Thursday, August 11, 2016

In which the UK mimics the titles of two U2 songs: Brexit as/and the quest for context

The thing about us is that we're contrarian in the extreme. This appears far too obvious a truism to start a post with, but bear with me as I attempt to read the obnoxious campaign that resulted in that ugliest of compounds (not to mention, eventualities) 'Brexit' in its light.

I dig AK Ramanujan muchly. Poet, translator extraordinaire, folklorist, scholar of Indian literatures, and a grammarian to boot, he truly was the real deal. Ramanujan taught at the University of Chicago for long years, and was one of the forces behind the shaping of its excellent South Asian Studies program. How do I know this? He taught one of my PhD guides there, decades ago. One degree of removal separated us, or would have, if Ramanujan had lived. We lost him altogether too soon, but that is another story for another time. To-day, I would have you muse on a formulation Ramanujan offers us in his exquisite 'Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay' (1989) instead.

This piece begins with the author casting about to identify what it is that makes us Indian; he asks whether there is an Indian way of thinking. More, is there an Indian way of thinking? Or, is there an Indian way of thinking? If the questions change as we play with intonation and stress, answers, necessarily, must too. At one point, the grammarian in him takes over, and attempts to read entire societies as one would languages. This is when he offers us the formulation I now put to you. Ramanujan says that there are two major kinds of grammatical rules: the context-free (subjects and predicates in sentences having to stand in a certain relation to each other, for example) and the context-sensitive (examples of which would be how plurals in English are generated by adding an 's' after stops (as in dog-s, cat-s) or by adding an 'es' after fricatives (latch-es) or 'ren' after child etc.). Where this gets interesting is that he holds that cultures also tend to idealise, or fall into, by and large one of these two modes of thinking and being in the world.

India, to no one's surprise ever, is an extreme example of a context-sensitive society: one's caste (and sub-caste), class (and sub-class), gender, religion (and sub-division thereof), geographical and other 'locations' determine the shape one's life may ostensibly take. Even time - in the form of 'auspicious' hours in a given day, or days in a week, or weeks in a month, or months in a year, or years in an aeon - and space are accorded with properties which mark out good from its nefarious other, dictating what action may be committed when, and where .The quest in a society as heavily circumscribed by context as ours is, Ramanujan tells us, is always going to be for a state of free-play: 'sannyasa' from the neat subdivisions which mark life stages (or 'moksha' from life's aims); 'sphota' (a 'burst' of meaning outside language qua language - much like the effect of montage in generating emotions in filmic texts, if you think about it) in semantics, 'bhakti' in religion; these are all examples of the freedom that comes at the 'end' of a lifetime spent performing the roles foisted upon members of context-sensitive societies.

Some of you may have, by now, discerned where this is headed, and you would be right if you had deduced that the United Kingdom would, in this schema, qualify as an example of a context-free society, based as it seemingly is upon the Judaeo-Christian predilection for universals ('thou shall not kill,' - not even if you are a Brahmin who has been wronged by a Shudra, no. Down.). At least theoretically, this would qualify as a society premised upon the egalitarian democratic notion that "any member is equal to and like any other in the group" (Ramanujan 1989: 54), where despite religious, class and other markers, the same rules applied to, as he so colourfully put it, "the lion and the ox". 

Now, if Ramanujan is to be believed, and I see no reason why he shouldn't be, this means that the quest in a polity like Britain's is one for context: for what people imagine to be 'roots and legacies', which can only come from belonging to (which is another way of saying these categories can be claimed only by 'othering' the waves of Eastern Europeans, Asians, West Indians and others who also lay claim as citizens to) this insular little island nation. This is the shadowy, murky underbelly of the quest for context; the calculated and noxious logic which culminates in Jo Cox's killer thinking of himself as a patriot who puts 'England first'. Does this begin to add up? In a world come unhinged, postmodern in the extreme in that the meta-narratives of religion, capitalism, democracy and their ilk have been judged and found wanting for they no longer serve to affix us as once they did and no longer seem to give our identities coherence, we are almost bound to witness a simultaneous unease with, and reaffirmation of the rhetoric of jingoistic nationalism. World over, we seem intent on splintering ourselves into as many sub-groups as it will take for us to feel comfortable in our skins again. 

This is what I meant when I began by suggesting we're devilishly contrarian. Of course there were Asian-Britons who voted 'Leave': every last one of us is someone else's other. Racism can be, and is, paid forward. Which is why, much like those blasted U2 songs I began by invoking, it's fairly safe to assume that the UK is a long way away yet from finding what it thinks it is looking for. With or without (E)U.