Political is as Political does

The Talking Back workshop has been an extraordinary experience for me. The questions that I posed for others attending the workshop have hounded me as they went through the course of discussion, analysis and dissection. Strange nuances have emerged, certain presumptions have been questioned, new legacies have been discovered, novel ideas are still playing ping-pong in my mind, and a strange restless excitement – the kind that keeps me awake till dawning morn – has taken over me, as I try and figure out the wherefore and howfore of things. I began the research project on Digital Natives in a condition of not knowing, almost two years ago. Since then, I have taken many detours, rambled on strange paths, discovered unknown territories and reached a mile-stone where I still don’t know, but don’t know what I don’t know, and that is a good beginning.

The researcher in his heaven, all well with the world

This first workshop is not merely a training lab. For me, it was the extension of the research inquiry, and collaboratively producing some frames of reference, some conditions of knowing, and some ways of thinking about this strange, ambiguous and ambivalent category of Digital Natives. The people who have assembled at this workshop have identified themselves as Digital Natives as a response to the open call. They all have practices which are startlingly unique and simultaneously surprisingly similar. Despite the great dissonance in their geo-political contexts and socio-cultural orientations, they seem to be bound together by things beyond the technological.

Each one chose a definition for him/herself that straddles so many different ideas of how technologies interact with us; there are writers who offer a subjective position and affective relation to technologies and the world around them; there are artists who seek to change the world, one barcode at a time; there are optimist warriors who have waged battles against injustice and discrimination in the worlds they occupy; there are explorers who have made meaning out of socio-cultural terrains that they live in; there are leaders who have mobilized communities; there are adventurers who have taken on responsibilities way beyond their young years; there are researchers who have sought higher grounds and epistemes in the quest of knowledge. The varied practice is further informed by their own positions as well as their relationship with the different realities they engage with.

How, then, does one make sense of this babble of diversity? How does one even begin to articulate a collective identity for people who are so unique that sometimes they are the only ones in their contexts to initiate these interventions? Where do I find a legacy or a context that makes sense of these diversities without conflating or coercing their uniqueness? This is not an easy task for a researcher, and I have struggled over the two days to figure out a way in which I can start develop a knowledge framework through which I can not only bring coherence to this group but also do it without imposing my questions, suggestions or agendas on you. And it is only now, at a quarter to dawn, as I think and interact more with the different digital natives that things get shapes for me – shapes that are not yet clear, probably obscured by the blurriness of sleep and the rushed time that we have been living in the last few days – and I now attempt to trace the contours if not the details of these shapes.

Questioning the Question

The first insight for me came from the fact that the Digital Natives in the workshop talked back – not only to the structures that their practice engages with, but also the questions that I posed to them. “What does it mean to be Political?” I has asked on the first day, knowing well that this wasn’t going to be an easy dialogue. Even after years of thinking about the Political as necessarily the Personal (and vice versa), it still is sometimes difficult to actually articulate the process or the imagination of the Political. It is no wonder that so many people take the easy recourse of talking about governments, judiciaries, democracies and the related paraphernalia to talk about Politics.

I knew, even before I posed the question, that this was going to lead to confusion, to conditions of being lost, to processes of destabilising comfort zones. However, what I was not ready for was a schizophrenic moment of epiphany where I tried to ask myself what I understood as the Political. And as I tried to explain it to myself, to explain it to others, to push my own knowledge of it, to understand others’ ideas and imaginations, I came up with a formulation which goes beyond my own earlier knowledges. There are five different articulations of the legacies and processes of the Political that I take with me from the discussions (some were suggested by other people, some are my flights of fancy based on our conversations), and it is time to reflect on them:

Political as dialogue

This was perhaps, the easiest to digest because it sounds like a familiar formulation. To be political is to be in a condition of dialogue. Which means that Talking Back was suddenly not about Talking Against or Being Talked To. It was about Talking With. It was a conversation. Sometimes with strangers. Sometimes with people made familiar with time. Sometimes with people who we know but have not realised we know. Sometimes with the self. The power of names, the strength of being in a conversation – to talk and also to listen is a condition of the Political. In dialogue (as opposed to a babble) is the genesis of being political. Because when we enter a dialogue, we are no longer just us. We are able to detach ourselves from US and offer a point of engagement to the person who was, till now, only outside of us.

