Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Three most recent CARE PhDs: Courage, Care, and Commitment

On July 19, Thursday, three of my most recently defended advisees will walk in the Commencement Ceremony at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Each of these three PhDs embody the ethic of the culture-centered approach (CCA), living and negotiating through structures to create anchors for change.

Every doctoral advisor is proud of her students. My pride in my students goes beyond this sense of having worked closely together for over three years and witnessing the completion of a significant project to having an immense sense of gratitude in being able to work with graduate students that embody the values of the CCA: courage, care, and commitment.

Dr. Gui Kai Chong, a superbly gifted teacher, the anchor for many of the students in the Department of Communications and New Media (CNM), came to work with me while serving as a full-time instructor.

To be a full-time instructor is to teach a large load of courses. This is something Kai Chong excels in, delivering each course with care, passion, and joy. His students have often unanimously evaluated him as the best teacher, and he has won many accolades for being such a powerful teacher. I have often been amazed at the number of CNM students that refer to Kai Chong as a point of reference in their life journey. When Kai Chong came to work with me, he was negotiating and juggling a wide array of commitments, from the familial to the professional. His work on meanings of news among Singaporeans breaks new ground, contributing to how we come to think of news in the broader context of Singapore. The completion of this project, drawing on a series of in-depth interviews and auto-ethnographic field notes, was also a powerful testimony to his commitment. The hardships and challenges thrown by an authoritarian culture that often marginalizes by stigmatizing did not shake his commitment to completing the PhD, and doing so with rigor and elegance.

Dr. Ee Lyn Tan joined CNM as an Instructor to lead the journalism classes after a very successful journey with prestigious news agencies globally. Her many years of journalism experience was central to the focus on journalism she created and the industry interfaces she built. As a journalist, Ee Lyn had covered the exposure to toxins in workplaces in China, documenting the health effects of these toxic exposures. This research-advocacy on the health effects of toxin exposure and strategies for securing treatment among workers became the topic of her dissertation. Finding time between her intense teaching assignments, she spent working with workers exposed to toxins and labour groups collaborating with these workers. The work was not only rigorous but dangerous, amid structures that could quickly respond strongly to the work. The advocacy component of the research, gathering stories, situating them with the scientific evidence, and supporting legal articulations for claims made by workers embody the ethic of courage with which Ee Lyn lives her life, professionally and personally.

Dr. Pauline Luk joined CARE as a graduate student during its years of formation in NUS. The early years of CARE needed nurturing and care, with a lot of attention to be paid to the relationships and partnerships being built. Pauline worked tirelessly to build these connections, spending precious hours with visiting faculty, community partners, and community members. If a visitor needed support navigating Singapore, she would be the first one to volunteer. If a scholar needed support with translation during an interview conducted in Mandarin, she would be right there. This cultivation of relationships became the guiding principle for CARE as a space, with the ethic of care as embodied practice. One would walk into the CARE lab and experience solidarity, support, and encouragement. Pauline's dissertation on the convergences and divergences between traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and biomedicine in Singapore is an exploration of the negotiations of care amid structures of state organizing of health.

These values of commitment, courage, and care have come to form the foundations of what we do at the Center, cognizant of the ways in which we fall short while keeping these values in mind. Our students teach and cultivate often for us the values that become our guiding lights.

Thank you Kai Chong, Ee Lyn, and Pauline, and Congratulations!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Resistance, change, and development: The story of Jangalmahal

My work in Santali communities in what is now described as Jangalmahal started in the mid-1990s, attempting to understand the communicative production of marginalization. This work was driven by the questions: What is the role of communication in producing material marginalizations of Santalis? How does communication work to reproduce these forms of marginalization? What are the imaginaries of resistance articulated in the backdrop of such marginalization?

These questions and the emerging ideas formed the bases of the culture-centered approach (CCA), attending to the role of communication as an instrument for perpetuating power and for reproducing the marginalization of indigenous communities. The communicative disenfranchisement of indigenous communities is deeply intertwined with their material disenfranchisement. The struggles against displacement, exploitation, and erasure from sites of access to resources mirror the indignities, stigmas, and erasures experienced by Santalis.

