U of I prof offers critical view of post-colonialism, liberalism

Professor Mimi Thi Nguyen’s talk, titled “The Napalmed Girl; or War, Beauty, Forgiveness,” problematized conventional understandings of the benefits of liberalism, the politics of intervention, faith, and forgiveness.

By Lina Li

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies Mimi Thi Nguyen spoke on the complexities in studying the effects of post-colonialism and liberalism on society this Thursday. Nguyen’s talk, titled “The Napalmed Girl; or War, Beauty, Forgiveness,” problematized conventional understandings of the benefits of liberalism, the politics of intervention, faith, and forgiveness.

For Nguyen, discussions of freedom are not simple, but rather “fraught with volatile questions of power, inclusion, exchange, and imperial reason.” In promoting freedom, and in understanding freedom as a gift, the imperial powers create an economy of obligation and debt, while the previously colonized society is often marginalized, experiencing suggestions of “We saved you, and you are now one of us, We saved you, but you owe us, [or] We saved you, but you can still be undone.” In her discussion, Nguyen drew on scholarship by Derrida, Foucault, and UChicago’s Lauren Berlant.

Nguyen also shared her image-study of the iconic 1972 Pulitzer-winning picture “Napalm Girl,” a picture taken during the Vietnam War of nine-year old-naked and recently napalmed Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc. She introduced the concept of beauty as a “sight of signification, power, and knowledge about how to live” as an alternate view to conventional ideas about beauty.

After her talk, Nguyen spoke to the Maroon about the relationship between her work and student life.

Chicago Maroon: What role do students have in confronting or mitigating the effects of the neo-colonial conflict that you had earlier discussed?

Mimi Nguyen: There’s definitely a lot of really amazing activism that’s happening around justice work in student groups that are seeking justice for Palestine. There’s a lot of really amazing activism that’s happening on college campuses in connecting issues and drawing upon the past and history in divesting in South Africa during the Apartheid—we see similar movements in the present moment where student activists are calling for their universities to divest in Israel…That’s a really encouraging theme, where we see a lot of students getting together to confront the ways in which the institutions that they’re a part of these larger global concepts.

CM: To what extent can women at the University of Chicago relate to the “Napalm Girl,” and can women here learn from her experience?

MN: Kim Phuc, the grown up girl in the photograph, imagines that she is imparting certain kinds of lessons, as she is asking her people to embrace forgiveness, love, and faith as qualities that can be used to move forward, but for me, a lot of times, faith and forgiveness are lessons that help to cover up the fact that we are still living with a lot of the same violences that we’re being asked to forgive. I would take her lesson of love and forgiveness, and say to do the opposite. Stay angry. Be in touch with those feelings of not wanting to forgive the kinds of trespasses that have been committed against so many woman in so many places, even here on campus, like with issues of sexual assault.

CM: What would you identify as some of the most topical, or most current, implications of the work that you’ve been doing?

MN: The fact that we’re still in multiple wars that were initially sold to the US public as wars of granting freedom. We went into Iraq to grant people freedom. We went into Afghanistan to, in particular, grant women freedom from the Taliban….Stories about human rights, or women’s rights as human rights, are told as reasons to intervene in and occupy other places, and the story of the gift of freedom produces certain kinds of discourses about democracy and liberal rule that then normalize war-making.

CM: For students here, or at any post-secondary educational institution, who share your interests in gender studies and academia, in your experience, what are some key takeaways?

MN: I think that for every person that might think about going to graduate school, and certainly for women and people of color, it’s really important to choose a place where there’s an academic culture of collaboration…I think it’s really important to understand that the intellectual life should not be an isolated one—it shouldn’t be a competitive one.