Category Archives: other

Four things to hold on to according to Antoinette Rouvroy

A few months ago I was at a workshop in Brussels, on the side of which Antoinette Rouvroy and Seda Gürses were invited to speak. They both said really important things about their work: algorithmic governmentality, and Why Are We Talking About The Cloud Now?, respectively.

I asked Rouvroy about what resistance looks like in the face of narratives of big data that appear totalizing (the narratives about, and big data, both appear totalizing). What are the things that escape digitalisation? She said that there is a tendency of life to be recalcitrant to organisation, and these things:

– Physical things: the fact of bodies and organic life, which are wholly unpredictable;
– Utopias we had/have that don’t find a place in any present
– Dreams of the future.
– If we were really present and complete, we would not talk to each other: we are separated from ourselves through language anyway; trying to find a way back is resistance.

“Algorithmic thinking is tempting because it precludes hesitation, doubt, and failure; failure is a space to hold on to.”

#SpivakConfidential: “I was so trashed in Dubrovnik” and other anecdotes and insights from her Berlin lecture

This week I went to a public lecture by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak titled Who Claims Borderlessness as part of the Berliner Gazette event, Tacit Futures. I wish I could say I knew her work really well but I don’t. I’ve read some bits of her here and there, the famous stuff, but years ago. I had never seen her speak before, so I was charmed by her performance of being Spivak.

Spivak talked about loving being an academic, and those who don’t should stop whining, and leave it. I think she had been cautioned against being too academic in her talk, so she sarcastically signposted every reference to approaching academicspeak: “And so this is what we call – watch out here is an academic term – performative contradiction.” And so on.

She was always conscious of her privilege and who and where she teaches, and as a caste-Hindu. She made frequent reference to her position at Columbia as the only woman of colour, and one of fifteen full University Professors. It’s kind of astounding though that she joined Columbia in the 1990s but was made University Professor only nine years ago. In talking about herself and her family, she was careful and sincere in talking about the generations of caste privilege that enabled her to be where she is.

She talked a lot about her work in rural Bengal,and contrasted life and teaching there, to teaching at Columbia. At some point she wanted to tell a story about her sister and turned and asked “anyone here know Bengali” and for some reason I put up my hand and said I could follow a little Bangla, suddenly wracked by a momentary, yawning-abyss type panic, that she would expect me to converse with her in Bangla. She shielded her eyes and looked out into the audience and said “West or East?” I said “Neither; I can follow it when people, friends, talk”. She turned to the audience and said “see, pah, you all think you’re so global and only one person has Bengali friends.. but then who cares about Bengalis, who knows us..” The anecdote about the sister was swept away and she moved on to the next one.

She and had a lot of anecdotes that were interesting and amusing, but to a mostly European audience probably inaccessible. I really liked how she didn’t footnote any of these anecdotes and left it up to the audience to figure things out.

Also, Spivak just got 91/100 in her Mandarin Oral exam. She chatted in Mandarin with some people in the audience, just like that. That was impressive. She made a wonderful point about the borders around language itself, which are difficult, but sometimes demand respect, but are also porous, cutting through class differences. She referenced being from East Bengal/Bangladesh and how that more Eastern Bangla keeps finding co-locutors in Indian West Bengal where she teaches, thus creating new bonds and connections. About Mandarin, she had a different point, about the border of the script itself, and that identifying something as Mandarin or Japanese is merely an attempt to indicate a fake globality; that the border of the language must be probed and approached to learn how to cross it.

About borders, boundaries, frontiers, and displacement: she had a lot to say including not-so-gently berating Europeans for creating conditions for a new colonialism in positioning Europe as a place of liberation, thereby Othering. And that the ‘Refugees Welcome’ slogan is effectively an inversion of where the Right is, and thereby centering the role of the German/European state(s) as a saviour and liberator. She was generally dismissive, I felt, of efforts to welcome refugees. No one asked her what we should be doing instead.

Some of her one-liners were hilarious insights into this interesting, difficult, person. I liked the meandering-into anecdotes and how they would come back to populate the points she was making. She was, is, by turn, scolding, charming, full of herself, hitting low (“You know, right, there is no such thing as Aryan”), hitting high, laser-sharp. I can’t say I always agree but I was definitely laughing right through. I think the combination of anecdote, reflection, theory and opinion made for an engaging, entertaining talk.

