No such thing as unpractical knowledge

It’s the first day of Ramadan and it’s the first time ever observed in a government-sanctioned coronavirus lockdown. Ramadan has always been a communal month for us Muslims, where we focus on praying jum’ah and doing more good and at the same time take part in joyous iftars together with family and friends, so I am slow to accept the fact that while it’s completely different, it should not take the joy away from the holy month. It might be that it’s only the first day, and unlike everyone, I always take time to invite in acceptance, and I allow that for myself this time.

I came across Shakira’s — whose hips don’t lie — tweet where she graduated from an Ancient Philosophy course from the University of Penn through Coursera. I am pretty sure at this point of time the course is already brimming with new applications, but what caught my attention was her remarks on how her “hobbies are unpractical”, which in my opinion, what hobbies should be?! So very often we are presented with the idea that our idea needs to ‘practical’ — which is another word in a capitalistic sense, ‘commercial’ thus ‘be able to make money out of it’. I remember the times (this is where I went the Internet boomer route) when we built Geocities websites and Myspace sites for fun. Who cares if it was filled with glitters and haphazardly placed gifs and annoying autoplay sound bytes, it was the time when we had the separation between fun and work and we knew they were not going to house our resume. Andrew Granato wrote in one edition of The Margins:

I think the main thing that is being lost in this shift is the (relative) ability to experiment freely and have a culture that reflects that option. The old internet was less overtly commercial and more willing to suspend disbelief about something that was obviously dumb if there was fun to be had from it, and so you could screw around and float in a sea of people doing the same thing and it wouldn’t matter at all. It was often innocent in the sense that people didn’t much assign real meaning to it, so you could start things and abandon them in this other sphere of life without feeling like it was even really you that was doing it.

It also reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s 1939 lecture to Oxford students, Learning in War-time (although I am not fond of the narrative of war to equate this time of the pandemic) where he urged students to persevere in knowledge-seeking, whatever that entails, in the advent of World War II. He posed the very same question I kept thinking today, about this business of learning ‘unpractical’ knowledge as the civilisation seems to come to a halt, as your friends, your family, and yourself are struggling to live. However, Lewis said, “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” and urged everyone to aim for any forms of knowledge-seeking because all human cultural activity certainly will not cease even during any crisis, so might as well make the best of it. Learn whatever you want to learn, as long as you are learning.

…it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.

Reading in my tabs:

  • We need to prepare for the next wave exacerbated out of Covid-19: the mental health crisis.
  • “Employers claim that workers are one of their top priorities, but don’t back that up by offering paid sick leave, thereby revealing a truer and deeply ingrained attitude that worker health is ultimately not their problem. But as COVID-19 has revealed, it is their problem–because it is a shared, collective problem with direct effects across a chain of workers, employers, and consumers.” Paid sick leave flatterns the curve.
  • “The coronavirus has been anything but a great equaliser. It’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide and exposing how deeply unequal this country is.” Asha Jaffar, a volunteer in Nairobi, Kenya, tells the New York Times about the impact of the pandemic.
  • Wow what the hell: Amazon-owned Whole Foods is quietly tracking its employees with a heat map tool that ranks which stores are most at risk of unionising.
  • “Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.
  • “In your extended absence, you permit me use of earth.”


  • Reading: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark.
  • Listening: Back to listening to Faraj Suleiman‘s music while I work on my viva voce preparation.
  • Viewing: This hilarious Hamlet as a vlogger adaptation. And also, as a fan of walking videos, I also recommend watching this 18-minute video walk-through of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens’ Japanese pavilion in full bloom, in full screen and with headphones on.
  • Food & Drink: We were preparing corn fritters and passion fruit tea for iftar, when neighbours arrived to send their homemade dishes. I love this neighbourhood already.

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