The Betrayal of the Intellectual and Les Nouveau Intellectuals

Delivered in a form of TEDx Talk at UPES, Dehradun

 

As a scientist, I tend to recognize patterns in the universe which are evident enough to be systematically analysed. Upon systematic analysis, I derive judgments on the basis of my observations and the work of my peers or other scientists before me. 

From the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first-century, one can see patterns appearing in the behaviour of people around the globe. There is an evident but frightening rise of populism and fascism in the name of nationalism across nations led by Political Strongmen. The recent cases of the American presidential elections, Brexit, and the rise of Indian nationalist belligerence cannot be ignored. All of us are now following the French elections which could set the grounds for the future of the European Union. 

Observing these patterns, one cannot overlook the tremendous rise of intolerance around the globe where some beliefs, however baseless and ignorant, are held with strong convictions and pitted against other public reasons. We see a clear overlay of propaganda beneath which lies the reality of society. The propaganda sought by these Strongmen is to create an image of problems requiring an immediate need for a public response (often violent in nature), which in reality contradicts and overshadows problems that are worth solving. 

The errors one usually makes is to attribute some logic to the mass hysteria instigated by populists, a logic which it does not possess, or to see it as a logical end which is based on reason.

This kind of propaganda I argue has a common base- the publicity of an extraordinary optimism with an awfully pessimistic view of the current status of social construct, and the urgency to right every wrong that has been done in the past. This kind of despotism is established in an uncanny fashion, disguised as liberty, where powerful rhetoric muffles the thought of the public and causes mass values to shift constantly. For those of us who would like to believe that state led propaganda is a myth and therefore harmless, it would be useful to remember that it was the state led Nazi propaganda that ultimately led to the systematic annihilation of millions of Jews in the 1940s. It would also do us good to remember that state led propaganda that led to the post 9/11 wars has caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people since 2002 in Afghanistan and Iraq. The current Syrian immigrant crisis has been portrayed as a danger to the Western world through the use of created propaganda and hysteria.

Rhetoric created by regimes to fuel their own machinery can be incendiary and apocalyptic in the way it sways the media and the masses into believing blindly. 

There is another pattern that I recognize- the Strongmen are fools as they should be and yet they are able to influence the masses. Their ability to influence derives from the betrayal of the public by the intellectuals. By aligning themselves with the establishment, the intellectuals have become beneficiaries and in turn have severely betrayed society. As a result of their conspicuous betrayal, we can see a shift in the world order which is becoming increasingly hungry for authoritarianism. 

We have seen a rise of formidable egotists who are firm in their assertion to control the political lives of people of their country and crackdown domestic dissent and these intellectuals have become custodians of their populist agendas. 

The reason why I assert that intellectuals have betrayed society is that, they have been the agents convincing masses using the authority of their voice and influence that society needs to act in response to a problem which is projected as worth solving. 

Examples of such betrayers have been quite common in past few decades. Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington from the US have been frequently criticized for their pro-establishment stand. Traditional intellectuals like Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar for instance in India, with their pro-establishment approach have been quite evidently become the beneficiaries of the state, and in my opinion have betrayed the people who instil their faith in them. So has been the case of Dalits and Muslims in India, their thought leaders have betrayed them on several occasions for personal benefits which include several Ulemas and Ambedkar himself. 

We are at a very dangerous edge as a civilization today. We have created an image of Barbarians and we perpetually wait for their arrival poised between fear and attack. But as Coetzee famously stated, in the end we have become the barbarians we fear. We have compromised humanity at the cost of a populist utopian vision and forgotten that our society is a harmony of separate notes. The prima facie question is- aren’t all utopias but impossible dreams or in our case, a nightmare?

We now ask ourselves why the intellectuals have betrayed society. A straightforward answer could be because it is comfortable and beneficial to be pro-establishment. It takes immense amount of courage to stand against popular belief with reasons that the masses refuse to acknowledge. The intellectuals of today and the past have made trysts with establishments in order to be on the safer sides whereas an absolute contrary stand was expected from them. 

