Incomplete reading of incomplete texts

The controversy that seems to have affected the ‘Tamil intelligentsia’ the last few days caught my attention and I wanted to talk about some things that bothered me. I’m still too lazy and disinterested to write anything coherently, though. I’ll just make some broad observations around various reactions that it’s garnered and some that are specific to the article itself.

Ethnography/ethnographic research was among the most seriously contested fields in the mid-later part of the 20th century. This article gives a very good breakdown of the challenges that it faces to this day. Unlike quantitative studies that sociologists engage in, ethnography tries to present narratives that aren’t necessarily meant to be extrapolated (the qualitative vs quantitative camps within sociology have a history of their own). It presents an account of a people in a place at a time (or within a time frame). It’s a form of record keeping that is supposed to be done by people who are trained scholars capable of providing contexts and ideological clarity along with the observations they’re recording. Such endeavours are invariably susceptible to all kinds of bias -- wilful, unintentional, editorial etc., layered by racial, ethno-linguistic, ideological etc. The onus has long been shifted to the reader to extract knowledge from these studies. It’s for them to apply qualifiers and retain misgivings on top of those applied by the researchers/authors themselves. It is definitely not meant for popular consumption by untrained readers.

The reader may not like the ‘findings’ presented by the authors. It may not be politically correct. It may be highly problematic when situated within a larger socio-political/temporal context. But none of this should automatically lead to the assumption that the authors did not approach the study in good faith or that they employed unscrupulous/unethical methods to obtain their data. It’s highly possible that it indeed is the case but the reader must resist the urge to embrace that conclusion immediately.

About the EPW article.

It’s poorly written (this includes, verbiage, translation, phrasing etc) and it could be accused of taking a patronizing or even a casteist tone -- it doesn’t help that all 3 authors were either OBC or upper caste. Even so, in a purely academic sense, it’s completely irrelevant.

It makes quite a few leaps in terms of what participants seem to say and the immediate conclusions that the authors draw from it. It is unknown how many participated and whose stories/accounts were taken as median to string the narrative. I’m also aware that this is EPW -- which is not the most prestigious journal around -- and it’s an ethnographic study. So I know that the ‘takeaways’ are to be situated specifically to that village and read as a kind of oral history that cannot be extrapolated.

For now I’m going to play the contrarian and choose not to impute any bad faith and assume that in spite of the shortfalls -- in terms of declaring the reason for conducting the study, the basic methodology behind it, the number of participants, the exact reason this village was chosen (other than it being close to Chennai) etc., -- it should be read from a value neutral standpoint.

Reading the broad thematic progression of the article (at least, the way I would summarize it[1]), one might find similar patterns of behaviour in many communities that are in flux; trying to negotiate racial inequality, transition/thrust into modernity, postcoloniality etc.

Some key points that seem to have bothered many.

Dalit youths from Thirunur can’t seem to hold a steady job; they engage in acts of provocation and violence; they spend beyond their means to dress and appear attractive/fashionable; they woo upper caste women to assert their masculinity.

I would like to lay out a hypothetical scenario and see how it plays out for the reader.

A dalit ethnographer who has an ‘unblemished’ track record among dalits and progressives wants to record the “changing meanings of masculinity” in a village in Tamil Nadu. She employs an algorithm that picks a village at random filtering for population > 2000 and dalits to be > 50% (because she wants to study dalit majority villages). She arrives in the village and starts interviewing willing participants after explaining in great detail what the interview is meant for and where their words might end up (the methodology including the consent form is approved by an ethics committee composed of dalits, and non-dalit academics).

At end of the study she makes the following observations among others:

Dalit youths from randomly selected village can’t seem to hold a steady job; they engage in acts of provocation and violence; they spend beyond their means to dress and appear attractive/fashionable; they woo upper caste women to assert their masculinity.

Should she publish them given the potential for it to be misappropriated by those with vested interests?

Should she have abandoned the project in the middle once she realized it’s not going in a ‘desirable’ direction?

Should she ignore the median responses and pick the ones that make for more politically correct conclusions that are also less prone to problematic reading when stripped off context in social media?

Let’s say the researcher goes ahead and publishes the article after much deliberation.

Is the reader going to claim that it is impossible for such readings/observations to occur in such circumstances? If so, is it because the reader knows or did a study he/herself (in the exact same village at the exact same time) that contests the other study’s findings?

