Monday, April 24, 2017

Of machines, cyborgs, an old imp, and a spinning-wheel (also, technically, a machine)



G. Ramachandran, a young scholar from Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore's ode to life, learning, and all that is beautiful, spent a few days with Gandhi in Delhi, in October 1924. Bapu took the time to engage in wide-ranging conversations with this young student, and in them, the two covered much ground. Ramachandran managed to draw out the old man's views on art (anything that "helps the soul to realize its inner self"),  how beauty and truth are effectively the same (I didn't realise how much he loved Keats before I read this), and ultimately, how he felt about machines, given his well-known aversion to them, on account of the fact that they 'dwarfed' human capacity. Ramachandran asked Gandhi quite straightforwardly if he was against all machinery - or the idea of machines, even. To this, Gandhi's response was one which might have surprised his young interlocutor: "How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning-wheel itself is a machine; a little tooth-pick is a machine. What I object to, is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on "saving labour" till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might,"[1] (my emphasis). Remarkably prescient for a text that is 93 years old, don't you think?

And why, pray, do I feel the need to revisit Bapu today, apart from the fact that I'm currently spending my days at the Ashram (and my nights reading that other architect of modern India, Babasaheb Ambedkar)? We were asked, this month, to think about what it means for us as a species, living and working our way through the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' which seems to be upon us. I would imagine this means dealing with the ubiquity of the internet, fast-changing everything we  do, the ways in which we 'know' (in terms of knowledge production/dissemination, the professions that are currently available to us, economic and business models and c.); more, we'd also have to venture into the post-human space (and you would have no choice but to recognise quite quickly how much the 'future' looks like the present when you read about the various biohackers, cyborgs and other suchlike who 'walk among us' already[2], or note the popularity of shows like the dystopian (but is it? really?) 'Black Mirror' which indicate the firm grapple-hold this theme seems to have on popular culture, always an excellent barometer of the spiritus mundi).

But I realise I haven't answered my question yet, and to it my response is a simple one: the reason I bring Gandhi into play today, to frame this discussion, is that I don't see how we can theorise the so-called Fourth Revolution when we haven't adequately managed to wrest ourselves from its predecessor: you know, the one which gave us Modernity (with a capital M, no less). In the form of late-capitalism and the global corporate order we function (or, more accurately labour and suffer) under today, this is not something we've finished living through quite yet. From it emerges that which will be, and this is why something that was true in 1924  remains so to-day: we run the risk of being 'dwarfed' by technology; slaves to machines (big ones, of course, but so too little ones, as Tagore was to remind Gandhi, on the subject of his precious spinning-wheel). How are machines or the 'craze' for them which now seems inescapable, given how thoroughly they've permeated every aspect of our existence, going to transform our lives? In myriad ways, forcing upon us new epistemes; reconfigurations in how we define 'privacy', 'relationships', 'knowledge', 'work', 'leisure', and other givens around which we've thus far constructed meaning in and for our lives. Is there a chance that this will have to involve re-imagining and re-defining what is meant by the descriptor 'human' itself? Hasn't it always?         



[1] CWMG, Vol. 25, pp 247-256.  You can access the entire 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram's online archive, https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org/

[2] See this fascinating piece for more: http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/innovation/cyborgs-among-us human-biohackers-embed-chips-their-bodies-n150756

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Of Carpenter's Squares, Property, and Love in the Time of the Great Derangement[1]



 For your entertainment (and edification) this month, we've been asked to weigh in on the institution of the modern family: what might this curious phenomenon look like? What do we understand by 'normal' in the 21st century? 

Before attempting to think-write my way through the first part of this editorial prompt, I have to deconstruct the second part of it, because what is 'normal' anyway?

Semiotics demonstrates, convincingly to my mind, that there is no such thing as absolute meaning; all meaning is contextual, and endlessly deferred besides (every word you read alters your understanding of what preceded it). What therefore, I ask in a second rhetorical flourish, is 'normal'? A dictionary definition might suggest that it means conforming to a standard; encountering only the expected. If you trace its etymology, you'll see that it was derived from the Latin for 'norma', a carpenter's square, in the 17th century. I like this. A carpenter's square; a measure of sorts, to establish right angles. Nothing uncommon, untoward or acute about 'normal' then.

However, I put to you that 'normal' is a relative measure, not an absolute one - more a band, really - and it is an entirely contextual construct, prone to change. Slavery was once 'normal' lest we forget, as was the idea that the earth was squarely (hah) the centre of the known universe; burning women at the stake for practicing 'witchcraft' and infant-marriage have been the norm too. Change has almost always come from a challenging of the normative, not compliance with it.

With that out of the way, I can now focus my attention on the other part of the editorial prompt: who or what is/makes a modern family? Setting aside the 'modern' for a moment, let's decode 'family' first: families are the building blocks (the kind delineated with a carpenter's square so that they're just 'right')  societies are made of. The historian in me cringes at playing so fast and loose with 'broad-stroke' tellings, but it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to trace back the institution we call 'family' to the beginnings of settled communities practicing agriculture, and the concept of 'ownership' which seems to have come with this development. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engles holds that the monogamous family "is founded on male supremacy for the pronounced purpose of breeding children of indisputable paternal lineage...(which) is required, because these children shall later on inherit the fortune of their father. The monogamous family is distinguished from the pairing family by the far greater durability of wedlock, which can no longer be dissolved at the pleasure of either party. As a rule, it is only the man who can still dissolve it and cast off his wife," (1908, 76). For this society to perpetuate itself, heterosexual monogamous coupling has to be the norm. And this is almost certainly one of the most important reasons why any sort of challenge to this creed - whether from the women's movement or from the LGBTQIA space - has been rabidly lampooned and dismissed. Here: have a neat little 'vintage'  poster that ties in misogyny, homophobia and general all-round bigotry in equal parts. Never say I give you nothing.


