day 10: how to speak poetry

maybe we should meet as complete strangers


Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.

What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.

This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.

Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.

– Leonard Cohen

day 9: the unbearable liberty of minimalism

DIGITAL MINIMALISM
by Cal Newport
Penguin Random House, 304pp., February 2019, 978-0525536512

One of my friends often tells me that most of anglophone philosophy is based on bad translations of european philosophy. I tend not to fall into these conversations over fears that my grasp of most of these things are so elementary that any addendum I might have in a conversation on this is briefly entertaining at best and mildly irritating at worst. However, there is something to be said about a tendency found in anglophone writers: they quote european philosophers at length in self-help books without actually justifying much of the tradition that has grown in philosophy after, say, a Nietzsche or an Aristotle. This does end up creating an impression of reading these philosophers for how much they can help you. Cal Newport’s fairly recent book Digital Minimalism goes between a book that is interventionist in its outlook to being an example of the kind of book that often has odd blind-spots of immense cultural value.

Newport’s book is one of the many attempts to educate myself about the conversation and literature about being data-conscious. Given Newport’s own academic background (he is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University), it is one the books I have consumed during this coronavirus-induced time that has magically appeared in my schedule. The reason the book appeals to me, therefore, is not because I read it as relevant literature but also about the “hacks” a peer might have about being data-conscious.

The book—should it be marketed to people from Gen Z to millennials—offers something that has become a near ubiquitous topic: Big Data is watching you. It is, however, not very radical in offering people the way to get out of it; quit it and monitor the way you develop your relationship with the tech giants of the world. The radical departure he makes, I would argue, is the manner he manages to tie-up a relationship between a happy and fulfilling life and that of a productive offline life through many lengthy passages of Aristotle, Thoreau, and Franklin. His many “practices”, for instance, include a 30 day declutter of your digital ecosystem, followed by high-quality leisure principles.

The reason it seems to be paradoxical to me is this: the kind of productivity that he encourages is so unapologetically apolitical that the high-quality leisure principles that he lays out only amplify a kind of outcome: a neoliberal one. Or rather, a quintessentially American one. Let me unpack this a little bit.

The Offline Island Bubble

There is enough talk about Facebook being an echo-chamber that has a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. There is far too much said about it everywhere for one to put links out there. The more dangerous issue that should be appealing to the digital minimalist, however, is that these echo-chambers do not simply have an impact on one’s life-quality because of the problems of the infinite scroll problem; it is also an issue of political leverage that one hands over to the Facebooks and Googles of the era. This is the problem of unregulated debates, working closely with tyrants who stamp out all dissent, and actually not stopping political ads that openly lie.

To counter this, when Newport tells the reader to find a balanced diet of views that are on the right and left sides of the aisle, it smacks of the centrist value of saying “there are good guys on both sides”. Listening to the right side of the aisle today, whether be it in Europe, US, or South Asia, means that we are enabling those who have blood on their hands.

The issue of social networks is not that it traps people’s productivity but also that should one be anything but a male/white/western/straight user, chances are that you will find your mental health affected by the indulgences these websites allow the most abusive/racist/sexist/violent of users. This is, then, not something that can be helped by going offline, can it? This is a political issue.

While I mused about this to myself recently, Newport’s book offered an explanation why questions of digital minimalism, or minimalism in general, uses some of the most disturbingly non-inclusive examples. There is a class aspect to it. In his “practice” that spoke about high-quality leisure principles, Newport mentions that one should be “handy”—one should learn how to make things and not spend hard earned leisure by mindlessly going about social media. This is a red herring. It sounds like a good idea till one realises that his examples in that part of the book deals solely with, what he calls, FI people; people who have gained Financial Independence at a relatively younger age. i.e., rich young people. The fact that even for one to even have/borrow the tools to execute such a proposition begs a question of capital: social and otherwise. To add to that, while I understand that mindlessly scrolling through social media takes a terrible toll on mental health, there is not much else one can do if one does not possess: a room of one’s own, capital to begin such a project, ability to execute such a project. With the recent explosion of disability studies in tech, the sheer enormity of this blind-spot was quite mind-boggling.

On the other hand, the examples of community building that he gave also fetishizes a kind of community building—one with internal jargon, jokes etc.—that would be extremely gendered in some cases. This is also why many many such minimalist groups continue to be white, middle-class, and (most times) male. Or, as the example of Mr. Money Mustache in the book shows, one that tacitly approves of gentrification moves in a city.

Perhaps this is the offline island bubble that is problematic in many ways that has to be theorized before we all assume that all offline life is sustainable, good, and ethical in spite of them being exclusionary, homogeneous, and quite frankly, class-blind.

