The Future Of Our Present
In a hundred years from now, when our own future selves (if some of us arise from our cryogenically frozen sleeps) or those of our bemused descendants look back at times past, and more particularly, at our present, how will they interpret it? Will this moment — despite our political passions and protests — be a mere afterthought for them, a roadkill in their rear-view mirror as they race into the future? Our sense of self-importance may convince us that we live in important times, but it is likely that the very events that vividly occupy our present — like award vaapsi, kiss of love, beef lynchings and #notinmyname — will have none of the emotional resonance we ascribe to them today.
In parts, this attenuation is inevitable, a function of time decay — the farther away we get from an event, the less it means to us — that afflicts all human memories. To fight this inevitable erosion of memory, this time decay, we have invented elaborate rules of documentation and infrastructure of historical record keeping. The further back we recede in time, the more dearly held facts acquire the patina of stories, and, even further back, these stories become foundational mythologies. Such a view of historical narratives, comforting as they are, presumes our future selves shall read the facts and stories of our present with the urgency and inflections we afford them. But history has a way of not just subverting our understanding but also mocking any assurance we have of it. Unvarnished peasant stories of medieval Europe that viewed children's sexuality as a fascinating horror was sanitized into 'Little Red Riding Hood' or 'Mother Goose' by authors in 19th century, only for 20th century psychologists armed with Freudian constructs to read into them symbolisms of Oedipal fantasies, incest, and violent sex. In essence, these protests of our present may end up being read in an altogether different light, yielding very different conclusions and different questions.
Many of these public displays of discontent in the name of freedom — to eat what they wish, to love whom they choose, to be governed without corruption — might seem to our future generations as efforts by India's emergent middle class to reconcile two conflicting things it intuits. One, they recognize the inability of conventional democratic politics to speak up for their own evolution: from members of an agricultural society two generations ago into a member of a globalizing hivemind with their own newly acquired aesthetic lens to see the world. Two, despite this knowledge of underrepresentation, there is still not a spur strong enough for many of them to abandon the quiet comforts of an upwardly mobile bourgeois life to make political interventions that demand sustained sacrifices. What distinguished Gandhi from his well-coiffed peers was not any one act of protest but his commitment to future protests and pains that brought along. Game theoretically, he was willing to demonstrate to the British Raj that he was ready to play an infinite number of games of mass protests. This recognition, in turn, changed the calculus. In contrast, the preset set of protests without a demonstrated commitment to bear even more pain in the future merely betrays what it really is: an act of expurgation, a form of catharsis, an exercise in simulated radicalism, an Instagram intifada. Perhaps the one story out of all these events that will puzzle our future historian will be about why the middle class was unable to transmute disparate sources of public angst into a progressive ethos.
With little effort, our future historian will chronicle ours as an age when environmental neglect took a turn for the worse and irreversible environmental catastrophes — affecting the rivers, the oceans, the commons and the soil quality — became a staple feature of Indian life. The longue duree of history will suddenly have turned its course in our times. A more sociologically minded historian might look back at the Indian present and read it as a great age of political revivalism among the Hindu middle class. This may seem as no more different than the years after the riots and Civil Rights Act of 1960s when America saw a consolidation of a ‘silent’ Christian majority led by the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan trio (à la the Advani-Vajpayee-Modi trifecta in our times). But such readings are perilous for they overfit meagre data into a particular model of political consolidation that needn’t work anywhere else. That said, a more expansive interpreter of our times will probably see a more historically familiar play unfold. To this reader, the democratisation of the Indian polity and the social emancipation since 1947 will come across as a slow-moving revolution, which also birthed an inevitable and slow-moving counter-revolution. Similar to Europe in 19th and early 20th century and all the way down to Egypt during the Arab Spring, post-liberalisation India will be no different. Our times will come across as an interplay of equilibrating set of countervailing pressures that struggle for short-lived phases of superiorities.
Another kind of historian, perhaps one with a greater sensitivity to individual lives amidst the churn of events, will see our present as an era when postcolonial mentalities yielded something new and as yet unnamed. To this historian, our age might seem as a period when some Indians — after many assorted efforts to imagine themselves as a member of Eurocentric modernity — began to recognize the need for a form of critical authenticity. A movement that is pregnant with possibilities of ending an ancien regime, not just politically, but also culturally and socially. Such quests to birth something new inevitably might lead to more divisions, perhaps violence, and inevitably demanded new kinds of language to think of ourselves as individuals within a collective rather than a collective inside an individual. Ultimately, should such an altered vision emerge — much like ‘freedom’ did in 1947 — it may very well arrive in the form of a misshapen beauty, a monstrous love child, one that conceals the conditions of its as much as it reveals a new promise.
Yet there is another kind of history: not a story of its politics but a story of something too visible to be seen. Ours is the age where ‘things’ proliferate. From teaspoons and shoelaces, computers and phones, the things that make up the material world we live in now appear in increasingly finer gradations that only a class of aesthetes can distinguish between them. Heidegger calls this the act of 'worlding' our lives -- of constructing a museum of experiential events facilitated by an increasing number of things, sensations, ideas. In our age, the result of this explosion of ‘things’ is that our economic arrangements, our ideas of self-worth, our taxation regimes, our private envies and public institutions — all scramble to keep pace with an increasing diversity of choices and objects. The inevitable result is that ours has become an age of incompleteness, of well delineated end goals that must reconcile with inadequate attempts to reach it. What follows is a sense of inadequacy from traditional objects of fulfillment: religion, patriotism, society, family. We may not be able to articulate it, but we intuit it. Our laws fail to keep pace with our experience, our lives fail to match up to the filtered realities proffered by technologies, the hegemonies of our official facts fail to correspond with the innumerable private experiences put on willing displays. As our daily lives become more embodied in things and objects, our minds progressively is paralyzed by alternative forms of embodiment that we can avail ourselves of. The result is that ours may very well be the age known for embracing materialism without anxieties and, more strikingly, without guilt but our is also an age that began to suspect we were sold something other than what we paid for.