Who Can Make Knowledge Claims?

We sit together in his small living room. There are no windows, and the little light that comes in is through small apertures where the walls meet the ceiling. There is no furniture either, and we sit on the surprisingly cool, immaculately clean cement floor. One of his children had placed a small cushion against a wall just for me. He sits on the floor, his legs crossed under him, pouring tea into my glass. A small stack of book is placed between us–it is his life’s work; a series on the history and culture of Gwadar, another on the ways of the mahigeer–the fisherfolk of the region of the Makran in South-West Pakistan, and a dictionary of the language of the sea. “It is a language they only speak when on the ocean,” he says to me, his eyes wide with excitement. “Not only do they never use it once on land, but those who do not go to sea cannot even understand it.” He sifts through the handwritten, photocopied pages, held together with staples and a rubber band, and runs his fingers over them. “It is not complete,” he adds. “Many words are contested by others, because they have many different meanings.”  I had heard this from others who had critiqued him for even trying to write a dictionary–the meaning of the words change by context, and even by who uses them, I was told. There seemed to be a healthy skepticism about the search for ‘accuracy,’ when it came to the language of the ocean, and people were ready to debate and discuss the variations and range of meaning of words. Another writer who had put together his own, albeit smaller, dictionary, had faced similar critiques. When I asked about this other dictionary, people enthusiastically engaged me about the many etymological errors, and offered me their understanding of the “correct” meaning of the words.

I had met Ghafoor Sahib some weeks earlier when I had traveled to Gwadar as part of the Laajvard Visiting School. He had been introduced to me as a writer, a historian, and an activist. When I met him, he had been in a bad mood, irritated at being pulled out of his day to meet with “visiting researchers.” He saw no point in it, and carried himself with an air of subtle aloofness and agitation. I was intrigued. When we met, he told me about his work; a former school teacher, who had self-published six books, most all of which were about the people, culture, and history of Gwadar. He told me about the two new works he was putting together, and it was also when he first mentioned the dictionary. “It is a unique language,” he had whispered over the breakfast table. “Only those who work on the sea speak it, and understand it.” He seemed an odd character, and I was intrigued. A friend later told me that although he published his works, they were hard to find in any of the bookstores or libraries in the city, and few had ever read them. And yet he continued on with his writings, and his plans for self-publishing more works. It was as if he was fighting a personal war against amnesia, and the erasure of a city that had been home to his family for generations. When he spoke about his works he did with a tinge of anxiety, as if afraid that if he did not produce them quickly enough, the city and its people would be gone and forgotten forever. After spending some more time with him, I realized that he was writing against the present, one where new technologies, new distractions and new infrastructures were erasing his Gwadar, and that of the people who traced their histories, lineages and memories to Gwadar as a place. 

I wanted to explore the dictionary more closely. Almost all the research and writings I had found about Gwadar focused on territory, a “territory” that has been predominantly, although not entirely, land-based. There was little or nothing that focused on the oceans, the life of the community in relation to it, the knowledges that it allowed, inspired and offered. The world of the mahigeer was unseen, unknown and uninteresting as far as existing research and popular imagination went. Ghafoor Sahib’s discussions about the oceanic dictionary fascinated me because they pointed to worlds that I have never thought of or about, let alone imagined. And yet, here, in these words that he was showing me, was a way of being, relating, understanding and culturally creating an oceanic world that was available only to those who knew the oceans. The ocean was a cultural, economic and social space that now drew my attention. But Ghafoor Sahib was reluctant; he would not allow me to handle the manuscript, or take a closer look. I suspected that it was a combination of insecurity about the completeness of the work, and concern for its confidentiality. He had been generous with his time, and his insights, and had given me complementary copies of his published works. But the dictionary was clearly not ready to he shared, and the more I pushed to look at it closer, the more he hesitated. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, he blurted out; “I have built a model, to show how we could develop Gwadar.”

