Writing, Art, Knowledge, Identity, The Internet: Rambled Musings
One languorous Delhi evening, a close friend of mine and I were engaged in a typically meandering conversation, flitting between various expressions of righteous anger and hesitant uncertainty. My friend, who happens to be white, asked me a fairly simple question: “Why is it that the things you write about as an academic are so different from the things that clearly interest you the most about the world?”.
It was a trickily good question, the kind you’d want to pause and answer so as not to screw up — but would inevitably end up botching anyway. I had multiple ways of thinking about that. There is a side of me that is an academic purist — I have perhaps imbibed too seriously a notion of “objectivity”, rigour and scientificness that bars me from sharing my personal cynicism and intellectual trajectory too widely beyond an intimate circle. There is also a side of me that likes to separate the things I like the most from the things I’m compelled to do to eat and pay rent. There is a small hypocrisy here — in that I do like a lot of the things I work on — cities, politics, jobs, the economy, migration, capital. I haven’t chosen a career path that is totally removed from my interests, like engineering or banking. But the things I do are still peripheral to the things I truly love — music, art, languages, food, storytelling and writing long, intimate letters. Both these personal explanations would, however, end up glossing over a larger structural reality. Here’s where I’ll cut to a long-ish story-rant that might or might not circuitously return to the original question.
In the modern age of social media, the immediacy of publication has quenched a longstanding public thirst for being able to tell the stories and knowledge of one’s “second” life. Scores of African-American artists have alluded over the years to this idea of a ‘mixed’ register — the fact that they had a cultural education and exposure to certain things at home that was strictly separate from the way they knew they had to present themselves to succeed in the ‘white’ world. This is equally true of all kinds of non-white people who were among the first generation to interact with the flux of a globalized world. Before the internet became the de facto medium of absorbing information about the outside world, one had to have a strict “professional” (read: white) register that was distinct from one’s languages, histories, stories, ancestries and modes of thinking.
At some point, this began to change. I believe two main reasons are behind this. First, the wealthiest and most powerful end of white society began to picturize its self image and desirability as linked to ‘diversity’. The “whites-only” country clubs began to fade from their preferred mode of self-depiction; they wanted to be seen as moral individuals with friends from all over the world, rather than the invasive colonizer of old. It was this sort of ‘aesthetic diversity’ that powered through various kinds of pro-elite immigration and affirmative action policy — flooding the west’s top institutions with the wealthiest social elite of the third world. The second major shift was in communications technology — which meant that large media houses and film companies no longer held a complete monopoly on the ability to speak across scale. These two factors together birthed a new form of content production, one that was essentially driven by and for both wealthy white liberals as well as the emerging west-based, non-white elite.
Today, the internet (or at least the thin sliver of it that is personalised to me) is flooded with this. Meme pages, content creators, cultural interpreters, woke “activists” — a large cultural industry that churns out English content that apparently represents the “brown”/non-white world. Social media has transformed certain forms of cultural inheritance — community traits, family histories, inside jokes — into a tradable currency of legitimacy. People have been incentivised to start essentializing and curating themselves — carefully selecting the facets of their life that are rewarded by the woke white gaze and discarding the inconvenient and messy complexities that are constituent of their personhood. This is of course a form of personal dehumanization that we are all complicit in, but it has larger structural repercussions. What it has essentially done is satisfied a long-term interest of colonialism: to draw a strict binary between the “intellectual” (read: white) and the “cultural” (read: brown, non-white, whatever you want).
