Sunday, August 20, 2017

The career academic in authoritarian regimes

Education in authoritarian systems reproduces the student as the disciplined subject, always ready to submit to the goals, techniques, and tools of authority. The ability to succeed in such a system is directly tied to one's compliance with the diktats of the system, subjecting the self through the strict and narrow regimens of everyday performance that are directly tied to the incentives one receives.

The message that is passed on early in life is this: the greater your adherence to the rules and frameworks of the structure, the greater the number of opportunities that will be available to you.

The high performing students in elite schools of authoritarian systems learn the techniques and strategies of performed consent through an intricate web of reward-and-punishment mechanisms. The student internalizes the diktat- get in line, follow the steps, and you will be rewarded; question the system, and you will be punished.

Academia as a career is tied to incentives that are implicitly tied to performing obedience to the structure.

The career academic in an authoritarian system is the A-performing student that has perfected the techniques of performing consent. The greater you abide by the structures of the system, the greater your rewards. The opportunities that will be available to you in life will be directly correlated with your ability to use your academic talents as a tool of the structure, serving its diktats and strategic agendas.

In addition, an authoritarian system builds in rewards for academics that can position themselves as the intelligence gatherers of the system. Behaviors such as reporting on sites and spaces of critique are rewarded through a variety of incentive structures and processes. Built then into the academic culture is the specter of being reported on, being found out, being called up for writing or saying something that is critical. The career academic here is the precise instrument for the perpetuation of the structure.

For the career academic, academic freedom is a performance, something you perform to cast a global narrative in the service of the structure. Context is an excuse for recycling the rules and norms of authoritarianism, performing authoritarian norms as cultural norms.

In sum, the career academic in an authoritarian regime is less of an academic, and more of an instrument of surveillance, tool of control, and apologist for the excesses of authoritarian control.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The idea of Pink Dot: Freedom to love

As a foreigner, I am marked as the outside of the nation state.

The space of regulated protest at Hong Lim Park has been quarantined, with identity checks. The barricades around the park will ensure that foreigners like me are outside of the designated space.

The thinking goes somewhat like this: foreigners like me ought to have no interest in and influence on the social change processes within the nation state. We are here to contribute to the economy as productive migrants, not to have a voice in societal, cultural, and political processes.

The barricade as a symbol is also a marker of the outside of the nation. The foreigner is a participant in the economic sphere of the nation and simultaneously excluded from the societal change processes within the nation.

As an irony, the very idea of Pink Dot, "freedom to love," challenges the boundaries that are put up by markers of identity. Binaries such as citizen/foreigner are inverted by the invitation to freedom.

To be free to love whom you want to love is to fundamentally challenge the markers of identity that dictate the parameters and forms of acceptable love, including the markers that denote the inside and the outside of the nation.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why communicators are the targets of authoritarianism

Authoritarianism perpetuates its hegemonic power and control through the control over the narrative.

Stories make up the bases of the regime's power.

The reproduction of the regime is legitimated through the production of specific truth claims that form the narrative bases of the regime's rule.

The regime tells stories that are central to its justifications of its repressive strategies. Stories of security threats. Stories of economic opportunity. Stories of transformation brought about through the power and control of the regime.

The continuation of the power of the regime is enabled through the manufacturing of these specific narratives that form the bases for the various forms of control enacted by the regime.The consent of the subjects of the regime to its authoritarianism is sought and accomplished through the telling of stories of positive transformations brought about by the regime. The tools of repression are necessary at a violent time of the national history, allaying the threats to the nation.

Circulating specific myths about the moral authority of the regime to rule is integral to the achievement of the regime's power and control.

These myths are manufactured, serving as communicative inversions, to transform material observations into claims of truth that serve the regime's hold over power.

Even as strategic communication works through the 24X7 cycle to manufacture the regime's legitimating story, the regime works actively to silence any other story that challenges the regime's authority.

Communicators therefore are systematically the targets of authoritarian regimes. From jailing and murdering journalists to dismissing communication professors, the regime follows a wide range of strategies to silence the telling of other stories.

Communicators are openly marked as direct threats to the national interest, labeled as anti-national. Sedition charges or charges of disrupting national harmony are written up so communicators telling other stories can be erased from the discursive space. Communication professors telling other stories are pulled up for the anti-national character of the stories told. Targeting communicators is one of the critical and essential tools of the regime.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cultural Studies without Structure: Co-optation of the Critical in Neoliberal Academe

Much of the current scholarship of cultural studies is a necessary and important accompaniment to diverse forms of neoliberal transformations of politics and economics globally. The emergence of cultural studies in communication in the 1990s is also juxtaposed in the backdrop of the hegemony of neoliberalism as the organizing framework of thought.

What role then did cultural studies play in the context of neoliberalism?

