From the picturesque, sleepy, tucked away town of Hamilton to the chaotic city of Kolkata, from the Mexican town of Iguala to bustling streets of Hong Kong to the suburban district outside of Denver, Colorado, students were out.
Did You Hear The Loud Laughter This September?
by Awrup Sanyal for Alal o Dulal
September is quite the month.
A month that is a bridge between seasons.
A month when trees shed, air turns, colours fuse and meld, clouds coalesce and disintegrate, showing and unshowing, laying bare for us the essence of things, or things that are essential that we sometimes take for granted. Like the look of a bare tree without its leafy ornamentation. Let’s call that the Nature’s idea of a joke: stripping itself down to what it is when it has not covered itself in sartorial elegance.
This year, September ushered in something more – a string of protests, mostly student protests, across campuses, cities, towns, and streets, across the globe. From the picturesque, sleepy, tucked away town of Hamilton to the chaotic city of Kolkata, from the Mexican town of Iguala to bustling streets of Hong Kong to the suburban district outside of Denver, Colorado, students were out. They marched, staged sit-ins, put up posters, painted the walls, sang, blogged, twitted, and made their voices heard. This news has been all over global media, especially social media. Hashtag campaigns buzzed on Twitter and Facebook: #hokkolorob from the students of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, West Bengal; #canyouhearusnow from the students of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; #OccupyCentral, #UmbrellaMovement and #HongKong from the students in Hong Kong; and #JeffCoSchoolBoardHistory from the students in Colorado. The issues have been as diverse as they come: sexual assault on campus, police brutality on campus, student killings, racism and sexism on campus, obliterating the history of slavery or nuclear bombs from curriculum, and democracy.
And, in all of those acts above was the singular act of stripping down, just like Nature’s bare tree act that we witness in Fall, Autumn, Shawrotkaal, depending on where you are, September through November. And, that act of stripping down, I propose, was the combined laughter of the students of the world: it poked a fun at the goings on. Look, they said, look at what’s happening, and we don’t like it.
What provoked me to write this piece is a single piece of comment that was left by a friend on my wall, where I had posted an update linking all the student protests happening almost simultaneously. The comment was simple, but it made me think. The comment was simple – it came from a kind of hindsight, and an attitude of well-been-there-done-that. You know what I mean. We are all guilty of that sometime or the other. We, who have moved beyond those lyrical student years. We, who have become very prosaic in the way we state things: in a truistic manner, with a dash of immutable wisdom. We, who know what life is all about. We, who have forgotten to laugh.
But, back to the comment I was referring to. The comment my friend made was simple, and true even, for most of us play in the same sandbox. It said, and I will paraphrase: once the burden to earn falls upon them they (the students) will understand the meaning of life more fully, till then they will, of course, be students, and do such things (protesting).
Now do you see what I see? I see us. The ones who have been consumed by or succumbed to the unidimensional reason of living life: to earn, and pay our bills. As if there is nothing else to life but that. And when that happens we better stop horsing around. Life’s more serious man it’s about the greenback! You see what I mean. We have lost the laughter, the comic. We think the protests are but the frivolities that only students can afford!
We have become Agelasts! Agelast: a Rabelaisian neologism to describe people who are incapable of laughter. [From The Curtains, by Milan Kundera.] Kundera goes on to say that there is “a visceral disaccord with the non-serious; anger at the scandal of a misplaced laugh.”
And, that is what these protests seem – a misplaced laugh – to the authorities, and us, the ones who have become extensions of the machinery of authority, by subscribing to their abstract dogma about living a successful life: a good degree, a good job, a good house, a good car, a good insurance policy, a good retirement plan, and voila!, you are a good man, a successful man! Now, don’t you go around poking your noses where they don’t belong! What’s all this BS about racism, sexism, police brutality, and misrepresentation of history? Just get to the serious business of life, earn and consume!
I would like to tell you what I feel about these student protests. Indeed, they are about serious issues. But then, the protests are but serious laughter aimed at these issues that authorities world over find dangerous to discuss. They can’t see the joke; they find ways and means, through police action, or diplospeak, to stymie the laughter that has caught the system with their pants down. They find the protests too frivolous to countenance. (It’s not a coincidence that the best of acts in stand up comedy discuss the most contentious issues.) If you take a look at the wall paintings, posters, slogans, songs, and acts that have been used you can see the combined laughter of the students: the laughter that mocks at the heart of darkness of our institutions. When I see the quality of lyricism, dream, creativity, and humour that these peaceful protests have brought forth by channelizing vulnerability and anger, I can’t but feel that these students are indeed getting educated. What better education than to be able to air and discuss ideas those are apparently dangerous? Because, only in the discussions of dangerous ideas will we find a way to just futures. The hashtags #canyouhearusnow, or #hokkolorob (let there be some noise, is what it translates to), and the others, are but the laughter that we heard this September.
Exchange between Tibra Ali and Awrup Sanyal on the above piece:
Tibra: Your use of agelasty in the Kunderan sense. If I understand Kundera correctly, the agelasty he hates so much is the exact opposite of extreme non-serious laughter. The laughter that he so admires, the laughter that rings through his work is that of the devil. If I am not mistaken it is not the laughter of the protestors who align themselves with the angles – the innocents.
In fact, the protestors are also serious, as serious as the powers they are fighting. It is their naiveté that powers them, and their laughter is the laughter of innocence. The Kunderan comic is condemned to be alone.
Awrup: You are right about Kundera’s take on the Rabelaisian agelasty.
But, this is what I was trying: flipping the model. My metaphorical camera is an OS shot of the authority, the systemic order, and ‘we’ who have become part and extensions of that machinery (that’s what the friend’s comment had provoked; I saw how co-opted we have become), and what that camera is seeing from that perch.
From that perspective the protesters – unlike the way you/we tend to see them as: angelic – are ironically the forces of the ‘devil’, who are here to upset the world as created (by the powers) with their devil’s ‘mocking’ laughter (protests/demands), which seems “frivolous” and “comical” (to the powers), who in the Kunderan sense are challenging the sacred: democracy or patriotism or whatever that sacred “Temple” is in each of the cases, and just like a “joke” these protests are “an affront to the sacred nature of life” [Kundera].
We, because of where we stand, tend to see the protests and the protestors with our own coloured filters thus ascribing them the status of the angelic, the innocent, the pure. Not everyone sees it that way, because they are standing somewhere else. We also tend to think that these protests represent every student, it doesn’t. In fact, they are always a small percentage. To every student that is out there protesting, there are many, many more who are not. As we have learnt again and again from such similar protests/movements (Shahbag, for example), nothing is really black and white; there are many strains of grey that run alongside. But, from where you and I are, we tend to glorify this, which we perhaps should too, because that is what we believe in.
Jadavpur University: while I am in solidarity with the protestors there are also other stories going around about co-option and other agenda in play. One really doesn’t know what’s the truth, one can perhaps never know; one does know, though, that nothing is innocent.
Tibra: Thanks for the clarification. I liked your response, which makes clear that you are extending/inverting the idea of agelasty/laughter dichotomy.
Here are some links that refer to the other protests mentioned in the article.
[Awrup & Tibra are part of the Alal O Dulal Editorial Collective.]