Who are these Intellectuals that I mention here? Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci divides intellectuals in two categories. Traditional intellectuals such as teachers, priests and bureaucrats who from generation to generation continue to perform the same function in society. The other intellectual, Gramsci argues is an Organic intellectual who is directly connected to the enterprise, engaged with the vital reality of society and are often used as minions of the establishment to organize interest and gain more power. 

On the other side is Julian Benda’s intellectual who is a high and mighty philosopher king claiming that, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The third and more recent perspective is given by Palestine born American thinker Edward Said. Said’s intellectual is an outsider, an amateur and the disturber of the status quo. He continues to say that an intellectual is an unashamed and uncompromising secularist who speaks truth to power, to whom no worldly power is too big to be criticized. 

The intellectual that I advocate here is not an individual but a class, not in the English sense of the word but the French Les Intellectuals which is a pluralistic term. Les Nouveau Intellectuals (The New Intellectual), I argue is not an individual who according to Said is an outsider but an insider who lives in the public sphere and speaks for the public in the public. The New Intellectual is a body of individuals questioning the status quo, raising concerns and voices of dissent and for whom ‘speaking out’ is of crucial importance. Les Nouveau Intellectuals  should emerge as a new class in the social hegemony if we are to survive the modern age of populism, totalitarianism and fascism. 

Pascal Ory & François Sirinelli have argued that the intellectual is no longer defined by what he is as a function or a status, but by what he does in his interventions in the public sphere. Ory & Sirinelli’s argument also stands for the class of intellectual I mention in this essay. This new class should emerge out of the immense underutilized human potential spread across the globe comprising of people who are not afraid of asking unconformable and often embarrassing questions for the benefit of a larger purpose. 

For such intellectuals, boundaries and nations are not geographical and they are humanists first under any state of dilemma. They should bear witness to their will to transcend their opinions. Les Nouveau Intellectuals is to me an act of revenge, a measure of overcoming fate as Camus puts it, by imposing a form upon it. This kind of rebellion doesn’t require demonstration but a public dialogue which is sustainable in its very essence and is a necessary condition for this class to prosper. 

It is upon the youth to take the baton, rather snatch it from the betrayers and steady the cradle of human civilization by overcoming the times of moral crisis in which we live. It is up to the youth, Les Nouveau Intellectuals, to become custodians of liberal thought and freedom, of equality and most importantly and above all- humanity. 

The world is at a crossroad and it is impossible to avoid the truth at this crossroad. We have to walk out of the comforts which insulate us form harsh realities. We have to let that quotidian slip away and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. This is the function Les Nouveau Intellectuals should perform in the society. 

This, I believe, is the greatest hinge period in the history of humanity where we have unprecedented power and means to create a public voice and we will be judged by how we handle ourselves in this time.

I should also warn Les Nouveau Intellectuals that sooner or later, they will also find themselves at a crossroad where the choice would either be to succumb to the enemy’s satisfaction and change themselves and become hate filled, illiberal half-brothers of the populists or to become guardians of the contemporary world, to go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice.

These times will not only shape what would become of the Les Nouveau Intellectuals but will also test their mettle. 

The Italian medieval poet, Dante has warned us that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. The choice between heaven and hell is entirely up to us.

Are we alone in the Universe?

Are we alone in the universe? No, perhaps. Who knows? When this question strike Dr Enrico Fermi, Nobel Physicist, it became the famous debate between philosophers and physicists popularly known as Fermi’s Paradox. It is basically a philosophical exposition that since the origin of the universe, probabilistically of course, there could have been at least ten thousand stars in our galaxy alone to develop optimal conditions for what we understand as an intelligent life. Taking the probability further, we find that there could have been at least a thousand intelligent civilizations by now which could have developed necessary technology for extragalactic, or at least intra-galactic exploration.

