Of Complicity and Contamination in the Neoliberal Academy: Oishik Sircar
Guest post by OISHIK SIRCAR
Many years back as a naïve leftist graduate student in Toronto I discovered the meanings of complicity and contamination through a most ordinary event. As someone who believed that no artistic work should ever have restricted access because of copyright, I bought an online software programme that could break copy protected DVDs. I would get film DVDs from the university library and use the software to copy them onto my hard drive. In the one year that I spent there, I copied over 1000 films. Over the years I have distributed many of these films to my students and friends, and have made extensive use of them in my teaching and workshops.
By the time I was nearing the end of my stay in Toronto, I wanted to figure out whether the software would work in India – so that I can continue my copyright breaking enterprise. I was delighted to find out that it would, as long as I paid to extend the software’s use for another year. And at the time of making this payment, to my utter surprise, I saw that this software was copyrighted. The fact that a copyright breaking software could itself have a copyright was bizarrely enlightening. The software was a tool to rip through the oppressive regimes of copyright, and in doing so it also sought recognition from that very language of privatizing innovation. It got me thinking whether we could ever espouse and practice a politics that is not a constant negotiation between complicity and contamination. Whether a search for a politics of purity is both foolish and counterproductive? My naïveté has been gradually undone through events that I have observed and experienced since then. While I can treat this as a process of acquiring wisdom, it is nevertheless a disturbing wisdom to possess. It has also left a feeling of yearning for utopia in this world of cruel contradictions.
After returning from Toronto, I shook off my naïveté with such force that I ended up with a job at a university funded by one of India’s largest steel companies whose operations have wreaked havoc in the lives of adivasi populations in several parts of India.The promises of a ‘global’ teaching and research experience that the university offered was at that time too attractive to let go off. However, I had an explanation for it drawing inspiration from my copyright breaking software: that my complicity in earning money that comes from displacing adivasis will be offset by my teaching of revolutionary thought to my students, contaminating the sanitized space of this neoliberal university, and bursting the bubbles of privilege that most of my students were in. I committedly did that through my entire period of employment with the university, but at every stage I felt like an apologist for myself. I was teaching Marx, Fanon, Beauvoir, Ambedkar, Phule, Ramabai, and at the same time distributing readings to students available only through paid databases like JSTOR and Project Muse (I wish I’d known about Aaron Swartz then), or from books published by giant publishing companies who make access to knowledge prohibitively expensive, and consequently exclusive for students of a very privileged class, which of course my students were at this university. I tried hard to ensure that at least my academic writings were published in open access journals. It was a queer experience to see how students from this class were open to talking about sexuality, but very resistant to discussing caste, as if it had withered away as their class privileges accumulated. I was trying too hard to contaminate, and that seemed like a justification for my complicity.
Two particular events from this period of my life offer some interesting insights into the intimate relationship between complicity and contamination. I, along with a few other colleagues, received funding from a prominent US university to organize an international conference on protest. It had a trendy name: The Protest Workshop. The very idea of organizing a workshop on protest in a university whose funders have colluded with the state to suppress protests felt like a powerfully contaminating act, never mind the fact that the US university that was giving us the funds, received it from one of the world’s largest banking corporations, and was itself started with money earned from the slave trade! The conference did challenge academic arrogance, contaminate disciplinary purity and forged uncommon friendships. Few days later, a colleague sent me the link to an article by Arundhati Roy in the web-magazine Guernica, where she had commented on the workshop. Even before reading the article, I was thrilled to bits. It didn’t matter what Roy had written, but the very fact that she took note of the event was very exciting for me. Needless to say, I have always really liked Roy’s acerbic and incisive essays, since her The End of Imagination days. Her comment in the Guernica article was exactly about complicity. She wrote:
“There’s an iron ore and steel company called Jindal. They have iron ore mines, steel-making plants. The CEO is a member of Parliament. He also started the National Flag Foundation, because he won the right to fly the national flag on his house. They run a global law school just outside Delhi, which is like a Stanford campus in the midst of the most unbelievable squalor you can imagine. They have faculty flown in from all over the world paid huge salaries. They fund and promote cutting-edge artists who work in stainless steel. They recently had a protest workshop where they flew in activists to this unbelievably posh campus and then had protest poetry and protest slogans. They own everything; they own the resistance, the mines, the Parliament, the flag, the newspapers. They don’t let anything go.”