Between 2008 and 2012, Jangalmahal witnessed resistance organizing across various spaces. Our community-engaged work of building infrastructures for democratic participation took the form of witnessing the violence, the role of the state, and the many ways in which resistance emerged in this backdrop. While the resistance was narrativized in an essentialized story of Maoist violence, the ongoing fieldwork of CARE points to a much more complex story, with multiple sites of voice making and story telling.

In the post-2012 work of CARE in Jangalmahal, we have been collaborating with Santali communities in building communicative infrastructures for voice. The struggles for voice and democratic opportunities for participation present ongoing challenges in the backdrop of a development model that is targeted specifically at the margins of Jangalmahal. The following piece co-authored with Dr. Subhasish Ray outlines this ongoing struggle for voice in the backdrop of the state-driven development model.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Claims to social justice and academic life

Let's consider this narrative account:

Thanuja left her long cherished position as an Administrative Manager in an academic department because the harassment she was being subjected to by a clique of academics was becoming untenable. She had held this job for a decade and knew her job well. Her colleagues enjoyed working with her because they trusted her competence and assertiveness. Faculty members relied on her for getting things done.

Things quickly changed when the clique started coming in and forming itself. The clique felt that a non-academic should not have so much say. It was threatening to see the degree of trust Thanuja enjoyed. She had to be cut to size and shown her position as a non-academic.

Threatening emails. Insults couched as instruction. Insults in face-to-face meetings. Public shaming. Shouting at Thanuja, and taking turns shouting. Reminding her she is not an academic.

The everyday stress was taking a toll on her body.

The academics would come in like a pack of wolves ready for the hunt, subjecting her to various forms of insults, calling her names, telling her she is incompetent, and accusing her of fabricating things. They would perform as if in a well-rehearsed play, with the script being mapped out, finding various phrases and scenarios to insult her.

Thanuja found herself in a situation where she could not breathe and the very idea of going to work suffocated her. The stress of the harassment was moving through the fabric of her cells. She shared these accounts with the Head of College Administration. She even filed a complaint, which took all her energy to do.

The academics who were carrying out the attacks on Thanuja called themselves social justice scholars, and made careers out of writing about social justice. Other academics who watched this scenario unfold called themselves Cultural Studies scholars. Yet other academics who silently observed these everyday harassments were Critical Theorists.

Thanuja's account is not so unfamiliar for many of us in academe.

Our theorization of social justice, activism, social change is often so deeply separated from our everyday practices in academe that we don't pause to consider the everyday contexts of the oppressions we participate in and perpetuate.

In other instances, the performance of the social justice position simply becomes a branding strategy, a strategy of self promotion, far removed from our everyday interactions. We live this lie so deeply that we seduce ourselves into believing the jargon we spout while participating in these very forms of everyday oppression.

A great starting point for social justice scholarship is to reflect upon the immediate context of our everyday life in academia. The mistreatment of non-academics by academics and the protection of their own class interests by academics is a critical site of intervention for social justice work.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

On "closed door meetings" and totality of control

One of the forms of totalitarian control is the control over discursive spaces and sites of knowledge production.

The totality of control is achieved through the tools of surveillance, systematic management, and manipulation of academic spaces, constructed within the logics of state and market power.

The market reigns precisely through the arms of the state that give legitimacy to forms of resource extraction in the hands of private capital. The state, thus reorganized as a capitalist tool, legitimizes various forms of control through explicit communicative tools such as policies as well as implicit tools that set the expectations of communication.

One such tool of totalitarian control exerted over knowledge production is research calibration. Research calibration works as a method for aligning academic work with the agendas of the state, setting implicitly the limit imposed on what can be studied, how studies are conducted, and the ways in which studies are circulated.

For instance, "closed door meetings" are legitimized as informal processes through which academics can contribute to policy and lend their work to social change. However, the very formulation of "closed door policies" is situated within the ambits of power, legitimizing various forms of state control as the necessary tools for managing the generation and reproduction of knowledge. The closing of the door on the findings and how they are shared offers the state the tool for deploying knowledge to fulfil its agenda of totalitarian control. This is further complicated when public funds are deployed toward the funding of the academic work.

Knowledge thus formulated achieves the totality of control, albeit under the guise of social change.