Despite my tone, this has not been all bad. Finding an outlet for validation for the stories you thought you’d have to hide or bury has been a life-affirming experience from time to time. But the manner in which this trend has evolved has forced us into a kind of identitarian trap that has serious implications. Think about college admission forms. Universities are essentially telling white people to write why they should be admitted from amongst all other privileged white people. This makes them automatically focus on one single metric: why they are better than anybody else who was given the same opportunities. A white student who is admitted is thereby reaffirmed in their idea of being “better” than most. A non-white student is asked to write, conversely, about their experiences with struggle and how they contribute to “representation” and “diversity”. They are not affirmed in being “smarter” or “better”, but in being more authentically victimised. And quite naturally, they will spend the rest of their academic lives playing this game of self pity. Because it is successful. It is a proven formula to have a seat at the table. Not because you are an intellectual equal, but because you’ve been deemed worthy of charity. In a roundabout way, the current online trend of hypervisibility of non-white modes of thinking and ways of life has actually satisfied a long-term interest of colonialism: to draw a strict binary between the “intellectual” (read: white) and the “cultural” (read: brown, non-white, whatever you want).
This kind of system naturally rewards the most privileged of the third world. Victimhood comes much easier as a language to those who have limited instances of it in their life. Where does a person who has endured a lifetime of indignity or who carries the weight of such a degree of ancestral pain, genocide and cultural erasure have the energy to cherrypick an assortment of “sad moments”? And moreover, why is that what they are encouraged to bring to the table? Why can’t people be allowed to talk about their meritoriousness on their own terms?
I believe I offer what no white student my age can in purely intellectual — not cultural — terms. Fuck all this “I had a harder route to education” patronising nonsense. My frustration often makes me want to deploy the cold language of merit. I speak 8 languages. I know worlds and worldviews, registers and intimacies, articulations and silences that it will take a white person 5 PhDs to scratch the surface of. The fact that I’m ready to write a PhD dissertation in his mother tongue when he probably has never even heard the name of mine is all the criterion of merit I need. I am simply a more qualified candidate. No diversity, no victimhood. No “if only I had been given the chance I’d have been as good as this white guy”.
I understand that most of the academic world will not see it this way. I can’t provide footnotes or references for this, or find citations for the hours, minutes and seconds of cumulative lived experience that have shaped my intellectual trajectory. They will probably read this as arrogance rather than legitimate anger. I suppose with enough deep breaths I can find that understandable too. And with enough reflection, I know that despite every woke trend — the forms of knowledge that academia will consider legitimate and take seriously are here to stay. They will carve out a niche — “postcolonial studies”, “area studies”, “critical theory” — that they can demarcate as the domain of the ‘non-serious’, and continue unabashedly.
These are the structural underpinnings of why I don’t work as an academic on the things that most interest me. Aside from not wanting to be seen as some kind of parochial representative of my “region” (whatever that means), I understand that the things I love are not best understood in the register of academia at all. They have to be gestured towards, toyed with, imbibed, inhaled, experienced, exuded, gifted, held, wrestled with, lived, loved, and rambled about on a drunken evening. They cannot be neatly cut, scrutinised, slotted, labelled, explained and decoded. It is actually a very tricky task to not approach learning in the latter sort of way if you have too much formal, institutional training. Which is why social media rhetoric bothers me so much — because it takes the things I value for their complexity, turns it into social currency, makes it a matter of right and wrong, and slots it into the mould of formal knowledge. We get “explainers”, “reading lists”, “dos and don’ts” for anything under the sun. These are arguably useful to make legislation or policy more accessible. But is this a way to understand politics, language, history, art, resistance, solidarity, interpersonal interaction? I’m not sure.
As I continue on my academic journey, thus, there will continue to be the dissonance of that which I cannot say for lack of accepted forms of evidence but still know in a more real sense than anything else. And there is an abiding fear in me that if I continue to make social media the sole repository of those thoughts, doubts, provocations, and bits of true insight that don’t make the final cut — that they will simply be amplified into the kinds of righteous echo chambers where they serve the least purpose. This newsletter is an attempt to avoid those pitfalls, and throw some of these musings into the void without also having to deal with the crippling immediacy of every “yaaaS”, clap-emoji or long-detailed comment. It is also an attempt to regain confidence in a personal sense of writing style without concern for an audience. It will sometimes be long, and sometimes be short. But I hope you will always find it interesting. Feedback is welcome.