The Moving Elephant

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.

Keeping up with space

This post comes as a sort of consolidation of things I am trying to write up, things I am reading and things that happened to me recently. These are mostly reflections on cities and affect but also a new framework (and body of literature) I chanced upon that helped me describe how cities mean different things to different people. By extension, technology use and implementation become local and unique because of the spatial experiences, references and needs of their users. In the case of multiple “users” like passengers and drivers, tech design pays more attention to the needs and experiences of one over another.

Last summer as an intern at Xerox, I was researching Facebook groups popularly used in Bangalore and some broadly in India. I was invited to the research project because of my founding and moderating roles in Put Me in Touch (a 100k+ member Fb group) but then I was sent to observe and interview a popular moms’ group. A running thread through these groups that we struggled to articulate was the sort of, instinctive geographical limit – these groups weren’t explicitly meant for Bangalore, they were started when their founders lived in Bangalore. But me, I had soon moved on. The mom group founder was a recent migrant to Bangalore. Both of us, through our communicative, information gathering and sharing work had become peculiar experts on Bangalore things. It’s also very interesting because tensions about who really belongs to Bangalore or knows the original stuff, how newcomers discover the city on need basis – all these still regularly play out in all Bangalore anchored Facebook groups. As a side, the paper didn’t get published and it matters because personally I think we were just not able to articulate how these Facebook groups are rooted in place (via Lefebvre, Vertesi, Dourish, Harrison) but also crucial tools for mapping Bangalore as immigrants, young professionals, women, mothers away from their support networks. The trouble was, at least for one group, that it had grown way beyond Bangalore and has a significant population from other cities too. But given Facebook’s restrictive policies, it’s hard (even if you resolved ethics) to mine the information that we all collaboratively produced. In that sense it was self-reinforcing: more Bangalore members came through Bangalore friends in the group who had spent time collecting information on Bangalore. Some said it’s also because Bangaloreans have historically produced more city related resources for online consumption, in turn making the group more useful for those attuned to online spaces in India for local information.

Coming back to Bangalore – it’s been an interesting seven years in and out of the city. This summer I finally, actually lived on Vittal Mallya road, meaning I stayed where those born in old money, silver spoon types live. It’s also fading as the center of Bangalore, the recent startup boom has been shifting young night life and socializing activities to Koramangla and Indiranagar for a while. But to say that I live near U.B City (a luxury mall) automatically tells someone who you are in the city (happened on a bus ride where a gentleman couldn’t process why I needed to alight near this road because he never thought I could live there). For context and humor, I started out in Taverekere/Koramangla, went to Indiranagar, then Marathahalli and eventually Queens/Lavelle road interspersed with exits to Delhi and California. If you can read these roads as experience against the work I do, they mean solid upward mobility (albeit temporary).

A sort of favorite pastime among urban Indian types is to ask “which city do you prefer?”, most answers include two or three big cities and some small. Mine were Bangalore and Delhi. Until and especially because of last summer spent in Marathahalli, I had a bittersweet relationship with Bangalore. I lived broke as a student here, it brought the sinusitis out, the festivals never matched, it was harder to find decent north Indian food in parts and the linguistic hostility. Plus Bangalore to Gujarat is 30+ hours by train. Delhi is greener in the South, it has distinct seasons, the language, the hustling, I had full time jobs and stipends. It’s a night train away from Gujarat.

Cutting to spatiality per se, as Brewer and Dourish via Urry suggest, mobility might be the key animating metaphor rather than society [in 21st c sociology], it’s a fascinating provocation. Questions of navigation choices, passenger expectations within ridesharing, time and place related driving strategies – it’s not enough to say that the urban form of Bangalore plays a role. It’s not just space then. It’s space animated, traversed and occupied by certain groups of users, their leisure and work needs juxtaposed against poor infrastructure, frustrating traffic, combined with driver motivations and self-preservation within kind of unprotected work that makes mobility choices and behaviors so complex. Talking about historical and social meanings of place as well, drivers and passengers have utterly different landmarks, making the collaborative work of meeting each other and completing a ride laborious.

