On Surveillance Culture

what's good?

How To Cure A Ghost is a free (almost) weekly newsletter. If you find value in what I write and read this regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber or Venmo or PayPal me. If you find value in what I write but can’t financially support its creation, please share.


please listen to this before you enter.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to synthesize how community policing works. In a global post 9/11 world — where we are all subject to being watched by the state—let’s not forget that in America the Patriot Act and slogans like, “If you see something, say something,” are all ways to ensure our complicity to/in-state surveillance. Because it’s two-fold, right? In being watched by the state, we pay it forward by watching and surveilling, others. It’s a dangerous game.

I’ve been feeling existential recently and much of the last few weeks I’ve been existing in a space of spiritual dread. Things about humanity keep upsetting me and then I get into a loop, thinking I’m actually an idiot for thinking we are going to evolve en masse. Watching the way we police each other, the lack of compassion and resoluteness that exists in everyday spaces, the normalcy of toxicity and bad behavior fucking concerns me. I don’t like the internet because I can see the poison-like-tar that seeps into your bloodstream when all you exist in is madness, in the shadows of an alter-reality. Of course, I feel rage, grief that feels so immense it consumes me like the mouth of a tsunami. I’m not really sure where we are heading toward as a species and that scares me. We are closer to total annihilation than we’ve ever been yet our inability to stay connected to each other even during a mass pandemic is… frankly… jarring.

Joanna Macy wrote this for Emergence Magazine about the possibilities of the future, and over the last few months, this quote has brought me a lot of peace:

“We can sense that we are in a space without a map. That we’re on shifting ground. Where old habits and old scenarios, all previous expectations, all familiar features no longer apply. It’s like we’re unmoored, cast loose. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a place, or gap between known worlds, is called a bardo. It’s kind of frightening. It’s also a place for potential transformation.”

With the uprising last year, I really felt like this was it, that we were finally going to topple it all. I’ve fervently become an abolitionist in the last year, and I believe in hope, but these days? These days hope feels so abstract to me.

*

It has always confused me that in the communities where we are supposed to feel the most held, we sometimes find the cruelest taunting.

A couple of years ago, when I first became friends with my friend Rupi, I was shocked to find that most of the hate she got was from folks most like her. I was guilty of that, too. I had presumed many things about her success before I knew her, but after getting to know her, I could see the totality of her being—the success—but the difficulties that came with being a South Asian woman who was vastly unprotected in this world. So a sense of care in me kicked in. There’s a strong case to be made about how South Asian communities aren’t very good at protecting their own. Because of scarcity—the one seat at the table syndrome—and truthfully because of the deep-rooted trauma that our communities have never appropriately addressed, so the tension is palpable. Instead of working together, we find ways to bring each other down.

There’s so much to unpack in these regions, but a lot of the current tensions can be traced back to the Partition that split India from Pakistan in 1947. The land was cut according to religious lines, but the complication of this is that this region, and especially India as a country—and civilization—is, and always has been, deeply diverse. To assume that peoples can be split into religious lines is to ignore caste, indigeneity, language, and cultural specificity. In Pankaj Mishra’s phenomenal read From the Ruins of Empire, in a chapter entitled, “The Strange Odyssey of Jamal al-din Al-Afghani” he notes that Al-Afghani, a political activist, favored Muslim-Hindu unity. “In the same vein, he also argued that linguistic ties were more profound than religious ones (a lesson Pakistan was to learn when the Bengali-speaking Muslims in East Pakistan secedeed to form Bangladesh in 1971).”

British colonizers, I presume understood, on some level, that the more people feel disconnected from their true sense of being, a sense that comes from inherent worthiness and groundedness, the further we would get from knowing who we are, and how we care for each other. So now, for children who, like me, live in the diaspora, this disconnection from not only the physical land, the desh, but also the psychic land and psychic belonging, has bled into our everyday relations with each other. I’m sure many colonized folks could relate to a sense of constant disrepair, a pain so deep that to locate it feels violent. Perhaps that’s why we are worst to each other. We are all in such immense pain that someone else’s perceived success ruptures all of our deep wounds we’ve never addressed.

So, instead of looking inward, we turn outward and attack.