We know from the mathematics here that there could have been at least a hundred far advanced civilizations in our galaxy alone. It that is the case then why haven’t we been contacted yet? And as Fermi famously asked his colleagues in the Los Alamos Laboratory, “Where are they?”

His question not only stirred the physics community but also the general public and fiction writers thus, kind of, starting an era where books were based on a civilization based on an exoplanet or a different galaxy. Mr. Spock became a hero of that age.

Modern physicists argue the nature of contact. Carl Sagan was the pioneer who argued the importance of contact following which the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) mission got great support not only from NASA but the United States Government. This was the time when United Nations established a Dept. for Outer Space Affairs. Sceptics like Stephen Hawking argue that the extra-terrestrials might be preying for resources. Thus, our efforts in trying to contact “THEM” might be curse in disguise.

There is a huge amount of research happening in the field, but one cannot argue on solid grounds that they might exist. I am not an fan of controversial theorist Eirich von Daniken who argued that we are seeded by extraterrestrial beings on Earth as a part of an experiment but he lacked basis. No logical dialogue can be based on euphoria alone.

With the emergence of string theory, we came to understand that there can be many more dimensions than just the four we know. This led controversial theorist argue that there can exist higher dimensional beings, who might influence the physical phenomenon, you can recall the gravitational anomalies in the movie Interstellar, but cannot appear comprehensible to us.

The mathematicians argue that despite the rigor of mathematics and refined calculations with the Drake’s equation which narrows down the probabilistic factors to real numbers, the absence of an alien signal is spooky.

It is arguable whether the aliens, as we call them in popular culture, exist or not but I believe it would be a shame if we were alone in the vast expanse of light. Life has to be a property of the universe. If that is not the case and if we are really alone in the universe then it is both fascinating and terrifying thing at the same time.

And here we are..

 

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And here we are, fourteen billion years after the cosmic burst, standing on the shores of cosmic ocean and trying to unveil the Universe.

We are the Pythagoreans, the semantics, skeptics, and rishis looking up in the sky and astounding ourselves. For ages we have been amazed by the mere question surrounding the brilliant cosmos. From the blazing sun to the interstellar medium, we have tried to explain phenomenon with our incredibly limited knowledge.

As Seneca mentioned in his Naturalium Questionum Libri, The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come when the memory of us will have been effaced… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.” Don’t you think it is even true for our age?

The cosmos that was, that is and that will be here even after the human race vanishes from the face of the earth, it will  remain inconceivable for any civilization in the vast expanse of light.

Of Poetry

If I were asked to compare poetry with a city, I think I will be confident about Anastasia. As Italo Calvino says, “the description of Anastasia awakens desire one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you, The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and on which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhibit this desire and be content. Such is power, sometimes malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; your labour which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.”

You, as poet, or a reader, are just poetry’s slave. You think you are enjoying it, your perceptions take forms, and misty winds caress your bosom, tress sing their sorrow to the night, skies fall on the demise of a lover in Venice, and perhaps you become everything that is not including yourself. For you the world becomes less foreign, you feel less alienated, less extremely other perhaps and all that is created in your mind by this treacherous mist called poetry.

I wonder if Aristotle was right in saying that the basis of all poetry is metaphor. Nothing can be freshly seen in itself until it is seen first as something else. It is this image making that now, perhaps unifies world poetry and its readers.
We live in an age of modern poetry. Before we take the argument further we need to expound upon this ‘modern’ age of ours. Since the evolution of the art of writing there have been as many modernities and antiquities as there are epochs and societies: the Aztecs were moderns compared to the Olmecs, as Alexander was to Amenophis IV.

The “modernist” poetry of Rubén Darío was an antique for the ultraists, and futurism now strikes us more as a relic than an aesthetic. The modern age, said Ocatvio Paz in his Berkley Tanner Lecture,  cannot help but be tomorrow’s antiquity, But for the moment we have to resign ourselves and accept that we live in the modern age, conscious of the fact that the label is both ambivalent and provisional.