The Politics of Data Minimalism

The politics of minimal data consumption not only includes more complex conversations about sustainability and environmental concerns (which the book does not touch upon at all); it is also about what it means to organize a political consciousness in the 21st century without falling into the trap of technological pitfalls—which includes poor mental health due to people having to be bullied online on race/gender/sexuality issues, issues of inclusion, and the already mentioned issue of handing sensitive data to tech giants. The politics of social media, I would argue, is also the politics of organization—not just of your own data and how that is used by social media giants to monitor public opinion about a regime—but also of organizing communities. Grassroot level community organizations should be diverse and inclusive bodies of people and in including an example like F3nation, it is a veritable fetish of men working out together that Newport ends up championing in his book.

The danger of this is not simply in my finding it blandly centrist; the danger of digital minimalism being seen as a cute productive hack to getting more done while not advocating structural changes in the data game is the reason why people who come from diverse backgrounds stay glued on to their phones: to find a community that keeps them mentally sane in a world where every whiff of political action often becomes the caricatured apolitical bubble that helps one’s productivity.

day 8: i have decided to become boring

I am, in many ways, the incorrigible news-junkie. It is probably because I am from Bongaigaon and if you are from Bongaigaon, you have to know things to make sure that you are still a part of a world, any world. So I became a news-junkie. The compulsion to have read up on everything from Elvis’ meeting with Nixon to the Bodyline series to knowing about every Yung-1 sneaker silhouette ever released is something that I cannot stop myself from feeding my brain. Data, you see, is my drug. It has not always been an easy relationship. But mostly, it has been something I have been able to channel: for instance, collating stories on the anti-CAA protests in India and then the violence that followed was something that definitely kept me sane during a very difficult period of 2019 where I felt nothing but helplessness.

Given this background, this coronavirus induced self-quarantine has been something that has given most of us a chance to reflect. For many of us who live away from home it is also the time we have spent anxiously holding on to live-tickers; one in Europe and one that is elsewhere. This has been a source of the kind of anxiety I have never known in my life. Being the anxious person I am, at some point I was staring at the Deutsche Welle site having read the same ticker that refused to update at 4 am; this is when it clicked: I have to change something.

On being Data Conscious

It is not something that I am declaring that is new. I have always maintained that we have to change our relationship to data because, as more and more data goes out, the more vulnerable we become to the technology that is supposed to make us more social. This is where we have to do the hard work because staying away from the Facebooks and the Instagrams of the world means that you have to find your own ways of dealing with something that is not just philosophical (as Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism points out, quite rightly) but also something deeply ethical. It has to do with how much you enable a tech-giant like Facebook and Google to use your data. Even as Facebook and Google tell you about the “local” businesses you should be supporting, we are still at the mercy of their data algorithms. Recently, due to technical issues, a lot of links connected to the coronavirus outbreak suddenly became “against community rules”. It was later attributed to a bug. Even if we take this up as something of an “honest mistake”, I do feel terribly insecure about depending on the Zuckerbergs of the world to read news, or not to have access to them because of a bug. Hence, I find this to be the right time to re-evaluate my own relationship to Facebook and its products (Instagram and Whatsapp, of course).

Social media, in general, has contributed to a lot of grief but I am also worried about what it means to live outside it for a while to understand how I can use it in a manner that actually makes sense. Staring down the infinite scroll when you are away from home and are worried is probably one of the most awkward silences one can find oneself in. And in the last few months, given all that has happened, for better or worse, this has been a constant emotion that I have felt. So, after going through half of Newport’s book, I have decided to become boring.

What does that mean?

For one, I don’t think I ever want to have another open-ended conversation on a long thread with a stranger trying to convince them that maybe lynching people is not a good thing. As for a more general principle, I want to fundamentally change the way I am consuming things. This means, having more time to actually meet and stay in touch with people by having conversations. I am in disagreement with Newport here who is, by all accounts, underestimating how much a long email works like a letter in the digital age. He does seem to be against all texts and wants people to have analogue conversations. I am a little more deliberate than that when I write people and hope to maintain contact with a few friends by writing mails.

The biggest problems that I can imagine would be simply knowing far less than anyone in real-time. I would also miss a few events because of the fact that the events page on Facebook is, for all purposes, one of the most crowded ones. I do want to think that Cal Newport’s practice idea that we can always bookmark that page and then use it once a week is something I would eventually end up doing—once this whole coronavirus thing is over.

Additionally, there would be all the information about people graduating, getting married, getting jobs etc. that I would also miss out on. But I guess that would mean that I would simply write people and reach out individually. Which is really not a bad thing.