My dad has always talked to me about “liberty” and how true freedom can’t really exist unless it takes into account other people’s liberties and freedom as well. Over the years, I’ve seen how from platform to platform people just talk shit about Rupi like she isn’t a real person—and that her work and her are one and the same—and if someone doesn’t like the work, then she, the person, is somewhat at fault. It’s gone from insult to character assassination and each iteration just completely shocks me to the core. Especially when a lot of the accusations aren’t actually true, or even necessary? But the ridicule brings me back to an idea Silvia Federici brings up in Caliban and the Witch; public shaming, and really public executions, torture, are a part of the primitive aspects of human nature—that’s morphed and adapted in digitzed spaces as well. Yet the ethos is one and the same, people like feeling schadenfreude.

Then, with that comes a realization that a lot of people would much rather believe a lie than to truly get to know or understand or even sympathize with the person they’re critiquing. Which makes me think that people would much rather… just talk shit? Which then makes me sit with how deeply hurt many of us truly are if we want to hide from the things that are lurking deep inside of us, asking us for our own attention. There’s always another side to anger, and it’s usually pain.

*

You might be reading this and thinking: so the fuck what? Right, so what? It’s just a bit of online bullying. Except… and maybe this is why I’ve been feeling this spiritual dread… we’re literally facing a climate apocalypse… And time is running out.

“If there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear,” Amitav Ghosh wrote in 2016, “it is that to think about the world as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” “Five years later, the pandemic has drilled the point painfully home,” Ben Ehrenreich wrote, quoting Ghosh, in the New Republic last month. “The societies most geared toward individual profit, and most worshipful of economic expansion, have proved least capable of saving themselves. Decades of almost unbroken GDP growth have piled up riches in a few gated compounds while leaving the vast majority of Americans poorer and more vulnerable to illness, imprisonment, homelessness, and the ghastly futures that we know all too well await us. That vulnerability is far from uniform. Covid has charted a precise map of its variegated terrain, of who gets to live and who gets pushed out to die. The same map applies to the climate crisis, too.”

In 1878, Al-Afghani, Mishra explains, was known to go to crowds of peasants in Alexandria and say, “Oh! You poor fellah! You break the heart of the earth in order to draw sustenance from it and support your family. Why do you not break the heart of your oppressor? Why do you not break the heart of those who eat the fruit of your labour?” This sums up how I feel about surveillance culture. It almost always comes from folks within your own communities, and this is and always has been the first tool of the oppressor—to divide and conquer us. The more we hurt each other, abandon each other, misunderstand each other, take from one another, break each other down, the more we are doing that to ourselves. Early in the morning, I’ve been reading Swami Vivekananda’s (a Bengali-Hindu monk) Bhakti Yoga, where he says, “Hurting any part of the universe, I only hurt myself.” It took me a long, long, long time to understand that being kind comes back to you ten-fold, in ways you could never imagine. It really, really does. And so does being unkind, petty, bad to people.

When I first heard of Chairmen Fred Hampton, I was absolutely floored. He understood how to bring people together, he understood that there was power in a united front against white supremacy and coined the term rainbow coalition (this is a great conversation with Robin G. Kelley and Vinson Cunningham about the term and its evolution) which I imagine is what made Fred so dangerous to Hoover and the FBI, and why he was murdered at the age of twenty-one by the state. He believed—totally, with conviction—if we worked together, we could actually have true revolution. It’s important that we understand, collectively, that we not only need each other but that we have to learn how to work with each other if we really want to topple these structures of power.

I guess this is why I’ve been trying to understand cancel culture — which is also bullying culture — for years now. Last year, with people talking about abolition, I started to really believe that we would start contending with ourselves more ardently. That there would be a shift toward vulnerability and openness and real accountability. But it seems like everyone is expecting others to do the work, and like many things, I guess language was once again co-opted. But I don’t want to lose hope. As Mariame Kaba reminds us, “Hope is a discipline.” So are our actions, our words, our vigilance, reliance and responsibility to each other. Here’s the thing too—when you’re fighting for liberation, you’re fighting for everyone’s liberation, even the people you hate and secretly think are overrated. Liberation is not that you suddenly, miraculously, love everyone. It’s that you just know your liberation is tied to everyone’s true liberation. The beautiful reality of utopia is that it is for all.