There was a moment of silence. I wasn’t sure that I had heard him correctly. Then I thought he was just trying to distract me to get me to stop pestering him about the dictionary. “I created a model city, using boxes and whatever paper I could find,” he continued. “I wanted to show the development authorities how we can create better living spaces and a more livable city for the mahigeer.” His eyes were shining brightly, as he looked to see if he had caught my interest. He had. “I wanted to see how we could preserve these neighborhoods, but address the growing population of the communities that live here.” No one had asked him, but he had gone ahead and tried to imagine a new city, and ways in which it could evolve. Yet again, unbeknownst to most, and instigated by his own interests and desires, Ghafoor Sahib had started to create an idea of Gwadar’s future layout, and city plan. But unlike the masterplan being touted by the Gwadar Development Authority, designed in China landing on Gwadar like a ton of bricks, his began with the local community, and was designed to deliver to their needs. “I still have it,” he added. “It is in lying in one of the rooms in the back.” I wanted to see it. After some consideration, he asked me to wait. “I have to see if it is even worth looking it.” Staring down at the floor, he added; “It is a mess back there, because I have just not had time to clean.” And then he disappeared into the house. 

I sat on the cold living room floor waiting for him to return. It seemed like an inordinately long time before the curtain was pulled back and he stepped back through. “Come,” he gestures as he says this, “I can show you.” I follow him into a dark corridor. I can hear the voices of children playing in adjoining rooms, but I see no one. We step into a room at the back of the house–it looked like a store room, but he insisted it was where he worked, wrote and thought. There were shelves on the walls, stacked with papers, books, knickknacks, old pots, linen and other random stuff. Dozens of cardboard boxes stacked on the floor. It was a storeroom. A wooden platform sat in the middle of the room and behind it, in a corner, was what looked like an architectural model of a city block. “I wanted to see what we could do to make more room in the city, but not change its scale.” He explained as he lifted the dust-ridden, and crumbling, model onto the platform. He had used old shoe boxes, pieces of paper, glue and tape to construct. I could not really tell if it was built around an existing neighborhood or suggested a new development. “Our communities are growing,” he murmurs. “Our town needs more room, but we have to do it carefully.” But who has seen this model, or heard his ideas? “Some people have,” he answers sheepishly, “but some years ago I tried to talk to the authorities, show them these designs, but they were not interested.”

“Who has voice to make legitimate knowledge claims, who defines what matters, or who participates in imagining and shaping the future?” For Felt, these questions reveal “exclusions, oppression, inequality” and the “dissident voices, neglected knowledges and…alternative conceptualizations of progress and futures” that we too often ignore [Felt, Ulrike, “Making Knowledge, People and Societies,” In Felt, U. & Fouché R. & Miller, C. A. & Smith-Doerr, L.  (Eds.) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, MIT Press, 2017:253]. Equally, the “experts” who come to the fore, and whose voices become “credible,” are determined by political and cultural contexts. “Expertise is not merely something that is in the heads and hands of skilled persons,” Jasanov has argued, “but rather that it is something acquired, and deployed (emphasis mine), within particular historical, political, and cultural contexts” [Jasanoff, Sheila,  “Breaking the Waves in Science Studies: Comment on HM Collins and Robert Evans, The Third Wave of Science Studies,” Social Studies of Science, 33(3):389–400]. What allows certain kinds of expertise to be deployed, and certain kinds of experts to be employed, is a discourse of necessity, one that emerges from the construction of the idea of crisis–economic, developmental and progressive–deployed by specific actors and interests to achieve specific political and economic advantages. As Janet Roitman has argued, “Crisis is an observation that produces meaning.” By constantly focus on crisis of “the economy,” or insisting on the crisis of the failure of modern development, certain actors ensure that  when “crisis is posited as the very condition of contemporary situations, certain questions become possible while others are foreclosed” [Roitman, Janet Anti-Crisis, Duke University Press, 2014:41–42]. To push Felt’s question; who gets to define the crisis and set the agenda for not just the response, but the nature of the response? Crisis can be posited as an a priori, their teleologies and social histories simply ignored, and their truth simply accepted. In a world increasingly beholden to expertise, and expert knowledge, particularly that of economists, the crisis around “the economy” is deployed to justify almost everything from military land grabs, to ecologically and socially destructive infrastructure development projects such as the one in Gwadar [Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, University of California Press, 2002]. 

In Pakistan, the conception of “the economy” defies Mitchell’s teleology of a modern economy that has transitioned from an earlier, industrial model to one based on financial flows and monetary circulation, one that “could expand without getting physically bigger” [Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso Books, 2013 (2011);139]. Pakistan is trapped in both. The treasury is beholden to international lenders, trapped in a never-ending debt spiral and vigilantly policed along financial flows and its monetary performances. The state imaginary  however, remains committed to a model of “development” centered on post-WWII ideas of wealth and progress; enlargement of the state’s control over territory through forms of endogenous colonialism, the expansion of cities and factories, the investment in large-scale infrastructure projects, exploitation of new mineral reserves, and the increase in the volume of trade in commodities. The financial trap and the development imaginary operate together; the crisis of the nation’s financial struggles create the justification for the further entrenchment of the anachronistic (in the age of global climate change, oceanic and atmospheric pollution, depletion of raw resources, continued exploitation and immiseration of the population,  growing migration) development practices and priorities. This framing forecloses all other “possible stories about the world, and other possible worlds” [Roitman, Janet Anti-Crisis, Duke University Press, 2014:41–42]. 

