A NOTE ON THIS PAGE
The entries on this page reflect an effort to document the unfolding of the NEW SCHOOLS seminar taught at Princeton in the Spring Term of 2023 (taught by D. Graham Burnett and Jeff Dolven; launch syllabus here). Entries below follow a basic format: first, several pre-class-meeting “reflections” on the week’s reading (by students in the seminar, initialed at the end, to indicate authorship); then post-seminar reflections by Burnett & Dolven. Throughout the thread everyone involved in the course has added comments and links, images, etc. We use the following convention for comments: green text and single brackets for first-order interventions; blue text (and double brackets) for comments on comments; and violet text (and triple brackets) for comments on comments on comments (later we added orange for fourth-degree comments). Initialing comments is standard. For an earlier example of all of this at work, consider skimming the chat thread from this course, taught several years ago.
We used the thread below for Weeks 1-8, after which the seminar format switched to student presentations on specific “cases.” For more on that, go here.
DGB & JD
* * *
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.
Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 1-41.
A few thoughts about our first session. First, just a thank you. It felt good to launch. And (perhaps you could sense this?), there is something very special for me to return to the classroom with my friend Jeff – we last co-taught in the pre-pandemic era. And that feels a little like a different world…
But we are in this world now, and in it we are committed, again, to what can happen in a classroom – and beyond it!
So here we go…
We got underway by circling the room, and letting everyone say a few words about a “teaching situation” that informed the desire to become, oneself, a teacher (assuming, of course, that this is a way we thing about ourselves – we tried to leave that a bit open…)
The results were rich. So interesting to hear from everyone about “scenes of instruction” that left important memories. I began, myself, by talking about “the seminar NOT TAKEN” – Wittgenstein with the charismatic Victor Preller. His Aquinas seminar marked me, but I was too afraid to continue with him into the twentieth century. Had he done something wrong? No, not at all. But his power as a thinker/teacher, his passion, left me worried I would be wobbled by the walk with him into material that did not as easily align with my (youthful) soul.
We went full circle, too, because by the time we got around the room, Jeff finished the loop by talking about the Wittgenstein seminar he DID take – with none other than Jonathan Lear, the author of one of our readings for the session. And Jeff affectingly invoked the way that Lear split the difference between philosophy and psychoanalysis – carefully declining (as Jeff experienced it) to offer the positive confirmations of insight that are at least one key way to conceive the teaching role. Thrown back onto himself, frustratingly, Jeff was left to wonder about what in what he was working to know was his own affair.
Or anyway, that was how I heard the story. And it put me in mind of the lovely introduction to Jeff’s first book…
Right. So. I am not going to try to summarize all of your powerful and beautiful “primal scenes” of teaching and learning. Maybe Jeff will! But I can list a few things that ended up in my notes – stuff to which, perhaps, we will return:
- Comic/Radical Permission
- Virtuosic Command (of the material)
- Softness (this one gets a star – worth returning to that; what does it mean?)
- Ideality (some teachers became role models, or conveyed a sense of a possible/desirable “form of life”)
- Community building
Again and again we heard (and articulated) versions of the notion that a teacher had played a role in helping us “take responsibility” for our own formations/educations. Or had made us feel that we ourselves were “being taken seriously” as thinkers or readers or makers. I am reminded, too, that R.S. slightly pivoted on the question, saying (as I heard him) something along the lines of “it is hard to pull out a ‘moment,’ since teaching and learning has been, for me, so much about relationships.” This, too, stayed with me.
We did a turn out into the nuts and bolts of the course – the syllabus, the assignment, the aspirations (only later did we ponder the etymology of this word…). I’ll pass over all of that here, only underscoring that our idea is that across the first half of the class we will use our history and theory readings to help us build out, collectively, a kind of “template” for thinking about “cases” of educational innovation (“New Schools”). It will be that template that we will all then use, in the second half of the course, as we try to create a kind of library of comparable write-ups about the set of school-experiments that you choose as your final-project topics. More on all of that as we go…
After the short break, we dug in on the Lear and the Simpson. A number of the terms that surfaced in that conversation ended up on the blackboard (I stitched together a photo of it, and have dropped it in above). It is worth looking back at those fragments. I find the line across the top quite touching: “Understanding things by seeing how they are wrong.” Sums up a significant thread through our educational forms, no? And yet, on that course, the process of understanding becomes a species of alienation. Or no? Hmmm.
We spent time on the relationship between the two texts – which can fit together in a number of ways. Certainly one temptation was to ask whether a figure like Nanabush belongs in the sequence of (canonical) deep-ironizing teachers surfaced by Lear: Socrates and Kierkegaard.