That brings us to the main argument of how one should consider a poetic work.

I am of an opinion that we are to consider poetry in its essence, and apart from the flaws which in most poems accompany their poetry. We are to include in the idea of poetry the metrical form, and not to regard this as a mere accident or a mere vehicle.

And, finally, poetry being poems, we are to think of a poem as it actually exists; and, without aiming here at accuracy, we may say that an actual poem is the succession of experiences—sounds, images, thoughts, emotions—through which we pass when we are reading as poetically as we can.

Of course this imaginative experience—if I may use the phrase for brevity—differs with every reader and every time of reading: a poem exists in innumerable degrees. But that insurmountable fact lies in the nature of things.

I wish to drag your attention towards the consideration of ulterior ends, that is whether by the poet in the act of composing or by the reader in the act of experiencing, tends to lower poetic value.

It does so because it tends to change the nature of poetry by taking it out of its own atmosphere.

As a mentioned earlier, its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world, but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality.

Thus, no doubt, one main reason why poetry has poetic value for us is that it presents to us in its own way something which we meet in another form in nature or life; and yet the test of its poetic value for us lies simply in the question whether it satisfies our imagination; the rest of us, our knowledge or conscience, for example, judging it only so far as they appear transmuted in our imagination.

1 believe, to anyone who reads poetry poetically and who closely examines his experience.

When you are reading a poem, I would ask—not analysing it, and much less criticizing it, but allowing it, as it proceeds, to make its full impression on you through the exertion of your recreating imagination—do you then apprehend and enjoy as one thing a certain meaning or substance, and as another thing certain articulate sounds, and do you somehow compound these two? Surely you do not, any more than you apprehend apart, when you see someone smile, those lines in the face which express a feeling, and the feeling that the lines express. Just as there the lines and their meaning are to you one thing, not two, so in poetry the meaning and the sounds are one: there is, if I may put it so, a resonant meaning, or a meaning resonance.

And poetry, if we ‘do’ it, we do it wrong, and we defeat our own purposes, when we try to bend it to them, the readers for it is as the air invulnerable, and our vain blows malicious mockery.

It is a spirit. It comes we know not whence. It will not speak at our bidding, nor answer in our language. It is not our servant; it is our master.

Dr Kalam: Personal Remembrance

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

Dr. Kalam left us this evening. He was much too human to look like an activist, which he was in his quiet non-intrusive way.

Kalam Sahab was one of those few persons, whose mere existence made a difference to the environment – it became a little more caring, slightly less mean, somewhat ashamed of being too acquisitive and more anxious to recognize worth. One of his failings was that he never said unpleasant things about others – even those who were obnoxiously unpleasant. This did not mean that his approval or otherwise did not become clear to those who came to know him.

I first saw Dr. Kalam when he was delivering a Public Lecture at Indian Science Center about building a new nation with scientific advancement. I was then a B. Tech student at Anand Engineering College. I think that was my first encounter with a person who truly understood things and had a passion for making others understand. I was overwhelmed by his facility to teach, to explain. His style was conversational even though his lectures were logically organized.

I have had the privilege of Dr. Kalam’s good wishes and blessings all my life, although we met only a couple of times. Sometimes I wonder why he was so kind to me, or why I felt that I knew him intimately, in spite of the fact that I never did any science with him. Relation with him was more filial – parent child – rather than teacher–student.

In between we did not see each other for years. But it was a joy whenever we did. In many discussions on communication and development he eloquently and passionately urged the need to combine various spirits and ideas of great men. He sought spirituality in many.

I remember some discussions initiated by him on the question of brain and mind. I was more inclined to the notion of their coupling being of the same nature as that of a supercomputer with its software. Different softwares lead to different personalities. Software has the property of self-renewal, hardware not so much.