*

I want to bring this back to policing here for a quick second. Why are we so invested in throwing people under the bus? Humans are complex ecosystems. Why is it that we want the individual space to grow and repair and be messy, but we don’t want to afford anybody else the same complexity? It’s the same engine that fuels capitalism, to want for yourself, but not really care what liberties that may or may not take away from someone else. Growing up in public is fucking hard. Trust me. I’ve been writing on the internet for 12 years, I’ve had my fair share of personal takedowns. I’m not here to absolve anyone, I’m just here to ask questions about our sociopathy as a species. Why are we invested in things that, frankly, don’t personally concern us? Why are we looking at our phones as we slowly hurtle toward our demise? I don’t want to scare you but climate is scary. And it’s real. And this pandemic is just the very beginning.

I’ve talked about community policing a lot with my friend Thanu who grew up in a community where aunties wanted to know everything about you, but not in a protective way. I grew up similarly. The gaze is extra uncomfortable (and sometimes dangerous) when you come from homes where abuse exists.

I’ve told older Bangladeshi friends of mine from the community I came from about my mother’s abuse, but most of them had no adjacency of their own, how could they have helped me? Eventually, those who knew got married, moved on. Now, the only friend I have from my community back home is a half Bangladeshi/half-Polish kid named Konrad. He’s also my first friend who sat with grandmother ayahuasca in the jungles of Peru; the only other Bangladeshi friend I knew who could speak Japanese (I went to Japanese school from the ages of seven to eleven; Konrad partially grew up in Japan) and is the first friend who taught me about channeling aliens like Bashar (if you know, you know). It’s always meant a lot for me to have community support but as a recluse and a strange kid, I rarely felt comfortable around most others. I guess when you grow up in unconventional settings — with a mentally ill mother who is always fighting you and everyone around you — as much as there’s a desire for connection, closeness and safety, there’s also a fear that you’ll be judged for the things that have happened to you. So much of my life I’ve abstracted from others, even those closest, because my reality was either too uncomfortable to utter or I had accepted it in a fucked up way or I had hidden the truths from myself. In so many ways, I live within the margins. I live within those liminal spaces, the borderlands. But so do so many of us! Those who can’t be confined to one explanation, or one definition?

A few nights ago, I saw Thanu again. She pointed out that both her and I have transnational identities. Because of this, and also because I grew up in the outskirts of several communities (and frankly communities that failed me and my family) I never felt confined in my sense of being. Growing up in Australia, too, for all its white supremacy, afforded me a lot of benefits — a closeness to that sacred land, as well as access to healthcare, free education, and a very high standard of living that allowed me a good life even while working service jobs since I was fourteen. As I was never subject to anyone’s protection, I was out of anyone’s real dominion of control. My abuse afforded me my own escape route. But, this comes with its fair share of familial pain. The cost for freedom is high, yet the alternative — I know, would have lead to my own suicide. I understand my mother in that sense, her darkness is also mine. She was raised generations too late. An access to freedom that has saved me would’ve saved her too, it would’ve saved so many women in my lineage.

I was raised in a community that would talk shit (probably still do) about my mum. All my extended family calls her crazy, and they’d be right, but I guess it hurts to know that. It hurts for her, I know, but she hides it so well. She hides it in her hysteria. I’m sure many of you can relate, but what is community when you garner no protection from it? What I’m trying to get at is I write for those kids like me. The kids that no one else had. The kids on the borderlands of existence. The kids who weren’t raised by different mommas and aunts and children, cousins and neighbors. I write for the kids who had to fend for themselves. Kids who had to learn what they were on their own, kids that are used to doing everything by themselves. When I was growing up, there was no-one for me. No-one like me. I became myself on my own.

*

Last week someone made an IG story about me saying that I was co-opting Bengali culture because there are spelling mistakes of the Bangla in How To Cure A Ghost.

I was told about the one (singular) “spelling mistake” in HTCAG as soon as the book was published, and if you’ve ever seen me perform, you’ll know the poem in question is one of my favorite poems to read (“You come to understand a place only after you leave it”) which is dedicated to my parents. Each stanza is marked by one of my parent’s favorite Bangla songs. However, the song titles of the fourth and fifth stanzas in HTCAG are reversed, despite being fact-checked by both my father and me—as not only can I speak Bangla, I can also read and write it. Upon its fresh publication, a friend’s father was the one to point it out. I was mortified and notified my editor immediately. Instead, I was alerted that they wouldn’t be able to make the edits until the second printing. I don’t think we’re still at the second printing. I know it doesn’t seem like book writing is that hard, but I cannot tell you the bureacracy of writing a book. Period! Also, it’s fucking embarassing, too. I wrote HTCAG over so many years and there are still spelling mistakes. Art is flawed, and so am I. We should be allowed a space for that compassion, that understanding, and to not fear immediate critique. Every time I read that poem I cry. That’s the only poem that breaks me in the whole reading. Again, if you’ve seen me live, you know that. I warn everyone before I start.