I will perhaps add my reservation about the Lear (which I much admired): I think I was not convinced, in the end, that he successfully defends the idea that “the ironic experience” is in fact anything other than another iteration of (garden-variety?) “critical reason.” Or, to put it another way, I am not sure one can hold space for a god-struck erotic uncanniness unless one is willing to invoke an effectively theological posture. What for me separates Lear’s left column (“normal” social scientific modes of recursive critical scrutiny) from the right column (“which invokes the aspiration,” as he puts it) is exactly the metaphysics he explicitly disavows, when he writes, “a life exemplifying any of the categories in the right-hand column is neither ineffable nor supernatural” (p. 26).
So I am “with” him, I think, in the broadest sense: we do indeed need to maintain ways of thinking and doing (teaching and learning) that can parse his left column from his right. And I am also with him that his ironic heroes can be understood to be using irony to subserve ideality (rather than merely distancing themselves and others from ordinary conditions of being). But he seems to think he can bring us with him on these claims without reference to metaphysics. And that seems to me to be incorrect.
But perhaps I am wrong?
What can surely NOT be wrong is Simpson’s powerful exhortation on page 18: “If you want to learn something….Get a practice.” I think that deserves to be boldface:
GET A PRACTICE.
* * *
That opening round of everyone’s scenes of instruction could be a kit for the whole course. Graham is right!—I ended up making a short catalogue, catching everybody I hope. I’ll just echo him first, though, what a joy (and kind of a relief) to be back together with him, us two and us too, all of us.
OK: let me just meander through my memory, and my notes, make a few observations, and pull out a few big questions that we’ll likely find ourselves following. One common theme: almost everyone’s example turned around a particular person, almost always a professional teacher; methods, institutions, other students were variously involved and entailed, but it was a gesture, a tone or touch, a particular white seersucker suit that seemed to come first to mind. (Do schools matter? Or only teachers?) We will often be reading about pedagogies and institutional structures, and we will have to learn to recognize the teachers that inhabit them, and reckon whether and when we can parse charisma and experience from syllabus and method. (Schools will often want to disavow their dependence on particular teachers; when should we credit them?) PH and EH between them raised some version of this question about an architecture seminar that seemed to succeed for being both critical (“how can we be more radical?”) and also very personal. FS gave us a teacher who was gruffly generous with students’ mistakes. (What counts as wrong in a school? If anything?) ZM spoke affectingly about a teacher’s demanding “softness”; what is that quality, and why should it make a difference? Sheer enthusiasm for the subject was transformative for LD. Sometimes these teachers taught clear lessons, sometimes they offered themselves as examples, as HB’s teacher did, a cool, charismatic intellectual interloper in an academy of athletes. AK’s intaglio professor was an example (or maybe even an allegory) of disciplined craft. (What is the pedagogical role of imitation, implicit or explicit?) RS saw the meaning and value of study in relationships developed over time, but he also wondered whether anything in those relationships could be isolated as teaching. (Is there such a thing as teaching? Or only learning?) Freud does place teaching among the impossible professions, with government and, of course, psychoanalysis.
Other moments mixed personal tribute with a particular incarnation of method. So, NB’s professor with his gift for generous paraphrase. (What is the pedagogical role of translation?) A couple of teachers impressed for the sheer mass, even completeness, of their knowledge, as for CA. (What does a teacher need to know to teach; what does a student need to know to (have) learn(ed); what counts, in a given school, as knowledge?) NI was treated to a structuralist Simpsons. (What is the pedagogical role of analysis—cutting things into their parts?) There was also some reflection on seriousness, and being taken seriously, as with CB’s no-cocktails MFA seminar and MG’s extra-curricular, after-class reading list. We may want to ponder the weight of that word, serious, as we go. CA emphasized the lesson of perseverance from artists she has worked with. CF told us about a teacher who allowed her to separate the study of architecture from glamorized suffering. (Should school be hard? What kind of hard? Why?) If there were any exceptions to this focus on teachers, perhaps they came from TU (whose scene of instruction was a community in Buenos Aires) and JM, whose teacher’s open-ended, borderline-irresponsible assignment forced him to take is education “into his own hands.” (What does learning have to do with independence?)
Along with those questions, I’d like to keep in mind, as well, a couple of basic ones that came up, about the individual (How much of life does the school concern itself with: technical knowledge, political commitment, personal comportment, etc.?) and about the school in its context (What is the relation of a school to its society: preparation, critique, model, etc.?). Above all though, I hope we can carry forward the affecting thoughtfulness and openness of these stories. Everybody in a schooled society is shaped in the most profound and intimate ways by who taught them and how and where. For those of us who want to be teachers, the complexity of those influences is compounded. If we can stay that close to our experiences, and our feelings—we will do well.
