The Turban Emoji and Broadchurch’s Murderer

ldlA little while ago, when Apple introduced a new set of “more diverse” emoji, the response might be summed up best as :praise hands emoji:. In an era when the issue of representation seems to have come to the forefront, emoji became a symbol of a yearning in certain people to see themselves shown or depicted in that space out there we call the public. Because emoji are a mediating layer in communication, in expanding the range of this pictorial code we’ve become so accustomed to, we’ve also expanded the expressive range for our text chats, better reflecting the nuances of our multi-faceted lives. Or, um, something like that anyway.

As someone who has often expressed that same yearning to see myself in media and other forms of normative representation, I found myself agreeing. All the same, there were outliers. At Macleans, Adrian Lee argued that the assertion that emoji were white was a form of whitewashing itself, one that explicitly glossed over the Japanese and generally “Asian” roots of much of the iconography. More compellingly to my mind, however, Lee argued that:

Unlike most languages, less precision serves emoji better. Emojis’ generality is exactly why it’s taken off as a universal language, not necessarily the efforts of some secretive coding consortium. Emoji are our modern-day shibboleths—they’re defined not by colour, but by context.

The point: all representation is imperfect. When it comes to identity, there is no ideal representation, and particularly when we are dealing with generalities as broad as race or gender, less specificity allows for more expressive and interpretive wiggle room.

Me, I didn’t really give a shit either way. The perfect emoji for me has been there from the start.

The “turban guy emoji” is an absurdity. It depicts something certainly looks like the Sikh turban, but does so atop a clean-shaven face. It is, at least in terms of a particularly literalist take on representation, an “inaccuracy.” Which Sikh would keep a turban but shave? It makes no sense.

Obviously, then, it works perfectly for me. What it depicts is a “fake Sikh”—a Sikh who cannot be defined as one according to normative standards, but still gestures toward some kind of generalized idea of Sikh-ness. It’s the Sikh as it cannot be in real life, an identity hovering in impossibility, as the representation itself performatively instantiates its liminal existence. Or, um, something like that anyway.

But as diversity as An Issue becomes ever-more central, that difficult question of what constitutes “responsible” or, even more troublingly, “accurate” representation becomes more and more fraught. Already, I’m getting the vague sense that the demand for diversity—a call that, I should add, often comes from me—can often surreptitiously usher in essentialism, linking particular bodies with particular views. Worse, the move toward foregrounding positionality as the definining contextual frame for parsing the utterance is unsettling, fixing speech in relation to identity as if the whole messy game weren’t constantly in flux. As I said elsewhere, in what was the about the only sensible sentence I’ve ever written in my life, “The reality of being human cannot actually be found at identity positions, only in relation to them.”

It’s perhaps for this reason—to make a classically 2006 blog style jump in logic—that I was intrigued by the end of season one of Broadchurch. The dark, unsettling British murder mystery played out the usual tropes of the genre: a small town is rocked by the murder of a child, and rolls through a series of misdirection until, at last, the least likely character turns out to have done it. It’s true that by the time the series ends, it’s become obvious who the killer is, but the show does something that, to me, seemed quite interesting: it refuses to categorize the murderer.

In a piece of popular fiction depicting the murder of a child, the obvious thing to do is to compound shock upon shock—which of course means turning to pedophilia, what we consider to be our society’s most heinous crime. But without giving away too much, Broadchurch actually stops just shy of marking out a character as a pedophile, and even veers into a discomfiting depiction of a lost person that, if not quite sympathetic, makes neat classifications a little more difficult to draw.

The boon and curse of emoji is that more of them allow for better representation, but no amount is ever enough for truly satisfactory representation.The entire process of identification is too subjective to hold up accuracy or even symmetry as an ideal. But in the push for diversity or “better representation”—something that I think is unquestionably a good thing—there is an odd game at work in which there is a tension between specificity (“this character is just like me!”) and generality (“this character, who is nothing like me, is just like me!”). Lean too far one way and you get drab paint-by-numbers representation, lean too far the other way and you get boring liberal-humanist claptrap about how we’re truly all the same underneath.