She had encapsulated in lucid and compelling prose the troubling thoughts that had been with me since my first day of joining the university, rather from the day I discovered the complicity/ contamination complex of the copyright breaking software. It seemed there was no escaping this complicity: despite my ‘cutting-edge’ attempts at innovative pedagogy and pushing at the limits of conventional academic conduct. And it indeed was if we are to believe her. A few months later Roy wrote another piece in Outlook magazine, where she didn’t spare herself:
“But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, we sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khate hain. We’re under siege.”
Yet, something felt a little too fatalistic about her assessment. Was this an inescapable morass? If the spiral of complicity that she described was how things are, then, is doing what we do in the name of progressive/ leftist/ radical (not necessarily synonymous) academic work a mere attempt at occupying high moral ground? Is it a pathetic means to balm our own complicit souls? If we were failing our political commitments so miserably, was there any hope for redemption? (Pardon this theological expression, but blame it on Roy for using the word “sinners” in the first place!). I returned to the paralysing question: what is to be done?
Not that I had satisfactory answers to these questions, neither did I allow myself to get sucked into this inescapable spiral. I continued doing what I was doing. The classroom was my political playground, and I took the idea of developing radical pedagogies seriously. And it was time for the second event. Two scholar friends were visiting from Germany, and I wanted to organize a talk by them. So I approached another friend who taught at the Ambedkar University Delhi to collaborate. I wanted the event to take place in Delhi so that more number of people can attend. After all, travelling to the “Stanford [like] campus in the midst of the most unbelievable squalor you can imagine” was not so easy for Delhi-wallahs: though many did during the Protest Workshop.
My friend agreed and the talk was all set. A few days before the event was supposed to happen there was a gruesome video being circulated on YouTube that showed how Jindal Steel security guards brutally beat protesting villagers outside their factory in Angul, Odhisa. My day started with an email from a very well respected human rights lawyer friend who sent me a link to the video and wrote: “Just wondering, if freedom of speech and expression would include screening this film at the Jindal Law School, perhaps at the next human rights conference that they host.” The provocation was clear. On FaceBook another friend noted that nothing could justify her participation at the Protest Workshop organised by the university in the light of the Angul violence. Both of them said that they would never be part of anything organised by the university in the future: it was a call for an academic boycott. I asked whether the boycott can in fact be counter-productive because it would mean disengaging, and moreover will be unfair for the students at the university who would gain enormously from their visits. The response, in many ways correct, was that students need to get out of the confines of the university space to meet and interact with people who will boycott the university. Yet, it undermined the importance of the political space of the classroom: a space that can be collaboratively shaped by the teacher and students to represent a microcosm of the kind of world we want. A space to which they would have contributed if they had come to the campus.
The situation was an agonising one. On the one hand, all that I’ve tried to do to contaminate the university space seemed to have yielded little support from those outside the university with a similar political vision as mine (of course, there were some who have been very supportive, and to them I am very grateful). On the other hand the boycott was a political stand that I would also support; having been part of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel myself. How would I reconcile these two? Can I boycott the very university where I teach? What does all that I do and organise at the university mean in the light of this? Is all the talk about academic freedom at the university nothing but hogwash? Does academic freedom meet its nemesis when you start questioning the corporation that pays your salaries? Does it operate like the free market where everything goes, but critique is dismissed as drivel? Or will the scenario be very different if I were to speak through the collective voice of a teachers’ union, which sadly, was absent?