The ascendance of cultural studies in academia as "the" critical has taken over the performance of critique through cultural descriptors. These cultural descriptors most often are disengaged from questions of structure(s), and by occupying "the" critical space, they draw attention away from the everyday necessities of critiquing neoliberalism and challenging it.

Cultural Studies, performing as sites of radical difference within academic institutions, on one hand, position themselves as oppositional sites. On the other hand, the lack of engagement with structures, the absence of political economy, and the lack of critique of institutions means that much of cultural studies is more of a tool for reproducing hegemonic structures rather than interrupting such structures.

Descriptions of meanings, interpretations, and flows that don't attend to structures or direct their critique toward structures simply become tools for replicating these structures. The analysis of a popular television program that does not then engage with questions of how the program narrates the interests of the capitalist classes, how the program produces working class consent, or how it reproduces the imaginaries of neoliberal hegemony is not really a critique but rather a description or an interpretation.

In this backdrop, the radical posturing of Cultural Studies then as a site of critique co-opts the spaces and sites for real radical critique. The possibilities of imagining other worlds are backgrounded or erased by the performed radicalism of Cultural Studies as critique.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The White (Wo)man as Saviour

I can feel
the brownness
of my skin,
in your gaze.
In your
to uplift
the burden of
my brown soul.

I can feel
the brownness
of my skin,
in your touch.
In your
to fill
the primitive depths
with your light.

I can feel
the heat
of your bomb,
under my skin.
In your
to democratize
the backward ways
of my life.

Inspired by my reading of Raka Shome's "Diana and Beyond."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Caste privilege "Made in India"

The shiny advertising slogans of "Make in India" tell the story of a modern India, a rapidly growing IT sector, the rising knowledge management industry, and the burgeoning private industry feeding India's growth story.

The convent-educated, MTV-watching, Nike-wearing twenty-something is the face of this new India.

Aspiring. With dreams of the Big Apple. The pulse of the nation's imagination.

Promising in his appeal as the digitally skilled workforce of the new India, the twenty-something presents the image of a global cosmopolitanism.

Technologically-savvy, social media-adept, YouTube-conversant.

The gloss of modernity is a well performed facade, however.

The Domino's, Levi's, and Coldplay obfuscate the casteism that pervades the everyday being of this twenty-something India.

Rituals of touch, codes of purity, and practices of boundary-marking define his inner life.

He follows the rituals spelt out by his parents. Participates in the customs of caste that mark his privilege. Talks down to the lower caste domestic worker who spoon-feeds him and does all his chores.

At school or at work, he makes casteist jokes.

He then turns around and bemoans how it is so difficult to be upper caste because the lower castes get all the quotas.

He complains how there is no such thing as casteism in India. How it is a Western ploy to orientalize India.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The field is not just data: Reflecting on cultural centering


I began fieldwork in Jangal Mahal, among Santali communities experiencing disenfranchisement both materially and symbolically.

As a scholar interested in health outcomes and community participatory processes for securing health, the lived experiences of community members with extremely limited access to health resources was an entry point for developing communicative spaces where community members could come together and articulate their health needs, and seek out a variety of material solutions for addressing these needs.

Amid the extreme forms of marginalization, disenfranchisement from access to resources, discourses of resistance often appeared in community narratives as strategies for securing access to health.

When these narratives of resistance took material form in 2006, I stopped writing about my field sites as a decision that seemed natural to one of the key tenets of the culture-centered approach: reflexivity.

Reflexivity in this context meant that I had to attend to silence as a method.

Keeping silence was a methodological choice, one that emerged from the voices of community members. These stories were not to be told, as their time had not yet come.

Moreover, as my access to the field had become very limited between 2006 and 2011, I felt limited in making sense of any narrative. Stories flowed in complex and contradictory webs, not seamlessly fitting into the "sandwich" theory or a theory of "pure resistance." 

It is amid this silence that I am struck by the desire of the academic from the metropole to turn these spaces into objects of theorizing. The Kolkata academic sees Jangal Mahal as an artefact that would launch his career.

Once again today, when I received an inquiry from a scholar wanting to collaborate on the question of Maoist violence in Jangal Mahal, my response was simple: No.

The desire of the metropole to study subaltern resistance is the sort of academic voyeurism that breeds and reproduces the inequities that constitute Santali life. A day trip to the Santali community or a few days in a couple of villages become the basis for careers to be made from the exploitation of subaltern life.

This fundamental inequity in the production of knowledge, where the scholar from the metropole, from Kolkata or Chicago, can go into the community, pick up glimpses and then write up journal articles constitutes the very inequity that lies at the heart of the structural disenfranchisement experienced by subaltern communities.

The turning of the field into data that pushes academic careers lies at the heart of the communicative processes of material marginalization.