Exactly on what basis is the reader saying that it’s completely falsified or biased? Wouldn’t it be puzzling if the reader dismissed ethnographic studies because they don’t follow the scientific method and yet their own dismissal has no scientific basis?

Given this researcher is a self identifying dalit woman from rural Tamil Nadu, what is the disgruntled reader going to accuse her of? Being a turncoat?

But the reader need not worry for it is only a hypothetical situation. In reality the reader is free to furrow into the authors' identities at the expense of the points made in the study itself.

My personal opinion on the ‘problematic findings’.

1. Dalit youths from Thirunur can’t seem to hold a steady job; they engage in acts of violence

Historically, people from marginalized groups have often found it difficult to fit into modernist/capitalist sites such as factories and other regulated workplaces (one can include schools in this too). Many first nations people of Canada are caught in a cycle of unemployment, substance abuse, crime and incarceration. Almost all studies implicate the residential school system and the government policy that has consistently failed them for decades. No one accuses the researchers for painting the indigenous people in a poor light. That they cannot hold a steady job or that they engage in violent/delinquent behaviour every now and then is a direct result of their historical positioning and its readily acknowledged (at least among those who aren’t halfwits) [2]. It’s frustrating to read dalit talking heads not give their own youth this minimal 'concession' after enduring hegemonic violence and disenfranchisement for centuries. If they’re able rise above it -- as overwhelming majority of them have -- great, but it’s fine if they cannot. It’s no small moral burden to overcome and they don’t owe it anyone. (Please refer to Fanon on this topic and also bell hooks' critique of Fanon.)

The first instinctively driven priority for most members of disenfranchised groups often is to achieve parity (yes, I'm qualifying this statement on multiple levels); not just in aspects that are socio-political or economical but also in simple acts of peformativity, gendered or otherwise. The moral/ethical/rational considerations are secondary [3].

2. They spend beyond their means to dress and appear attractive/fashionable; they woo upper caste women to assert their masculinity.

This was recorded in the most value neutral sense for the most part, except when they discuss the economics of it where there’s a hint of paternalistic critique for their ‘irresponsible’ behaviour.

The second part of it needs to be addressed with the reader’s views on sex and sexuality.

Mine align with what is legally recognized in most ‘developed’ countries. I do not place sex within a moral framework. A man can lie about his age, job, intent to marry or any number of other details. As long as the sexual act itself is consensual the many falsities that it was predicated on is still immaterial. (I’ll say vice versa just for the record.) For instance, I find it hard to sympathize with those who are sad and depressed because they had sex with the 'wrong person' or for the 'wrong reasons'. It's unfortunate that that's what they have internalized from their lived realities and have not been able to transcend it but I just do not subscribe to that value system. (I am saying this fully aware that sex, class and dignity are intertwined  discursively in various degrees all over the world.)

So I don’t have a problem with men ‘targeting’ women from certain groups. Even if it’s with a ‘sinister agenda’: to ‘entrap’ them into a ‘false marriage' just to extort a ransom from the bride. It is unethical at worst and even that because of the social context in which it happens. Outside of it it’s just a laughable notion. (Please don’t muddy this with actual criminal acts involving children, revenge porn or related threats.)

Nevertheless, I do need to remind that nowhere in the article is there a suggestion that the dalit youth want to ‘entrap’ upper caste women with such ulterior motives. It is stated as a matter of fact based on the participants' own words. They should have qualified certain acts as commonplace among youth in general -- especially for readers who are not well versed with the larger milieu -- but this kind of 'incompleteness' is not unusual in such studies. They follow their own dialectic with contestations and correctives coming from within academia. The EPW article begins with faulty methodology and arrives at faulty conclusions. This is perhaps where a dalit reader may not be as generous and ascribe malicious intent (while I would stop at egregious error in judgment).

Final thoughts

The reason I wanted to write about it is not because I am interested in the topic or I personally care about the authors of the article. It was more in response to the outrage and their premises. It is to point to the possibility that in spite of a robust methodology, a larger sample size, a rigorous theoretical framework accompanied by exhaustive literature review and a clear conscience from the researchers, 'problematic' findings do occur. I think it's very important then that we stop and question the bases for the outrage itself.

For instance, there's a claim that Thirumavalavan instructed dalit youth to lure/entice upper caste women, popularized by Ramadoss but many believe it. All I have seen is a rush to 'clear' Thirumavalavan from this accusation; I have yet to find someone who says "so what if he did?" in response.

