Why I Hate Reading Lists: A Biography of and Manifesto for Woke Indian Cyberspace
Almost every second DM I get is a request for a reading recommendation. This is a trend I’ve generally observed over the years on the woke end of social media: a preponderance of lists, required readings, homework, or other kinds of ‘educating’. I have always been skeptical of this, but more recently I thought it might be necessary to elaborate and make my position a little clearer. As you might have noticed, I generally post screenshots or photos of things I’m reading, and don’t save them in my highlights any longer. This is not random, but a product of how I currently think about what a sensitive form of sharing/learning over social media could look like. But in order to get to that, I’ll have to back up a bit and take you on a slightly convoluted set of ideas and experiences over the years.
Non-academic Insights: The Beginning
I am a bit of an accidental academic. I ran away from science, then from commerce, and breathlessly stumbled into a media studies degree, almost entirely to leave the claustrophobia of home and go live in another city. Today I’m on the cusp of entering a PhD program in Urban Planning, which I can’t fully explain either. In between I dabbled in all manner of random stuff; film theory and astronomy, classical music and theology. I am not “good” at any of these things, but I’ve generally been curious — as well as reasonably decent at synthesizing ideas from multiple sources.
And the sources were multiple indeed. While I’ve spent a not-insignificant portion of my life reading books, my years of “politicization”, so to speak, coincided with the boom of the Indian blogosphere. For the first time, young Indians frustrated with their lot in life were dumping their thoughts and feelings online. Baked into all these opinions however, was something incredibly subtle that I didn’t explicitly recognise then but sort of unconsciously imbibed. We can call this subtle thing by many names: context, struggle, ideology, identity, oral history or whatever else. But it was unmistakable, and it was a profound form of knowledge that was totally unavailable at the library. It is a synthesis of these kinds of structural truths embedded in mundane banter with the many, many people I’ve had meandering conversations with, online and offline, from different walks of life that most inform my sense of politics and history. Reading has served mainly to buttress, deepen and complicate the provocations and insights gleaned from these non-textual sources.
This is the core of the reason I have a discomfort with lists, but let me give you a little bit of historical context. Around the time of the blogging boom, Indian social science had long established itself in the vernacular imagination as a sort of ruse, a cover-up. It was a place for the descendants of the feudal elite to congregate and congratulate themselves in English on their syncretism, ancient traditions, elite art forms, and refined experiences. This would usually be accompanied by a sneering, half-bemused complaint about narrow-minded “politics”, an analysis which generally drew no distinctions between various anti-caste, regionalist formulations on the one hand and the rise of sectarian Hindu fundamentalists on the other. This has been the overwhelming intellectual legacy of Nehruvianism: to present elite cosmopolitanism and the sectarian chauvinism “of the street” as a binary.
Both on the left and the right, an anger with this anglicised intellectual complacency found groundswell in the early years of the internet. It was an impatience with the smug self-congratulation of the status quo, and it articulated all its immense frustration (and pregnant sense of expectation) along with small, subtle tidbits and nuggets of alternate history. It revealed, for the first time in English, the mythologies and world-views that families kept to themselves, the oral remembrances that ossified their senses of identity, the unforgivable treasons and immense debts they attributed to various leaders and events, the “real” way they had been trained to see the world and their place in it. Ambedkar famously, and brilliantly, said that “A Hindu’s public is his caste”; and it was this premise that was slowly chipped away at by the forces of modern telecommunication. This is not to say that the digital sphere doesn’t reinforce segmented publics. But as compared to the thousands of different endogamous jatis in India with their individualised sense of communication and public, the digital sphere came to be organised around much fewer, rapidly homogenising groups and talking points within which people revealed their particular histories.
