By announcing himself as the English Opium-Eater, De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening. It was a Byronic double game: baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion while delighting the elite with the invention of a new vice. *
There’s a lot of it about: how can we that have so much pretend to understand or assist those who have so little? How can those who live the high life reconcile that with their commitment to improving the lives of the poorest. It is maybe a legitimate concern. The most recent iteration comes from Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University:
My specific proposal, therefore, is that each poverty professional should engage in an “exposure” to poverty (also known as “immersions”) every 12 to 18 months. I do not mean by this rural sector missions for aid agency officials, nor the running of training workshops by NGO staff. What I mean is well captured by Eyben (2004); these are exercises that “are designed for visitors to stay for a period of several days, living with their hosts as participants, as well as observers, in their daily lives. They are distinct from project monitoring or highly structured ‘red carpet’ trips when officials make brief visits to a village or an urban slum….”
This seemed to touch people, and was enthusiastically picked up. See here, here, here, and right here at least. Closer to home, at the recent TEDxDar, Rakesh Rajani reported on an “immersion” undertaken by Twaweza staff.
But just how empathic can these immersions be? Rakesh’s immersions had a whiff of De Quincey about them. It was more of a provocation to confused poverty professionals at home (“baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion”) than any any attempt to get high on the poor life. By couching his supposedly new insights in the language and framework of the great power (“you wouldn’t get a selection of watches like that in Times Square!”), the elite were well and truly delighted. Post colonial identities – whether Irish or East African – are able to tease in such ways, to speak to different audiences simultaneously. It’s how we were brought up. In the metropole, you needed to get high to do so.
As for most well meaning immersionistas, if they lack the imagination and have such circumscribed lives that they are unable to understand life, then I suggest they reconsider. And if they still want to go ahead, I’ll take them seriously if they would consider letting one of those ‘poor’ people immersing themselves in their house, SUV and gym for a week. Or two.
* from Mike Jay’s review of Robert Morrisson’s The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, in the London Review of Books recently.
Music from The Stars of Heaven. “We made a promise and I kept my side. But you were just giving me a line.”