An individual/groups (supposed) disposition for violence, engagement in 'unscrupulous' sexual activity (or just its markers and 'rituals') etc., have been engineered to dismiss the disenfranchised's historicity and situatedness by hegemonic forces. It is critical that we disengage from that polemic and ethos even as we debate the merits of a study that makes those observations.

Of course, I would be sternly reminded of the social reality within which these ideas are put forth and how one cannot be dismissive of those concerns. I would concede that much too, but our ideological positions cannot always be dictated by complicated, regressive social realities.

--------------------------------------------------------

Notes:

1. The village ‘belonged’ to the land owning mudaliars and the dalits were daily wagers working in the former’s land. The economic dependency ensured that the caste structure remained unchallenged (with its concomitant effects from emasculation to lack of agency of the dalits). At one point the landowners migrate out of the village due to various reasons and the dalits simultaneously get to own more agricultural land and find other modes of employment. The dalits now outnumber the mudaliars as well. The relative economic independence and new found strength in numbers embolden them to act out their hitherto suppressed masculinities. This nascent masculinity, not as materially substantiated as that of the mudaliars of the yore, is dynamic and manifests in various forms -- drinking and smoking as acts of performative transgression, teasing/harrassing uppercaste girls etc -- that are often a result of being the actors in a certain dialectic. If one were to overlook the poor structure and bad writing, the article progressively illustrates the potency of historical materialism that undergirds the roles taken on by the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed’. The point about the victimization of women on both sides of the caste hierarchy is cursory at best, though.

2. This includes the hostility and prejudices they encounter in the form of institutionalized racism, sexism, casteism etc.

3. The 'aspirational brahminness' exhibited by non-brahmins in large cities like Madras is an example of this.


Addendum:

In light of other revelations around this study -- the second version of it which was included as part of a larger research -- that I learnt about after writing the post above  it is hard not attribute bad faith to the authors. C Lakshmanan's response in EPW -- whose existence I was not aware of either -- in fact follows the exact rhetorical tract I had claimed as imperative for one to question studies such as these. It also adds to my other claim that "'[t]hey follow their own dialectic with contestations and correctives coming from within academia."

Many of the reactions that prompted me to write the original post were also made before the information gained traction (about the second version and C Lakshmanan's response in EPW).

The kuleshov effect (kind of)

In Paatal Lok, there is a scene in which young Tyagi chases a boy down and breaks open his skull with the brain matter scattered out. It's a macabre shot in the first go. The viewer later learns that Tyagi’s sisters were raped (less than a suggestive shot but gut wrenching all the same) and he murdered his cousins to avenge them and the shot is revisited. This time the viewer, one imagines, is less horrified. Maybe even finds it satisfying.












































It reminded me of my tweets while talking about the film Yudham Sei (2011).

On spiritualism and the 'search'

A friend and I were talking about religion/spirituality etc and he shared the video below and asked what I thought about the exchange between Russel Brand and Ricky Gervais.


I left this as a comment in the video:

The notion that the extra-material manifestation of the biological stuff (blood, brain, the nervous system and what have you) has within itself the capacity to transcend its material origins and somehow connect/communicate with other such manifestations is exactly what drugs are likely to induce.

A simpler form of what I've said above: the idea that your mind can connect you with the stuff of the universe is just bullshit.

This theory has been put forth in different variations for at least 3000 years with no progress. This side should at least demonstrate a very insignificant outcome of that possibility: say, prove telepathic communication with someone in the same room, meditating or just drugged up. What the fuck is the point otherwise? This quest for universalization (of whatever) is just nonsensical even in its purported goals, let alone the possibility.

Brand, you might want to watch The Matrix again and convince yourself that all those people who are literally plugged in are just meditating in a gooey medium as they are 'talking' to each other in the Matrix. That's the closest we're going to get. Also don't forget, stasis cannot lead to contentment, let alone bliss.

Now, there will never be a universally acceptable answer to the why question (fuck, we can't even convince everyone in the world that the Earth is spherical). So the wise thing to do is to declare that it's not a question worth answering for others. If one has that question, it's best they come up with the answer themselves for themselves.

Thankfully, there are so many who are seriously focussed on the how that the why becomes more and more irrelevant (while, yes, the vice-versa will always be true as well). And the how side has added so much to life. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and everyone from that pantheon has contributed to answering the how and in doing so has re-shaped the answer to the why.