From some of the discussion above one might get the impression that he had a tendency to be lost in mists and whirls of philosophy. That would be wrong. The quality of his engagement with nuts and bolts of problems, while staying in the universe of compassion and human concern.
I could go on and on. But this is not the place.Dr. Kalam, may your soul rest in peace.

Transformation of Indian Universities

It has become fashionable on the part of some people to proclaim that our education is substandard – right from school level to the highest university level. We do make a concession in this regard for a few brand name institutions like IITs and IIMs. Also, some private universities and institutes that spend enormous resources to advertise on television and other media about their great prowess, their scholarship and placement schemes and occasional foreign teachers associated with them as honorary professors. Names of these institutions get to be known like some brands of toothpaste, hair creams, soaps for fighting dandruff and other beauty aids. Our great communication revolution is mostly propagating such educationally useful information. And all this employs much talent and script writing and definitely adds to our GNP.

I find urge, passion and curiosity – particularly curiosity that unfortunately withers away with age. There is will to learn and also to go off in tangential directions which, they often cannot.

Learning of our students in schools and colleges is imprisoned in disciplines and does not allow wandering around their interests and passions as they develop. They are also circumscribed by our examination system and forced to compete in mindless races to get high marks. To help in competitions we have a large industry of coaching classes, which is very effective in killing curiosity and creativity.

Meandering through subject areas should be positively encouraged, not prohibited. We should remove all obstructions against such meandering and discipline crossing.

Schools, colleges and universities should become effervescent places, exploring and often going in different directions. They should be noisy places, not dead quiet. Demand for absolute uniformity turns students and teachers into stones that need to be polished and cut the same way. Young humans should not be subjected to such benevolent aggression.

All that I have said above is highly desirable and we have to eliminate all impediments against movement towards a life of discovery and exploration. We should realize that, while information can be delivered, each child creates its knowledge almost autonomously.

What must we do to encourage a freedom movement for education?   

  • Universities should be academically autonomous.
  • They should work independently or in cooperation with other colleges and universities.
  • No organization should lord over them.
  • No one in UGC, AICTE or other such councils should give them orders or enforce courses of study.
  • Such courses should be developed autonomously or by working together with other academics anywhere in the world.
  • Diversity should not frighten us.
  • No university can be great if it is just a cubical for a single discipline. There is none such in the world. Many of them might have started as disciplinary institutes in engineering, humanities or as seminaries of one kind or another but their greatness started when they burst out to cover a large universe of knowledge. Indeed then they truly became universities. This can be said of places like MIT, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, Paris and many others.
  • We have a large explosion of professional colleges and universities which have very little to do with philosophy, linguistics, psychology, making or writing poetry or worrying about the bulk of people living in a world of poverty, discrimination and oppression.
  • Our IIT’s and Institutes of Management can graduate into the class of great universities if they venture out to include subjects in humanities and sciences.
  • We have a large number of institutions called Deemed Universities. Fate of many of them is uncertain. It is unlikely that they would generate and spin out ideas that might change the world – or India for that matter.

I feel that we have the means and the temperament to transform many of our institutions to be really great. If there were such places sprinkled in the country they would infect the whole climate.

I believe some replacement has to happen between the impenetrable walls and boundaries with two-way permeable membranes in following areas:

 

  1. Walls between Universities and Research Laboratories, between Industry and Academic Institutions.

 

  1. Walls between the Subterranean Learning and Innovation and Formal Education and Research.

 

  1. Walls between Disciplines and the resulting Infertility of Information. How not to imprison ourselves in Disciplines.

 

  1. Walls between Instructing and Learning from Children:

 

  1. Thick Walls between Intellectual Understanding and Societal Brain Washing.

 

 

Voices of Man

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Echo is all what I can hear now, reverberating in the depths of my heart but it resounds nothing for there is no voice to be resounded, no thought.