  
(Source: http://www.revelist.com/feminism/anti-feminist-posters/1246)

Not to sound like too much of a wet blanket, but to me, the modern family looks a whole lot like its predecessor, the one rooted in power relations which place the patriarch squarely at the heart of its structure, with this structure itself serving as just another brick in the wall that capitalism and consumer culture have together built around us all. But what of the gains made by the LGBTQIA movement you ask? The legalisation of same sex marriage in America (and a host of other countries) or the recognition of same sex civil unions elsewhere? Sure, this is a victory that cannot - should not - be understated. However, it comes at a time when fewer people are getting married at all (and divorce rates are higher among the people who do)[2], suggesting to my mind, a last-ditch effort to raise flagging numbers for a system of societal organisation which is finding less takers than it ever has within its historically traditional demographic (read: heterosexual couples).

What bearing marriage has - and will continue to have - on the societal building block we call the family, only time will tell. In the meantime, more power to them each and all, who seek to design the size, shape and origin story for their choices and couplings; for their ability to create communities premised on love, understanding, compassion and the possibility of happiness in a world intent on destroying itself whole. Family, to me, is what you make. Family, to me, is what you choose to be a part of. So much more powerful than the double-bind of blood (birth) and ownership (right), no?     

      
   


[1] See last month's post on climate change for more on what Amitav Ghosh calls the 'Great Derangement'.
[2] See the 2016 OECD report on Marriage and Divorce Rates for more details: https://www.oecd.org/els/family/SF_3_1_Marriage_and_divorce_rates.pdf

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Living (?) in the time of the 'Great Derangement'

 

 This month, we've been asked to muse on Climate Change, the increasing frequency with which natural disasters seem to occur around the world to-day, and whether it is still possible to believe that nations can, indeed, come together to turn their words into actions in a bid to contain or reverse the never-before witnessed changes we as a species are effecting on the planet we call home. Proof of the (increasingly visible) effects several millennia of human habitation have had on this planet are everywhere to be espied: 9 out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000; Carbon Dioxide levels are at their highest in 6,50,000 years; in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice shrank to its lowest extent on record[1]: they don't call this the Anthropocene[2] for nothing.

I'm going to come at this from another vantage point: I'm going to leave it to you to work out whether you want to know about the back-story of the various UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) conferences and what they amounted to, because this is information readily available in the public domain. What I'm going to talk about instead is the precarity of the moment that we inhabit. Amitav Ghosh calls this the moment of the Great Derangement (also the title of his spectacular treatise on climate change and the "unthinkable", which came out in 2016). 
In this ridiculously immersive and spine-chilling text, Ghosh argues that future generations are going to deduce our derangement - collective, absolute - from our inability to contend with the fact of climate change. Our imaginations - literary (except for stray forays into science fiction), cultural, political and, ultimately 'historical' -  have failed us when it comes to articulating what it is that ails the planet we inhabit; the violence and scale of the forces unleashed by climate change. More, we've come to think of the earth as a site - a backdrop - for our lives and actions, when it is anything but a silent player. Ghosh makes a searing case for the planet as a sentient (and sapient) character/actor, without anthropomorphising it (because that would just be human hubris at play again).

What is of paramount importance here is to acknowledge that while climate change is bigger than us - bigger than anything you or I can hope to stall or solve or "do" anything about - any form of collective action necessarily has to begin with the recognition that it is here; climate change isn't something that "will" come upon us: it is now.  However, while on collective action, from the Kyoto Protocol onward in the early 90s, we've seen government after government ratify, take on bits and pieces of, move away from, or even rescind entirely the binding agreements it would take to reduce green house emissions. This begs Ghosh's eminently pertinent question, "When these institutions refuse to even acknowledge what kind of problem we're actually facing, what do you do?"[3] Weighing in on the unending arguments between the so-called 'West' and developing nations in Africa and Asia when it comes to reducing global carbon footprints, Ghosh asserts that nature simply doesn't care: "When that monster cyclone comes towards Chennai or Mumbai, what are you going to say to it? 'No you're coming for the wrong person. You should go and attack the US?' Frankly, the strange thing about the world around us is that it's neither good nor bad, nor does it care for you, it's not beautiful; it is utterly indifferent to you. You are nothing. It will crush you in the same way it crushes rocks," (Ibid).
  
This is what is at stake, and if our governments hesitate to act, because politics has come to resemble the theatre of the absurd; an arena where grandstanding takes precedence over the will to engage in concerted collective action, then being thought of by future generations as the befuddled or 'deranged' ones who did not know how to engage with the fact of climate change will be the least of our worries. For this to come to pass, there would have to be "future generations," in the first place.


[1] See https://climate.nasa.gov/ for more.
[2] "The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans." For more, see: http://anthropocene.info/
[3] See http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/amitav-ghosh-the-great-derangement-climate-change-author-lifest/1/716710.html for more.