“It’s about sarees or some shit.” This sentence—probably my favorite in the dissertation—comes from a group interview with Chand Chandramohan, Diva, and Seelan Palay, the organizers of Singapore’s first all-South Asian contermporary art series, From Your Eyes to Ours. The quote shows up on page 99 for the second time in the chapter, just before the chapter’s conclusion starts. In this quote, multidisciplinary artist Chand Chandramohan summed up a series of assumptions that were routinely articulated by racially hegemonic Singaporean perceivers upon encountering the art event: that to be an Indian-Singaporean artist is to do “Indian art”—that is, to (re)produce traditional South Asian forms for Indian audiences—thus denying the possibility of their participating in contemporary art aesthetics.
Like most places existing in the wake of racialized/racializing modernity, in Singapore, to “belong” to a race is also to “possess” a language—at least ideally. Later on page 99, I note that the three co-organizers gave the title “Yes, I Speak Indian” to a visual art exhibition that occurred as part of From Your Eyes to Ours. This title acted as a form of shorthand satire, critiquing a recurrent assumption that “Indian” is a monolith, a single community that possesses and uses a single language.
Yet more than this, the organizers of From Your Eyes to Ours voiced and critiqued a deeper presupposition: that to invoke “Indian” in Singapore is to invoke not only a race, but also to legitimate Race. Referenced via the shorthand CMIO (an acronym standing for Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other Singaporeans), Race-capital-R stands as the sum total of all the “races of Singapore,” a self-evident, totalizing structure that shapes raciolinguistic hierarchies in the present without actually being total.
Beyond its contents, page 99 exemplifies my dissertation’s broader political stakes. Page 99 presents large stretches of the interview with Chand, Diva, and Seelan as theory-work, rather than relegating it to the status of mere evidence provided by an “informant.” Like the dissertation, page 99 also doesn’t shy away from the political: from deep, close engagement with the critiques of raciolinguistic hegemony, oppression, and marginalization that were generously articulated to me by my co-theorists in Singapore. Similarly, like page 99, the dissertation confronts my own status as a raciolinguistically hegemonic perceiver, as a token of a privileged type capable of accessing prestige registers of English, elite education, and white-passing privilege—among others.
Joshua Babcock. 2022. Image and the Total Utopia: Scaling Raciolinguistic Belonging in Singapore. University of Chicago, PhD.