A depiction of a not-quite-pedophile is hardly something to hold up as ideal. But Broadchurch as an aesthetic artefact may have in fact done something right. In suspending the “true nature” of a character in a time-to-come, it at least gestures to how representation should function: within a clear moral frame, but in which specific instances of people are unfinished, in flux, and ultimately, in the process of shifting between differing, flickering instantiations of themselves.

You know, just like cartoon emoji.

Idea #1: A Networked Moment of Silence

A dying man organizes via social media a listening session in which a small, vital group of people all across the world sit and listen to a song all at the same time. Nothing much is made of it, quite on purpose; some use it as background music, others sit  and reflect on what has been lost. Some think of their friend across the oceans who, carried by those very notes, is being lifted from one realm unto the next as, amidst candlelight and glasses of wine, people look meaningfully at both each other and nothing at all.

Dancing Behind the Tree of the Real

For all its cachet and global recognition now, I grew up hating Bollywood films. That’s not a terribly original thing for a ‘South Asian child of immigrants’ to say, but there you go. When I was young, I think I disliked them because I was relatively sure Hindi films were mostly comprised of middle aged women crying — every other scene containing a melodramatic reading of “Lekin, kyon beta? Kyon?” (But, why child? Why?) Aaand cue the histrionic weeping.

But when I got older and started to form opinions on culture and art, it was the lack of realism that bothered me most. While to this day I am no film connoisseur, it is still realism that appeals to me. My favourite films of the past few years (save Transformers 2) have all been largely understated, quiet, and most definitely unlike the typical spectacle of Bollywood.

And for whatever experiments in postmodernity and historiographic metafiction that have swept through literature, western film still seems generally committed to a vision of ‘realistic truth’ – or, in the case of fantasy or sci-if, at least internal coherence. To witness a mainstream Hindi film, then, with its generally blatant disregard for verisimilitude can be jarring for the western viewer. When one sees not only a song erupt mid film, but the characters move inexplicably to the Swiss alps, the B.C. Rockies or the streets of New York, it upsets one’s suspension of disbelief. The penchant for melodrama, the ‘absurd’ deployment of deus ex machina, the black and white construction of who is good and who is evil – all of it commits that great sin against realism: it abandons the everyday for the exaggerated and unbelievable in the service of spectacle.

But all of what I typed above also commits its own sin: it attempts to judge the aesthetic output of one socio-historical context by the standards of another. This is, generally speaking, a mistake. But though art and entertainment can occasionally be universal, they are mostly not, more often instead being products of the time, place and thought of the culture(s) from which they sprung.

Part of this has to do with the function a given work plays in a social context. Here’s Nirpal Dhaliwal in The Guardian (quoting a Sony India exec) explaining why Bollywood can seen so sprawling and scattered to non-Indian audiences:

“[Bollywood] has to appeal to a very wide demographic here. It’s not a finely segmented market like in Britain or America. Each film has to appeal to grandparents, parents, and children of various ages. Cinema is often the only entertainment choice Indians have, so it has to appeal to every member of the family as well as to different income, literacy levels, and various regional and language groups. It needs to please those who pay £5 in the multiplexes, but also those paying 10p in the lower stalls, who want overemphasis in the story and the acting, who want to whoop and clap.”

This need for inclusivity means that a typical Bollywood film is a romance, comedy, family saga and action movie rolled into one. That, Shridhar acknowledges, gives westerners the impression that they are “loosely written, meandering and don’t make sense”. But Indians are instinctively forgiving. “People will watch a film and know that the next 15 minutes isn’t going to be for them. It might be a dance sequence, or a ‘hand of God’ scene that’s for the grandma sat next to them. Bollywood films are more like a live circus or a variety show than a western three-act concept of a movie.”

