Monday, 31 December 2012

A plea for positive cynicism. Oh, and a happy new year, too.

I spent the last 45 minutes looking for a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke. Shops around here, for some reason, are loyal to Thums Up. Of course, to the average Badlapur resident, it doesn't quite make a difference; especially tonight, as many people aren't that pedantic about which soft drink they're going to mix their alcohol with – Thums Up is the preferred one, I hear. No wonder.
Nevertheless, my frantic, and not to mention pedantic, attempts led to one tiny shop which did sell Coke. In Twitter lexicon, this warrants the hash-tag #firstworldproblems. And now, as I stare at the half-empty glass, waiting for some relatives to pop over, I'm contemplating the past year. 
It's been a tradition of sorts, for me, to write a cynical rant every New Year’s eve for the last two years. The first time, I was alone at home, with no alcohol; the year after, I had a little too much alcohol in me, and a lot of repugnance. This time, right now, I mean, I'm sober. Very disillusioned, and undergoing what may, in the jargon of social sciences, be termed as an epistemological crisis. While the rest of the country's either preparing for a New year's party (except the Indian Army. Such honourable fuckers, these guys are, I tell you) or kicking up a big fuss about Honey Singh's party in some hotel in Gurgaon that I can't remember. 

You guessed it right, this post is about the larger issue that has gripped the nation for the last few weeks, at least: the question of violence against women – a quilted discourse, pinned by the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year old physiotherapy student in Delhi. I was angry when I read about it, when I read about the sheer brutality of the incident, and a host of other such incidents; I’m still angry, frustrated even – which is one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to be my usual cynical self in dismissing the protests in the aftermath; protests that were met with an equal brutality meted out the Indian state, especially the Delhi police. 2011 had seen protests too, led by the messianic figure of Anna Hazare (who has, predictably, demanded death penalty for the rapists); heck, there were cosmetic protests even in Bombay itself, just after the incident. But when I saw people, who are very well my peers, in the tear gas-infested streets, wet and beaten, I realised, like Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers, that there is good worth fighting for. Sure, I disagree with the calls for castration and death penalties – these demands are fascist; but so was the way in which their voices were brutally crushed by the state.
Of course, I’ve said the very same things before, and I wouldn’t want to bother you with any more of it. But there’s one thing that has been rather over-powering, something which is bothering me for quite some time now; the cause, if you will, of my current epistemological crisis. My “presumed superior knowledge and intelligence”, as someone succinctly pointed out, has failed me. Another implied that I was “intellectually bankrupt”. Of course, I’m not taking these claims seriously; I have that much faith in my training. But truth remains, despite my intelligence, and my impressive bibliography (or so I like to think), I feel utterly disillusioned; any intelligible comment (again, or so I like to think) gets drowned in the din and clamour of popular discourse. Of course, it’s a different thing that I, following the prolific and verbose Justice Katju, consider most people to be idiots (unlike him, I’m sceptical of numbers). Truth is, there is no intelligence in public discourse today: we’ve got a media that manufactures conscience; a political class rooted in anti ideology, hypocrisy, apathy; a public that is very good at making emphatic calls; and, of course, Arnab Goswami, without whom, verily, our nation is doomed.
We’ve witnessed a culture that displayed a morbid fascination with death – the vast (and shameless, if you ask me) outpouring of eulogies after Thackeray’s death (I mean, did you see/hear Arnab Goswami weep during Bal Thackeray’s funeral?), and the celebration, literally so, after Kasab’s hanging. In other news, the fourth anniversary of 26/11 was a dull affair; this time, surprisingly, they hadn’t barricaded the memorial at VT (Kasab was hung days after this, actually).
So, where am I going with this? Yes, I’m bitter, repugnant and cynical (and, surprisingly, sober). Maybe, people commenting on my presumed intelligence and intellectual bankruptcy are right. I have a friend who, of late, has been bothered by the fact that I don’t have any clear political leanings. “You’re not a capitalist, nor a socialist; neither are you right-wing, nor an atheist. What…are you?” My answer usually involves complex sociological jargon which, actually, doesn’t quite amount to anything substantial. But tonight, I think I may have an answer for him. I am a positive cynic.
Partly, because one of my friends on Twitter commented that no one else he knows really lived up to their Twitter handle (something I found incredibly flattering; thanks, Bob!). But mostly because positive cynicism, as an intellectual space, really sums up my epistemological leanings: which is, well, disillusionment (that also happens to be my current existential profile). By positive cynicism, I mean a condition wherein I avoid both the naivety and radicalisation of political views. Sure, I punch holes in people’s arguments, and alternatives, more so; but that is an important job; a mission to civilize, as Will McAvoy of HBO’s The Newsroom put it. I’m not backing away from taking political stances, either, mind you. If I think castrations are not the answer, I believe I have sufficiently defended that stance. I’m not in the vocation of giving solutions, either. My training in anthropology doesn’t quite allow for that so easily. But I may be able to tell you where an intervention would fail, and where it might succeed. You see, that’s the brilliance of anthropology. That it’s rooted in a deeper problem, a constant epistemological crisis; that it blends scepticism, analytical rigour, scientific method, abstraction – all disparate elements, if you observe from afar – so brilliantly. Yes, I’m disillusioned by the narrow confines of traditional academia; but that’s changing now; the sociological imagination has become more diverse, more analytical, more empirical. And that is something I am looking to be a part of. That is where I see positive cynicism heading. A critical sphere, akin to the Frankfurt School’s endeavours (apologies for the umpteen references).
Ah, well, I’ve said too much. And I’ve realised that this post isn’t nearly half as repugnant and bitter as the previous two New Year’s eve ones. The relatives are about to arrive soon and I’m on my second glass of Coke now. I think I need something stronger. Alcohol does wonders for disillusionments, I’ve discovered. Let’s see if it has the same effect on epistemological crises. The world didn’t end, and we’re going to have to make do with this one. Oh, and before I forget, happy New Year, and have a brilliant 2013 (#sarcasmintended).

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