Knowing Solo

(First published at

The modern university, research institute, or think-tank churns out a savvy, often richly funded, form of flaneurial being - the Researcher. She often carries the albatross of a Question. Sometimes her mandate is to show one thing is better than the other (like Coke better than water, paper better than plastic, or monarchy better than democracy) - sometimes, to look for the rarest possible species of mussel, sometimes to make sense of the emotional turmoil caused by global capital; to push - or just crack - the secure walls of the human domain of knowing. I remember the powerful sketch of the biologist-researcher, Piya, in the Sunderbans by Amitav Ghosh in his novel The Hungry Tide. She sits endlessly in the scorching sun of the Bay of Bengal estuary, armed with binoculars and G.P.S., waiting for crustaceans to seek her out. Hardship does not deter her, neither does the alien-ness of language, culture, and landscape. The oceanic crustaceans make the ordeal worth it. She is a picture of fortitude and attractive androgyny, what with her short hair, purposeful gait, and diamond studs glistening in the mangrove sun. Her batteries recharge everyday to the dream of yet more oceanic crustaceans.

The researcher is a peculiar universalist. She imagines value beyond the crass diktats of statecraft and capital. But quite unlike the poet or the philosopher. She carries around a research visa, G.P.S., binoculars, notepads, camera, test-tubes, and idealism that lives in constant reprimand of itself. She rejects the angry outcry of the activist, the pelleted viewpoint of the journalist, and the stilted wisdom of the statesman. She has exacting standards for what can be called ‘known’. Until her standards are met, she measures the world in possibilities. She enters her domain of search, energised by the faith that the thing unto itself is a repository of value – be it crustacean, ethnic violence, or diabetes. Its use to government, corporation, or museum is the afterthought. A long, keen and mesmerised gaze makes the researcher - at an object whose genomic structure, mental imbalance, civilisational discontent, or speed of oceanic navigation emerges as a pivotal point for re-reading the world.

Research is a contested domain in the contemporary world. A good part of it is funded by the imperial zeal for war and destruction. A good part of business-driven research is meant to heighten profits at the cost of risks to health, environment, and the livelihoods of persons who are entrenched in the demand or supply chains of corporate capital. A good part of state-driven research marks, maps, and names the fragile and the threatening – the difference in state-gaze determined by whether the entity inspires pity or fear. Hence, the tribal gets a protective push, the Maoist gets shot down. The wronged Muslim woman gets legal protection, the rebellious Islamic youth faces the strong fist. The logic of capital ensures that the researcher’s classic deep, long, and keen gaze often carries the mandates of states, corporations, and political or economic ideology. To remember the great philosopher of Western modernity, Michel Foucault, the myriad taxonomies of modern science, technology, and social science were the nodes of power with which rule in European liberal democracies was made possible. Populations were made legible in all their hidden properties to the ruler, just as sexualities and bodily truth-claims made possible a consolidated, knowable self – one that translated into the individuated citizen. As much as a poetic rendition of the skylark and the daffodil supports a universalism that is available mostly to the poet himself, the scientific or research-driven unpacking of the daffodil sustains a different grade of universalism that exists primarily for the consumption of knowledge systems and operators thereof. I spoke in the previous article on crowds and the ‘intellectual’, about the intellectual weaving of utopias having impacts quite different from what the intellectual imagines they would have on the presumed actors of such utopia – namely peasants, workers, and other merry-makers. It is pertinent to elaborate here the powerful aesthetic with which the researcher weaves her utopia, aided by the expert use of her sharp, keen gaze, empowered albeit by G.P.S., binoculars, and camera, operates in much the same way.

The sharp, keen gaze for long stretches of time, very often decades, yields for the researcher a grade of value, quite unlike the surplus, imagined by Marx, wrung out of the capitalistic exploitation of raw material and human skill and imagination. The researcher renders value - be it the rarity of the crustacean or the efficacy of democratic elections - that might gratify the mandate of state, capital, or research institute that she serves under. But, she manages to eke out value parallel to ‘results’ or ‘conclusions’ – sort of like by-products. She alters the domain of being human, even if ever so slightly. She says back to the world, we are now human in a world where we can imagine N+1th rare species of crustacean. It alters ever so slightly the terms of being human in the imagined neighbourhood world of things, beings, gods and associated beings.

I am a researcher. I gaze at human subjects, who for the most part, turn a squirming gaze back at me. They tell me I eat too little, my Bengali is weird, and that I must have read Tagore in the translated version. I construct an aesthetic out of curious wheelings and dealings and call it a finding. They, perhaps, call it – being. They gossip about my unkempt hair and the uncertainty of my marital status. They carry out as much anthropology on me as I carry out on them. On a given day, I am irritated at their voices, sniggers, and gaits. On a given day, I am charmed. On a given day, they find me pretty; on another, they call me ‘mousie’. I penetrate tunnels in search of their pristine inside. They gaze at me for a flash of a mythical outside. On most days, I am left with bewildering thoughts about who is researching whom. This is probably not true of those that gaze at genomic structure and the erosion of rocks. Or maybe it is. Maybe the rocks gaze back at the geologist and the seeds at the genetic scientist? Maybe there is a counter-narrative of the geologist among her rocks? Is the dichotomous creation of subject and object as cleanly spelt out, as the technicians of knowledge would have us believe? The beings of rocks are translated into legible facts of the already existing grammar of geological sciences.

The human gaze is at the core of textual, political, and aesthetic practice. This unitary gaze presumes the silence of the object. It fetishises, loves, hates, shapes, destroys, protects, fragments, unites what it observes. It fits the observed back into a wider historical schema of the observed world that we have come to inhabit - the imagined neighbourhood of planet, meteor, crustacean, husband, lover, boss. A rock must be understood, because it is a familiar actor in the ecosystems of mountains and rivers and poetry and art that we already know about. A rock must be rendered legible and ‘mappable’ in the existing grammar of hard things that make the substratum of the world, in which we must consider ourselves to be nested. A rock must be known in a way as it is rendered our neighbour.


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