Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When you come home mother

When you come home mother,
You with your power and glory,
and blessings and grace.
These saffron-wearing thugs,
bandanas on their heads,
tridents in their hands,
the asuras of the Hindu-rashtra,
run in fear for their lives.

When you come home mother,
You with your love and anger,
and strength and justice.
These hate-mongering chanters
of Ram-naam,
with hate in their hearts,
the desecrators of your name,
go into hiding.

When you come home mother,
You with your joy and rage,
and care and force.
These miscreants that plant
the seeds of violence,
threaten to turn your land
into Gujarat or Ayodhya,
evanesce into the ether.

When you come home mother,
You with your power and glory,
and blessings and grace,
Your children, Hindus and Muslims,
come together in united resolve,
To keep these mandarins of
hatred and violence
Out of your land.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Note for academic partners: When you come to collaborate, come with humility and commitment

When working on culture-centered projects of social change, our research team is often approached by academic partners wanting to adopt the culture-centered approach or wanting to secure an entry into a collaboration with a community partner.

While in many instances, these relationships result in mutual learning experiences, and bring new insights into the work of the CCA, in some instances, academic partners in culture-centered projects have not really imbibed the basic principles of the CCA before approaching collaboration.

Some partners are eager to get a publication out on this or that marginalized community.

The work of our team then becomes one of building the ethos of patient co-learning. That this or that publication is not what one is targeting when embarking on a culture-centered project is the first lesson.

Academic partners are sometimes too eager to take this or that element of the CCA and market it as their own contribution. You forget that the hard work of cultural-centering is far removed from the academic circus of getting a publication out, which unfortunately is the way most of us are incentivized in the neoliberal academe.

The work of cultural-centering then is one of working with you on the idea of commitment, de-centering the neoliberal modality of insincere academic production.

If you expect to generate three publications within the first year of our collaboration because we have gathered so much data, it would serve you well to learn to listen to community voices who often feel that academics come in to extract data and make their careers, not to contribute to community-driven change.

You would do well to learn that after many years of culture-centered work, only at a point when our community partners feel this is a time to write, and often after achieving tangible community-driven change outcomes do we start writing. And there are times when we don't even write because the community partners feel the time to write has not yet arrived.

If you are of the belief that you could randomly just walk into a community and make cultural observations and write them in, the CCA would teach you that usually we don't even start the process of writing after a year of commencing on the project. Doing a few interviews or randomly walking into a community to have some conversations reinforce the imperial relationships that academics produce with communities, especially communities at the margins.

So be ready to show your commitment, that you would stick through this journey, even when the going gets rough.

In other instances, academic partners come in because they find writing in sensationalist terms about a marginalized community is the new catch word. The texture of our collaboration then turns to patient co-learning about the terms of conversation, with the power of the decision about representation turned into the hands of community members.

If you are unwilling to challenge your expertise or your mastery of this or that theory or this or that method, you would struggle with the journey of cultural centering, which is much more our own journeys of de-centering as academics.

When you come to collaborate because you quickly want to learn the method and then replicate it, you would be at a loss. There are no quick fixes to cultural centering. Often there are no quick success stories.

Cultural centering is a journey, one that is rife with failures, re-learnings, and re-centering the work of listening to community voices.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When structures strategize to cultivate creativity, creativity emerges as/in resistance

The very nature of structures, as frameworks for organizing communicative opportunities, is antithetical to the creative expressions that emerge organically from communicative spaces in community life.

In other words, structures, with their rules and roles, forms and mechanics of control, impede the possibilities of expressions, especially expressions that emerge spontaneously from the everyday interactions and textures of community life.

With their monocultures, driven by homogeneous logics of control and profiteering, structures see creativity as opportunities for consolidating power and control. Creativity is the next buzz word for drawing in investments and for fashionable product positioning.

The scramble of authoritarian structures globally for the creative unique selling position is a good reflection  of this drive for creativity as a profitable resource, commoditized into instruments that can draw in financial opportunities.

Creativity is targeted as a site of management, written into organizational logics of efficiency, turned into quantifiable metrics that structures can utilize to reproduce their power and control.

In contract, creativity in cultural contexts, as the everyday expressions of new ideas and thoughts, thrives in the fissures of such structures, not in manicured creative innovation hubs, but amid the resistance voiced in community contexts, amid the expressions of everyday life in community participation.