The future of Gwadar has been designed by everyone but the community that has lived here for hundreds of years, and maintains a deep historical, and relational connection to the land and the sea. Their needs, desire, interests and priorities have had no role in defining the future of the city, and the imaginaries that influence and inspire it have little relation to the local. The masterplan was put together in China, its visual imaginaries were inspired by Dubai and Singapore, and its imagined inhabitants are drawn up as European-style leisure consumers and tourists. The new city is entirely financed with foreign funds, and built to attract international real-estate investors, businesses, and global corporations. Gwadar will not even a city in Pakistan, accountable to Pakistani law and governance, but a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), one that may physically sit within Pakistani, but legally and structurally, is no longer a part of its sovereign legal and political jurisdiction. The Gwadar masterplan speaks and works in inevitabilities, and nothing can stop it. “There is no other way to develop,” a local activist and teacher murmured sarcastically when the Gwadar masterplan was shared with the public. His frustration and sense of foreboding written were easy to read. “They never listened to anything we suggested,” said Mohammed Idrees (name changed on request), a member of a local social and cultural research institute in Gwadar. “If they had only bothered to understand what we valued, and what we wanted to preserve, they would not be creating the disaster they now are.” He was referring to the cultural practices of the local community, and the relational connections they have long retained with the land and oceans, wasn’t clear. His defeatism however was near complete. Neither their histories, nor their ways, mattered anymore. 

The future of Gwadar is being designed as if the future does not matter. Tony Fry called it a form of defuturing–“the animatory force exercised by a global population who…has created totally unsustainable conditions, that for all the rhetoric and images of environmentalism are still not seen because, at the most fundamental level, the problem rests in the anthropocentric essence of the being of the human species” [Fry, Tony “Design for/by ‘The Global South,’” Design Philosophy Papers, 15:1, 2017:3-37]. The infrastructure works in Gwadar proceed as if there are no ecological and climate change imperatives, just as much as it assumes that there are no other interests other than capital, the economy and growth. They create what Escobar called future destroying world conditions that refuse to consider and investigate new modes of habitation, changes in practices of development, or question the very idea of what it means to develop and progress. “Development continues to be,” Escobar warned, “one of the main discourses and institutional apparatuses structuring unsustainability and defuturing” [Escobar, Arturo Designs for the Pluriverse, Duke University Press, 2017:147]. 

The very imaginary of industrialized development, “ in which the industrialized countries were to aid poor countries to adopt strategies for “modernization” and, eventually, join the ranks of the First World, was an immense design project” [Ibid:49].And whereas Fry, Escobar and others have championed something they call Transition Design, a way of thinking that relies on “an understanding of the interconnectedness of social, economic, political and natural systems, [and] aims to address problems that exist at all levels of scale.” [Ibid:156] But others have critiqued such approaches as still “too instrumental,” and focused on “solving a problem.” For her, Transition Design fails to acknowledge “the heavy investments, not least psychological, in keeping things as they are; nor of the awesome challenge of the re-direction of material culture and practices by the re-direction of design and designing.” [Willis, Anne-Marie, “Transition Design: The Need to Refuse Discipline and Transcend Instrumentalism ,” Design Philosophy Papers, Vol. 13, Issue 1, (May 2015): 69-74] Furthermore, Transition Design’s commitment to ontological independence, and prioritization of Indigenous knowledges raises some serious questions. “Knowledges and ontologies from the South,” Escobar explained, “would act as alternative operating systems enabling autonomous forms of design.” [Escobar, Arturo Designs for the Pluriverse, Duke University Press, 2017:206]. 