OK: on to our discussions of the readings, Lear and Simpson. DGB and I had an intuition that they would make a good pair, and as I prepared for class I felt that intuition confirmed: we could start out with a bracing contrast between Simpson’s immanent, continuous place-pedagogy, and Lear’s transcendental irony; between the view from here, and the view from nowhere (two different places to build your school); between learning as a way of life, and learning as an interruption of life. So I was surprised that RS got us started with the opposite idea: roughly, that these two essays were quite alike, in that they both endorsed tradition, and were in some sense conservative. For Simpson, that meant the cultivation (and reconstruction) of Nishnaabeg ways of learning. For Lear, transcendental irony, for all of its abstraction from practical identity, was nonetheless potentially, indeed ideally, loyal to it. There was some dissatisfaction in the room on both counts, and that will be worth thinking about as we go. A couple of different accounts of “radical” may be in play. Do we mean by that word a return to a root, and if so, is that a historical root (some prior, effectively originary cultural formation) or a fundamental principle (for example, justice, or equality)? Or does it (also) mean for us a break and a novelty, a new beginning?
We puzzled over the way Lear’s conception of irony seemed to cross over into theology. “Ironic existence need not show up in any particular behavioral manifestation—though how one inhabits the social pretense will nonetheless be transformed” (30). As I said in class, this remains strange for me to encounter from the man who taught me Wittgenstein, given W.’s skepticism of the tendency to posit inner states that have no knowable expressions. It struck DGB and others as metaphysical, not to say theological. How do you make the apparently categorical leap from ordinary into radical irony? [yes – or distinguish “conventional” reflective/critical rationality from the “higher” (?) form of defamiliarizing distance at play in Lear’s big-I Irony – DGB] And for that matter, how do you get back? How do you travel between here and nowhere? (Let alone, commute?) It should be said that Lear does keep returning to the experience of radical irony, of being “grabbed” or “shaken.” Maybe we do well to hold on to that, to a feeling that is distinctive and powerful, a feeling that we often want to explain as though it were a moment of detachment, abstraction etc., or even ecstasy, in the sense of standing outside. (And in that case, his distinction has some force: radical irony, that exhilarating vertiginous anchorless clarity, is a different feeling from the self-dissonance of vernacular irony, with its shades of knowingness, sarcasm, resignation, etc.) Does education require such moments? Or even consist in them? Does teaching, does learning? (In the way that poetry is something that happens only occasionally in a poem?) Just one more thought about grabbing and shaking—who grabs, who shakes? Lear is definitely not talking about corporal punishment, but the role of such main-strength somatic interventions in schools is a pretty ancient business. Hmmmmm.
[DGB paused on the phrase “to bring someone up short.” There’s something wonderful about this expression. It runs into itself, rising to diminish. Drop “short” and it’s “to bring someone up,” to edify. Keep it, and it means to give someone pause, to make them stop. Sudden perplexity, open-mouthed inadequacy are a leitmotif in much of the classical pedagogy literature we have read. But in Sitka, we heard another phrase which means the same but also a completely different thing: “to hold someone up.” I’m struck by how these wordings encapsulate two very different pedagogical models, both built around the potentiality of the break. RS]
We just scratched the surface of Simpson’s argument about land as pedagogy (as it were). We can return to it, as a description of a kind of pedagogical immanence. To take context-as-curriculum is to assume that nature and culture, as an integrated, mutually attuned totality, will train up a young person with lessons appropriate to their age as they go. (“Train,” “lesson”: imperfect words.) There are some particular ways of coming-to-know to study here: imitating animals, for the younger; and believing in advance, not after, for the older. But the force of the argument is a project of historical repair: it is addressed to the damages done by colonial pedagogy and society, and the alienation of the Nishnaabeg from the land. So, a number of binaries imposed by coloniality are undone, for example, the distinction between narrative and theory. A story can be a theory, and theory can be for everyone, a form of integration into community rather than an abstraction from it. “The implicate order provides the stories that answer all our questions” (12). And learning seems to happen not as a result of discipline and effort, but as an opening in spaces of leisure and happiness. (Though Kwezens does have to answer her mother’s questions, and then demonstrate her discovery to the community—both are forms of evaluation, and come with some anxiety, which is managed by love and care and also successful learning.)