What do I mean by this? Let me first start with the positive side. In the late 2000s, a small, fledgling coalition of writers and bloggers that called themselves “anti-caste” began to emerge. Originally, they created spaces simply to share information about upcoming protests. These were, for the most part, older activists and organisers — often rallying around singular causes: justice for a victim of caste violence, raising funds for a family and so on. Up until this point, anti-caste publics were also largely decentralised and localised. Antagonisms between various marginalised caste groups persist in all parts of the subcontinent, although some tenuous broader coalitions had begun to be organised between leaders in urban centres around wider issues like reservations and atrocities. It was to cater to this that online spaces slowly began to spring up.
It’s difficult to say with certainty exactly when, but this space eventually exploded into a repository of collective history. This was aided in no small part by the anger and intellect of second and third generation students from tribes and marginalised castes who no longer sought to use other parts of their identity to cower their heads and “pass”. They began to expound on the problems they faced in their universities, their towns and villages, their housing societies, their families’ traditional ways of organising and doing politics, their new “left’’ friend circles, their urban corporate environments, the films they watched, the books they read and much more. This was a difficult mental barrier to overcome for many, as it often involved confronting a debilitating guilt to talk about seemingly privileged issues (from a class perspective) while being painfully aware of the twin burdens of class and caste that weighed down their own extended families. Using platforms like Round Table India, Savari, and Dalit Camera as well as their own Facebook walls and blogposts, people poured these perspectives into cyberspace and created a wellspring of alternate history from across the subcontinent that could be drawn from. At this time, most were keen just to document their own history: placing on record for the world the many stories that the stereotypical images of different regions hid about the perspective of the marginalised. In addition to contributing to this archive in my own minor capacity at the time, I also lapped all of this information up — creating new perceptions, views and psychic associations and connections about various kinds of rooted local concerns, forms of knowledge, axes of conflict, outpourings of anger, expressions of politics and much more.
This, however, was just a tiny slice of the internet that I happened to be a part of. The vast majority of Indian cyberspace — which occasionally spilled into my feed too in a time of slightly less tailor-made algorithms — comprised anxieties and aspirations of a rather different kind. For upper-castes, new digital publics released the floodgates of pent-up vitriol and a sense of betrayal by their politicians for supposedly prioritising lower-caste or Muslim groups for education and employment. It also gave the world the first real archive of the way they conceptualised their parochial, self-centred sense of hurt, that was nonetheless immensely real to them and that they were very serious about acting on. Bhumihars and Tamil Iyengars came together to laugh at Mayawati jokes; Marathas and Reddies shared anti-reservation memes, Jats and Nairs were “educated” on Kashmiri politics by disgruntled Pandits. This was often interspersed with and indeed coalesced around broader forms of frustration: they hated being forced into engineering, mocked for their English, spurned by women. It was this undercurrent that ran through subsequent tirades against “nepotism”, deification of the “small-town” hero, or jokes and memes about “middle class values” (in contrast to the seemingly shared aspirations of the young, upper-caste audience) that would eventually come to flood popular culture.
It is perhaps useful to distinguish this group of upper-castes — the backbone of the BJP’s youth support — from their cousins, the Nehruvians. Here I’ll rely on a sort of caricatured binary of two ideal types that are not set in stone but useful in the psychic sense to distinguish two kinds of upper-caste politics. I have long said that the BJP and the Congress represent the two different types of Brahmins I’ve met in my life. When I was growing up, I went to a school that was probably the cheapest possible decent English-medium option at the time. Reflecting the milieu of the majority of its students, the canteen served beef every day. It was here that I met the BJP Brahmins: thread-wearing, somewhat snooty kids with insufferable parents. They were deeply conservative, but willing to make concessions to give their children a toehold in the emerging English-driven knowledge and service economy. The mothers would come to school during the lunch break in their crisp Kanjeevaram sarees with stainless steel tiffin boxes and make sure their kids ate separately from the rest of us, while the dads would tell them to study only maths and science and ignore the other subjects. They were generally bad at English, and usually ended up shepherded into a dingy engineering college that their parents would spend half their life savings sending them to.