Hopefully some of this will be published so I will stop here. But, in both the Facebook study and the recent stuff, as Brewer and Dourish say: “Both mobility and technology are deeply embedded in particular ways of thinking and imagining the world and ourselves”. In my current writing also, I am trying to think through how passengers and drivers reimagine the taxi space post-ridesharing, choose one company over another etc.

‘Conflating intimacy with knowledge’

I think this is a more appropriate moment. I’ve had a while to collect my thoughts on it. The provocation started with Rafia Zakaria’s article ‘Can war reporting be a feminist project?’ that had me nodding all along. It sort of comes a full circle with the Lionel Shriver episode on fiction and cultural appropriation (Read Shriver’s speech here, good rebuttals here and here). To summarize, both Shriver and Zakaria ask if it is alright to use someone else’s experiences to produce (semi/non+) fiction, especially if the Other is historically less powerful than the author. My personal take on this business of representing the Other is that you can’t and further, if it is an entirely fictional account that has no semblance to possible realities or stereotypes, then you might as well use your own family to write the story out. Right?

I say so with two reasons in mind. The first is of course the sort of obvious meta-critique in the direction of a ‘Room of One’s own’ and what Susan spells out in her critique of Shriver:

“Shriver is someone who tries on hats and shoes and doesn’t see the hands that made the hats and shoes, the sun that shone on the heads that wore the hats, the roads that the shoes took.”

It’s never as simple as being able to write a story (fiction or anthropology). The concern of whom you can write about comes way after who can write at all. Writing is creative labour that requires publication, networks, money and visibility. So, some of us can (looking at you Naipaul) literally afford to write about anybody and anything and even manage to find an audience, others have to try harder. Further, as Zakaria points out, some of us are permanently cast in positions of being written about (poor, exotic, brown, black – the interiority of whatever is yet to be exposed; the anthropological instinct to expose, capture and translate). It’s also a genuine concern for me because the Other doesn’t have to be very far or different. There’s plenty of dimensions in intersectionality where your relative power can make you a prized interlocutor. But these are still a writer’s concerns.

The more worrying part about Shriver’s speech was its conclusion about fiction and empathy as if all we need is for someone to write and someone to read it in order to build a bridge of empathy. To put the responsibility of writing in context, I keep returning to Zahir Janmohamed’s musings both as a Muslim in India and as a writer of color in America:

In November 2012, as anti-Shia violence escalated in Pakistan, I wrote an op-ed about my uncle who was killed in anti-Shia violence in Karachi in April 2000. Every place I pitched responded within a day, expressing an interest in publishing it.

I am proud of the piece I wrote but I am very conscious of what it does—it builds onto an existing narrative of Muslims being intolerant and violent and of Pakistan being a failed state. Editors said I was “brave,” “singular,” and “eloquent,” words I never hear when I am pitching a piece about being on the receiving end of prejudice in the United States.

I guess what I am truly baffled by is that Shriver seems to take lightly (and what perhaps forced an ultra-woke Fey to do for money?); is the responsibility of committing memory and imagination to paper, something that will be for good measure in Internet times etched forever and read through volatile times. There will be young girls and boys clicking away to find out what the fuss about Afghanistan was, of all races and places.

Let me recount a personal incident of such literary fuckery. It’s this strangely masochistic relationship that young Indian girls have with Victorian literature (and even Elizabethan). By the time you’ve finished reading your “Classics” which were all part of the colonial education project, most students have deemed literature to be a boring, futile exercise. At best Jane Eyre or even Hamlet are remembered as stories, often universal stories. Why did nobody ask what the hell was happening in Japan when Jane Eyre was alive? (I want to teach a course some day titled: “What was happening to you when Jane Eyre happened?”

It didn’t resemble our Present and unlike science and mathematics, it held no promises for our Future. It taught many of us that poetry was to be imagined and written in a certain manner. Worse, we only encountered post-colonial literature as addendum in the third year of the B.A. program. That is when you are taught to excavate the madwoman from the attic of the Brontes, to pay attention to race, voice, agency and so on. Even as fiction, works like Wide Sargasso Sea are first glimpses of familiarity, telling you that rules of fiction don’t mandate talking about elderberries. Even though italicized, writing about Gulmohar is perfectly literary too. So, in that sense, bringing fiction closer to facts or juxtaposing the former against the latter has been a long project of finding ourselves in the margins, as a butler, maid, slave, dancer, orphan. Of looking around and acknowledging that Jamuns grow around you. Lastly, you should not be okay with being a plot device. Which is why cultural appropriation hurts. Being mined (mined/owned ha!) for discursively produced artefacts that stand for your community’s good and ugly interactions takes away from your centrality to your life’s story.