It’s worth asking how Simpson wants her larger academic audience, outside the tribe, to read the essay. Does it explain why efforts should be made to grant the nation (a word she uses often) the autonomy to revive a version of this traditional pedagogy? Does it offer a program that anyone could follow? Between those two, are there lessons or maxims (e.g. about proceeding from belief rather than doubt, or about the role of imitation) that are applicable in other school settings? She is alert to the ironies here, though as CA pointed out, that doesn’t mean she has an answer to them.
A final word about Nanabush. I want to keep after that question of the place of the trickster in the school, and the affinities between Nanabush and Lear’s trickster-heroes, Socrates and Kierkegaard. Is Nanabush as trickster of a piece with the pedagogy of land? Is he a supplement to it? Does he in some sense contradict it, point out the insufficiencies of an immersion in what is, the need for guile, concealment, wit, transgression etc.? And if he is an instance of contradiction—what do we make of that? We will be tempted throughout to be critical of the schools (institutional, theoretical) that we encounter, to prise open the way they contradict themselves, or our own values, or both. That’s not a reflex to banish by any means. It is a basic mode of understanding. Schools themselves will often claim to be critical. But the sternest negative-dialecticians will acknowledge that no cultural construction is without its contradictions. Managing contradiction is what culture is for. School too? We’ll want to get interested in the strategies by which various schools make their bid to resolve the antinomies of education, which might include that dubious distinction between teacher and student, between freedom and discipline, etc. etc. Sometimes critique will be the right instrument. Sometimes something maybe more like incubation: nourish these contradictions, and see where they lead us. Growing up, after all, provides ever new resolutions to problems of freedom and discipline, and growing up is (maybe?) what education is about. Contradiction is in itself a synchronic phenomenon and education is diachronic. Fortunately that’s what a seminar is for, to give what we study some time.
Plato: Meno; Protagoras, excerpts (317e-328d, on teaching virtue); Republic, excerpts from Book II-III (367d-417b, on the polis and on imitation and arts), Book IV (419-445b, on the city and the soul), and Books VI-VII (486d-341b, on sophistry, and the allegory of the cave). The pdf’s here are from Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997).
Isocrates: Antidosis, in Isocrates I, tr. David C. Mirhady and Yun Lee Too (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), pp. 201-264.
Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), pp. 1-93.
Judy Chicago (and others), “Womanhouse” (take a look at the primary sources; watch the 40-minute film).
OPENING THINK PIECES (NB & RS)
I wanted to begin my post with a paraphrastic rendering of a scene from the Isocrates reading and move to a consideration of its relevance for our discussion last week about “practice,” the paradoxical commitment of education (in its radical and “conservative” manifestations) to both heterogeneity and homogeneity, and the faculties or psychic/cognitive processes for which teachers are responsible. Isocrates’s Antidosis instantiates and defends the practical limits of philosophical instruction against the twinned charges of impotent overpromising and corruption. The former camp argues that those lucky pupils who do go on to lead distinguished public lives owe their success to innate talents alone and, incongruously, that sophism itself seeks to flatten all qualitative distinctions between “the lazy” and “the diligent” (what in contemporary parlance we might call “equality” of outcomes). Against this group of critics, Isocrates defends the modest claims of genuine pedagogy: “We acquire knowledge through hard work and we each put into practice what we learn in our own way” (15.201, p. 243, emphasis mine). This line of argumentation, Isocrates says, both disingenuously inflates the normative value, or intention, of such instruction (everybody who studies with Isocrates ought to and will become an Eunomos or Lysitheides) and unfairly diminishes its propitious effects. In other words, Isocrates maintains that he can aid those with natural talent achieve a degree of excellence hitherto impossible, while those lacking such congenital facilities are, through study and practical application, able to rise above their gifted, but uncultivated, counterparts. To the second allegation, Isocrates contends that, besides the more obvious point that proselytizing unscrupulous behavior (even cleverly or through dissemblance) would destroy a teacher’s reputation almost instantly, man’s natural corruption renders any education in its exercise unnecessary, “Furthermore, why would [any student] waste money for the sake of evil, when they can do evil whenever they want without paying anything? No one needs to learn such deeds; he only has to do them” (15.225, p. 247).