So, here is #SpivakConfidential:

“I run with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys, I teach at the top.”

“Ramachandra Guha wrote a stupid book”

[To the Germans] “It’s not Shpivak, it’s Spivak”

“I saw Deleuze excoriate a person because they used ‘vous’ and not ‘tu’ with him”

“I was so trashed in Dubrovnik”

“There is no such thing as Aryan. Remember that”

“Do you know [unclear Italian name].. the semiologist? He was the teacher of Umberto Eco. We were involved.. but I wouldn’t marry him because he was too rich.”

[Spivak trashes Madhu Kishwar] “She did nothing”

“Love me, love me, love me, you know I’m a liberal!” [Spivak ends lecture singing sarcastically.]

“I have made up Bengali words for things like ‘ontological difference’. Otherwise how can I teach in the village?!”

“I was on the same flight from Paris as Michael Ryan who had a huge lump of hash in his jacket pocket that the students had given him… he kicked it under the trash, somewhere, before we got to immigration. And they took me away for questioning, strip searched!Fingers in orifices looking for drugs! Hah, Ryan has an American passport, see!”

“If you’re a brown woman who is about to be strip searched for drugs in an American airport, just say you only want someone from your embassy to do it. Then, you’ll be fine. They’ll never send someone from the Indian embassy … [chuckles].”

“You want to stop? No more questions? Come on, give me more. I’m high on adrenaline, I can go on.”

(Image from Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/1152482 and glitched with an online glitcher)

Things at 3am, like Rohith Vemula

A name from an email, a name that I recognise as distinctly East African, Kenyan to be exact, buzzes in your head. It goes round and round because it is unusual and melodic. The name belongs to someone who attended a talk I gave at an event some years before. I gave her my email ID and said ‘write to me if you have any questions, or if you want to talk more, I’m great on email and terrible on Facebook’. However, she has only ever reached out to me to accept her LinkedIn request. [I have an inbox filter set to identify the word LinkedIN in a subject line and push them to the trash folder.] It occurs to me that the two most plaintive cries of our times are: “you’re breaking up!” and “Teresa Wambui sent you a Linked In Request.” I imagine a long line of LinkedIN requests waiting patiently to be accepted, long-suffering and hopeful like not attractive people on a dating site. I ignore all of those requests, because they aren’t really requests; they are intrusions generated en masse by someone else not reading the fine print, or for that matter, what’s on the box itself. I curse her and everyone who doesn’t know what the default means, that there is default setting on things. Perhaps even on the world as you encounter it. Like the world that seemed too much for Rohith Vemula to struggle on with any further. The stardust of his dreams catch in your throat and you think about every single way that caste privilege and power is casually and not-casually implicated in your ideas of the world, your self.

My mother, after being called North-Indian-Lower-Caste by the maamis in madsaars to the point where her name was changed on her own wedding invitation card to sound more South Indian and Brahmin, has become a naturalised Tam Brahm. I can hear it in her English and Tamil. For years she was judged and teased for not being able to produce the perfectly set curd or sambar. Personally I applaud her for this, though I know it has been the source of much self doubt for her. Of course every last tyrannical Brahminical madsaar-wearing Maami wanted her to be their doctor, and she gently and respectfully helped them reach the end.

There’s the way the Brahminical self is asserted, usually jokingly, about our gradual lapse into modernity. From eating beef in restaurants, to bringing cooked beef into the house, and the granddaughter of the no-beef-in-my-house grandmother producing the finest erchi oliyathatu ever. From rank alcoholism and domestic violence to genteel wine tasting tours of Napa. Marrying lower castes, Christians. No Muslims yet, but who knows. Some never marrying at all.

Then there are the smart “Paapan” genes, shorthand for a combination of privilege, access, pressure and expectation to become doctors and/or engineers who will eventually live The Good Life in America, far away from the heat and dust of Chennai, visiting only to look in on old parents and expose American-born children to their roots. It’s a little perverse, like spitting on your grandmother’s diamond earrings, to choose something else, something outlandish like Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Activism.

