The Strange World of the Forgotten Intellectual.
A brief study of student culture outside of the global north.
America is no longer a new world but is, and always will be, another world. It is … a question of molecules, of climate, of different atmosphere, of the special quality of the sun’s rays.
Giorgio de Chirico, 1938
“The Owl of Minerva”, Hegel writes at the end of the Philosophy of Right, “spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” I find it useful, as well as truthful, to think of knowledge as increasing in quality and scope not only as it traverses time, but as it is displaced in space.
Not too long ago, I came across a series of social media accounts by fellow students and academics who, like myself, were from different countries outside of the global north. After spending some time with these accounts, I started to take notice of a handful of traits from which I think an interesting analysis of academic culture can be produced. Memes, blog posts, and forum threads weave a collage of self-pity, narcissism, pessimism, an inclination away from irony and towards cheap sarcasm, but most importantly, a strong Promethean spirit seething from the subcontinental academic.
If these posts are to be believed, then it turns out that the genuine, enthusiastic, intellectual is a cuck– a, usually male, and unusually unmanly, individual who is oblivious to his own humiliation. But, of course, the people who make this kind of content are not oblivious. The internet culture of the subcontinental student is, then, that of reflection on what they used to be. Through satire, the student-academic mourns his status as a respectable, let alone an employable, member of their society. Social media accounts of these kind grovel at the feet of the old intellectuals ad nauseam. The old academic is well read, literary competent, revolutionary– his intellectualism is not at odds with his masculinity. In fact, far from being detrimental, the fantasy of intellectual prestige is that of social as well as academic success.
The subcontinental student looks around at the culture that surrounds them, which has been prostituted by capitalism, battered by poverty, and anesthetized by social and religious conservatism and can’t help but to yearn for the “golden” years– those sparse decades where the seeds of intellectual and artistic development flourished into more than the labor of individual pariahs, but into a movement that reaches the mainstream of their respective nations.
The apparent truth that the student outside of the global north faces is that of isolation. There are no more writers. There are no more poets. There are no more philosophers– at least, none worth reading. We look out of our windows to a world dominated culturally by influences beyond our geographical sphere– in that sense we share in the cultural homogeneity of Western entertainment– but, we must live with a relentless contradiction. We live in a strange bubble; we are caught between the high tables of academia and the reality of abject poverty, violence, and, perhaps worst of all, the stupefying monotony of colonial capitalism. In the global south, you don’t only suffer from poverty– for some are fortunate, like myself– but you feel it; it is tactile. The subcontinent stinks of piss and beer. The cracks in our streets mark the passing of the time like tally marks in a prison wall. Here, exposed brick is not an aesthetic choice. No amount of summer rain can wash away the grime; it is almost impossible to escape it. Therefore, the academic becomes a sort of Platonist and refugee in the world of the ideas.
Thomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan, that the social contract being absent, as I hold it to be in many parts of the global south, in which the rule of capital is absolute, then there “is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth… no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear.” Whatever there is of these things here in the South, the subcontinental student may perceive as insufficient, unskilled, and generally irrelevant as compared to the works of “golden age” or the more diverse and prestigious global north.
There is little dignity to be had in academia, and, if there is any shown, it is perceived as foolish and naively arrogant. The academic is emasculated in the arena of popular opinion. For, what use is there for books in a society that has no market demand, let alone available capital, for intellectualism? Who but a fool would, in their right mind, spend copious amounts of money and time in academia– it probably being a very poor investment?
These are the questions that the subcontinental student has to reckon with. For some of us it is a matter of dubious financial stability and social stigma, but for others it is a matter of survival. A humanities degree will not open many doors for you here. Or, so we are told.
However, and to my immense relief, intellectualism and academia refuse to die– they may become destitute and deformed, but their substance withstands the test of time. Excellence survives in that student newspaper you never read; it survives in those thousand of dissertations that never see the light of day; in the words of the careful and scholarly poet; in the desirous ache we feel when we see that strange and wonderful world up north, and in the crushing throb we feel at the state of our own half of the hemisphere.
Each student, then, has the potential to be a sort of Aeneas. We may become vessels by salvaging the olden gods of art and academia from the hellfire of capitalism and the commodification of intellectual and artistic work. At the same time, we may hope to change divinity and to apotheosize– to take our rightful place in the Parthenon of academia and the artistic world.
The saving grace of the subcontinental student is, then, the same force that seems to have squashed our intellectualism. The student must take a cosmopolitan approach towards their education in order to survive. We resent the creeping homogeneity of cultural and political supremacy that trickles down from the global north, but we may be able to combat it whilst appropriating what is worth making cosmopolitan. In other words, homogeneity is only bad because it is, by definition, mediocre. But, if we are able to escape our provincial chains through an internationalist approach to academia and art, we may be able to be better equipped to wage our local political and cultural battles with the potency and vigor demanded of the task at hand.