I always imagined that their visceral hatred of reservations was their most painless way of convincing themselves that they actually got 90% and not 60%, and that their parents were not unreasonable, irrational pricks. This is undoubtedly a sad set of circumstances, but so long as they see no legitimate cause for detesting their parents, their caste pride, their skewed sense of respect and identity but rather choose to project it onto the average first-generation graduate from a working caste background, this is not a group that we can tangibly do a whole lot about. It was this group’s convoluted and hazy frustrations and dissonance with engineering, sexuality and — for some strange reason — reservations, that found an outlet on the internet. It was this anger that the BJP was so deftly able to tap into, melding an aspirational language of jobs and the internet with a hatred of both their elite, anglicised, nepotistic cousins in the Congress as well as the rising wave of opportunities supposedly being handed out to marginalised caste groups.
In later years, once the BJP was firmly in power, I would meet the Congress Brahmins. The setting would probably be a chic restaurant with kitschy, aesthetic and inconvenient cutlery. They’d often engage in a weird ritual of establishing their street cred by ordering a beef dish and then explaining how much they love the meat and hate the government. Notwithstanding this, almost all of them were — and are — generally nice people. They are concerned, as they should be, about the harrowing state of the world around them. They’d speak impeccable English (wouldn’t know any other language in fact, since their parents never really bothered to teach them a mother-tongue. Some would joke that they knew how to get by with auto drivers or Swiggy guys). They had wide-ranging interests, were well travelled and smoked weed. Many even had intimidating ‘woke’ family credentials — a trade unionist grandfather here, a socially conscious aunt with a column on poverty in an English newspaper there.
The political power of the BJP, as well as the immense online trolling and bigotry that ensued, essentially created strange bedfellows of all remaining slices of the internet that were, in whatever moderate way, committed to the vestiges of the loosely-defined and vague buzzword called “secularism”. It was this political shift that brought anti-caste cyberspace — a space that was relatively marginal during the Congress years — into contact with the wider woke, liberal, upper-caste end of the internet. This unhappy marriage converted numerous casually casteist Congress and CPI(M) types into people desperate to prove their anti-caste credentials. It did not necessarily convince them to wade into the muck of real life contradictions, but merely to add a new category of acknowledgement to their lexicon of online rage and continue in oblivious self-assuredness. It is precisely this last impulse that underpins the vast preponderance of reading lists and “explainers” that seek to give people “objective”, academic ways of “understanding” caste or indeed various other topics. I often interact with many in this group, either in the aforementioned chic restaurant or on social media, under this very pretext of them “looking to learn”. But I am fundamentally incapable of understanding what exactly I, or anybody else, is supposed to provide.
On Canons, Reading and the Politics of Theoretical Vocabulary
Working now as an academic, I understand that there is such a thing as a “canon” in most disciplines. A canon constitutes those texts that are seen to be introductory, fundamental, and the basis for most debates and discussions in the field. I have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with the idea of the canon for various reasons. The canon is supposed to contain texts that you have read. These texts are supposed to be rigorous, serious and academic. In the face of this, I am naturally out of place. I can’t really cite that one conversation with a Jesuit priest that fundamentally informs my understanding of Marx and Jesus, or the many thousands of screenshots, voice notes, tea-stall conversations and motorcycle rides that have taught me about the various histories of various places. I can’t really pinpoint with ease why some part of a song reminds me of an intractable political dilemma somewhere, or why a particular novel informs my view of a certain stance on public policy. How am I supposed to impart these ideas and connections in a coherent, coded fashion as an educator? I, as a human being, am the only thing that holds these vast and disparate strands together. And I’m rather proud to not be a list or have my mind be a Table of Contents.