Structures form the constraints on which creativity works in order to foster spaces, sites, and opportunities for expression.

The very impetus of structures to cultivate creativity is resisted through the everyday expressions of creativity in community life.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Teaching our students the ethic of the heart

The pedagogy of communication in the backdrop of the dramatic inequalities we witness across the globe has to be grounded in an ethic of the heart. How to build communicative practices that embody this ethic of the heart is the key question for culture-centered scholars working on social justice projects from/with the margins.

The journey of culture-centered pedagogy begins with this realization: to address the global challenges we are in the midst of, communication has to be placed at the center. Not the forms of communication that simply serve as the loudspeakers for the 1%, but communication that is fundamentally transformative. Such transformative practices of communication begin by turning toward communities at the margins as entry points to discursive sites, discursive processes, and discursive articulations.

Communication that begins not from the pre-determined agendas of those in power, but instead from the very margins that are reproduced by the consolidation of power in the hands of the global elite.

The basis of this renewed emphasis on communication is grounded in a commitment to developing practices and processes that seek to build infrastructures for communication where the poor participate, enact their agency in deliberating over decisions and reasons that are meaningful to them, and find avenues for these decisions to be enacted. The pedagogy of the culture-centered approach grapples with this challenge of how best to build infrastructures of communication that open up discursive sites to the agentic possibilities from the margins. 

An ethic of the heart works through the concepts of friendship and listening as anchors to learning to do relationships, dialogues, and participatory practices, attentive to the margins that are (re)produced by contemporary social systems, and seeking to undo the social structures that reproduce marginalization.

To work from the concept of friendship is to first and foremost change the very basis of the relationship with the margins, from one of unequal power to one that seeks equality in the relationship, deeply aware of the inequalities that are fundamental to the nature of relationships between academic-activists and communities at the margins. An ethic of friendship seeks to understand through conversations with the margins the practices that produce the margins from the standpoint of those at the margins, reflect upon the productions of privilege through these conversations, and participate in communicative processes to change the inequalities that produce the margins in solidarity with communities at the margins. To be in solidarity is to lend one's body to the struggles of the margins, placing the body amid the risks and challenges that come with communication that seeks to transform structures.

The concept of communication as friendship with the margins works alongside the concept of communication as listening. The work of the academic-activist as a listener foregrounds the role of communication in building theories from the margins through collaborations at the margins. The struggles of the margins amid the global dissemination of the ideology of neoliberalism as the basis for global organization disrupts the pseudoscience of neoliberal claims-making. Listening thus becomes the basis for challenging and transforming the theories disseminated in global structures of neoliberal governance. The unfounded bases of the claims that form the foundations of the free market ideology are disrupted through stories from the margins, building evidence that "makes impure" the dominant knowledge structures.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Humility as a research ethic

A culture-centered project is a journey in humility, an ongoing process of "learning to unlearn" the theories, concepts, and tools one has been taught to learn to excel in the academic pursuit of success.

To listen to voices of communities at the margins of the social system of which the academic is a part, one has to look carefully at one's own position as an academic within this network of privilege. To look at and carefully examine one's own position is to acknowledge the confluence of structures that reproduce this privilege, the very structures that also produce under-privilege. What are my privileges, how have and how are these privileges produced, and how do I benefit from these privileges? How do my privileges produce under-privilege?

In other words, privilege and under-privilege are two sides of the same coin.

Because I am privileged, because I occupy a position of privilege, someone else is positioned as without privilege. In this sense, I as an academic am part of the problem of the production of the margins. This acknowledgment hopefully marks the beginning of a lifelong journey of research practices that seek to interrogate the unequal production and circulation of privilege in social systems.

To work with the margins therefore, my acknowledgment of the circuits of privilege and the ways in which these circuits of privilege profit from the production of the margins is a starting point. Through this acknowledgment, I as a researcher can begin to see how privilege is produced and tied to distributions of power in society. My ability to have a voice is intertwined with the erasure of multiple other voices from multiple other positionalities.

For this close reflection that turns the lens on the academic and on his/her location at the center of knowledge production, cultivating humility is a necessity. The practice of humility as research ethic teaches the researcher/activist/advocate the impossibility of representation while throwing open the challenges of re-presenting articulations from the margins to interrupt into the structures.

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.