Political as concern

This particular idea of the political as being concerned was a surprise to me. I have, through discourses and practice within gender and sexuality fields, understood affective relationships as sustaining political concerns and subjectivities. However, I had overlooked the fact that the very act of being concerned, what a young digital native called ‘being burned’ about something that we notice in our immediate (or extended) environments is already a political subjectivity formation. To be concerned, to develop an empathetic link to the problems that we identify, is a political act. It doesn’t always have to take on the mantle of public action or intervention. Sometimes, just to care enough, is enough.

Political as change

This is a debate that needs more conversations for me. Politics, Knowledge, Change, Transformation – these are the four keywords (further complicated by self-society binaries) that have strange permutations and combination. To Know is to be political because it produces a subjectivity that has now found a new way of thinking about itself and how it relates to the external reality. This act of Knowing, thus produces a change in our self. However, this change is not always a change that leads to transformation. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake can often be indulgent. Even when the knowledge produces a significant and dramatic change, often this change is restricted to the self.

When does this knowing self, which is in a condition of change, become a catalyst for transformation? When does this knowing-changing translate into a transformation for the world outside of us? Just to be in a condition of knowing does not grant the agency required for the social transformation that we are trying to understand. Where does this agency come from? How do we understand the genesis and dissemination of this agency? And what are the processes of change that embody and foster the Political?

Political as Freedom

On the first thought, the imagination of Political as Freedom seemed to obvious; commonsense and perhaps commonplace. However, I decided put the two in an epistemological dialogue and realised that there are many prismatic relationships I had not talked about before I was privy to these conversations. Here is a non-exhaustive list: Political Freedom, Politics of Freedom, Free to be Political, Political as Freedom, Freedom as Political... is it possible to be political without the quest of freedom? Is the freedom we achieve, at the expense of somebody else’s Political stance? How does the business of being Political come to be? Not Why? But How? If Digital Natives are changing the state of being political what are they replacing? What are they inventing? Where, in all these possibilities lies Freedom?

Political as Reticence

We all talked about voice – whose, where, for whom, etc. It was a given that to give voice, to have voice, to speak, to talk, to talk back were conditions of political dialogue and subversion, of intervention and exchange. So many of us – participants or facilitators – talked about how to speak, what technologies of speech, how to build conditions of interaction... and then, like the noise in an otherwise seamless fabric of empowerment came the idea of reticence. Is it possible to be silent and still be political? If I do not speak, is it always only because I cannot? What about my agency to choose not to speak? As technologies – of governance, of self, and of the social  constantly force us to produce data and information, through ledgers and censuses and identification cards – make speech a normative way of engagement, isn’t the right of Refusal to Speak, political?

Sometimes, it is necessary to exercise silence as a tool or a weapon of political resistance. The non-speaking subject holds back and refuses to succumb to pressures and expectations of a dominant erstwhile, and in his/her silence, produces such a cacophony of meaning that it asks questions that the loudest voices would not have managed to ask.

The Beginning of a Start; Perhaps also the other way round

These are my first reflections on the conversations we have had over the two days. I feel excited, inspired, moved and exhilarated as I carry myself on these flights of ideation, thought and conceptualisation. It is important for me that these are questions that I did not think of in a vacuum but in conversation and dialogue with this varied pool of people who have spent so much of their time and effort to not only make their work intelligible but also to reflect on the processes by which we paint ourselves political. I have learned to sharpen questions of the political that I came with and I have learned to ask new questions of Digital Natives practice. I don’t have a definition that explains the work that these Digital Natives do. But I now have a framework of what is their understanding of the political and what are the various points of engagement and investment.