Jonardon Ganeri is a philosopher who draws on a variety of philosophical traditions to construct new positions in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology, writing chiefly about the philosophies of South Asia in dialogue with other ancient and contemporary philosophical cultures. He is the author of The Self, The Concealed Art of the Soul, and The Lost Age of Reason, all published by Oxford University Press. He joined the Fellowship of the British Academy in 2015, and won the Infosys Prize in the Humanities the same year, the first philosopher to do so. Open Minds magazine named him of its 50 global “open minds” for 2016.
The Dimidiating Stare
In an earlier posting at this blog, Alex King opened a conversation about a topic I have not seen discussed elsewhere: what it means, or is like, to be a philosopher of mixed race. So I thought that I would use Meena’s welcome invitation to pick up the thread and reflect a little about my own experience in this regard. What follows, then, rather than being an account of the content of my philosophical writings or current research, is instead a brief and very subjective reflection in the genre of “philosophical autobiography”.
I’m at my best, philosophically, when I’m not under scrutiny. A crowded street, or indeed any crowd, will do, a crush of people too preoccupied to spare me a second glance. An empty apartment serves the purpose admirably too, no matter whether noisy or silent. Put me in front of another, however, and my mind just goes to pieces.
I used to think that this was the result of some failure in self-belief, a lack of that robust self-confidence only an expensive education can provide. Recently, though, I’ve glimpsed a philosophically more interesting, and therefore necessarily truer, explanation. How wrong was Plato when he had Socrates pronounce that the way to know oneself is to see oneself reflected in the pupil of another; for as Frantz Fanon more insightfully noticed, the other’s gaze creates one in some image of their own. Yet Fanon, enviably, could fall back at least on this: that while he became blackness only under observation, he was, after all, black.
I, though, biracial, become an Indian (or, anyway, something faintly foreign) in the view of my English brethren; and while this encourages me to embrace myself as Indian, my Englishness smarts at the affront. In India, it is the exact inverse: I become an Englishman (or, anyway, vaguely videśi) when looked at by my Indian kith-and-kin, suddenly seeing myself as English and strutting around; but only at the cost of deep insult to my Indian self. The other’s gaze, in short, always cuts me in two, one half a Fanonian construct, the other resentfully disinherited. And one can’t do philosophy when one is breaking apart.
The incoherence in this imposed “dual identity” reaches a head when I travel to the Gulf. My fellows there are foreigners who fall into one of two groups. There are the “expats”, mostly white and wealthy, with prestige jobs and platinum credit cards; and there are “migrant workers”, brown and beaten, indentured and indebted. The gaze of the citizen falls on both groups, seeing in the first a fast track to art and architecture, to import quickly all culture, including, ironically, their own. The expat finds in this reflected image a person of civilisation and liberal values, and they like what they see. The migrant worker, if seen at all, is seen with a gaze that strips away his or her humanity, reducing a human being to a dispensable pair of hands. The migrant has become a machine, without a place in any culture or ritual, eyes perpetually cast down. What was it Simone Weil said, that after a year on the factory-floor she bore forever in her soul the mark of a slave? After two or three years the migrant learns that subjectivity is just another commodity, to be bought at a cost in the mall.
Subject to a mongrel muse, I become both, servitude and civilisation, and at once. Even as I’m being chased around by security guards convinced that I’m an uppity impostor who dares to think of himself as a being with the right to look at art and architecture, my friends greet me with a cheery “Hello!”. I’m forever about to fall through a crack, that fault-line between two incoherent fantasies.
Perhaps I feel most kinship with a third group of “foreigner”, the ones born and bred there to immigrant parents but never granted citizenship. To them the idea of a “homeland” is as elusive and meaningless as it is to me. I finally understand the allure of the forest to those wise ancients, for how much better the grove to the agora if one wishes to think. Or else a city, the bigger the better, a thundering metropolis full of preoccupied humanity. It is in such spaces alone that one can evade the dimidiating stare, dodge the demand to inhabit incoherent identities, and be simply oneself.
So, to conclude this short reflection: if I have gained a philosophical insight from these musings on the experience of being biracial it is—and here I find I need to appropriate a technical distinction made by the Sanskrit philosophers—that social identities are samvṛtti but people are paramārtha. No biracial philosopher would ever invent the doctrine of social constructivism, or think that there is absolutely no self.
I’ll dedicate this post to my friend Joseph Sen, who tried valiantly but never found his way through.