YouTube Gold: 2

From here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgvvfSvg2bQ

Lost in not-sharing-a-sense-of-humour

With the whole COVID-19 lock-down and the apparent sense of doom that many seem to share -- that I definitely do not -- I've been re-watching some of my old favourites. Melancholia is in my top 10. As I was reading some trivia around it I was reminded of the controversy Lars Von Trier was caught in during the screening in Cannes.

Here's a video of it:


The joke is so simple and yet it was lost on the audience. I sincerely apologize for breaking it down (or butchering) but here it is: 

Part 1: He grew up thinking he was a Jew; a self-loathing Jew (as is so common among Jewish artists/comedians - it is at least an archetype that they publicly embrace for comedic purposes -- to the extent it becomes tiresome). Later he learns that he isn't a Jew. The question then becomes: is a self-loathing Jew who is not a Jew, a Nazi? 

So many people before have joked about how they understand Hitler/serial killers etc. Take this one from Family Guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTO6fAJf1GM  

It’s a common form that has many variants. Here’s one from Bill Bur about beating women (that I personally detest, especially the joke): https://youtu.be/mIOY2ezMy9A 

Part 2: No true progressive/left-liberal will be uncritical of Israel. This part, however, often splits the room even when the underlying humour is construed as intended. Islamophobia runs too deep in modern political discourse that only the ‘far-left’ is conscientious enough to be critical of Zionism. The far-left and people like Lars.

Part 3: He’s reflecting on the bourgeois media’s apparent gasps. He could see that his joke isn’t received well and he himself offers the reductionist headline they are likely to go for anyway: ok, I’m a Nazi, happy now?

Larry David, for instance, would have sold this joke very easily.

From twitter: feeling smug


  • My colleagues in the next cubicle are talking about God, atheism etc. Pretty juvenile stuff, really. Two thoughts strike me: ...1/2 Aug 23, 2010
  • 1. I can walk to them, start talking and make them feel like idiots..and then feel smug about it 2. I can feel smug about it as is. Aug 23, 2010

Memories: assholes in kindergarten

Dindigul in the mid 80s was a big town that boasted a handful decent English medium schools and a dozen or so Tamil medium schools of which some were well known even in the neighbouring districts.

My schooling started in JK Matriculation Higher Secondary School, popularly referred to as 'public school' (I know, doesn't make any sense). My school was started in the late 70s, I think. It had pretty decent facilities and had some decent teachers working for it [1]. We even had an old white lady as the principal for a few years. But it truly was public and unremarkable otherwise. The students were from a wide range of backgrounds, from the fairly poor to the really rich. Skin tone composition must have been: a lot of dark brown, some light brown, some darker and a few Kamal Hassan-level light skinned.

UKG:

Ramu came from what seemed like a poor family. Dark skinned, runny nose, messy hair and looked out of place (yes, even for this 'unremarkable' school). We all wore the same uniform but his shirts and shorts had buttons missing, safety pins taking their place. Shirt almost never tucked in because the trousers were too loose without the button or the belt. His shoes were barely together and his socks remained loosely curled around his ankles. Just remembering his appearance makes me want to cry. It's an image that has haunted me for over 30 years. Every school I went to had kids that fit a version of this mould.

Manoj did not strike of anything in an obvious way. He was light brown, thin, not too tall and do not recall him being overtly rich. Only thing that struck was that he already had a posse. There were at least 3 other kids who followed him around and was definitely the most vicious among the bullies.

Manoj subjected Ramu to some of the worst bullying I had ever seen (it did not stop until Ramu left the school in grade 4). Among the many deplorable things that Ramu endured the worst must have been the one in which I participated. Manoj once picked up Ramu's water bottle and had more than half the classroom pee into it. I don't know where the teacher was, but the water bottle was passed along under the desk and each boy took his turn peeing in. I don't know if some refused. I remember thinking about it briefly before obliging. I think I wanted to appear favourable to Manoj more than I felt bad for Ramu. The most distressing thing about the incident was that Ramu just sat at his bench in the back as always and did not protest or cry. He just appeared detached and his eyes seemed to say "well, I don't know expect any better from you little assholes".

It was a class about 30, ~20 boys and ~10 girls no one reported it to the teachers. We were just 4 year old kids, right?

________________________
 Notes:

1.  My faintly informed theory is that it was a time when college graduates who spoke good English only did slightly better than their counterparts who spoke poor English. So a school that paid Rs 600/month to a 3rd grade maths (and science) teacher in 1988 still managed to retain someone who spoke really good English. Of course they were predominantly female and in their 20s. Also I don't mean to equate their skill level in English to their competency as a teacher. It's just that when I look back, that's pretty much the only thing I picked from junior-middle school that has contributed to my life in any meaningful way.