I wanted to isolate Isocrates’ first defense against those critics who insist that his teaching must necessarily lead to (again anachronistically) equality of educational outcome. He insists that he never promised any such thing and, moreover, that the diverse gradations of talent, fortune, and practical experience ensure that, “From every school only two or three become competitors, while the rest go off to be private citizens” (15.201, p. 243). Later, however, he describes such education as resembling the other practical and bodily arts in its common objective, coming to mirror their instructor through a dual process of individual-practical application and mimesis, “All those who have had a true and intelligent leader would be found to have so similar an ability in discourse that it becomes obvious to everyone that they received the same basic education. If they had no common character or basic technical training instilled in them, they could not have achieved such a similarity” (15.204, p. 244). Is the distinction here a simple one between content and form? What unites the “naturally talented” and those C+ students who “go off to be private citizens”? Is it a shared commitment to the embodied practice of rhetoric, the psychic preparedness for and extemporaneous capacity to form judgments or opinions (doxa) in those “opportune moments [which] elude exact knowledge” (15.184, p. 240). Is this about the cultivation of dispositions and the capacity to “self-authorize,” in the words of later German idealists? I was quite taken with Isocrates’s general (though not unequivocal) demotion of philosophy to the level of other mechanical and bodily arts. In addition, he imposes clear limitations on its social and civic utility while defending its value as a precondition for virtuous public life and heeding attention to the intimate, bilateral relationship between speaking well (aesthetic and rhetorical perfection) and speaking truthfully, without reducing one to the other. It would be instructive to compare his views on how virtue is transmitted, its “teachability,” with those of Plato, Menos, Protagoras, and, to a lesser extent, Stiegler.
As such, I also wanted to briefly raise the issue of the generational transmission of ethical commitment through the law (and its derivation from the polyphonous and protean symbolic order, treated in starkly similar ways in both Isocrates and Stiegler, their normative commitments notwithstanding) and the relationship of the teacher to the burdens, judgment, and aporia of history.
In addition, we are presented this week with several different pedagogic forms, rhetorical strategies, modes of emplotment, and instruction, and ways of arriving at the telos (or lack thereof) of that instruction: from the classic Socratic elenchus, to Isocrates’s idiosyncratic deployment of legalistic discourse (which helps him both make his substantive case for philosophy while immanently critiquing the infirmity of “juridical speech” itself), to Stiegler’s “traditional” (though polysemous and erudite) academic monograph, to Judy Chicago et. al’s spatial and environmental intervention. What can these different means of intellectual expression tell us about the multimodal nature of learning and what types of engagement (sensorial, psychic, emotional, etc.) do they demand?
On a completely unrelated note, I also wanted to include a brief list of my favorite movies about education, schooling, expertise, “responsibility” in the Stieglerian valence, etc., along with their Letterbox’d descriptions, for your perusal!
“A group of academics have spent years shut up in a house working on the definitive encyclopedia. When one of them discovers that his entry on slang is hopelessly outdated, he ventures into the wide world to learn about the evolving language. Here he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer, who’s on top of all the slang—and, it just so happens, needs a place to stay.”
“This biblical drama focuses on the teachings of Jesus, including the parables that reflect their revolutionary nature. As Jesus travels along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, he gradually gathers more followers, leading him into direct conflict with the authorities.”
“Documents the lives of infamous fakers Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving. De Hory, who later committed suicide to avoid more prison time, made his name by selling forged works of art by painters like Picasso and Matisse. Irving was infamous for writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles moves between documentary and fiction as he examines the fundamental elements of fraud and the people who commit fraud at the expense of others.”
[Hey! I freaking LOVE this movie, and taught it in The Art of Deception class a while back… -DGB]
“A group of bored teenagers rebel against authority in the community of New Granada.” [this movie is insane]
“Four very different Montreal university teachers gather at a rambling country house to prepare a dinner.”
“An unemployed Brit vents his rage on unsuspecting strangers as he embarks on a nocturnal London odyssey.”
“Steve Clark is a newcomer in the town of Cradle Bay, and he quickly realizes that there’s something odd about his high school classmates. The clique known as the “Blue Ribbons” are the eerie embodiment of academic excellence and clean living. But, like the rest of the town, they’re a little too perfect. When Steve’s rebellious friend Gavin mysteriously joins their ranks, Steve searches for the truth with fellow misfit Rachel.”
“A high school teacher’s personal life becomes complicated as he works with students during the school elections.”
“An Ivy League professor returns home, where his pot-growing twin brother has concocted a plan to take down a local drug lord.”
* * *
Jeff and Graham were not kidding when they warned us that assignments for this course may require us to adjust our habits of reading. How do we read Plato’s Socratic dialogues, or Isocrates’ Antidosis? Both are highly mediated textual artifacts that complicate, if not wholly block, our desire to extract chunks of knowledge out from the play of presentation. How about Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations? This is a text that mobilizes the genres of treatise, plaidoyer, call to arms, and “think-piece,” in the effort to explode the firmament of petrified ideas about schooling and to reconnect us to its vital roots: the formation of an integrated (‘transindividuated’) self and society by the techne of attentive care. And what do we make of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s film Womanhouse? How does this filmic reverberation of a site-specific art installation, and the feminist collective that emerged with it, document the pedagogy of the place (to adapt Simpson’s term) in practice?