It is difficult not to notice the idealization of the Indigenous, one not influenced by modernity, and living outside of capitalist, colonial and techno-scientific epistemologies. “All of these [Indigenous] ideas, the activities they refer to, and the relationships they generate,” Manzini argues, “seem to me beautiful islands of applied cultural and socioeconomic wisdom. These are islands in the sea of unsustainable ways of being and doing that is…still the mainstream throughout the world (emphasis added)”. [Manzini, Ezio Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation, Cambridge University Press, 2015:26] But one has to ask; where are these islands that remain uninfluenced, unconstrained, and undone by modern capitalist and industrial development practices?

David Graeber has critiqued the construction of radical alterity, which he felt forced us to “speak not of people who have radically different beliefs about, or perceptions of, a single shared world, but of people who literally inhabit different worlds. We must accept the existence of ‘multiple ontologies.’” That is, it imagines something called “Indigenous,” or “traditional,” those who live entirely apart, and outside of and unrelated to the very world the rest of us operate in. Macarena Gomez-Barris has drawn our attention to what she has called “submerged perspectives,” of worlds and world views of those who live in “realms of differently organized reality that are linked to, yet move outside of, colonial boundaries.” [Gomez-Barris, Macarena The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives, Duke University Press, 2017:1]. But do they–the Indigenous, the local–believe that they are living in a “differently organized reality”? Do they believe that work with different ontologies that are incompatible and alternatives to that of others around them? And where are the boundaries–social, economic, cultural, political–of these “differently organized reality”? How much of their ontological engagement with their surroundings, their world of relational and relational belonging, are responses to modernity and not some originary cultural commitment? Graeber warns that such cultural relativism and idealization “places people in boxes not of their own devising… As a mere intellectual problem, it’s not a big one. The moment relativism becomes a moral or political position, however, it becomes very big indeed. Ontology just substitutes a deeper box.” [Graeber, David “Radical alterity is just another way of saying ‘reality’: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5 (2): 2015:1–41 ]. For Graeber, the construction of a radical other was in itself a serious problem because it “applies only to relations between cultural worlds. There is never any sense that people existing inside other Ontologies have any trouble understanding each other, let alone the world around them; rather…we are obliged to act as if their command of their environment were so absolute that there were no difference whatever between their ideas about, say, trees, and trees themselves.” [Ibid]. 

Such “submerged perspectives” or other ontologies are difficult to isolate among Gwadar’s indigenous fishing community. The men–and they are mostly all men who work the sea–do indeed have a unique oceanic epistemology (see earlier post) and ways of knowing that emerge from their relationship with the sea and the other-than-human life in it, but are equally aware and connected to global currency rates, fluctuations in the Karachi real-estate market, the price of fish in China, or the going rate for boat construction labor. New and foreign knowledges have always been imposed on the fishermen through government programs, new technologies, their oceanic connection with other lands and regions in Iran, Muscat and elsewhere. Fishermen also go out and find new knowledge–newspapers, radio, via television, and the Internet today, and immigration too have expanded the imaginative worlds of the fishermen themselves. “What happens to their epistemic fabric in the contact with extraneous, ontologically incommensurable knowledge?” Hoeppe asked in his investigation into the lives of South Indian fishermen. “Do they make syncretic accommodations of different knowledges, or do they accept knowledge based on diverse ontologies coexisting side by side?” [Hoeppe, Götz Conversations on the Beach: Fishermen’s Knowledge, Metaphor and Environmental Change in South India, Berghahn Books, 2007:153]. Contrary to the thinking behind the ontological turn, I doubt that the Indigenous fishermen of Gwadar would “agree with the proposition that they live in a fundamentally different ‘nature’ or ‘ontology’ then other human beings,” or that their worlds are incommensurate with, or apart from the rest. [Graeber, David “Radical alterity is just another way of saying ‘reality’: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5 (2): 2015:1–41]. 

Transition designer do recognize the importance of designing in collaboration with the communities in place. They advocates “design practices that are participatory, socially oriented, situated, and open ended and that challenge the business-as-usual mode of being, producing and consuming.” [Escobar, Arturo Designs for the Pluriverse, Duke University Press, 2017:27]. Transition design shifts priorities towards the “non-dualist and relational forms of life present among the many people engaged in territorial struggles against extractivism and capitalism.” [Escobar, Arturo Designs for the Pluriverse, Duke University Press, 2017:x-xi]. Its strength, and some would argue it main weakness, is its commitment to local communities, and their ideas. But any transition design exercise in Gwadar to explore other ways of imagining the future of the city would necessarily have to cope with the hybrid and syncretic nature of desires, values and aspirations of the people. That is, a design in collaboration with the communities in place may mean the deployment of technologies and infrastructure desires to serve the interest of the people of Gwadar, which may not be those of the State, but they may not be relational, ecological and ontologically different either. That is, influenced as the so-called Indigenous are by modern ideas of growth, change, and time, we may find that the outcomes do not offer an “alternative operating systems enabling autonomous forms of design,” or are “reoriented from their dependence on life-stifling dualist ontologies of patriarchal capitalist modernity towards relational modes of knowing, being and doing?” [Escobar, Arturo Designs for the Pluriverse, Duke University Press, 2017:x]. But what would we find? 

