On TikTok and The Breathlessness of Social Climbing
As he fishhooks his worn-out khaki jhola (bag) for keys and reaches out arm deep to the floor of his bag, the peculiar lines on his forehead curl up into a sweaty keyhole around his sandalwood tilak, and it is with some pensive exertion that he says,
“You cannot ever erase your caste. But you sure can pretend to change it.
The rules of the game are pretty simple back in my village.
If you have a hearth and nothing else, you count on god.
If you have a hearth and a cow, you can negotiate with your god.
If you have a hearth and a cow and a land, you are your own god.”
Ronge Kumar is a 39-year-old sweeper and errand guy at the local temple near my place of domicile in North Delhi, India. His favourite sport, second only to knowing all the Hindu gods’ genealogy trivia like the back of his hand, is stealing time for his almost ritualistic TikTok consumption in the slimy contours between the work-home binary at the temple.
While I conjecture up an introduction for him in foresight of a biographical essay I might someday write about him, he overruns my train of thought to continue his monologue: “One of the greatest pieces of unwitting disclosure is your father’s name. Your father might not leave you an inheritance but he sure will leave you a family name as a mortgage against your self respect. How do you go on pretending to be a different person while carrying your family tree on your shoulder? The city, with all its noise, is easy on you, because it does not have time to care.”
If all identity is indeed a performance, Kumar’s predicament really leaves me questioning the semantics of visibility in a society that, at once, implicates us as performers of our everyday identities and an audience to others’. This, I intend not as much in a Shakespearean sense of the word as much in a social constructionist sort of way. The fact that I ‘pass’ as a normal, functional unit of the social context, is but a deliberate, concerted project of everyday performance. However, when the context is all too familiar and the performer too visible, it is hard to ‘pass’ without being held to public scrutiny for everything you do. Thus, the respite Kumar attributes to the city is the relative autonomy that his anonymity here can afford for him. This anonymity is only augmented when he enters the internet, to a point of discord, if not dissociation from his identities back home and in the city. This is not to say that the internet exists in a social vacuum, free from the social categories that define our identity on the ground, but that it offers every new entrant a clean slate.
Kumar’s TikTok profile, then, is an embodiment of his existential anxieties of upward social mobility. His TikTok username, ‘Pandit’ Ronge, above everything, enables him to attach a Brahminical prefix to his name, something that is inaccessible to him in the material world. What we see with Kumar then is a more universal tendency to use the virtual world to live one’s aspirations vicariously, as in when a 5-year-old chooses a conventionally attractive gaming avatar to represent themself to the other players, but more so, a social desire for upward movement. The caste system in India, like most hierarchies, can be understood as a classic game of Jenga, wherein each participant takes a turn removing one of the blocks not located on the top three levels and places it on top of the tower without knocking it down. One’s participation in the game not only presupposes but also actively ensures that the larger structure of hierarchical arrangement of the blocks stays in place. An inevitable consequence of the mobility of the blocks, however, is that the base of the tower progressively becomes more unstable and struggles to support its heavy top until it eventually collapses, with the loser being the participant who pulled the block that caused the demolition.
How caste operates in India is much like the rules of Jenga, in that it is as self preservatory as it is self-destructive. This is to say that while the rules of the game ensure that the larger structure stays in place, acting out those very rules also creates possibilities of change within it. But nobody wants to be singled out as the loser who upset the structure. Thus, mobility desires, if not demands, anonymity. Most social systems, in that sense, are a long negotiation of social position within the structure. In negotiating this place, it puts forth its end of the bargain, creates new fiction to support its claim, and gradually acquires cultural practices of those above it in the hierarchy. Social mobility is a cumbersome summit. You spend most days social climbing and other days catching your breath from all the climbing.
But, in the true Foucauldian sense, what Pandit Ronge also does is that in order of being represented, ends up subjectifying himself by the very presupposition of representation. That is, while you start with a clean slate, the moment you start representing yourself, you also start creating fiction about yourself and the group people associate you with. This idea approximates the terrain this essay attempts to explore. Most of what I am trying to say then lies in the contours of being the butt of a joke and cracking a joke, which is to say, “Are we laughing at a person or with a person?” or “Is the person less subject, more object of humour?” This is not to say that performance of humorous content cannot be funny but the fact that something that is being performed diligently by one, comes across as funny to another, is an act of violence to the performer’s diligence.
The ways in which TikTok is consumed today, like most entertainment, is an idiom for our social existence. For the uninitiated, TikTok is a video app for creating and sharing short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos. Previously known as ‘Musical.ly’, it was acquired in 2018 by a Chinese tech firm and merged with its Asian counterpart to become TikTok. Currently, with over 800 million active users, the app has snowballed into an online entertainment giant with popular creators on the app burgeoning into social media influencers. How then is TikTok any different from its American short-form video counterpart ‘Vine’, except that it is not shutting down anytime soon? Social context, mostly.
TikTok in India has seeped into Indian houses through the creaks in our ceilings, and the damp in our walls, strumming the iron bars on our windows like an amateur guitarist mindlessly learning to toy around with a guitar. From the iconisation of the Indian mother butting out her kid from the frame to invite people for tea with her catchphrase, “Hello friends, chai peelo”, to impassioned, young, brown men, bawling their eyes out in classic misogynistic Bollywood bereavement fashion; from drought-hit farmers in Maharashtra lip-syncing to colloquial protest songs and unionising on the internet to teenagers turned lip-syncing social media influencers, landing modelling contracts, TikTok has captured the popular imagination in India, with no precedent. While humour is one of the top genres of content creation on the app, a larger source of humour is that which is unintended. While the content of most of these videos reinstates heteronormative, fat-phobic, often hyper nationalist semantics of Indian households, the performers are also, more often than not, rampantly fat-shamed and trolled in casteist, classist ways by the elite, the ignorant, the woke and the conservative, alike. Meme pages on Facebook and Instagram create targeted content laughing away what they call the ‘chapri’ TikToker. ‘Chapri’, as defined by the urban dictionary is a colloquial slur in Bombay for ‘low-tier wannabe fuckboys, characterised by ripped jeans, neon flip-flops, coloured hair, and speeding motorcycles. Mostly found within the Bandra-Kurla-Andheri triad.’ Given how hyperlocal it is, the context of the ‘chapri’ performers is that the Kurla- Andheri region houses some of the largest, most densely populated slums in the country. We cannot thus, begin to understand the violence of humour without politicising identities. TikTok in India is as much about entertainment and trolling, characteristic of the rest of the internet, as it is about reclamation and ownership of entertainment. While it lets some live a Bollywood dream or a social mobility dream, it is also implicated in the meanings that construct it. This is to say that the liberation it affords comes from a presupposed bargain of socio-cultural capital, where a 17-year-old with a ring light and an iPhone will pivot an influencer career, in spite of trolls, while a 19-year-old ‘gully boy’ becomes a one-hit wonder because of trolls or is jettisoned in the hyperspace of the internet. But, again, it is not as binary as my last sentence makes it sound and the eclecticism is where the heart of internet democratisation lies. As I sit musing the politics of humour in the temple backyard, the large clock in the temple ticks six and Ronge calls me out from through the large iron gate of the temple asking if I want to watch him record his prayers for TikTok. I relent and call it a day.
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