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Ennui in English

It’s always bothered me and now confuses me more than ever when forms ask what my first language is. I couldn’t possibly answer that. My mother tongue is Gujarati (literally my mother’s and my “native region’s” tongue) but my medium of educational instruction has been dominantly English. It comes to fold in weird ways, language as identity or language as skill – struck me recently while making ethnographic decisions. As I’ve said before, it’s really hard to do interviews and observations when you don’t understand the language because you couldn’t possibly decode little details or casual remarks (obviously). But several things came together as I was recently reading Foucault and Kalyan Sanyal (who also uses Foucault a lot). In this particular book, Sanyal foregrounds the notion of a post-colonial ‘Wasteland’ that is created and sustained deliberately by diverting some of Capitalist production’s surplus value (he challenges the notion that Capitalism swallows all pre-capitalist forms of production and reproduces itself through extortion/appropriation). This wasteland, if I understand correctly is the space containing those who *cannot* enter the market, their labor power cannot be exchanged and hence they remain at the margins involved in subsistence oriented work and come to be the objects of international aid programs and national/global governance. In some ways, postcolonial states perform progress through the reformation, upliftment and nurturing of these people on the margins. While I have several questions about Sanyal’s thesis, I read the idea of the wasteland a little differently – more as a psychic space than strictly material. For me articulating it as a psychic construct takes it closer to some other postcolonial writings by Spivak, Chatterjee, Irigaray etc who have beautifully framed the problems of linguistic violence and identity formation. I take a small digression to incorporate a recent class discussion where I took problem with the Appadurai-eque language of ‘flows’ and migration. That’s a whole moment, a school of thought, right? To imagine society after mass media as if in movement through imagination, unhinged from the physical geopolitical and the body, circulating, self-determining, tactically reconstituting identity in a global network. But my problem was that such theories do not allow us to attend to¬†the wasteland. How do the parallel narratives of global (forced or voluntary) circulation and mass media consumption survive alongside the politico-econo-linguistic violence of identity born out of international aid and subtler civilizing missions such as English education? Some quick rejoinders (as those needed when an ex-cinema and wannabe political economic student writes), some of this is rhetorical because I believe many projects bridge these gaps although keeping one concern at the center, privileging one approach or site or group.

To elaborate a bit, if we think of postcolonial identities, especially those navigating (in and out) the psychic wasteland, learning English and computers because it’s a State and market mission, being brought into their own (bodies) as recipients of welfare, constantly living with the dread of having nothing to offer to the market, even if you don’t belong to the poorest of poor, if informality has never appeared so novel or so stark because you were born (on this or that side of it), then, as it keeps coming to me, there are moments of horror where you’re a ghost in the shell – you have a performative identity, the self that moved forward, fulfilled promises of the State, market and participates for subsistence but g_d forbid, if you have to take a dip in self-aware waters and try to imagine academia from the village, from the margins, in dissensus, committing to critical race theory’s conundrum (learn the Canon first or learn our historical-theoreticals?) – the self comes apart. The very postcolonial self that is anyway in constant “yet-to-be” or not-yet or becoming as it seeks to forget a little, self-sedate, blur the too intimate reality of its now and present in order to “do the needful” while it labors and consumes – suddenly it comes apart. Those moments, personally, are of deep collective, historic, spectral anguish, realization that you participated in your own disciplining, you learnt your English but that was only the first step to participating in a series of lifelong economic and social negotiations. You’re always translating unless you give up on wanting to make sense (truth/power). Things haven’t really changed. Someone drugged the subalterns or they got tired. I don’t know.

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