There is a problem, at least for me it’s a problem, of approach. I don’t think this is only a question of how to cope with the multiple genres/media of our sources. It’s also not necessarily an issue with their quantity. To be sure, when Graham and Jeff gave their fair warning, they were referring to the practice (apparently, it’s routine in Dickenson Hall) of assigning more books per week than I have fingers per hand with which to read and write about them. But I understood their remarks another way, too. For the problem of “how to read” is baked into the premise of this course. To contemplate “New Schools” in an old-school environment is almost by definition going to be self-reflective. So, let’s think about the “Sources and Authorit[ies]” of “Received Wisdom” (to speak with, and slightly tweak, the syllabus heading for this week) as they appear to us in the time and place this seminar. (Well, seminar blog, really.)
I’ll focus in my “think piece” on the Socratic texts, especially Meno. What kind of “New School” do we find in a text like Meno? We might start by observing that a Socratic dialogue is not like most other texts. It is certainly not like many texts we would normally call “scholarly,” i.e., texts befitting of those engaged with schools and schooling. (Let’s put aside, for a moment, the interesting speculation that Meno was supposedly the first text on the syllabus at Plato’s Academy in ancient Athens; though we might wonder that Plato did start a school, in fact; I don’t think we can say the same about Socrates, though many might claim to be his students.) The issue is, and I think it’s no trivial point, that a Socratic dialogue does not speak for itself. Socrates (forget Plato) doesn’t communicate directly to us as readers or hearers of the dialogue. At the same time, we can assume from entrances like Anytus’ (89c ff.) we – people like us – are ‘implied’ by the texts as living participants (invited guests, as it were, like Meno) in the dialogic space. But what kind of participants are we, and what kind of space do we enter and make when we reenact the dialogue in reading?
It’s not original to observe that Plato’s use of the dialogue form is of a piece with its ‘content.’ Already Aristotle pointed out that the Socratic dialogues are not apodictic but dramatic works and “akin to mime” (Poetics, somewhere). But we might then ask ourselves, of what is dialogue an imitation, a mime, a gesture? What is Meno (the text) doing? It’s helpful (as least to me it is) to think about Steigler’s thought that attention arises through certain “technologies” (or “techniques”). Of course, lots of people talk about a “Socratic method,” and supposedly some of what goes on under that name bears some resemblance to what we read in this text. But I’m struck by something else, and it is the ‘situatedness’ of the dialogue as an encounter between two individuals, rather than a battlefield of ideas. After all, the text is titled (apparently authentically so) Meno. It’s not titled after its theme, i.e., “Virtue,” even though it could have been, and like the Republic was. This seems important because it invites us to think about what is happening to Meno’s soul, his psyche, throughout the drama of the dialogue. For instance, when he is being “torpedoed” (his word; 80a-b). “Who is Meno,” we might ask, as Socrates does, at 71b, the very beginning of the dialogue. While we’re at it, we might ask the same about Socrates, and be mindful of changes in our own souls/psyches, when accept his invitation to “seek together” what it is we are wanting to know (80d).
Thinking about how Meno can help us think about “New Schools,” I’d like to offer some questions to close. Who is the Socrates we find in the Meno? How would we characterize him (trickster? ironist? teacher?)? Can we discern something like a Socratic ethos on display in interactions with Meno (say, at 70a-73c, and 80a-81e), Anytus (89e-94e), and Meno’s slave (82b-85c)? Are there any positive models, or hints of models, of collectivity, any chances for empowerment, from these encounters? (Maybe let’s deal with the Republic excerpts, where this is an explicit topic of conversation, separately.) What do we make of Meno’s “dramatic arc;” does Meno end up where we started; did we witness something like learning, and if so, how was it brought about?
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS BY DGB & JD BELOW)
We had a lot to talk about today. And we launched from the two think pieces above, which so nicely move from the Isocrates to the Meno — and set us up with half a dozen good questions. We read both of them aloud (we won’t always do this), and used the occasion to put this chat thread up on the screen and look at it together.
(That also provided an opportunity to review the technics of our WordPress site, and to go over the nuts and bolts of the CMS. With luck, everyone should now be ready to post comments and references in here using our conventions. Let’s all try to do one intervention — however small! — by our next class meeting.)
We went into the Meno first, and our baseline question was, “what kind of teacher is this?” or, perhaps, “what kind of teaching is this?” Later, we would put the question differently: “is there a school here?”