Memories: First few

I used to want to write down every single memory of mine as with aging one tends to forget more and more or worse get them completely distorted (not sure I'll get to every single one here). Anyway, don't think I need go into the psycho-scientific reasons for it.

These are my earliest memories.

Dindigul, Tamil Nadu:

1. Should have been 2.5 years old or so. My dad feeding me idlis and I kept eating bit by bit. At one point my dad was amazed that I finished 4 idlis (he told my mom that as he was feeding me).

2. This is a bit of an amalgamated memory. It's one of I crying over/acting up watching my brother get in the rickshaw and go to school with other children while I was left behind. Must have happened over a dozen times (again ~2.5 years old)

3. Most vivid of these early memories. My dad took me to school for the first time. I had not even turned 3 yet (2 years and 11 months old then). I joined the LKG class and was seated in the back bench. I started to cry uncontrollably as I saw my dad walk away. Was crying aloud for a long time (probably 20-30 minutes) and at one point vomited on the table. The kid next to me started to cry watching me vomit. Don't remember if the teacher did something to help me, but I know I settled down to a mild sob after point and that was that. It was almost like a harbinger of things to come in the next 18 years (14 years in school + 4 years in college).



End is nigh?

This blog is so scantly read that I can actually write about this without raising an alarm among my loved ones. It's no secret that my desire to exist wasn't particularly strong at any point. My relationship to life and its various manifestations has been tenuous for well over a decade (as discussed in length here). Ironically, those are also the years that could be categorized as my best/productive/happy years (except the last 3). I described life 12 years ago like this: "[i]t's like a good movie that I want to keep watching....[And] all movies come to an end, but some bad movies are so bad that we cannot stand it. So we get up and leave the theatre in between. That's how I see life. If life gets really bad, regardless of what follows, you end the nonsense."

That's kind of what happened in July 2015. I underwent a relatively complex surgery in my arm and came out of it with a spasmic pelvic floor (because I forced myself to urinate even before the anaesthesia wore off  completely, messing up nerve/muscle co-ordination for good). It had a severe impact on my day to day life and it started nudging me out of the seat bit by bit. To add to that, I had another accident recently and was diagnosed with a bulging disc in my L4-5. So now on top of the spasmic pelvic floor and associated symptoms I have to deal with persistent back ache and the occasional tingle down my legs.

I have been trying to fix the old issue the last 3 years with not a lot of success and I'm going to try to fix the new one too. But in all honesty, I'm only going through the motions: see doctor, see physio, do stretches, try to keep busy etc. My ideological position and my disenchantment with everyday life are likely to meet sooner than later. The wobbly nihilist is becoming steadier by the day.

I figured I'll start the process of shutting down, close a few lose ends. Consider this post as my announcement, the real life equivalent of  the 'System Will Shut Down in the next 15 minutes'. The timeline I have in mind is around July 2019. I think I have enough 'courage' and pain tolerance to carry through until then but I'm not completely sure. It's also quite possible that things change and I get back in the seat. I'll be faced with many moments of irony, contradiction and absurdity [1] in the meantime, no doubt, and I might even address a few of them here.


Notes:

1. For a nihilist who's decided to end it, an announcement like this is as pointless as it gets. In fact, this only makes things difficult -- not in a direct sense because now I have to fend off the usual voices of concern and panic. But whenever I'm not a nihilist I think about what my role should be in bringing about social change. I had many aspirations on that front in my younger days and many have died out with ideological clarity and aging. Few remain. One among those is the de-stigmatization of suicide. Few philosophers have written openly in favour of it and I'd like to highlight their views in the coming months. Not just as abstract ideas but my personal engagement with them and divorce it from the usual narratives of depression and mental illness. This is a question the modern society will be faced with a lot and at some point they'll have to embrace them as everyday occurrences that are sad and devastating, commonplace nevertheless. Maybe even take it out of the simplistic prism of something that needs to be 'prevented', all the problematic dimensions of suicide notwithstanding.
 ____________________________________________________________

Update (May 02, 2019):

In spite of my reasoned pessimism (?) I have actually managed to heal my a back quite a bit over the last several months. As I mentioned to some of my friends my mental state was directly correlated to my state of physical being. It's still fragile and far from perfect (or the pre-2015 level), but this will do for now. So yeah, consider the the July 2019 'deadline' nullified.

 
©2009 english-tamil