I know those songs off by heart, and yet the real tragedy is that I will never be able to say that to my mother. How often I think of her, how often I miss her, even though I know she’s not real. The memory of her has shifted so much in my consciousness, after revelation upon revelation, after knowing her life more deeply, that when I access her I don’t recognize her anymore. But I want to tell her I love her, and that I always, always will. I don’t know how you can co-opt something that is so inherent, so deep in your blood that the pulse itself moves you to dance figures you don’t understand, but to not dance them would be to die. Swami Vivekananda writes, “Spiritual death is the result of following others as in a flock of sheeep. Death is the result of inaction.”

I write because if I didn’t follow this dance inside, I would die.

My least favorite part of making public work is the projection about who you are and what you’re like is constantly imposed onto you, which is just another form of community policing. A few days ago my friend Zeba sent me this, a video that left me breathless. Ocean Vuong, on a panel hosted by NYU last year, begins by saying, “I just want to say if you are going to be an Asian-American artist, be prepared to be unfathomable to the rest of the world.” Unfathomable. My life is so unfathomable that it’s re-written, reshaped. Ocean gets a lot of hate as well. I’ve seen it online, especially last year after metaphor-gate (don’t ask). Last week, my friend Fati (who also understands, so acutely, what it means to be raised in the borderlands of space and time) and I were discussing Ocean, speaking to the generosity in his work and how his kindness emanates. He’s the type of artist where it’s obvious how the wisdom of his experience has shaped him, humbled him. He’s the type of artist I also hope to be.

Context of everything matters, context is all we have.

When you have the audacity to defy convention, it takes everything to muster the courage to transform into who you need to be to succeed. I don’t think folks quite understand what it takes to be a working artist. Ocean and Rupi are both exponentially more successful than I am, but I’m finally at a stage, despite continuously struggling with money, still struggling with myself mentally, still battling with the fuckload of trauma I’m dealing with, where I can accept another person’s success as I know and trust and believe—the success of somebody like me does bring all of us up, together. Their visibility helps mine, helps ours. They’re also both people whose work is invested in healing. In naming things that people like them have never had a space to name in literature before. Isn’t that fucking amazing? Rupi self-published a book at twenty-one and less than a decade later it’s sold three million copies and been on the New York Times bestseller weeks at a time! This isn’t someone who went to all the fancy schools, got the right internships, got all the right jobs that position you to be in places of power—to eventually sell tonnes of books. Believe it or not, the publishing world wasn’t really made for folks like me and Rupi, or even Ocean. Their space was carved by the work they did themselves. Sure, maybe it was the right timing. But sadly, success often is. But, despite “success”, their lives go on. Ocean finally published his first novel last year, only to have his mother die the same year. Living in those liminal spaces is an incredibly painful extraction. In this interview with Krista Tippett, he asks of us, “When the apocalypse comes, what will you put into the vessel of the future?”

*

My neighbor Jimi told me recently that I feel for the people who can’t—my mother, my family, other survivors—those who don’t have the outlet. As a person healing from multiple forms of PTSD it’s just wild to me that people assume that if you reach a certain kind of success that somehow wanting to kill yourself is a feeling that suddenly dissipates. Frankly, I could go on and on about the current struggles of my life, so when people talk about you like you’re a one-dimensional avatar it’s less upsetting and more just confusing. Even now, is this how little compassion we have? Over the last few years so much of my own spiritual work has been about facing my jealousy over other people’s success, or just anger and frustration at the slowness of my own career’s (financial) stability, only to understand that everything, everything happens as it needs to. I’m not immune to these feelings, but I have come to understand that when you can trust, when you can surrender to God, everything gets easier to accept.

The other thing that Ocean says that struck me is, “When it comes to Asian-American innovation and adjacency we are often legible when we are at service.” I’ve talked about this with my friend Mimi a lot over the last few years because so many violent experiences in our own individual lives have made us feel like it’s better when we’re quiet when we’re in the background. “Were you silent or were you silenced?” Oprah asks Megan. How many of us understand the reality of being silenced?