As of now, I plan to not do anything else on my Facebook. Or Instagram. Now is the time to be boring and calm. I cannot wait for it.

P.S. I am not a digital minimalist. Not yet, in any case. But I was very glad to have found an audiobook version of the book Digital Minimalism on Libby, which is an app by Rakuten. If you are someone who has access to a public library, you probably also have access to Libby. It is simply one of the best apps I have ever come across. Libraries are the best things in the world. They represent the very best of what we have on this planet.

Photo credit: Hunter Harritt on Unsplash

day 7: because you are probably bored

I know that a lot of us are home right now and need to stay sane. Here’s some cool stuff that I am finding online. I will be updating it as we go:

Berliner Philharmonie has a free pass. Last date to use the code (BERLINPHIL) is 31st March

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is streaming films for free. Also try using your Kanopy account and your MUBI account if you have a university log-in.

Haymarket Books has 10 free ebooks right now. e.g. Angela Davis, Capitalism and Disability etc. 

Verso Books has 80% off on ebooks and has a few free books as well. 

Scribd has a 30 day free thing going on. 

Leeds Queer Film Festival has free films.

Project MUSE has free access till May 31 

Last update: 20.03.2020

Sound Candy: Ian Chillag’s Everything is Alive is back! Here is their latest.

day 6: love in the time of corona

It is 01:00 am. The GAPS conference has been cancelled. Things seem bleak in a way that is soul-sucking. The last few days have been difficult for precisely two reasons:

it is so hard to stay focussed on anything with a pandemic going on

it is so hard to stay focussed. Period.

We all have our ways of calming down, I am certain. It is just that with the-end-of-the-world kind of panic coming to us through our screens, it is simply hard to have anything else on your mind. This is where my partner—wonderful as he is—told me to get away from my phone. It is really hard; I know because I tried. But this also about not neglecting mental health in the time of corona. I know that Love in the Time of Corona is precisely the kind of literary pun that people would expect from nerds like us anyway, so yes, it is about ~

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA

If anything, it is about controlling the ever expanding news-feed. Since I was supposed to fly to India, I was hooked on the news-feeds from Europe and India; all the while quite unsure which part of the world would ban the other first. Now it seems unnecessary to stay hooked. This is, dear reader, the time to get rid of your news-feed. Love your mental health, and not your news-feeds. So much of it contributes to your day getting a little more anxious that one would be better off without it. Use time for something else. Here is my plan to have more control of all the data I am consuming right now:

1. Call your parents. Call your friends. Maybe write a few letters. Communication is important; panicking does not help. Since my folks live a few hours ahead of CET, it is always nice to be able to get a hold of them and talk to them before they go to sleep.

2. Switch off your phone. Or set it to the most non-intrusive mode. Android phones do have the Do Not Disturb mode that I have found myself using a lot over the last days.

3. Consume things in a way where you are actually there. At the risk of sounding like an esoteric monster, here is the spiel: do things where you are doing something more than consuming things because it on the auto-play list of your streaming app. If you are watching a movie, do it. If you are staring at your half-finished proposal, do that. Just try to be there. Otherwise more information would simply exhaust you when you are getting out of the internet rabbit-hole on days like these.

Dear reader, step away from the phone. And the screen. Things will get better but for now, take care of yourself. Wash your hands, do things, read a nice book, listen to a nice podcast. Here’s Roman Mars describing things as they are.

day 2

There is something obscenely calm about working from home in a situation like mine. There is a feeling of fear and uncertainty that all of us tacitly have but there is absolutely nothing to be done and hence, the balance shifts and the mind tries to get beyond things that seem decidedly bleak. Under those circumstances, today started well. I was very sure that all my work would be done post-midnight and only concentrated on doing the things that I have been a little tardy about. Like reading, taking out the trash, and getting the beautiful Spülmittel for our kitchen. Since I was sure we are all in the doldrums of the coronavirus, making calls all around seems like the order of the day. Make no mistake, communication channels keep people going in times like these. Making coffee and talking to a friend who are cross with me for not attending a get-together, I realised it was already past noon. There is something slippery about time after 8:30 am. It creeps up on you and beyond that time only calms down around 3 pm. Is that where our body-clock myths come from? I am not sure but it is good to have a guess.

