Last Thursday (2nd Feb) I attended a lecture held at Amnesty International’s offices in London to hear Judith Butler and Sudeep Dasgupta discuss ‘paternalism’. The event was organised and curated by the Institute of International Visual Arts, Iniva, which programmes exhibitions, learning and research projects that seek to engage with new ideas and emerging debates in the contemporary visual arts, reflecting in particular the cultural diversity of contemporary society.

This event, part of Iniva’s ‘Keywords’ series of lectures takes its title from Raymond Williams’ seminal book ‘Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society’ (1976) which looks at how the meaning of words change as the context in which they are used changes about them. Each lecture invites different theorists, academics, artists to consider words such as ‘class’, ‘postcolonial’ and evaluate or respond to their meaning in contemporary society.

The space was packed out. The lighting dimmed, the scene set and the audience a diverse mixture of gender, age, ethnic backgrounds yet all sharing an outward appearance of culture, an awareness of fashion, self-expression that reminded me of the type of people who hang out in the trendy bars, clubs and warehouse parties of East London. They were a switched on, engaged and highly ‘cultural’ and it was as much a pleasure to people watch as it was to listen to the speakers.

The format of the lecture is very free. After an introduction by Iniva’s board member, Sudeep Dasguta was invited to offer his thoughts and questions around the word ‘paternalism’. He started by offering a series of questions relating to the term and its implication of a power relationship between the paternal figure and the paternalised: Can one be ‘paternalised’. How does the power accrue? How do institutions adopt paternalism or paternalistic actions as a form of social power? What processes can we use to understand this relationship? Who is identifying the paternalist / paternalism? Who is the speaking subject, the ‘I’ the ‘paternal’ figure? How do we identify those who are culturally different, the ‘other’ that is the recipient of the paternal action?

These questions refer to the wider theoretical discussions on notions of the ‘other’; multiculturalism; subjectivity, sexual politics all of which are based on power relations and are key arguments in academic canon. Dasguta opened up the discussion by taking the point of view that ‘paternalism’ was a power relationship and once on that track sought the theoretical tools that we have as subjects to deconstruct how that relationship is formed and how we identify the key players.

Judith Butler responded to the subject of power raised in relation to paternalism, that this refers to how interlocution exposes power relations which produces the subject, ‘I’. She questioned the benevolent paternal relationship and exposed the role of the benefice in the power relationship; that by accepting an act of paternalism, one is augmenting, legitimising it. I have highlighted this text as that argument formed the thread of her response. She implied that there is no passive subject in a paternalist relationship. The relationship is always unstable, the power and sovereignty is created in the distribution of benevolence and its acceptance augments and ratifies the authority of the sovereign culture and the cultural difference. She links this relationship to the status of immigrants in a host country. By accepting their status, they are legitimising the power of the sovereign new country and its culture over them as individuals.

How can one dismantle the dispersion of sovereignty?

Butler provides another example: Europe and the EU. She questioned who is part of the EU?  Who is it that decides those who are denied membership? Those that are, are not part of the decision making process so they don’t have the power of the voice to exclude themselves. Are they then excluded? Do they accept this exclusion? Butler’s discussion to me conjured up an image of parallel worlds, those that proclaim power and who have the mechanisms to legitimise it and those who are excluded who occupy a separate world of sphere of silence. This question of ‘silence’ came up in a question from the audience and unfortunately was not expanded on (mainly due to lack of time). It seemed that the main focus of the discussion was based on the main power struggle in the paternal relationship and not on the possibilities for resistance.

This subject did sneak out at different points of the discussion. When talking about the paternal relationship between NGO’s and developing countries Butler referred to the instability of the relationship. Power due to benevolence can always be taken away. Butler acknowledge that many NGO’s that work on projects in developing countries can and do often set up in an area only to move on a couple of years later due to a shift in policy focus. The development infrastructure is then taken away and the people they serve to benefit, to ‘paternalise’ perhaps, are left. Is there an element of resistance though from those that seek not to receive or accept the benevolence? This question also came up in the discussion on the language of ‘human rights’ how can universal human rights really be universal? Who decides who is human and therefore deserving of their human rights and who is not? Although not mentioned this reference reminded me on Butler’s work ‘Precarious Lives’ an appraisal of the shifts that took place in America post the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent discourse on violence and retaliation. It also reminded me on a lecture that Butler gave on how the Guantanamo bay inmates were denied access to writing materials and the cup poetry that emerged.

The beauty of this lecture was its ability to link theory to events taking place in contemporary society. Butler used the term to deconstruct the Egyptian President Mubarak’s self-denunciation and claim to protect Egypt as a paternalistic tool that could be his way of reclaiming power. As I have been writing up this blog I have just received a post from open Democracy titled: Mubarak’s Egypt: bad paternalism, and the army’s interest in managed transition (Günay, 2011). This idea of ‘bad paternalism’ didn’t come up in the discussion, the notion that paternalism as an act can be judged but I found it fitted with Butler description of NGOs in developing countries.

The discussion continued to interrogate the augmentation and the legitimacy of paternalism. How being accepted can change the landscape of society, i.e. give those ‘other’ voices the same platform but the power structure remains intact. In order to destabilise Butler’s suggestion was that we unexpectedly question the structure of power, expose the power process. For me this provides an introduction to tools that could be used to question the stability of institutions and organisations that govern how media and creativity are produced. Dasgupta referred to an art exhibition held at The Netherlands Van Abbemusuem in Eindhoven titled ‘Be[com]ing Dutch’ which explored the political, institutional processes that affect what it means to be Dutch in the 21st century. He called for museums or galleries to create an exhibition that deconstructs the selection processes and the power structures that curate a particular exhibition – the power structures behind the culture. That, in a sense, is what I am undertaking to do in my research, albeit from a gendered perspective and looking at the film and TV industries.

This blog post has merely scratched the surface of a debate which in itself merely scratched the surface of a word that brings with it so much powerful meaning. It has relevance to all those who are interested in interrogating notions of power be it through gender politics, post-colonialist, multiculturalism, development, class structures etc. Many ironies that related to the organisational structures that created this event were exposed as being a party to the ambiguity in the paternalist relationship and indeed the academy that both Butler and Dasgupta have based their livelihoods on. I have tagged some keywords of my own that I think relate to this subject but if you would like to listen to an audio recording of the discussion in full click on this link which will take you directly to the webpage at Iniva.