Do young people have to die in India to make a point? First there was Jyoti Pandey and now Rohith Vemula. It seems that they do. The work of politics however is harder and more personal, and it’s something that I think you do in private, in the small gestures that no one sees. It is in questioning origin stories, speech, in what you’ve come to believe in as personal choices as really being about giving in to conditioning and pressure. The work on the self doesn’t stop if you want to live a considered, sensitive life.

Character assassination I, II, III

Character Assassination

n
the act of deliberately attempting to destroy a person’s reputation by defamatory remarks

I
I could write about the auburn-haired woman who I sit across from at work, the one with the tics and the lazy eye. She is an only child with that peculiar sense of phantom wholeness only children have. People think she is a bureaucrat, and it may be that I am the only one who can sense the evil lurking in her. She doesn’t take risks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the world needs people who can look at things rationally and calmly for a long time before acting. She is someone out of a book written by Lionel Shriver about a family full of broken people. She would be the dark horse – or the roan maybe – quietly spinning lies and deceit in the corner and all the while seeming to be the most gentle. What is it like to get into the head of a character that you dislike and yet feel empathy for? I think I would write this character falling in love with a boy much below her class – these things are very important to the English, did I mention she was English – and did madcap things with him, like walk naked down the high street and almost get arrested for it.

II

I could write the heartbreaking story of my best friend who fell apart from anger following the tragic death of her roommate from breast cancer. The roommate was one of those unlucky young women – 31 when she was diagnosed – who unknowingly harboured a lump like a dark grudge. She was diagnosed and dead within six months. It was six months of my friend visiting her in the hospital, accompanying her to chemotherapy, comforting the boyfriend and the girl’s family. My friend couldn’t bring herself to attend the funeral or the memorial. She was so wrapped up in her own grief, it seemed at the time, that she couldn’t reach out to the roommate’s husband (the boyfriend married her while she was dying in hospital), sister or family. She mourned for weeks and the decision to stay in their shared apartment took an additional toll on her. Months later, when I couldn’t keep quiet about it any longer,I asked her what she needed to do to get over it and move on from the roommate’s death. A lot of Old Monk later, sprawled across the divan staring at the ceiling fan, a tear rolled out of the corner of her eye and she said that she fucking hated them all, her dead roommate’s family that is. They didn’t really thank her enough for all that she did and she has never forgiven them for it. She was furious that she had been “passed over” without enough praise and thanks. She felt used. She wasn’t going to get over it until they thanked her properly for everything she had done.

III
There is the woman with the watery grey eyes and a gaze so steady that I believe it gives her the power of endurance, as if she could stand in a light blizzard in her mustard yellow coat and not move for hours. She arrives at her studio-office every morning, which is on the ground floor of my apartment building. She is an illustrator for school text books. Every morning she has müsli and a cafe latte at the Swiss bakery and then goes to her studio after checking for mail, sometimes pausing to look at the junk mail. She makes herself a second cup of coffee, usually black because the milk has gone bad. She sniffs at the milk every morning. She is at her desk by five minutes to 9 o’clock. She spends a few minutes rearranging her papers, checking on her pencils, scanner, computer. She then gets down to work and does not move for three hours. She refills her coffee cup in a sort of daze and then returns to her desk. She is fixed, but fluid, for those three hours, sitting in one place but appearing to be very far away somewhere inside herself, or her work. At twelve o’clock she goes for a walk, and to eat lunch if she hasn’t brought a sandwich with her. She comes back looking alert, bright-eyed, and flushed as if she has been exerting herself by walking up a hill; the approach to our building is flat however. Her afternoon routine is in complete contrast to her morning one in that there is no routine. It’s difficult to know how she will spend her afternoons. Some days she just reads, other days she types furiously at her computers, and some days she browses through what must be clickbait – there’s a sort of glazed look in her eyes as her index finger clicks through at a regular beat. The days she reads she revisits some of the morning’s deep torpor, unmoving, lost in what she is doing. And then there are those days when she lies on the chaise lounge and cries. This is preceded by a lazy pacing of the studio, staring at the floor and then collapsing into the chair with deep sobs that seem to come from very deep within and wrack her narrow frame. She seems to be able to cry for hours on end, sustaining herself through a particular rhythm. Each long, slow wave of tears building up to a crescendo as if the memories or feelings come faster and harder like contractions, they take hold of her and she seems to be as if possessed for she can seem to go on crying for a while at a loud, fevered pace. Then it ebbs and you can see her gasping for breath, realising her own tiredness, eventually stopping with a series of whimpers and falling back till the next fresh wave crashes over her. Hours later, exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep. She leaves the studio every evening at five o’clock.