I sense that working from 3 pm is not always ideal and did the most calming thing of all: clean the kitchen floor. Ever since I have been cooking at home (which helps not going out), the hard to get rid of stains on the floor multiply. I watch it with pitiful disdain; I have not qualms that it is still a stain but the circumstance of it is a loving one. I scrubbed the floor till I was satisfied with the scrubbing. It was not gleaming but for someone who does not mind a little bit of graininess in things, it was nothing short of spectacular. And then came the bit with the trash. Sorting trash is where one feels like an adult; it is the same kind of pleasure one finds in a hotel room alone on one’s first Work Trip. It is one of the cool distance you maintain with the surroundings; the trash—one that you created—finds its way to the sorting giant trash bins and suddenly everything seems fresher. That is what it takes for one to feel the dull and monotonous joys of adulthood.

Since then I have been reading Camus. The Plague intrigues me with the way it begins. In a way, all good French novels have the very strange narrator who is always there; it is not only unsettling but also odd in its complicity. The amateur historian has the same kind of haughty position as the narrator of Madame Bovary — the narrator was there. It was point so labored over that in his first class of Flaubert, my professor in college spent explaining the way it changes everything. Of the complicity of reading and the reader who is now as present as the narrator who is also recording it.

Since then Sheldon Pollock‘s work has been the “main course of the day”. That is an incredibly good introduction that he has in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. I am going to leave one good quote here from the book:

We can perceive this with unusual clarity in India as the Sahitya Akademi, at the moment of its founding, struggled with the dilemma presented by the very concept of Indian literature: “The main idea behind the program,” the Akademi declared in its First Annual Report, “is to build up gradually a consciousness that Indian Literature is one, though written in many  languages. One of the limitations under which our writers work is that a writer in one Indian language has hardly any means of knowing the work that is being done in other Indian languages.” In other words, none of those writers actually producing Indian literature knew that there was a singular Indian literature. It is the nation-state alone that knows, if only obscurely; or more accurately, it knows, if only tacitly, that it must produce what it is empowered to embody and defend. In this the nation acts exactly like literary history, and even like literary discourse itself, more broadly conceived.

Pollock 10

day one

This is officially a new era. Libraries are closing. Universities are not safe either. And we are all glued on our screens reading up the latest travel ban. What a time to be alive.

As we—old souls who spend a lot of our time in libraries reading books—start spending more time at home, a few things would need to be tweaked. So here is what I am going to do:

  • Not panic.
  • Actually have some sort of a schedule. Or try one.
  • Have a reading list + reading schedule
On not panicking

This isn’t an easy one. I was just about to board a plane to India and now I have to plan my next month in Berlin because I will have to be quarantined once I reach Delhi and then I will have 9 days left for my vacation. Not happening, in short.

So I cancelled it. Well, technically I would like to postpone it but we have to wait out and see what the airline I was supposed to fly lets me do at this point. And yes, it is tedious but it is literally nothing compared to the people who have to deal with this virus in hospitals (shout-out to my brother who is a doctor in Delhi!) and the people who are vulnerable to it. So many people have perished to it already that the dystopian visions of 2020 seem about right. A postdoctoral fellow in the university where I work told me sometime in the beginning of January that this year would be momentous and, well, here we are.

Speaking of panic, this is an important thing to remember: wherever you are, international student who is facing issues in the US/UK because the people at helm of affairs do not understand that you cannot just leave and come back from some countries, or university worker who is on a contract and does not know what to do; stay strong. I sincerely hope that the universities have the foresight to have compensate people who are not vulnerable in the most visible of ways.

Have a schedule

Today was the first day of me being at home. I decided to have a more practical way of dealing with things. Understand what time of day works for you in terms of work. I am an afternoon-night worker (this is being written at 3:23 am) and find it extremely calming to work at night. Have a schedule, dear academic. Have a rough one, if any.

Mine looks something like this. Yes, it is a little crazy but it works for me.

12:00Emails to write/reply to + plan tasks
13:00Coffee + brunch
14:00Run errands
15:30Work
18:00Break + Plan dinner
19:00Dinner
20:00Emails to write/reply to
22:00Work
03:00Review + reflect
Reading List

And, of course, if nothing works, find time to read. What am I reading right now? I am in the middle of writing my expanded proposal for the March 31 deadline but here is what I hope to read for the month ahead:

Image result for derrida archive fever
  • The Plague, Albert Camus
Image result for the plague camus
Seems to be the right kind of thing to re-read right now.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
Image result for one hundred years of solitude everyman's library

Bonus Point:

Have a soundtrack

No, really. It helps. I have been binging on Bon Iver’s i,i forever now and still find it the right soundtrack no matter what I am reading/writing. The Radiohead Public Library option also helps. But the one I am also loving at this moment is the last Slowdive record. I am, as my best friend tells me, the original hipster and am running a shoegaze revival club in my head even before it starts.