As far as the last of these versions is concerned, I hazarded a negative. Plato, certainly, had a “school.” But Socrates feels like a gadfly, like an unusual/insurgent/charismatic singularity. One has little sense of “students.” Also, perhaps this is exactly to ask a crucial “NEW SCHOOLS” question: Do schools need students?
Bracket that. (Although it seems worth pointing out that Womanhouse would seem to be difficult to parse into teachers and students…) [CA note: Ya I agree with this. Womanhouse is a success in part because student is teacher; teacher is student. These binaries have no jurisdiction in that space. And, more food for thought; such a configuration of multiplicities can be found in one person and not only in one house, or school:
Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963]
The Meno can be divided into two parts, and one can reasonably ask whether we learn more about Socrates’s pedagogy in the first half (the seemingly formal conversation with Meno himself) or in the second (where Socrates very definitely “performs” a lesson, demonstrating his theory of anamnesis by means of extensive parley with Meno’s slave). In the first part we catch a glimpse of Socrates the “torpedo”—not really a “stingray” I shouldn’t think, as the Guthrie translation has it, but rather a specifically electric ray (Torpedo torpedo). His power? To stun, to numb. A glancing contact produces paralysis; one isn’t sure what to say next.
In the second part, however, there is none of that. Instead, Socrates seems immensely adroit at eliciting exactly what he wants in this phase of his teaching-work. He gets a lot of movement and speech out of his pupil.
Which of these is “the Socratic method” still thematized in law school classrooms? The latter, really, I think. The leading by questions. Not the rendering-mute by stupefying techniques of Destruktion. That is pretty uncommon in the professional schools of our time, I should think.
Both of these modes, however, can be understood performatively, and we spent a good deal of time on theatrical/performative readings of several key moments in the text. (Important reference here, which came up in our conversation, Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas.)
This passage detained us. We noticed that Socrates is here “performing” the kind of philosophical answer that Meno seems to want — in contradistinction to the kind of answer that Socrates has already provided (which doesn’t conform to Meno’s Gorgias-addled sensibility). There is something of the hypnotic in the way Socrates’ interlocutor here, as elsewhere, appears to be slipstreamed into a peculiar zombie-conformity with Socrates’s “script.” (In the final line, some translations actually have “Theatrical” for “high-sounding” — the Greek term, Justin pointed out, is a cognate adjective meaning “tragical” or “of or pertaining to the high style of theater”; there is a whole super-interesting essay on the translation of this word in the Meno that I just found — check it out!).
This hypno-zombifying foo is a feature of both part one and part two of the Meno, and it may have something to do with Meno’s own allusion to Socratic “wizardry” (and it may have more than a little to do with the rage of Anytus and others downstream).
Eros, too, figures here in this passage (at 76a) — and we permitted ourselves a moment of reflection on the libidinal economy of conversation in general, and pedagogical encounters more specifically.
RS suggested (as I understood him) that Socrates seems to come across as a person skilled/adroit in human situations — a person with a feel for what to do in conversation. And this feels really right. It goes to the heart of what obviously made Socrates so compelling to his contemporaries, as well as to the long tradition that inherited their efforts to document what he was “like.”
This made me want to invoke Nietzsche’s damning denunciation of “Socratism” in The Birth of Tragedy. For Nietzsche something of that very “personableness” — that extremely self-possessed, never-discomfited, hail-fellow-well-met energy — is precisely what marked Socrates as the new prophet of soullessness: Socrates was “happy,” because he basically liked the way his feel for things felt. Yes, he went around saying he didn’t know anything, but he seems to have been pretty sure he knew that — and he was cool with it.
What about pain? What about suffering? What about tragedy? Or even just BEAUTY — what about that? Nietzsche didn’t think Socrates had any equipment for that stuff. Indeed, that very incapacity was, in effect, his secret sauce. It’s what made him epochal. For Nietzsche, Socarates marked the birth of intellectual complacency masquerading as “inquiry.” This made him, in Nietzsche’s estimation, something like the patron saint of professors. This was a big ick for the uber-dramatic sage-bard of Sils Maria. From his perspective, neither knowing nor not knowing, thusly modeled, can do us any real good at all when it comes to the stuff that matters most: our existential condition, our existence before death, our status as hostages to time.
By affecting, and perhaps achieving, a blindness to all that, Socrates serves maieutically to engender a newly majestic stultification: cheerful thinking as supernal cluelessness.
