I have avoided publishing the inaugural post of this blog for several weeks now. Increasing anxiety and decreasing productivity brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame. Yet my creation of this site has also coincided with a gradual effort to limit my engagement with social media and interrogate the role of the internet in my daily life.
The New Yorker columnist Jia Tolentino’s recent book Trick Mirror (2019), which I received as a gift from a dear friend, drove another nail into the proverbial coffin. The book’s opening essay, entitled “The I in the Internet,” strikes at the heart of the zeitgeist of the present moment. Tolentino remains critical of both the American Left and the American Right, providing incisive commentary on the complex entanglements of social media, neoliberalism, and selfhood. In one section on the internet and opinion, she muses:
To try to write online…is to operate on a set of assumptions that are already dubious when limited to writers and even more questionable when turned into a categorical imperative for everyone on the internet: the assumption that speech has an impact, that it’s something like action; the assumption that it’s fine or helpful or even ideal to be constantly writing down what you think (17).
Her observation that online speech can inhibit or cheapen political action is crucial. (It is underscored by her thinking on the detriments of the internet to political solidarity and affirmative, rather than “oppositional,” coalition-building later in the piece.)
Yet her sentiments also pose a clear challenge for the aspiring academic and fledgling blogger with an interest in media, cybercultures and political subjectivities: can writing indeed be a force for good?
Like most academics, I feel strongly that the production of knowledge about our world is meaningful and worthwhile. To that end, I hope that the content of this blog will not constitute mere “opinion,” but, ideally, thoughtful analysis with reference to both data and existing scholarship.
Yet, further like many academics, I am often stymied by a sense of self-doubt and unrealistic pursuit of perfection (a reality my therapist connects to a childhood admiration for Immanuel Kant). I am not referring here to the idea of ‘objective truth.’ Anthropologists have long critiqued the very existence of objectivity, ever-mindful that both human societies and ethnographic research itself are historically and culturally situated.1 Moreover, anthropology has a notable record of political activism; in addition to a disciplinary commitment to interrogating power structures that came out of the Cold War,2 many anthropologists have assisted their interlocutors in legal and political struggles around the world.
I am referring instead to the kinds of questions posed by Tolentino: Do I have anything important or interesting to say? Have I said it well enough?
Admittedly, I am playing into the tendency of placing myself at the center of the conceptual universe—a fundamental feature of the internet, as Tolentino reminds (and criticizes). That may be to some extent unavoidable on this forum. Nevertheless, it seems important to commit myself to a few basic principles at the outset. Going forward, then, I make the following promises to myself and to the readers of this blog:
- I will publish regularly, not getting mired down by a desire for absolute perfection.
- I will remain attentive to power imbalances and capitalist entrenchment that the internet and other forms of media engender in my work.
- I will supplement the ideas expressed on this blog with more tangible political action.
In summary, I hope that De-Orient will shed light on the complex intersections of culture and power that define (social) media, transnational connectivities and international affairs today.
Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more posts on these subjects!
- For more on this, see Lila Abu-Lughod, “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” Women and Performance 5, no. 1 (1990): 7-27; Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).
- See Rosaldo, Truth and Culture; also, Lisa Wedeen, “Ethnography as Interpretive Enterprise,” in Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power, edited by Edward Schatz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 75-93. Importantly, the discipline also has many ethical and theoretical demons resulting from its colonial origins and persisting “discourse of perfectibility.” See Ryan Cecil Jobson, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019,” American Anthropologist 122, no. 2 (June 2020): 266.