That’s a little ungenerous, given how sophisticated the plotting and acting in mainstream Hindi film has become. But it does point out that the big Bollywood film is not ‘Indian Film’ as much as it is a genre or style, like the summer blockbuster or issue film. It is meant to perform a function in society, often becoming the common, shared space through which the Indian public processes issues, change and ideas. It also has to cut across demographics, the divisions of which in literacy and lifestyle are essentially inconceivable to a western audience. Understand that millions of  Indian cinema attendees also can’t rely on regular electricity or read the signs at the door when they enter. (Edit: and that hundreds of thousands arrive at the cinema in new, air-conditioned cars carrying iPhones and Blackberries.)

But there’s something else running under all this too. What does the commitment to realism get us? Why do we want art to be ‘truthful’?

That is of course far too large a question for me to answer. But it’s one that has permeated western discussions of art since Plato famously banished the poets. And one current that has consistently appeared is that art should ‘hold a mirror up to reality’, and in being shown the reflection, we recognize and learn something about ourselves and the world we live in.

But what underpins that idea is as straightforward as it is complex: there is an important relation between what is shown, what we see and what is true. We do, after all, ‘see the truth of the matter’ – not hear or smell it. The visual counts. What is true can be shown, and therefore, to show the true is important. It’s also based on the idea that, even within postmodern pluralism, we believe an honest film can show us some small something of what it is to be human.

In order to understand why this isn’t a culturally universal idea, I’m going to be a bit crazy and quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s take on the concept of two truths in various facets of early Buddhist, Indian thought. Honestly, you can skip the quote, but it seems right to at least put it here:

To sum up, though this entry provides just an overview of the theory of the two truths in Indian Buddhism discussed overview, it nevertheless offers us enough reasons to believe that there is no single theory of the two truths in Indian Buddhism. As we have seen there are many such competing theories, some of which are highly complex and sophisticated. The essay clearly shows, however, that except for the Prāsaṅgika’s theory of the two truths, which unconditionally rejects all forms of foundationalism both conventionally and ultimately, all other theories of the two truths, while rejecting some forms of foundationalism, embrace another form of foundationalism. The Sārvastivādin (or Vaibhāṣika) theory rejects the substance-metaphysics of the Brahmanical schools, yet it claims the irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms of the material category) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., point-instant consciousnesses) of the five basic categories as ultimate truths, which ground conventional truth, which is comprised of only reducible spatial wholes or temporal continua. Based on the same metaphysical assumption and although with modified definitions, the Sautrāntika argues that the unique particulars (svalakṣaṇa) which, they say, are ultimately causally efficient, are ultimately real; whereas the universals (sāmāṅyalakṣaṇa) which are only conceptually constructed, are only conventionally real. Rejecting the Ābhidharmika realism, the Yogācāra proposes a form of idealism in which which it is argued that only mental impressions are conventionally real and nondual perfect nature is the ultimately real. The Svātantrika Madhyamaka, however, rejects both the Ābhidharmika realism and the Yogācāra idealism as philosophically incoherent. It argues that things are only intrinsically real, conventionally, for this ensures their causal efficiency, things do not need to be ultimately intrinsically real. Therefore it proposes the theory which states that conventionally all phenomena are intrinsically real (svabhāvataḥ) whereas ultimately all phenomena are intrinsically unreal (niḥsvabhāvataḥ). Finally, the Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka rejects all the theories of the two truths including the one advanced by its Madhyamaka counterpart, namely, Svātantrika, on the ground that all the theories are metaphysically too stringent, and they do not provide the ontological malleability necessary for the ontological identity of conventional truth (dependent arising) and ultimate truth (emptiness). It therefore proposes the theory of the two truths in which the notion of intrinsic reality is categorically denied. It argues that only when conventional truth and ultimate truth are both conventionally and ultimately non-intrinsic, can they be causally effective.

