24 April 2008

Banning Indian Soaps and the Construction of the Afghan Self

First of all, I wish the Western media could divorce itself from the desire to try to fashion a coherent narrative out of what is happening here, and barring that to keep pushing this notion of the resurgent Taliban. (and in that I detect and inherent bias toward what I term "the fecundity of the west fallacy"--no matter how shortsighted and incompetent NATO can be here, it must be remember that there is no comparison between them and the Taliban or Soviets and that they have the moral high ground and are doing a difficult task in a difficult situation--a fact which I think is not lost on most Afghans)

Anyway, yes, South Asian pop culture is taking over the world (woohoo!) and people are at a loss as to what to do about it. One of the most fascinating things about this country is that traditional culture has completely failed but modernity has yet to take any seriously indigenous root (you know my rant on modernity and culture, right?). The issue with Indian soaps revolves around the common theme here--that people tend not to have individual moral constructions. So you get a lot of situations where everyone says something is wrong and denounces it publically, but btw they all do it themselves. I know that may sound a bit overwrought, but the issue is much more complex than pure hypocrisy. It's truly amazing how much these soaps have captured people's imaginations here (they're extremely simple and directed at the bottom tier of the Indian market), and what's happening is that people enthralled by the products of mass culture and the idea. For example a big part of Tulsi or Imtihaani Zindagi for the viewers is that you can you can go halfway across the country and discuss last night's episode with people. At the same time these programmes are new and not indigenous and the logos (cf. Hodgson's conservative spirit) is that new is bad. The fact that they involve Hindu characters and storylines creates a big cognitive dissonance too (these soaps are the first time that many Afghans are brought into contact with Hinduism and hence the idea that Islam and hence their baseline moral discourse is not always on top).

So if your a representative, it's easy points to say "ban it". And people will bitch but they don't have any paradigm for opposing it. These things (like the law against T-shirts and sexes mingling) are not re-entering the discourse now so much as they always were the moral absolute and no one discussed it before. As the ban is further being discussed, people are asking why there had to be such a ban in the first place, so that now what you're getting is a discourse. It sucks in the short term (people have more limitations), but it's also the only way people will figure things out for themselves and things will get better. Politicians here are democratically elected but don't know any way to act except the traditional patronage system (nor do there constituents) so another thing is that you get a lot of grandstanding without attention to underlying issues. Everyone here does want to drink, flirt, and be entertained, it's all a matter of them admitting that to themselves!