See Afghanistan without Leaving Your Chair

When it first came
out I decided I wasn't going to read Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner for
reasons that I don't recall right now and seemed rather weak at the time. Turns
out that I've missed my best chance to understand the conflict in Afghanistan.
According to a
report
with the very unliterary (and very unliterary studies) title of
"The
Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative
Knowledge
," novels are a valid source of critical knowledge about the
world around us. The authors, David Lewis of the London School of Economics and
Manchester University's Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock, argue that people
understand issues more completely when they're presented as narratives. Also,
novels reach wider audiences than papers issued by experts from, for instance,
Manchester University and the London School of Economics. The authors, all
experts on social policy and poverty, admit, probably not without some
misgivings, that Hosseini's novel has probably "done more to educate
western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan than any
government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science
research."

The issue of
narrative knowledge is a complex one, but the authors base their argument on
Walter Benjamin's essay “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy.” Benjamin
proposed a form of knowledge embedded in direct experience, but without naively
mirroring first-hand observations. Lewis, Rodgers and Woolcock write,
"Benjamin made it his life’s work to design a form of representation which
would capture the subjective dimension of social reality whilst simultaneously
allowing an objective knowledge of the world." The authors underestimate
the complexity of Benjamin's thoughts on "objective knowledge of the
world"–he didn't conceive of objectivity the same way a conventional
social scientist would–but they're certainly on the right track. In his
soberer reflections Benjamin came to the conclusion that no fundamental
understanding of sociohistorical experience was possible without narrative.
Stories, he argued, brought us experience from afar. Non-fiction texts were
mere isolated data points.

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Richard, why did you decide you weren’t going to read the Kite Runner (assuming your decision was purely literary)? I’m interested because I made a similar decision after I’d read the first 40 or so pages of the novel; my own decision seemed to me irrational at the time, and I’m still telling myself someday it’s going to have to be revoked! I do hold the view that a novel, or, for that matter, a tale would have to make sure it’s not trying to reveal secrets. One does not enjoy being taken on a tour of keyhole sights, cunnning as it may be. But I’m not sure if my aversion to such literary cleverness was the reason behind giving up reading The Kite Runner. What’s more, I think it prudish! On the other hand The (first part of the) Kite Runner did strike me as Not History Recounted but more as Movie Plot building up in order to later unfold. It seemed a little bit staged, well thought out, perfect.

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  2. Hi Mano:
    I don’t remember why I decided not to read it. Maybe the subject matter struck me as mawkish. Maybe it was seeing the book for sale in Starbucks.
    I didn’t even get 40 pages into the novel, so I can’t comment on any of its content. I do remember a review that said something along the same lines you just did.

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