widespread starvation is the outcome of overt violence. In the medieval period, for example, military blockades were designed to starve an enemy to the point of submission. A siege, lasting weeks or even months, was an indiscriminate mode of warfare insofar as it targeted armed forces and civilians alike – and that too was purposeful. The ritual of “slash and burn” practised by retreating armies was similarly calculated to eradicate whole communities by directly destroying their means of subsistence.

Certain economic mechanisms may also operate in an overt or direct manner. Tariffs, poll taxes, rent systems, and credit practices, for example, are easily identified as “extractive forces” that strip populations of their assets, leaving scarcity and hunger in their wake. In these situations, the populations affected are able to identify those responsible – that is, tax collectors, moneylenders, large farmers, and landlords – a fact that explains why these figures are very often the target of agrarian violence.

The difficulty, of course, is that this kind of “subjective violence” (to borrow Slavoj Zizek’s term for “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent”) is rare in the context of modern famines, which are typically the result of a causal chain involving local, national, and international actors, as Abdi Samatar so helpfully explains.

vThe famine in East Africa amply demonstrates how food crises are complex events by their very nature. Most commentaries blame the famine on militia activity in southern Somalia, coupled with one of the worst droughts since the 1950s. But droughts are not a new environmental condition in East Africa, nor are armed conflicts entirely local in nature. International actors, through supplying armaments and political patronage (so-called “proxy force”), foment violent conflict to suit their own political agendas.

At the same time, in East Africa, rural communities that have formerly coped with erratic rainfalls find themselves unable to weather the “shock” of drought resulting from climate change. According to William Moseley, the commercialization of farming practices has placed enormous pressure on traditional livelihoods in the region:

As farming has expanded, including in some instances to large-scale commercial farms, the routes of herders have become more concentrated and more vulnerable to drought. The change from traditional practices has also become detrimental to the landscape. In Ethiopia, large land leases (or “land grabs”) to foreign governments and companies for export crops (such as palm oil, rice and sugar) have further exacerbated this problem.

Food prices lingering at record highs

The squeeze on livelihoods driven by commercialisation is compounded by a third factor that brings the negative externalities of the modern food system into sharp relief. Soaring global food prices mean that local farmers are priced out of the market for basic commodities. In Somalia, the cost of sorghum is reportedly 240 per cent higher than a year ago. In some parts of Kenya, according to another report, “the price of corn, the country’s staple crop, has tripled since January”. While food prices receded somewhat in 2009, after a steep increase in 2007-08 when food riots spread across 48 countries, the global food price index, published by the United Nations, is now hovering at an historic high.

What is causing such extreme price volatility? Again, a variety of factors are simultaneously increasing demand and constraining supply. These include high energy prices, the diversion of grain for livestock feed and for the production of biofuels, as well as foreign governments and hedge funds “grabbing land” in a bid to increase their profits. According to some experts, we are witnessing a structural shift in the global food regime that will keep prices high for quite some time to come. The internationalisation of global markets, and the financialisation of the food system in particular, mean that acute food crises could become more regular and more difficult to diagnose.

In his recent book, The Scramble for Africa, Padraig Carmody points out that the “extroversion of Africa” – whereby the economy is “oriented to meet the needs of other people in other places” – makes the path out of poverty much less likely. Carmody goes on to explain that three quarters of all African exports are unprocessed primary goods, such as bauxite and cassiterite, which are subject to high price volatility. Hunger, in this context, is the indirect result of unjust market relations.

There is ample evidence to suggest that when markets move against poor communities the consequences can be deadly. Yet governments in the so-called developed world, through the WTO, continue to push for the “liberalisation” of African economies, all the while doing little to address the subsidies that de-incentivise production in developing countries. Among many other things, “globalisation” means that life-and-death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven into the very fabric of international economic relations.

It is all too easy to succumb to “compassion fatigue”; when crises drag on, something else fills the newspapers. But the more it’s shown that “the sort of thing which happens in that place” is partly an outcome of policies designed inthis place, the more responsibility we have to do something about it. When viewing images of starving children or reading about deaths from malnutrition in the daily newspapers, we ought to consider critically the architecture of violence behind the picture or story, not merely the sad abjection of the victim. There is a need, as Susan Sontag once said, to put privilege and suffering on the same map.

Dr David Nally is a political geographer and lecturer at the University of Cambridge. His book, Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine, is published by University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, 2011.

About Michaela

I am a wanderer and a wonderer, like you are. I love our journey and to walk in the company of friends – to learn, experience, share, laugh, cry and above all I simply love this marvelous, magical, mysterious life. I have no plan (cannot believe I am saying this) and my only intention is to be truthful to myself and others.
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1 Response to The construction of suffering

  1. johanna11 says:

    Yes – let’s put human suffering and privilge on the same map! Integration instead of fragmentation.

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