Soft, soft droning

There is a sound in this city, a soft, constant tattoo of hundreds of thousands of fingertips on keyboards. Ragged bitten grimy short Vietnamese precision manicured false brittle not enough calcium in the diet not enough vitamin D pitted nicotine marked. A global army beating its retreat from some unbearable now. Also, wires, fans, battery heat, dead metal hums that are no language just pure industrial noise and perfect background score for falling in between the cracks. Your etsy-ing, your artisanal gins and lake swimming are cute, but I think the logic of despair entails a long moment of flailing in full view on a super fast connection.

 

Berlin 1

I’m standing at the Eberswalderstrasse U-bahn intersection and looking up at the early evening light gliding over the cornices of buildings and spy two young women on a balcony looking down at us, smoking, laughing and drinking- someone is always drinking something in Berlin, it’s a city for a beverage-lovers – when I begin to think about why I never write about Berlin although I’m usually on the edge of that feeling of almost-writing about it because the city seems to inspire … interiority? solitude? expression? though you eventually find yourself thinking about the conditions for sustaining creative expression rather than just shooting from the hip on a Sunday afternoon and how the myth that has grown around how easy it is to live here equaling the sustainability of expression and its completion is like a small, aggressive tumour in the collective consciousness, and you ask if that means that this city is an inspiring place at all, or just a convenient one, which leads you to realise that every city you’ve lived in is actually only the Gestalt of everything you’ve read, and what your friends say, about it, how people talk about the weather, the food, the political and arts scene, how bad the transport and pollution are, and whether its safe or not and how easy it is to leave it on the weekends or for short breaks, which, as we know, are the things that make a city live-able and so I look up at the girls and wonder if they’re from here – but who is from here anyway – or if they’re part of the revolving door that this city is now: streams of young Americans – political, gap year, searching, IvyLeague; or the Euro-AirBnB set here for the weekend and relieved to be back in Uppsala or Barcelona or Bristol on Monday night with their envy of how impossibly cool Kreuzberg is but ultimately relieved to be back, to be back home.

Kyu-Wait

 

We’re going to Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, Kyu-Wait, we’re going to Kyu-Waaiittt my mother would sing-chant in the days before we would travel to see my father. My mother is a champion of cute little portmanteaux of sounds and words, of cut-up techniques applied to parts of speech, word sounds and pronunciation. Kyu-wait, q8, Coo-Ate were signs of our excitement at seeing him again, and about what the city-state symbolised. We were just on the brink of escaping respectable, middle-class poverty thanks to my  father “raking in the moolah” – my mother would permit herself these vulgarities only in the context of Kyu-Wait.

My parents are doctors, my father is a Urologist and transplant surgeon; he was invited to help rebuild the practice at the Urology department in one of Kuwait’s big teaching hospitals. Dr. George Someone was the much-respected Iraqi head of department who had to flee when Saddam invaded. There was something conveniently honourable in what my father was doing – helping rebuild the hospital’s practice and simultaneously earning tax-free, beautiful money, which in the early 1990s was 100 Rupees to the Dinar. You could get a little giddy doing the conversion. This t-shirt costs as much as a buffet breakfast at the Taj in Nungambakkam. This loaf of machine-made sliced bread would buy us 10 bakery-made loaves in India. These 100 Dinars are going to buy us a holiday.

The first association with the Gulf was money, of course. Sitting on billions of barrels of oil, and with fields burning in the desert, oil and what it means shape every point of reference. Many Indians, epecially South Indians, will pronounce it ‘gelf’, mocking the Kerala accent. The Gelf was full of people from Kerala, so much so you couldn’t get a plumber or carpenter anymore in Kerala, or so they said.