So a day before the talk was to be held, my friend called up to say that some faculty and students at their university have decided to boycott the event because it was being organised in collaboration with the Jindal Global Law School. The next day at the event, there were only 4 people, apart from the two speakers, in a huge room that could accommodate around 100. In the room where the event was to be held, there was a chair kept alongside the chairs of the speakers with a poster on it which read: “This seat is occupied in protest against the injustices committed by Jindal Steel, in Angul, Orissa [on] 25th January, 2012.” (See photo). The boycott worked, and I was glad it did, because it restored some faith in the power of resistance that can be achieved in a university space. And yet, I couldn’t be sure whether Ambedkar University students and faculty would boycott their own university because it is funded by the Delhi government, particularly in the light of police violence against the protesters at India gate recently; or if JNU students and faculty would boycott several projects in their departments funded by the Ford Foundation.
Similar questions arise in other contradictory academic settings as well: would those who boycott privately funded universities in India extend the same treatment to several Ivy League universities in the US, not only because all of them are very elite, were/ are privately funded, but also because many of them were set up by money earned through the slave trade? Do we question the Rhodes scholarship and those who receive it at Oxford University because it was started with the fortune that Cecil Rhodes made exploiting black labourers in South Africa’s diamond mines? How should we respond to the works of eminent leftist scholars who are located in these universities that in many ways were funded by the bounties of colonialism, when they write about anti-colonialism? Or have these histories been adequately whitewashed for seducing aspiring brown scholars? Would those who boycott the Jindal Global University in India similarly reject invitations from any of these universities abroad – many of which today have very strong pro-Israel links and Zionist ideologies – to go and deliver talks and spend visiting fellowships? What kind of a pure space do they have in mind when they talk about academic boycotts here? I don’t mean to say that because we don’t do it there, we don’t have any right to do it here. Also, I am aware that these questions need to take on board administrative structures of institutes. As academics and intellectuals, we must critique, even if selectively. My point is that sometimes it is simply convenient to talk about contamination without acknowledging your own complicity.
In these narratives of complicity/ contamination, to which I have been an active participant, one seems to be present only in the other’s absence. Arundhati Roy powerfully implicates herself as an accomplice to expose the insidious circulation of private capital, but does not provide even a glimpse of what a politics of contamination might look like within practices of complicity. Or she blinds you with the spectacle of her contaminating critique that the passing reference to her own complicity is forgotten. May be contamination is something that you don’t talk about because that would be giving away too much of your strategy to the ‘enemy’. Contamination is something that you do: like Roy writing in the pages of a magazine like Outlook, with advertisements of several huge corporations punctuating her long essays; like her crossing the road into Mumbai Resistance, a counter meeting that was organised just across the road from the 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai because the WSF was being funded by the Ford Foundation – she delivered speeches at both venues; like her holding the launch of her latest book Broken Republic in the elite venue of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and making the audience there uncomfortable with discussions about India’s forgotten citizens. Was she living double lives of complicity and contamination: one that she spoke of, and the other that she practiced?
My observations are mere conjecture and come from a need to draw hope and inspiration from others who are speaking out against the devastations of corporate greed while being located in the heart of neoliberalism and benefiting from its other seductive avatars in patriarchy and casteism. Take Mahashweta Devi’s participation at the latest edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, funded by Tata Steel and Coca Cola among other predatory groups, where she waxes eloquent about dreams and the written word. Take the recent interview of the renowned feminist sociologist Saskia Sassen by senior journalist and activist Meena Menon, taken during Sassen’s visit to Mumbai to speak at an event organised by Columbia University’s Mumbai Global Centre, one of the many such hubs that the university has started primarily across non-first world locations. In this interview to The Hindu, Sassen makes all the right noises about globalization, cities, and middle class protests that will make many leftists like me nod their heads in vehement agreement, and yet she disappoints by not saying anything about Columbia Global Centre in India’s occupation of a Nariman Point address in Mumbai. It was more disappointing because I was expecting Meena Menon to get her to respond to the uncomfortable question of private universities and the ways in which they colonise urban (and rural) landscapes in the name of spreading knowledge. Columbia’s gentrification of West Harlem is a case in point.
