Accountability Of ‘Intellectuals’’

Feeding the White Elephants

Garga Chatterjee

AKind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a road-side tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demi-gods of helping them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.

In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a 2-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts—breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile—"How will you explain that to my grand-ma?" This was a crucial question. In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society—clarity.

Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times—the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

However, when we look into the academic circles that universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonize and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art—it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between 'high-brow' knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase 'in our field'. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of'power'. Such a petulant water-tightness is typically seen in 'fields' full of '-isms' or those where sentences are peppered with things like, 'in a -ian sense/paradigm/view'. And so forth. The latter is a classic: method of saying I will say this to you without explanation. Either you will not along as you wont admit to knowing what the '-ian view' is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them. It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible.

In the subcontinent, a rich tradition of handed-down knowledge in the form of songs and sayings attributed to thinkers like Kabir and Lalon Shah and myriad other unnamed ones, makes one thing very clear. The subcontinent has had intellectuals who have engaged with the public in terms that were clear and have been thought leaders who have shaped people's conceptions. In such interactions, knowledge and ideas are located within society, and not in some cabal outside it, claiming to 'understand' society. Song and pravachans which people still know and remember have helped people deal and make sense of the human condition for millennia.

Only in a self-important and delusional view of human existence do recently produced knowledge and ideas come to be considered so groundbreak-ing and crucial for understanding the human condition. This view, in which the recent is so privileged, expresses the same kind of attitude that concepts like jahalaat embody. The difference is that the last 100 or 400 years are considered unprecedented.

Some would have you believe that the last 50 years have been crucial. But then we know there is nothing special except the kind of self-importance that confuses recency with progress. In such a 'progressive' world-view, earlier times are deemed bland. For example, the 50 years between say 1200 AD and 1250 AD would be considered much less 'eventful' which the period between 1950 and 2000 apparently has been world-changing in terms of idea productions. But the world was there then and it is there now. The same is true for the humankind and the human condition.

To think of ourselves of having been born in some special time can be nice. But it gets problematic when, to make careers out of ideas generated in the last 50 years, people start over-selling these times. That the selling involves more hocus pocus does not help. And hence, public scrutiny becomes important to separate the wheat from the chaff. At the end of the day, we know that two humans make more sense of the world than one, and three more than two, other things being the same. So, claims of certain geographical locales being particular sites of production of relevant and crucial knowledge, especially when such locales are also centers of colonial capital accumulation, have to be viewed with suspicion. Ideas from these locales also are in lock-step with the idea that the last 400 years or so have so uniquely informative in understanding the human condition. Decolonization of the mind is not an easy thing. It is especially hard to accomplish when such concepts live so comfortably within us, become like our skin and self-identity. We are not only slaves in what we follow, we can also be slaves in what we deem important, how we organize our mental worlds around exotic concepts, especially when we exhibit a distinct lack of understanding of the knowledge and ideas around us, in the specific geographies where we are embedded, in flesh, descent and culture. How did we come to be the way we are is a question we ought to be asking ourselves.

I again return to the role of the intellectual, the academic, the thinker. Like most people who live off the public exchequer, earning one's keep has to have people's assent. Speaking over the head of the people, in the name of the people, remaining unintelligible and all the time claiming to unearth some deep understanding of the people, of their lives, desires, politics, structures and what not, is good for conversations inside such cabals. The outside world has not been scathing in asking for accountability. Like the Sanskrit mantras of today, these are performed technically in public view but are insider-talk at the end of the day. Such insider-talk, whatever its purported merits and brilliance, come with a severe lack of checks and balances, like any other priestly order. This is a dangerous thing for knowledge production as load fulls of quality bull shit can pass off as insight if its sounds and feels right to the 'initiated'. The world, especially poorer societies, can ill-afford the luxury of continually feeding white elephants whose public engagement ends within the ramparts of the university or other such spaces. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money. o
Courtesy : Garga Chatterjee's page ‘Hajarduari’

Vol. 46, No. 20, Nov 24 - 30, 2013

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