Activism and Citizenship

It’s been a while since the last post, predictably so because of the political upheaval in the US and otherwise because the structural form of the quarter system has a way of disciplining students and professors. Weeks fly by and they come to be conceptualized through work futures (Mondays and Wednesdays for class, weekend preparing for class next week and so on). But I thought it’s still worth making sometime to put words to paper about my and our abilities to work through times of changes.

Also some reflexivity helps feel sane. I say this for two reasons. In class now we are reading a lot of literature that can be framed as the Information Society/Post-Industrial Society/Post Modernism/New Social Movement moment of reckoning. These reflections through the 1960s and 1970s can be anchored in changes related to economic production, cultural (re)production and consumption and finally sort of the overarching but fading idea of the (Marxist) Revolution. I claim no expertise in having understood everything I read but I still feel like it’s worth writing things up because of how they mirror some anxieties of today. In this sense, for anyone interested I definitely recommend reading Mark Poster’s work on databases and the second thing, historicizing works of theory broadly because most such landmark texts are actually grounded responses to something. 

Coming to specifics of my own work and life, we just finished the 25th revision to a grant that proposes a study of immigrant labor in a certain period. Through 25 revisions, I had the opportunity to read up on the legal history of Asian immigration in the US, questions of race/ethnicity, science, masculinity  and sometimes the translat-ability of discrimination discourses to actually talk about immigrant experiences (what does it mean to be a religious, race, gender minority/marginalized identity within a national framework, as a citizen versus staking any claims as someone who fundamentally doesn’t belong, whose claims can only be legitimate inasmuch as legally permitted and recognized through discourses of merit, finance, taxation – the provisions in place that help situate the figure of the non-resident alien, a legal non-citizen). This is a tough one and I fully recognize that the legal migrant position still has recourse to law and perhaps some nationalistic sympathies that the illegal, undocumented and refugee identities don’t have. But I talk about this intersection of the personal political and academic because not very long ago, for me at DML (Digital Media and Learning conference) 2013 in Chicago where Ethan Zuckerman keynoted different kinds of political action (I might be paraphrasing and misrepresenting) against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the attack on Malala and the use of Hunger Games memes in high school education – these sort of signified the moments of enthusiasm, a general optimism about digital (ly enabled) activism even though a lot of it was symbolic (mind you, we were at the cusp of the Snowden affair). Again to bring in Poster, Bell, Lyotard, Schiller who were all thinking to some extent about the changing conditions of work, knowledge production and the privatization of networks, I really wish we had read them along McLuhan, Castells and the more recent Jenkins back then. Again, this is my own reading journey, not the way historical discourses emerged. But there is certainly a resurgence of Marxist questions (mostly through questions of labor) within media studies which is great. Weaving these in and bringing the citizenship question back, for me, the frustration is at several levels. Having spent the last year as the chief organizer of South Asian students on campus (through cultural activities, tax and immigration information exchange and other things), the depoliticization as well as the inherent form of South Asian students as a certain kind of community (more sciences than not, more masculine, Hindu and upper caste than not) is a veritable concern. How does one speak to these students who well understand that they need to stay out of trouble, stay invisible and thus also stay focused on what they came to do (study, work and become citizens) about politics? Again, as someone who comes from JNU and is used to the ease of political mobilizing (also perhaps because it was home turf, you can tell the State something as a citizen), the struggle to mobilize those who really are structurally disenfranchised as non-citizens (but very privileged as citizens and hence conditioned to look at their privileged counterparts for success in a foreign land) is real. But even outside of that, for instance, turning up at Los Angeles airport to protest the US government’s ban on certain immigrants while being an immigrant who as such has no connection of “rights” or their enactment through votes and whose own precarity is such that she can be kicked out for making such demands, the costs of being a non-citizen/an alien keep me awake at night. Crudely put, and this is the flip side, “who asked you to go abroad and then why are you so engaged with their issues and then how dare you have an opinion on national issues back  home when you don’t even live here?” These are not new anxieties. Pretty much all of transnational work and culture literature highlights individual and community actions hinged on these fragmented stakes. This also could either completely mute your enthusiasm for local action (where you live) or make you want to quickly transition to and form some sort of a hybrid identity (South Asian American!). Even then, the first generation feeling of non-belonging maybe won’t go away. These also matter both to life and activism largely because until one’s space of rights and productive activity aren’t aligned, the category of citizenship takes precedence over questions of racial and ethnic solidarity.

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