Here I should also say something about the medium itself. Part of the anxiety created by social media is that one’s political credentials are legitimised — both in the mind of the performer and the audience — only by the consistency and anger with which they post about issues and learning resources. I have seen people who I have been viscerally put off by in person become woke warriors with thousands of followers, making proclamations about politics and movements. Now yes, it is quite possible that they have transformed or at the very least undertaken some introspection. But how can one possibly come to trust that simply by seeing it on social media? When you meet people at a protest, when people show up where there aren’t cameras or tick-boxes for their egos, very few wouldn’t offer them the benefit of the doubt. It’s a virtuous cycle of healing, trust and then eventually solidarity. On social media, it is the exact opposite. It begins in deepening the original wound, progresses through eye-rolls, exasperation and scrutiny, and culminates in messy, ugly, confrontational “call-outs”.
How do we break this vicious cycle? In some way, it is through “educating”. But almost none of us are clear about what we mean when we use that term, and it is partly this ambiguity that throws up a plethora of counter-productive methods and practices. The politics of recommending readings and lists is held together by two raw instincts from opposite ends. On the side of the privileged party, there is a kind of comfort in feeling some quantifiable amount — say 10 books — away from perfect allyship, or unchallengeable commitment to a cause. On the part of the oppressed, it is a kind of anxiety to prove that what they are demanding by way of recognition or redressal is scientific, objective and deliverable, and not amorphous, infuriatingly complicated, unknown to themselves and hopelessly tied up to their individuality within multiple overlapping kinds of social identities. There is an inarticulable twitchiness at both ends, because the medium conflates the moment-specific articulation of the comment or recommendation on social media with one’s unchanging personhood. It sets in stone that which is best written on sand to be washed away by the ocean.
The emphasis on lists, reading and homework is also one that derives from the ease with which privileged groups have an ability to navigate the canon in a disconnected, academic way. It derives from a laziness to intrinsically disengage with that which cannot be summarised, as well as a fear of being left out from that which cannot be clearly articulated but nonetheless holds great truth. In short, it comes — consciously or unconsciously — from a profound desire to capture the moral high ground, with limited effort, accountability and dissonance. This practice, which indeed may stem from heightened insecurity, is nonetheless an article of bad faith that must be reflected on. It creates a paradigm in which genuine introspection and change (and, therefore, forgiveness) is subverted and made impossible by an oversaturation of vocabulary. When the theoretical lexicon is put to the service of insincere apologies and baseless mud-slinging, it both loses its edge in describing the original problem and, even worse, comes to be associated with insincerity itself.
Part of my mistrust in sharing readings is also the question of what privileged groups genuinely intend to do with this information. In a world where politics is an aesthetic and monetizable performance, marginalised groups have woken up to the realisation that there is currency in the unlikeliest of spaces: story-telling. There is a fear among some that people simply seek to use such knowledge towards personal economic gain. This, I think, is largely unfounded given how few actually possess the skill to do so, and how little there is to gain by it. Also — more importantly — I don’t think monetizing things is an inherent sign of immorality. What I am more concerned by is something more detrimental — an urge to weaponise information as a sword of moral virtue. My fear is that well-meaning people use the information from explainers and reading lists to brow-beat right-wingers who are ready to engage, while simultaneously quoting from it to deflect criticism if they are called out. This is the dominant purpose that is widely served by making lists and readings, no matter what good intentions they are created with. It makes our politics a club for cool-kids, not an expansive space of mutual exchange.
What does reading actually achieve?
Another misdiagnosis of the paradigm of reading lists is the underlying belief that reading motivates people to action. This is, at best, empirically untested and at worst, downright naive. In my experience, reading doesn’t often spur you to get up and magically change the way you negotiate your life. It mostly just makes you continue living as is from day to day while wallowing in a spiralling, impotent sense of guilt that isn’t particularly useful to anyone. This finds outlet through frustrated shouting when you argue with someone in the same structural position but who is unapologetic about using it to his advantage and doesn’t share your guilt.