I can ramble on but again, it’s not what Shriver said but this sentiment bubbling under that imagination knows no territory and worse, for reporters, ethnographers and non-fiction writers, the notion that living somewhere or spending enough time observing is enough is painful. I want to think of writing/making not as capacity/authority (can I take from you?) but as responsibility (what am I giving to everyone forever?).


Ethnography and woman

This is kind of an experimental blog/place to write small posts whenever I can. These will be related to and outcomes of my ethnography work, related writing work, even attending conferences and so on. It’s titled ‘The Moving Elephant’ in the best sense of the phrase. As someone who moves between countries, cities and circles of people every single year, it takes me sometime to adjust to the change in pace, intuitive choices and work styles. At times when I am discomforted and even exasperated by things not moving quickly enough or the way I want them to, wise words from my father who has navigated more than 20 years of bureaucracy come to my rescue. I am taking the liberty to steal this phrase from him and inculcate more patience in general.

I am in India doing ethnographic work. Although I am not completely comfortable using the term, I am learning ethnomethodology as a mode of inquiry also. A lot of my time is spent on the road in Bengaluru talking mostly to men engaged in transport – drivers, passengers, auto drivers, shopkeepers – pretty much anyone that occupies the roadside, especially under flyovers or close to busy public spaces.

As someone who is also sort of compulsive about things (“my spot” to sit, a certain way to eat things, a certain volume and a favorite hair stylist), things can be very difficult when you move. For instance, a new threading place depending on where I take a break from field work, then briefly the shampoo that works for my hair in Irvine, then again locate the most viable dinner place in Bengaluru. In that sense, it’s about quickly establishing continuum, enough so that you can get to actual work. Last summer was very uncomfortable (in Marathahalli) because I had to spend 3 months in a hotel. There is some inertness to a hotel room that I only associate with sleeping. I can’t get around to using hotel room desks for work and I am always paranoid about hidden cameras.

Anyway, this summer, I knew that not speaking fluent Kannada will mean spending more time and effort to establish familiarity with potential interviewees. In the meanwhile I came across this lovely post which I agree with, on attire and acceptance in the Indian context. Urban middle to upper class women are at the same time allowed some agency with their hair and clothes that peri-urban or rural women might have to fight for. But at the same time that means that you can never blend in, you are seen as a creature that must be tolerated and is in some sense protected by overarching media and legal discourses.

I guess I cannot un-look like someone who knows her rights, is literate, is “modern”, is the punitive Other for the men whom I am trying to shadow. For instance, while I fluently speak Gujarati, something has permanently altered in my appearance or comportment such that Gujarati shopkeepers and auto drivers just don’t reply in Gujarati to me. A friend told me of her similar experience between Kannada and Hindi. I’ve taken a male friend along, equally urban but local-language speaking. It’s both astonishing and obvious how just performing the street register of a local language can immediately make a bond. It’s not impossible for me but it takes time and even then, there are some boundaries that my male informants would never cross. I won’t go down that path but one night while returning from a field visit, I was wondering what it would be like to spend the entire night at the same traffic signal and see what happens. Even in our IRB we assured the committee that female researchers wouldn’t go alone at night. But then I remembered that it could be worse if I were physically challenged in some way.

As qualitative researchers we take ourselves to the field, it’s our bodies and the way we lend/perform them, that determines how much, how long we can gather information on things. It’s not always to our disadvantage – gender, deliberate self-fashioning through clothes and languages also opens up spaces, makes people come forth because they feel heard, or aspire to belong or want to grab the rare opportunity of class/gender transgression. It’s both beautiful and exhausting – something that wasn’t apparent to me in Mead’s accounts and others.