Friday, July 6, 2018

CARE's activist-in-residence program: Resisting structures

CARE collaborators activists Vanessa Ho & Sherry Sherqueshaa
The CCA begins with the recognition that to address health inequalities, unhealthy structures need to be fundamentally transformed. Without changing these highly unequal structures, the overarching conditions that threaten the health of the poorest and the most marginalized remain intact. The health inequalities persist because the structures continue to threaten the health of the most vulnerable, producing precarious conditions of life and livelihood.

As an explicit framework for communicating for health equity then, the CCA brings about a paradigm shift in traditional health communication. Acknowledging the limits of behaviour change programs that individualize health risks, the CCA shifts the role of communication to advocacy directed explicitly at resisting and transforming structures.

CARE's activist-in-residence program models this framework of social change communication as integral to the transformation of structures. The Center's activist-in-residence brings in conversations about various aspects of social structures that directly threaten human health and wellbeing. For instance, the sexual violence that is often built into Asian patriarchal structures and promoted through various institutional and organizational processes is fundamentally threatening to human health and wellbeing, and is resisted through the work of communication as advocacy. Similarly, everyday forms of abuse of domestic workers in Asian cosmopolitan economies such as Singapore is actively resisted through a framework of Rights that disrupts that authoritarian city state's silencing of rights.

These forms of communication conceptualized as activism are integral to the transformation of structures that constrain, threaten, and fundamentally harm the health of those at the margins.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Resistance and neoliberal cultural studies

It is increasingly fashionable for a certain brand of Cultural Studies to declare, "resistance is irrelevant."

This brand of cultural studies, I term as "neoliberal Cultural Studies," re-fashions cultural studies as superficial definition of cultural artefacts in the service of the global free market. Inherent here is the agenda of knowledge production to serve the neoliberal turn.

The surface-level description of cosmopolitanism, hybridity, and cultural heritages in global markets is re-worked into the ideology of the free market, depicting the collaborative possibilities that are opened up through the expansion of the free market. Culture, and the knowledge about culture, in this depiction is worked into the global logics of the free market. Depictions of contexts and objects immersed in these contexts uncritically reproduce market-driven logics describing global flows.

Depictions of consumption practices for instance offer celebratory narratives of the opportunities opened up by the market. Celebratory depictions of churches as sites for market expansion in culturalist terms are peddled as Cultural Studies. Branding campaigns for Asian authoritarian regimes in terms of cultural heritage promotion are depicted in the language of cultural studies.

This celebratory promotion of the market logic goes hand-in-hand with the declaration that resistance is dead. Pronouncements about the futility of resistance strategies are re-invented as the new radical position under "neoliberal Cultural Studies."

The sustained attack on resistance in cultural studies is aligned with the overarching agenda of this grant-oriented, pragmatic turn in cultural studies to appeal to the market and thus establish its hegemony in the contemporary environment of the neoliberal expansion of the University. To write the death of resistance is to make oneself appealing to funders, to increasingly market-serving authoritarian states, and to private foundations.

To write the death of resistance is to turn culture and its production as an uncritical collaborative tools that serve the market.

Culture, defined in the economic logics of the market, can then be reproduced in branding campaigns, heritage marketing, city promotion, promotion of the arts, as an instrument that enables the global diffusion of the free market logic.

in sum, the removal of resistance from cultural studies enables its hegemonic turn, gutted from the radical possibilities imagined through cultural sites of creation. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

What do human rights have to do with health?

I was interrogated by the system, "What do human rights have to do with health communication?"

The culture-centered approach seeks to build communicative infrastructures for listening to the voices of the margins.

The communicative infrastructures serve as anchors to the articulation of transformative processes that challenge the unhealthy structures that constitute health. The recognition that the inequalities in health outcomes are often produced by highly unequal structures that are sustained and reproduced by unhealthy policies emerges as the basis for health communication as health advocacy.

In the voices of the margins, the challenges to health are often understood as challenges of human rights. Beginning with the notion that health is a fundamental human right, communities at the margins co-create advocacy strategies directed at resisting structures that deny them this fundamental human right.

As a way of responding to the interrogation, I went back to the method of the CCA, and asked some of our advisory group members in our advocacy work on poverty and transgender health on the relationship between health and human rights. One of our advisory board members, Sita [name changed] responded, "You should tell the structure, "Fuck you." Long gone is the time for explanation to the structure. You just make it change. It won't change without resistance. That's why it is with this language of human rights we continue resisting."