I was almost 16 years old in January 1991 on the eve of Desert Storm, the son et lumiere show over Baghdad. ‘Scud’ and ‘Cruise’ made it feel like we were watching Top Gun in real life; though secretly, late at night in bed, my fertile imagination would make plans to survive World War 3. (Someone at school said that their father said it was going to be World War 3). My grandfather’s stories of the Second World War in South and  South East Asia made me dread the idea of conflict. Watching the TV coverage, I had no idea that a war in the sense of the World Wars wasn’t actually happening. Years later when  I read The Gulf War Did Not Take Place I felt robbed, somehow, of that mixture of dread and excitement.

1991 was marked by a vivid, grisly memory of a young man called Rajeev Goswami who set himself on fire to protest the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of affirmative action in favour of Dalits and ‘lower’ caste people applying for government jobs.  Cities erupted in violence; ‘forward caste’ youth felt that the Mandal initiatives would close down opportunities for them. There is no fear more justifiable -or powerful – than that of a parent for their child’s well-being.  The Mandal violence surfaced the prejudices of many adults around me who were concerned that there simply wouldn’t be enough seats in universities for their children. I somehow could not appreciate this idea or the fear underlying it: perhaps it is a sign of privilege to believe that you’ll always get by. Life in middle class India can be exhausting in the anxiety that nothing will ever be enough, things will run out, there won’t be enough to go around, you’ll get to the end of the queue and then the office will close for lunch. What Mandal actually made apparent was that for progress to happen, inequality just needs to be more equally distributed.

December 1992 was when the  the Babri Masjid demolition occurred, and the following March, the Bombay Blasts. Indian’s economy had just ‘opened up’ around that time; this was most palpable in how television broadcast content exploded; from three channels we got five, then seven, 15, and then everyone stopped counting. Well-meaning adults advised me to do get an MBA – a new economy needed people who could manage it.  Amidst all the opening up and liberation, there were dark currents that you couldn’t see but only sense.

As part of the terms of my father’s employment in Kyu-Wait, the university would either cover our education in Kuwait, or fly us to visit him three times a year. My mother, sister and I stayed behind in India, it was just an awkward time to move -my sister was in the 8th grade and I had just joined college in Madras. In any case, who went to Kuwait to go to school anyway? As much as we could all appreciate Gelf money, we held fast to our snobbery: the Gelf, was, eventually, a place for money, not culture or education. You went there to meet practical needs, and the things you just could not do in India in the 1970s and 80s – make money legitimately.

My first glimpse of Kyu-Wait was actually at a boarding gate in Bombay’s international airport. I was shocked at the diversity and quantity of Indian expatriate labour in the Gulf. All Indians are familiar with domestic labour but the idea of importing this hadn’t crossed my mind. In 1993-94, traveling to the Gulf out fragile and shaken Bombay was fraught. Security was high, everyone was tightlipped and holding something in; coming back was even more fraught. I’ve had that particular passport squinted at by immigration officers in South East Asia, Europe and North America wanting to know why I had so many visa stamps in Arabic. Eventually we’re all the same when it comes to the dark-blue passport, all subjected to the same pre-boarding checks, the HIV tests.

The Gulf was where people went to buy things, and I think they still do. My generation and class of Indians has a perverse, contradictory craving for material things, and simultaneously mistrusts the desire for these things. So there’s a reason why malls paralyse and annoy me. Malls are an especially broken metaphor for progress and development. You cannot not see the South Asian labourers working outside them, or on them. Strangely, though, you couldn’t actually tell that the workers on the sides of the roads were South Asian, or even human – they could be robots under there –  because they would be completely covered to protect themselves from the sun. But robots don’t shuffle or get tired, or stop and stare at the cars whizzing by. The workers on the sides of the roads wore orange jumpsuits (this was a good decade before Guantanamo started receiving illegally detained Arab men), their faces were wrapped in  keffiyehs, only the eyes visible. My mother would point them out and get agitated (I get this from her). See, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, see our people having to do this, be treated like this. Why can’t we take better care of our people? How hard they have to work, how are they being treated in this country, who looks out for them, do they have unions, where do their families live? There were no answers, only just the nameless relief that we were inside looking out. Looking out of the back of the car after we’d pass them, it would seem like they would evaporate into the mirage, as if they had never been there.