I’ve been silent my whole life. When I told my father I wanted to pursue writing officially he asked me to never write about my mother. The silencing exists in my bones, it lingers in my lineage, it watches me and pounces whenever I’m afraid. It’s not that I’m braver because I write with such tenacity now, it’s because I can’t afford to be silent anymore—I owe it to my child self. I owe it to the young me who was told “chup koro” (be quiet) time and time and time again by my mother as I was being abused. Do you know I learned how to stop crying in front of her because I trained myself not to as a child? Whenever I would cry, she would accuse me of acting. These days, it’s still quite hard for me to cry in public. So in those readings, I fucking hate it, but it pours out of me like cascading water from a broken faucet. Being vulnerable is fucking hard. Then to be watched as I do it, is worse. Only thing is, I know I came here, on this Earth, to show that it can be done.

Our obsession with carcerality should be of your concern. Nobody’s life is the projection that others put on them, as I’m sure you’d know with your own life. So why fight each other when we need each other? Why hurt each other when we could just uplift each other? I keep thinking about this line that Paulo Friere writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “Dialogue cannot exist without humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?”

My friend Ganavya recently texted me , “Addressing truths is a liberatory practice, especially when living in a world surrounded by illusion/ utterances are powerful, speaking of others is also a kind of practice to be avoided.”

*

I love Noname for many reasons, she’s smart, she’s inquisitive, but more than anything she’s transparent. There’s an art to having complicated answers, of having to confront your past publically. It takes a certain kind of humility. Song 33, also, felt like an anthem when it came out last year, after the back-to-back devastating murders of Toyin Salau, Tony McDade and George Floyd. And in less than two minutes she explains how important, how necessary this time is.

He thought to write about me when the world is in smoke?

Surveillance culture is a beast with many heads, but we should be fighting it, as we also fight the other three horsemen of the apocolypse (capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy). This time, as Joanna Macy tells us, is the bardo. A time for total transformation. We can’t lose hope for long. It’s OK to feel the pain of everything, but it’s important to bounce back, to not fall into a lapsed state of nihilism, but to face forward and join the action of changing this planet.

I joined a Degrowth chapter at the end of last year, and in a recent interview with Lexie Smith, activist and comrade Jamie Tyberg explained, “So in order to decolonize, we have to degrow these institutions. We have to interfere and stop them from expanding and undo the damage they’ve inflicted. We also have to degrow our habits of infinite consumption and the ideology of infinite growth that’s been ingrained in all aspects of individual and collective life. Ecologically, this means that we would do everything that we can to reduce the impact of our production and consumption on the biosphere. And socially, we would organize ourselves and our society around the principles of care around reciprocity and interdependence. It will be a world where it’s not just that social interest would be placed above the economic interests, but that what defines and measures economic interests would be totally different.”

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about transformative action in the phenomenal Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Truthfully—disability activists are the rarest and tenderest humans because they understand the true kind of commitment that is required to actually move toward a just society. Degrowth is an amazing way to think about actionable steps to live in an anti-capitalist way, and it’s something that excites me.

The other night, Thanu and I talked a lot about compassion, care and kindness. It’s been my rallying cry for the past few years, but it’s really the missing link to how we can begin to relate to one another, a new vantage point. We have to prioritize the conversation on fighting these systems, not each other. At the same time, we have to get better at having boundaries, too. Not everyone is going to like each other, but the work needs to be done. If you don’t like me, I encourage you to do yourself a favor and not read me. Save yourself the anger, the effort. I won’t mind. But still know, I’ll be fighting here for a future for the both of us. That’s just who I am. I feel a deep accountability to this world, to mother Earth, and I deeply understand that a future for all, such as abolition, requires thinking of new frontiers of human existence and relationship. And here’s the thing, if you didn’t already know, in my work, I’m not asking you to like me. I actually don’t really care if you do or don’t. I’m asking you to like yourself. That’s the real and most necessary shift in consciousness that’s required as we walk toward this new, unknown, horizon.


P.S I had the deep honor of talking to Jordan Kisner on Thresholds, a brilliant podcast from Lithub. Not surprisingly, I talk about a lot of similar things on there as well. Have a listen if it interests you.

P.P.S And to those curious, my re-transition to an Australian accent failed, lol.


How To Cure A Ghost is a free (almost) weekly newsletter. If you find value in what I write and read this regularly, please consider financially supporting its creation by becoming a paid subscriber or Venmo or PayPal me. If you find value in what I write but can’t financially support its creation, please share.