[Alert: early morning ramble which lacks in coherence and quite possibly a point]
My first year as a graduate student has come to its official close and truth be told, I still don’t understand what happened during the past eight and a half months.
All I see is a well-defined blur.
It’s all been smothered with far too much paper, theoretical conversations about Foucault (i.e. the apparent master of the rest of my academic career) well over my head, marking papers which made me hate my eyes, and constant self-reflection which has resulted in both heightened self-esteem and dramatically suicidal moments for my tear ducts. I have seen the ugly side of everything I had always seen as beautiful, perfect, prestigious and fulfilling.
My most striking lesson learned has been the dangers of the institutionalization of knowledge.
Actually, let me rephrase: the dangers of the pursuit of knowledge. Period.
Awhile ago a friend forwarded me a song by now-deceased Japan based hip hop producer and DJ Nujabes featuring Cise Starr of CYNE and Akin:
Cise Starr’s generally amazing lyrics and flow throughout the song aside (to be discussed later), this one particular verse caught my ears immediately:
I’m just a Vagabond, with Flowers for Algernon
The reference had completely caught me off guard. I had first read Flowers for Algernon during my first year as an undergrad in 2005 on the suggestion of a good and well-read friend. I remember reading it and writing it off given its tone which to me read like one of Ayn Rand’s bad philosophical harlequins. Too on-the-nose and filled with awkward sexy-talk.
But the surprising reference by Cise Starr to Flowers for Algernon sparked an interest within me to revisit this apparently classic tale which explores, at the deepest and most basic level, the idea of the pursuit of knowledge.
I really needed it.
In our pursuit for knowledge – especially those of us who take it on as a career – we become completely consumed by its self-fulfilling pleasures and its exclusive glamour. The Ivory Tower becomes a compound as opposed to a single building. We are simultaneously living within it and critiquing what we first found to be its greatest architectural merits. We become so lost within this pursuit, which we are told as per the wisdom of the ancient Greeks that it will help us answer the perennial “Who am I?”, that we forget that perhaps while knowledge was meant to be pursued – we’re actually chasing something which has disguised itself as the answer.
In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon wants nothing more than to be smart. At first, because he has both a sincerely thirsty curiousity and a strong willingness to please his teacher. As he begins to accumulate knowledge (check the above-linked wikipedia article for the plot), he becomes more inquisitive. It’s good. He begins to see things more clearly; the bliss of ignorance is completely smashed. He realizes truths pertaining to his own life and condition and begins to be unable to cope with them properly. He falls into somewhat of an existential crisis.
“Now I understand that one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and that nothing is what it appears to be.”
He wants his bliss back. He wants his happiness back. He is able to learn any language, decode any code and understand any mathematical equation – but he is completely unable to understand love. He is unable to comprehend human interactions, emotions, relationships. He attains an infinitum amount of knowledge, but he is far more alone than he ever was with his IQ of 68. He shuns others while others slowly begin to shun him. He becomes hard to relate to and difficult to talk to; his work and his pursuit of knowledge is his priority. Everything else becomes secondary. But Charlie Gordon slowly does realize the importance of relationships and of emotions – how integral these are to living “the good life” which have been seeking for so many millennia.
Okay. So a bit of an extreme example – but see where I’m going with this?
Academia. Pursuit of knowledge as found in books. Formalized education. Grades. GPA. Transcripts. C.Vs. Articles published in journals. Conferences attended. Lectures held. This isn’t the road towards fulfillment. It’s a (perverted at times) part of it but it’s not all of it. Whatever “it” is – it’s not as though you can ever really be fulfilled. Nothing satisfies us – our history is the greatest testament to this. Our hunger is insatiable, and that’s cool.
I learned this year, as a grad student, the importance of relationships: friendships, parents, love and the weird momentary affectionate connections made with pigeons when you share most of your zaatar with them. These matter a great deal. More so than any Homi Bhaba text I’ll (attempt to) read. There is an abundance of knowledge available to us from our own interactions with one another, our own engagement with one another and our exchanging of ideas with one another – our own species and beyond. But we’re so just stuck that there is only one way to ever gain knowledge. Legit knowledge. The sort of knowledge that saves us from dreaded bliss.
But, in a way, I want that bliss back. I want to be able to watch Iron Man II and not think about the glorification of ‘privatized world peace’ and ‘privatized weapons manufacturing’ as well as the seriousness of the implications of drone attacks in Pakistan for the future of warfare. I just want to look at Robert Downey jr. and be like whoa, major swoon. I just want to be able to not force myself to bite my tongue whenever the opportunity arises for the gross intellectualization of an everyday topic of conversation (see: the unpaid labour of cleaning the bathroom). I want to be able to talk to anyone, relate to anyone – to not become like a Charlie Gordon. I want to not know everything. I want to be ignorant of a lot more than what I am aware of – as per Socrates’ greatest piece of wisdom (damnit, I couldn’t resist). I just want to keep it real.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a die hard whatever I am.
I’m just a little insecure about my future phD applications. That’s all.
So, seek your knowledge, be it in dusty books through which you tirelessly peel or in the company of loved faces who don’t know the first thing about the feminization of gay culture – just remember:
It’s The Knowledge Of Self
Understanding Of The Things Around Me
That Becomes The Wisdom That I Need
Living This Life To The Best Of My Ability