This doesn’t of course mean that reading is useless. Far from it. It is simply to suggest that it is an excellent vessel for our insecurities and curiosities — in short, our individualities — but a poor means around which to organise collective politics. Reading is, by definition, an individual practice in which only that which resonates with you personally can hold your attention and interest. Politics is never individual. It is the agreement to set aside the individual for a moment and think about what one envisions as the collective good, the community spirit, the shape of the future. If generations of religious strife have taught us one thing, it is that people can read the same book radically differently and come to the opposite conclusion. Books — including those with some form of divine sanction — are poor tools around which to mobilise in ways that don’t culminate in name-calling over wrong interpretation.
It is for this precise reason that the two — the individual and the collective, reading and politics — should not be conflated and merged, and equally, why one needs to have a break and a space of demarcation between both. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, when confronted with a similar sort of binary, “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor in the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis”. Achieving such synthesis involves having both a good sense of self and a willingness to engage with the predicament of the human condition. Reading is a great tool for the self. It can inform one’s individual path to politics. But it is surely no replacement for politics itself. The problem with woke social media is that it fuses all these strands together and forces you to curate it into a performance.
It is a fact that scholars are rarely good organisers/mobilizers and vice versa. Scholarship requires a depth, nuance, rigour, method, and complexity that is very rarely conducive to communicating and organising big groups of people. Conversely, organising requires a combination of empathy, selflessness and ability to build and hold people together through simple, resonant stories. Kanshi Ram once famously quipped that “Ambedkar collected books, I gathered people”. The tragic comedy of modern wokeness is that it has made us equally pathetic as scholars and mobilizers. It has coloured our scholarship with an unwillingness to see beyond our limited prejudices and set-in-stone categories, and it has also set the rot deep into our politics to make us look like bickering academic pedants with no collective vision or solidarity.
I have written previously on how the proliferation of reading lists has fundamentally changed the meaning of the word ‘Solidarity’. Earlier, this word meant the ability to recognise the violation of certain basic values to a set of people, which warranted public protest as well as support to the said group even if one could never understand, relate to or even particularly like that said group. Today, it means the requirement to acquaint oneself constantly with multiple, complex histories of various “oppressed groups” in all their exact details; find a single, clear narrative thread that binds such histories together and then create and employ a vocabulary that is acceptable to all these groups while constantly policing any accidental transgression of it. So long as one manages to accomplish this delicate act of tiptoeing (or flagellate themselves publicly when they’re “out-woked” or confronted for past transgressions), no one needs to be held to any other standard of responsibility — attend a protest, offer your services to a cause, educate those around you with valuable skills, or even switch off your air conditioner for 5 minutes. This simple shift in the meaning of the word “solidarity” is actually one of the most profound infiltrations of neoliberal worldviews into left politics. It necessitates that the “good ally” is now one with access to the widest range of opinions and vocabularies, not the one who inhabits the positionality by themselves. Lived experience is now considered a poor cousin of having the time and energy to be “right” about anything. So how do we break this? What new kinds of practice do we envision, if ‘reading lists’ and social media educating is failing us?
Towards New Forms of Conscious Digital and Political Educating
This section is an invitation to a discussion. I will highlight what I currently think of as good social media and real-life practice regarding “educating”, and I welcome alternate views. First of all, I think we need to dispel altogether the notion of a “canon” when trying to bring new people towards our position. Each of us have our own approach and experiences that inform why we believe what we believe. We must learn to strengthen those stories, fill in the logical gaps, introspect and make sense of our own trajectories. This will ensure that when confronted with a question, we do better than to throw someone off with a memorised set of readings.