Are these acts a dual operation of complicity and contamination? If not, how do these people justify the pure politics that they espouse? Or is the intimacy between complicity and contamination a middle class left liberal concern only? A concern that I seem to be obsessively pre-occupied with because my bourgeoisie core cannot be adequately covered by the leftist skin that I wear on my body? Is it because several others like me, particularly within the university space, are trying too hard to justify why the kinds of lives we lead have so little to do with the people whose sufferings we talk/ write about and represent in our books, articles, films, art and installations?
Much before I began my life as an academic, I have asked similar questions: can I call myself a queer feminist, being an upper caste, heterosexual married man? Will it not be like the Hindu right saying that they are going to promote secularism? Should the undoing of my privilege be a pre-requisite for building solidarity with struggles that are challenging and resisting oppressive structures? Or is this a constant process of negotiation between complicity and contamination? Is this struggle a very very private experience for me? Have I turned the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ into a scandal of lies?
In the wake of the recent gang-rape in Delhi, along with many friends and comrades I had raised questions about the stunted vision and selective rage of the upper caste middle classes that never responded to Soni Sori, Manorama Devi or Bilkis Bano. But what right do we have to pass such puritanical judgments when our very locations of privilege will never ever be under any threat, irrespective of whether Kashmir gains autonomy, or the BJP rules India, or a new rape law gets passed? We were so caught up with claiming a wiser (critical in our language) moral ground, in distancing us from the populist frenzy at India Gate, and using the unnamed girl as the opportunity for inaugurating new academic projects, that I think, if she were alive and after recovering said that she wanted the death penalty for her rapists, we wouldn’t know how to respond, because our ‘intellectual’ opinions had already muted her – her being dead or alive didn’t matter.
These questions don’t have easy answers. I don’t even know whether they have difficult answers. I don’t even know whether they have answers at all. However, what I know is that these questions should never stop being asked, despite boycotts, despite the fact that I might still return to teach at another university funded by private capital, or a university funded by the state which is in turn regulated by private capital. And while these questions get asked by as many people as possible, it is also necessary, in fact imperative, to stop considering left academics as being free from the politics of complicity, even when we accuse others of selling out: to private capital, to misogyny, to the violent demarcation of disciplines. As the feminist historian Uma Chakravarty had very correctly observed at a conference I had attended: in a majority of heterosexual left academic households, the women inevitably work on gender/ sexuality, while the man works on caste/ religion! So much for our criticality.
We might do better to strengthen our belief that teaching does have a radical transformative potential, a reason because of which many of us are academics, if we take ourselves a little less seriously, and infuse indeterminacy in our ideas. An indeterminacy that does not lead to vagueness, but one that propels more exciting political possibilities. And as a young academic with a declared left political ideology (yes, that’s the word I’ll use – little indeterminacy there!), I’d expect some indeterminacy from those I look up to, the ones who I draw inspiration from, to take the politics of indeterminacy more seriously than they have so far. I am aware of their courageous works (and sometimes acts) of contamination. But to foreground their complicities will make them more human, fallible, and accessible to me, and I am sure to many others like me who are torn between complicity and contamination in our initial days in the neoliberal academy, that increasingly treats the leftist scholar doing humanities and who resists turning their students into technocrats, as an outcaste. It will be an act of generosity if you sing to us the Gill Scott-Heron song to dispel the myths of infallibility that surround you: “Yes so tell me why can’t you understand that there ain’t no such thing as a superman? There ain’t no such thing as a superman.” I don’t know if this will do anything to our vision of achieving a just world, but it will most certainly make us be truthful to the work that we do, and have the strength to counter our complicities with stronger strategies of contamination.
The author is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at the University of Melbourne, and continues to be associated with the Jindal Global Law School as Honorary Research Fellow with the Collaborative Research Programme on Law, Postcoloniality and Culture that he had founded. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org