A democracy of trivialities

The currency of shaming is nothing but a weaponised form of cultural difference.
A democracy of trivialities
Photo | Wikimedia commons

Current events are at once mind-bending and utterly commonplace. In the recent Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak-Anshul Kumar controversy, we witness a competitive shaming and a contest grounded in the discourse of marginality. Neoliberal education is crisscrossed with the contradictions of promising social mobility to the marginal, alongside an acculturation full of discipline and punishment, putatively granting access to the subtleties or trivialities of socio-cultural correctness.

These contradictions become even more fraught when the interlocutors straddle different cultural iterations of diversity. While Spivak is one of the most iconic Brahmin-born American academics committed to the figure of the ‘subaltern’, Kumar is a Bahujan-Dalit studying at one of the most prestigious public universities in India.

The neoliberal discourse of accommodation of minorities in India is relatively recent, coinciding with a cunning overlap between the entry of Bahujan-Dalits into the public university (the Mandal Commission education quota implemented in 2006) as well as of private players in the higher education market. Despite the significant contribution of reservations in creating a measure of inclusivity, social diversity was never a part of a self-conscious rhetoric or branding.

The Spivak-Anshul Kumar exchange evinces this more commodified language of diversity. The Bahujan-Dalit’s refusal to learn ‘trivialities’ could be read as dramatising the practical difficulties faced by the neoliberal model of education, which simultaneously promises standardised outcomes as well as unbridled self-expression. Kumar’s style of interrogation shows that the two don’t go together. Spivak finds him rude and demands he pronounce sociologist William Du Bois’ name correctly. While her insistence on correct pronunciation may be justified, correcting him again and again in a manner that forestalls the question he is clearly intent on asking suggests the use of academic protocols for an ad hominem attack on his credibility.

Nor was it a mere correction. Spivak was clearly weaponising their status-asymmetry to shame him. While marginality and exclusion are the most fashionable topics of research today, these bitter encounters reveal that the living form of democracy goes unaddressed; Bahujan-Dalit styles of intellectual exchange remain at odds with a traditional academic code of conduct.

The question is really about the nature of intellectual labour and the possibility of transcending its alienating character. Is the matter of correct pronunciation mere nitpicking, or should we read Kumar’s ‘trivialities’ comment as a sign of academic laziness? Bahujan-Dalit pedagogy has consistently rejected the use of Brahminical ideas of merit and punitive methods of learning, recognising a long history of abjection to have served their oppression.

As representatives of diversity, Bahujan-Dalit students and academics must perform surplus labour in the form of demonstrating difference, or even proving their abjection. This sharing of lived experiences is rooted in feminist standpoint theory’s privileging of an alternative pedagogy. The proliferation of ‘marginal’ identities coupled with the rise of postcolonial theory has tended to generalise cultural studies’ emphasis on lived experiences, paradoxically turning the performative labour of cultural difference into a universal imperative.

My point here is that the lament over students’ inability to listen and learn has to be seen from the perspective of a general milieu of performance in which the silent and unquantified intellectual work becomes less relevant. At the same time, the neoliberal reversal makes the standpoint epistemology—intended for creating solidarity between the oppressed—into a competition over who will get the award for the most authentic performance.

The videos in which students hit back are not a pretty sight. They showcase both suffering through re-living the moment of trauma and the enjoyment of it afforded by the triumph of shaming the shamer. The currency of shaming is nothing but a weaponised form of cultural difference. If modernity and the classic liberal university were about developing a capacity for guilt—an inner conscience, an ethical framework—then the new language of diversity is about reclaiming tools of a shame culture by subjecting the privileged to an unforgiving and permanent gaze. This is not class war, but a politics of ressentiment.

While the shame culture is a debased currency, shame itself has liberatory potentials. In a brilliant essay called ‘The Descent into Shame’, Joan Copjec clarifies that shame is not about a plurality of cultures, but a singular relation to one’s cultural inheritance, allowing one to split off, however painfully, from a familiar image of oneself. The cringe effect of shame can force us to confront something alien within ourselves, “something in us more than us”, thanks to a sudden awareness of the other’s gaze. Progressively, the university has erased all avenues for feeling this unease in the name of safe and empathetic spaces, while failing to explore the conditions of creating real safety in an unequal world.

Yet, despite the fireworks, the final takeaway of the drama is quite banal: an illustration of how we are always talking at cross purposes. Spivak scoffed at his aggressivity, not mindful at all of the courage it takes for a subaltern student to ask a hostile question of an academic of her stature.

It is no surprise institutionalised cultural difference should end up “talking, but not listening”; what is surprising is that these performances are expected to serve the aims of empathy, ethics and greater democratisation. It brings to mind the risible dialogue from Dabangg about the symbolic Other’s love being more terrifying than their slaps: “Thappad se dar nahi lagta hai sahab, pyar se lagta hai (Not afraid of your slaps, sir, but afraid of your love).”

(Views are personal)

Nandini Chandra | Associate Professor, University of Hawai’i at Manoa and author of The Classic Popular: Amar Chitra Katha, 1967-2007

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