Now this is all very complex, and only a tiny snippet, and I can’t at all claim to understand it in any thorough way. What you can get a sense of reading through it, though, is that the idea there is a one-to-one relationship between what we can be shown in reality and what is ‘ultimately or ‘unconventionally’ real is not the same in ‘Indian’ thought as it is in ‘Western’. The very fact that the theory is called ‘two truths’ is itself already a sign that we are working in a very different set of rules, one in which immanent, experienced reality is not the same thing as ultimate reality. If you’ve ever wondered why, as Pankaj Misra said in Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime, that Hindus can believe the immanent world is nothing, yet still be great capitalists, there you have at least the beginnings of an answer.

This, I admit, is a very circuitous way of saying the following: cultures are complicated, and the ways in which they construct their art are related to the ways in which they have constructed their thought. What constitutes the good in art or even entertainment is something that is part of the swirling, unstable mess that is a cultural context. And it’s not like culture is ‘a thing’, fixed and unchanging. It is an ongoing set of practices, beliefs, languages and ideas that all together form a dynamic force that is itself both a product and producer of history. And if how you judge art is about what you like and what you think is right, then judging is is mostly a culturally specific act. Bollywood, like any cultural product, is working within that specificity — and, when possible, should be treated as such.

*

My favourite Indian film is one many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) have been chattering a lot about lately. It’s called Udaan (Netflix link), and is a story about a teen boy who gets kicked out of school and has to deal with his demanding, stern father, whom he eventually resists. It is an understated, quiet film – much closer in tone to the early work of David Gordon Green or, perhaps more accurately, Satyajit Ray, while still owing much to modern Bollywood technique. It’s very much my kind of film: simple, mostly about people talking, and focused on a small set of characters.

But if you are looking to understand what the ‘anti-realist’ nature of Bollywood film does best, I have two suggestions: the massively successful 3 Idiots, and the lesser known but great Khosla ka Ghosla. Both, when judged by western standards, are fragmented, ‘over-the-top’ and ‘unrealistic’. But, in a way that’s slightly hard to explain, that over-the-top-ness is necessary, as each film tries to articulate something about how India is changing. It’s almost as if the complexity of both the sub-continent’s history, and its emergence into a nation state composed of radically disparate elements in only 50 years, makes the over-the-top-ness a narritival and experiential necessity.

Now, especially in India and its film, is not the time for subtlety. The changes occurring are too vast, profound and seismic in nature for small shifts of light or facial expression to matter very much. You could, in fact, probably argue that the Western aesthete’s emphasis on subtlety as a goal is itself a product of relative social, cultural and artistic stability and uniformity. It is a luxury that history is yet to give India.

So as the IIFA awards descend on the city, and with it a slew of commentary about Bollywood, good and bad, if you can, embrace the melodrama and give up the fetish for realism — all the while, keeping in mind that as the waves of modernity crash into the walls of history, it helps when they’re really really big.

This post is part of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the GTA

Fixed Writing Machines, Bendable Bodies

A couple of weeks ago, I half-seriously started yammering on about ‘Project FNDL’ – that’s, er, ‘Project Fix Nav’s Disastrous Life’, for those not in the know. While it started as a bit of joke with my family (and, of course, Twitter), it became a little bit hard to ignore the frustration – perhaps even desperation – that elicited it. So, yeah, I’m trying to sort my shit out.

But lest you think this is becoming a self-help blog, I mention this in part because some of this process involves trying to find better ways to deal with my own ‘attention economy’ – and the relative place of the forms and technology on which we both read and write.

Partly, it’s been simple stuff I’ve been doing to help myself focus. That has meant Freedom. It has also meant enabling Freedom before heading out of the house – and then popping my SIM card into my trusty five year old cell phone, the simple aim being to keep the temptation away.