The second thing is to abandon the notion of seeking insight and education purely through reading. Generations of feminist scholarship have taught us this invaluable lesson: if you’re truly interested and committed to seeing something, you will see its history in every absence of it you encounter everywhere. In “engaging” with caste or any other colossal, global phenomenon, we must all start with humility. The caste system is not so much a “system” as it is an umbrella term for a huge, colossal swathe of historical, social, economic and geopolitical processes through which certain groups came to constitute a governing class with an almost divine legitimacy. Studying caste involves scrutinising scientifically the organisations of power and hierarchy that have followed a fairly flexible yet identifiably organised set of principles surrounding the organisation of society, distribution of rights, assignment of duties, material control and, in later cases, stricter regulation around inter marriage, inter dining and other forms of larger fraternity building. All of this is complicated and overwhelming, and neither you nor anyone else will ever scratch the surface of understanding it in a more than superficial way. Despite this, it’s perfectly possible to listen to people describe their lives and stories, form bonds and friendships, hold to contradictions, be kind and so on rather than demand “required texts” to help you understand. Find better, alternate and diverse sources of insight beyond those you can cite academically. This will help you both listen more kindly and argue more convincingly.
If looking for insight beyond books is necessary, then the flip side is equally true — stop reading only to clarify and reinforce your existing worldview. My impulse in sharing a reading is to tell you that something interested and enriched me as a human being, and that it could do that in some imprecise, different manner for you. It’s not to tell you how to read it, what you “should” like about, why you should share my view of it, why it must inform your politics and so on. It is not to browbeat a person into feeling intellectually inferior and succumbing to agreement in awe or reverence. Too many metaphors in the modern age for making convincing arguments deploy the language of battle, violence, defeat, respect, desire and so on. This, for me, is a terrible route to politics. It is one that sets up and encourages moral superiority, bullying and intellectual snobbery. Sharing readings must be the opposite: a process of getting people to deal, however painfully, with their own dissonance by using their own intellectual and emotional faculties. The joy of sharing politics with somebody for me is not that they agree with me, but rather that they found their way to the same conclusion by using their reason despite vastly different circumstances. In tangible terms, what this means for practice is this: I simply share a picture of a book with no context or back story. It is my way of saying, “I read this. I might have loved it, liked it in parts or completely detested it. That stays with me. But I think, for whatever reason, it’s worth reading. You might think so too. But you should go figure out why for yourself. Go have your own complicated relationship with it.” At this moment, I find this sharing of images to be the simplest way of conveying this. I do not feel the need to pinpoint texts on specific topics and deem them ‘canonical’, and am often out of place when asked for a recommendation on a given topic. Use casual reading to enjoy yourself and become a more rounded, sensitive and interesting person, not to set up contests with those you profess to share politics with. If your social media is an extension of your personhood, make it a canvas for your messy multiplicity, not a tablet on which to chisel your self-assuredness and intellectual superiority.
Finally, what about politics? Here it’s my belief that we need to meet, or at least have conversations, rather than back-and-forth written comments. I wrote earlier that my political positions are a reflection of who I am — an embodiment of the various connections and strands that are held together only by my personhood and not by a reading list. If you want to know my point of view more deeply, then you have to know me personally, not the readings I recommend. This is a pedagogical belief that has some parallels to an idea from Sufism that has seeped into the process of study in many Indian art forms. It is called Sohbat or Qurbat, the idea of imbibing by proximity, nearness, observation and intimacy — by picking up on that which the teacher might not know how to articulate themselves; indeed by eradicating the boundary between what is taught and what is learned altogether. Politics isn’t simply what we articulate. It has to be the sounds we want to create, the visuals we want to make real, the tastes we can’t yet give names to. And for that we have to reclaim and expand notions of “educating” beyond simply reading, writing, ‘homework’ and similar metaphors. We have to evolve modes of synthesis through holding difference and contradiction, something that can only be achieved through non-textual engagement. Reading lists presume a starting point in theory from which one can evolve one’s positions. But if you build from theory to practice, it is not uncommon that you will feel frustrated and disillusioned. Sohbat calls on us to do the opposite, to start from that which is immediate, proximate. If you start from practice and slowly, cautiously work your personal, uncharted way to theory, you’ll be a little less sure of your categories, a little more discerning of your solidarities, a little more forgiving of yourself and others and, hopefully, a little happier and more purposeful for what it’s worth. I hope this makes some sense. Now enough reading for today. Go be kind and do better things.