Echo has an unsung voice, the voice muddled amongst many such voices. The voice of the wind, the cry of the rain, murmuring of autumn leaves when they caress the ground.

O! Voices are beautiful!

How beautiful are the voices when they come in a herd and silence ushers them through my eyes as I see them. I see the voices. I see them in their nakedness.

There are seven voices of the man.

The voice of the lips; a language that is superimposed on the psyche of the man. He may or may not like it but he has to live with it. Those of lower wisdom adapt the voice of the lips as their voice. They think in that voice, a language in thoughts, and their body is shrouded in words and phrases, poetry and prose. Their voice is speech less, they may have words but the language of lips can never have speech for it belongs to those of higher wisdom.

Second voice is the voice of the eyes. This voice tells you what is real and what is not. It works bilaterally, for you and for the other but you must remember that its speech is deceiving. Although you can’t do but rely on the voice of the eyes but you must observe that what you see is just not what you see, there are many things beyond it. You see what they want you to see. Beware of the second voice.

Third voice is the voice of hands. Hands tell stories. The stories of your tears, pains, craving, passion, mourning, indifference and loneliness, they say what the other voices cannot. The voice of the touch, the voice of warmth, of communion, voice that remains forever with you such is the voice of hands.

The fourth voice is the voice of the breath. It slays you slowly. It has a very husky voice and a loud one too, it is everywhere. The voice of the breath speaks to you from every single fragment of your body. It’s inside and outside. It covers you. The fourth voice is your own voice. When tears sleep upon your eyes and lips resound nothing but a fathomless echo, the fourth voice, the voice of breath speaks to you deep in your persona and reveals the darkest secrets of nature’s heart in your heart.

The fifth voice is the voice of your heart. When it speaks to you, it fills you totally. It is quite overpowering voice. When your heart speaks to you, you can only hear him speak as if all other voices have been captured and crucified. The voice of your heart is very deceiving of all other voices. It plays with your emotions and you dance upon the rhythm of murmuring of your heart. Lucifer once smoked my breath in my heart and I was turned into a fathomless warrior, a filthy giant with no sympathies even for God. I was commanded by the voice of my heart, blood raced into my eyes, they started burning and then I was a conqueror.

The sixth voice is the voice of your mind. This voice is a mirror to your own understanding of the self referral consciousness whether you adapt what is fed unto you or you question gets dictated by the voice of your mind. It makes, bends and destroys rules that you or the society has induced in your personality. This is the most raucous of the other voices. It gives you judgement and other higher virtues for you to hold reign and ride upon them. It gives you feathers to fly but it takes from you the strength of flying, it gives the path to walk on but it takes from you the will to walk. The voice of your mind is just a voice. It doesn’t possess a body of its own; it’s a parasite on your body. Your mind surrounds you like an aura; it never sits in your head which is why it is ever changing. You can listen to the voice of your mind but you can’t rely on it. How can one see what he speaks until he knows what he thinks?

The highest and the most sublime of all voices is the seventh voice, the voice of wisdom.

This voice is rationally neutral. It never takes sides, it never judges, it will never ask you anything so shall it would never tell you anything. The voice of wisdom just observes. It observes days as they fall and nights as they grieve. It has no sides. This voice is the voice of the true self and by true self I don’t mean God, I mean you. You are the true self, the most glorious one but you don’t know because you are crowded by other voices. They are all around you, the way fragrance surrounds the flower and flower remains unaware of its fragrance.  You have to shut all other voices to listen the silence of your wisdom because wisdom never speaks.

I took a long breath before invading the battleground.

My breath was racing. I sensed my sword was getting heavier and my hand lighter. I could see my body expanding to its full strength, I roared aloud.

Skull, bones, flesh and blood filled the valley.

I stood there unperturbed. I had immense heat in my eyes and my limbs burnt with desire. I forced my eyelids to close.

I am calm now.

The Centre of Cyclone is always Calm.

 

 

Silence.