But, largely through coincidence, I got a tablet computer recently too. And, though I was quite apprehensive that I’d wasted my money, something that quickly became apparent was that it worked really well as a reading machine. Surprisingly – perhaps even a bit ludicrously – I found myself placing it in front of my monitor as I worked. Suddenly, I had two screens, each for a distinct purpose: a reading machine and a writing machine.

Neither, of course, is exclusively either. It’s just that each generally works better for reading or writing. So I tried it out. On the PC, I had Word, Scrivener or WordPress open; and on the tablet, just a browser or Kobo to read PDFs. And it worked really really well. (Until you gotta copy and paste a link or a quote, of course). It was a definite improvement to how I was able to focus, because of that odd mental division in which you use each device for different tasks. Somehow I was able to pay more attention to each.

But the other thing I’ve noticed about the tablet is how its portability and – well, I believe the technical term is ‘holdability’ – seem crucial. It reminds me a lot of what Tim Carmody says about his go-to way of framing reading revolutions:

My favorite reading revolution, though, isn’t very famous, even though it was conceived by the very famous media theorist Walter Benjamin. It’s the shift from vertical to horizontal writing, and then back to vertical again. He lays it out in his 1928 book One-Way Street:

If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.

This is a revolution that encompasses the entire history of the book, from manuscript scrolls on papyrus to industrial paperbacks. It also takes the broadest field of reading possible, from graffiti on the walls of ancient cities to silent movies and children’s scrawls on a chalkboard. It sets aside all of the inside baseball about technological achievements and the inherent properties of the medium.

Perhaps more than anything, I’ve noticed that this horizontal/vertical distinction in writing can also be applied to reading, particularly in the way it is also about the body. Vertical reading asks you to orient your body in relation to it. Billboards, blackboards, signs, desktop computers are all fixed things that demand you move around them. Horizontal does the opposite, adapting the form of reading to the body, as in the book, tablet, magazine etc.

This is why the laptop is still ‘vertical reading’ to me. You can place it on your legs or carry it around, but its bipartite nature means that it never quite works – you are constantly shifting yourself around it, especially for crucial, philosophically fundamental things like ‘reaching for your cup of tea’.

The tablet, and of course the bound book, do the opposite. The tiny little shifts in your body don’t affect it as, all McLuhan-esque, it becomes an extension of the body. The slight changes in angle that occur when you read on the couch, or on a chair, or in bed are all easily adjusted for, and unlike the furnace attached to a screen that is the modern laptop, it isn’t uncomfortable to hold or rest upon you.

That different relationship to the body of the tablet seems to meld the benefits of the electronic screen – like its capacity to become multiple things – with the strange ‘behavioural ease’ of a book or magazine. I guess this is why it ‘feels’ right, because all this time, the convenience of the computer has been oddly hampered by the need to sit at a desk, use a mouse, rest your hand on keys etc. It was great for writing, but once it became a tool to read as well write, it was always like we struggled somehow to make it work.

I was worried the tablet was wrong for me, but it has fit into my life (and #PFNDL) quite nicely. The size and portability, ease of browsing and apps like Flipboard make it feel like the right reading machine for the age. Meanwhile, that functionality has made the seemingly idiotic act of using your tablet on while working onyour computer seem like an incredibly natural thing, and separating reading and writing machines has really helped me. (NB: Yes, I am also aware that a book and a PC is also a convenient reading and writing machine distinction…)

So there we go. Weird, if neatly arbitrary distinctions about tech – reading machines/writing machines; adapt your body to it/adapt it to your body – seem to be a step in the right direction.

And in the imagining is something, too…

Though I do try to keep the ‘links to writing I’ve done elsewhere’ to a minimum, I think (or hope, at least) this one may be up of interest to SiW readers. At the Standard, I wrote about the both our past imaginings of the future but also… our inability to imagine the future, I guess? Yeah, it’s messy, but hopefully not quite so weird and vague that it’s not worth a read.

Oh, it also includes an interview with Matt Novak, author of Paleofuture! So at least there’s that.