“I have shown them my ideas for how best to protect the boats from the sea.” Ghafoor Sahib and I are sitting with a group of activists belonging to the newly formed political organization called The Mahigeer Etihad Committee (MEC). Dismayed by the failure of the nationwide NGO called the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), Ghafoor Sahib and a group of local mahigeer decided to organize themselves into a new group to put more direct and immediate pressure on the local authorities to provide for the social and welfare needs of all mahigeer families and residents of Gwadar. Their main goal has been to demand infrastructure investments that serve the interests not just of the fishermen at sea, but equally, those from the community who participate in other businesses. “I have drawings here,” he places his mobile phone in front of me, “and here I have drawn models of the new jetty, and boat docking areas that we could utilize without affecting the flow of the waters or the fish itself.” The other men murmur their approval as I look closely at what appear to be hand drawn aerial map of Gwadar, with carefully drawn jetties, sea walls and boats. He flips through a few more drawings, and barely have chance to see them. I want to ask questions; Why this design? Why these locations? Why would this version be better and more useful for the fishermen? What social, and economic values does it preserve? What specific needs is it in response to? Which communities of fishermen does it best serve? But the men are too busy to answer my questions. They are holding a meeting this afternoon with Gwadar’s Superintendent of Police because the sewage system has fallen to as a result of the construction work on the new highway. As I watch them huddle together and discuss this strategy, I wonder if these are the kind of people that Stenger’s, invoking Tobie Nathan, referred to as those who frighten us with an “essential fright…that the truth of what I perceive, of what I feel, or what I think [may reside) in an Other.” [Stengers, Isabelle, “The Challenge of Ontological Politics,” In de la Cadena, M, & Blaser, M. (Eds) A World of Many Worlds, Duke University Press, 2018:98]. 

In her essay Adequate Imaginaries For Anthropocene Seas, Stacy Alaimo vividly outlines the threats from capitalism, extractivism, and neocolonialist exploitation as perhaps some of the most pressing dangers to life on and within the oceans. “The fantasy of inexhaustibility,” she warns, “continues to underwrite capitalist and neocolonialist exploits or areas conveniently considered outside the terrains of nation-state.” [Alaimo, Stacy “Adequate Imaginaries For Anthropocene Seas,” In Braverman, T. & Johnson, Elizabeth R, (Eds) Blue Legalities; The Life & Laws of the Sea, Duke University Press, 2020:311]. She is alert to the dangers, pointing out how “the seas…are now the site for countless alterations, infiltrations, technologies, and mediations, many of which determine, intentionally or inadvertently, what lives and what dies.” [Ibid:318]. The danger these “mediations” pose for other-than-human life are severe and immediate, as she argues that to address them we need to consider “multiple human sites of enunciation and multiple cultures, sciences, and epistemologies when reckoning with the global seas remains a problem for environmentalism, Indigenous sovereignty, legal pluralism, and social justice.” [Ibid:320] And yet, her first and only solution is to “consider some robotic technologies that offer intriguing possibilities.” She focuses on something she refers to as “haptic technology,” which “offers the potential for immersive onto-epistemologies that can foster less distant and arrogant modes of knowing the deep seas.” [ Ibid:320]

Why not just ask the people who already have this onto-epistemic relationship and “less distant and arrogant” modes of knowing the sea? What about them frightens us, the more “advanced,” and the more “scientific”? What about them disqualifies them from teaching us what we all once knew, but now believe only the Indigenous do? Why, despite the clear and present danger that extractivism and capitalism provoke, are we still unable to sit with those who know–through practice, experience and relations with the seas and the other-than-human life thee–what must come next? What would happen if we took up Nadasky’s call to “treat Indigenous people’s human-animal engagements and ontological assumptions as literal rather than only as symbolic matters.”? [Nadasdy, Paul, “Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human-animal Sociality,” American Ethnologist, 34(1): 2007:25-43]. 

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