My father lived on the 15th floor of a building overlooking absolutely nothing. He lived in university accommodation in Shuwaikh, which at that time was a bleak edge beyond which was only the port and the sea. Further away from downtown, Shuwaikh were not so scrubbed clean of the memories of the invasion. In front of one of the other residential buildings was an ochre sofa with big cushions; one side had been ripped out, and the other had a little sculpture of hardened human shit. The Iraqi soldiers did all kinds of mad stuff here, my father would say. There was a lot more of this when he arrived, he told us. He would be walking down the street to the local store and come across a kitchen sieve or a toilet seat; driving down the road you’d see clothes and shoes and personal belongings blown to the side and wrapped around the roadside brush. My father talked of sightings of abandoned Lexus and Mercedes cars, an infamous tanks, shell casings alongside the roads. We just ran, we left everything, we tried to take things, we had to leave things.

The university’s residential campus, like the rest of the city, felt empty, anorexic, a little numb; it felt like there was some vital ingredient missing. There were, however, huge, Olympic sized swimming pools, tennis courts, gyms, malls, luxury cars. There is a low-point in every summer holiday when you wish you could either go back to school, or have your friends magically appear and share in your holiday. Kuwait was an incredibly boring place for a 18 year old with no car and no friends to hang out with.

Meeting other Indian families was the primary source of social interaction. One of the main reasons for this was to get access to alcohol. Alcohol was not legally sold in Kuwait but there were obviously huge black and grey markets in it. Being new in town, my father had no way of procuring branded alcohol so he depended on the generosity of friends and expat colleagues who had ‘connections’. At dinner parties with other Indian families, the de rigeur first order of conversation was about who had the best Scotch and where they got it from; it was like an aperitif before the Scotch itself; it was as predictable as the conversations about the peculiarities of living in post-invasion, newly liberted Kuwait itself.

Not so far from Makkah though we were, to us Indians in Kuwait, Dubai was the real one. Things, we heard, were slick, foreign,there were things to do in Dubai. Gangsters lived in Dubai; the schools were better there; you could go on desert safaris in Dubai, there were bars in Dubai. Dubai was fun. Dubai was a fantastical elsewhere, Kyu-Wait was the drudgery of here.

*

I recently read Manan Ahmed’s personal memoir of not-Dubai and it set me thinking about my experience of having a father working in that part of the world.

 

Three times invisibility

Today I was in three conversations about invisibility.

The first one took place in the formal conference room of an international development agency where three people find themselves talking about the B in LGBTQI. Whoever heard about B meetings or support for B people. Gay heteronormative men will tell you there is no such thing as B. Who wants to be a Beta when you can be an Alpha. B is for bridge that you can walk across to the other side. B for blanket under which different configurations of hands, knees and giggles coexist. Under the blanket there is no world outside. Poor invisible B. B is prey to Observer Effect and the Heisenberg Principle; no one is actively both all the time, who do you think you are, you think you can have it all?! [Goddamn fools]. Why are they equating desire with body? Erasures, everywhere.

Second, Jeremiah [name changed] pouts and says that I think he can’t see what I’m doing. He saw me bringing in a salad from the French cafe. I know you don’t want to eat my food any longer so you’re going elsewhere. Pout pout sniff. The thought bubble in my head says – Jeremiah, you aren’t my Indian husband. Jeremiah’s food is so-so. I want to introduce lentils to Jeremiah. LENTILS ARE INVISIBLE HERE.

A third this morning inside my headheart. Smart, lovely Western-born women of colour talking about claiming space and resisting otherness and all I can think is that this is not my fight. I support your rights but I’m not a WOC, really. Where I come from we are all coloured anyway. I have incredible privilege where I’m from; but it’s true I’m not there enjoying it and I’m here negotiating something else and because of what those things are, I’m just behind, not invisible. I’m not invisible  – I can’t claim your histories of oppression and I don’t really have (m)any of my own (except all those terrible things Indian girls get told growing up). In fact, here, I’m so painfully visible; to the little old lady at the tram stop who stops (in her walker) to gawk at me top to bottom, and the 9 year olds who stare and giggle – I spit and say: not migrant, I’m a gentrifying expat, motherfucker. Deal with it.