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  • (Mis)Representing Economy:Western Media Production and the Impoverishment of South Asia
  • Manu Bhagavan (bio) and Faisal Bari (bio)

Much has been written over the past thirty-odd years dealing with the relationships between knowledge and power. From Michel Foucault's ruminations on the order of things to Edward Said's work on Orientalism, the notion that words and thought—language—can have political and physical repercussions has become a virtual truism in contemporary academia.1 Yet, for all the clout that these theories and interpretations carry in the academy, little of this translates into popular perceptions and representations, particularly those promulgated in and by the American media. Said takes note of this in the 1997 edition of Covering Islam where he points out that "exaggerated stereotyping and belligerent hostility [towards Muslims]" has actually worsened since the release of the first edition of his book in 1981.2 Although his comments are made with specific reference to Islam, they can generally be carried over to the peoples and areas that have been, and continue to be, Orientalized, notably the peoples and cultures of South Asia.

While American portrayals of this region cannot be characterized as "belligerently hostile," Said's observation about exaggerated stereotyping certainly hits the mark. Nowhere is this more obvious than in discussions about South Asian economies where stories seem either to fall back on reductive tropes of poverty, reinforcing the conception that South Asia is, was, and must always be poor, or to recast the region altogether as a land of market desirability deserving of a lustful Western gaze. It is this supposition that serves as the point of departure for this study.

We argue in the course of this essay that South Asia is captured and produced in Western media narratives in a manner that perpetuates stylized mythologies related to poverty and open markets that are heavily reliant upon problematic assumptions and readings of economic theory. Generally, South Asia is clownishly transmitted as a place of enduring destitution and deprivation, which is neither to say that poverty does not exist in South Asia nor to negate the significance(s) of such economic inequality, but rather to suggest that Western discussion of this poverty is inaccurate. As a countervailing but linked trend in the last decade, coinciding with its liberalization policies, India (specifically) is simultaneously imagined as an exotic, kinky fetish of investment opportunities and a bonanza for potential profit. We believe in both cases that such stories about South Asian economies are misleading, based on a weak foundation, but that they nevertheless create a worldview that detrimentally affects, in fact physically impoverishes, the subcontinent. The intervention of this work, then, is to establish a connection between Western media misrepresentations and resulting economic costs, particularly for South Asia and generally for all "developing" countries.

We should admit at the outset that the framework within which we are approaching this topic assumes a globalized, capitalist narrative. This is to say that our critique of media misrepresentation is premised by and large upon the rules set forth by capitalist economic theory. By doing so, we hope to show that the system is intrinsically biased in favor of capital-rich, "developed" countries and that, as such, capitalism as a philosophy and as a modus operandi is a flawed scheme that can never bring about economic parity and justice for all countries and peoples of the world.

Misleading Media

There is a vast body of literature that supports our presiding contention that the Western media emphasizes and exaggerates the poverty of South Asia. Exemplifying this work is a 1994 study by Wes Cecil (et al.) of representations of India in the United States media. Based on analyses of local newspapers, popular music, Time magazine, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Economist, surveys of first-year college students, and U.S. Congressional hearings, the authors of this work conclude: "Representations of India in the United States are organized around three prevailing themes: India as over-populated and impoverished, India as exotic and primitive, and India as a land of turmoil." The authors note that they found no difference in the reception of media imagery among categories of audiences separated by hierarchical...


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pp. 99-109
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