(Full disclosure: I am sympathetic to this reading of the figure of Socrates, at least as he comes down to us.) [I’d be curious to hear more, DGB. For me, Nietzsche’s takedown, scathing as it is, lands on a strawman. I think this has to do with the “epochality” he attributes to S. I just don’t recognize much of the Socrates we read in the nineteenth-century German’s “Socratism.” Nietzsche casts Socrates as the grinch of tragedy and brands him as a “despotic logician” (112). Socrates wallpapered the awful truth of existence with the illusionary screen of “scientism” (3). Well, I’m all for pitting “science” against “art,” if that is what we’re doing (4). But why the Hellenic masks? Who was it that said all philosophy is “unconscious autobiography?” Oh, right. Don’t get me wrong. Nobody does brooding better than Nietzsche. But we just saw Socrates educate a slave and humble a tyrant with warmth and wit, no less. Talk about power. I’ll take him over caustic sneers and ecstatic ululations from a pontifical nay-sayer any day. RS]
Back all that out for a second. Ask a different question: What does it even mean to teach when you think everyone already knows everything?
This is, of course, a very deep question. We will see it answered in a manner that stands quite apart from the Meno when we get to Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Teaching in such a way as to demonstrate equality is a very radical project, and while Rancière positions it at the crucial nexus of democratic aspiration, Socrates, at least as figured by Plato, does not seem especially interested in playing out the (potentially democratic) implications of his own theory of knowledge. Certainly The Republic is anything but democratic/liberal — on the contrary, it is basically sort of terrifying. No?
The Noble Lie. We spent only a moment on this. It is such an extraordinary punctum in this canonical text. I referenced it in relation to the Stiegler, in that I believe it is not wrong to understand Steigler as centrally concerned with something like “mytho-facture.” Not that he is a fabulist, or a fantasist, or a proponent of some kind of cheap ideological propaganda. Not at all.
But when he alludes to “nootechnics” I take him to be referring to a stratum of shared commitment that is a layer deeper than “psychotechnics,” which are themselves deeper framing architectures that enable/condition our “primary retentions” (in a Husserelian sense).
Which is to say, human communities are built out of what they share by way of analytics/narratives that are themselves, functionally, “conditions of possibility” for thinking. These are contingent, emergent, and specific. They are historical. They are, in effect, “tradition.” They therefore stand in some ambivalent relation to what can be dismissively called “myth.” This layer of ourselves, when it is operational, is also a layer we share with others. It does not exactly defy critical scrutiny (one function of “reason” for Stiegler, a true inheritor of enlightenment ideals, is precisely the reflexive and emancipated investigation of such foundations). But we cannot, somehow, “do away with it” and remain human (the other function of reason is exactly to equip us to move from and with what we share). Here is Stiegler on just this (it is the passage I read in our final class exercise/discussion/experiment — see my marginalia about the echo I felt, here, of Lear on Socrates, last week, where we read that meditation on the “twinned-ness” of Socratic ironic distance/alienation [pausing all day to think] and Socratic civic commitment [fighting courageously like a good athenian]):
Part of what is so puzzling (fascinating, really) about Socrates’ theory of knowledge is the strange way it underscores and erases “history” all at once: on the one hand, everybody already knows everything because their souls are eternal, and therefore everyone has already come to understand everything across countless lives (learning is thus merely a matter of remembering); on the other hand, however, actual history is totally irrelevant, and indeed utterly undifferentiated (because everyone already knows everything, and all they need to do is remember it). The kinds of truths that are of interest here — Justin made this point — are not “bodies of knowledge” (they have no particularity, they cannot be located in time or space), they are, rather, eternal things, unchanging things, truths like those in geometry and logic.
I have already written a lot, so I am going to skip briskly through some of the rest of the stuff that was on my mind during our time. But I would be remiss if I omitted to mention the intensity of my reaction to the Isocrates. It was not a text I knew well before Jeff suggested it, and I really felt how beautifully it fit together with our other reading. The lovely chiasmus of this “apology” against Socrates’s own: both condemned for “corrupting the youth,” and one invoking philosophy as the anti-rhetorical, while the other invokes rhetoric as the “true” philosophy. Very beautiful, somehow. And affecting to think of the different outcomes.
For my part, in the space of politics, I am more sympathetic to Isocrates’s invocation of “public reason,” and the essentially civic/discursive work of persuasion. One can hardly think of a more “rhetorical” move than saying “my way of getting to the truth is 100% rhetoric-free!” and something about that aspect of the Socratic-philosophical program creeps me out. As a historian of science, I have long been especially interested in the forms of truth-making that have succeeded, maximally, in presenting themselves (successfully) as “just” the truth-stuff, with none of the human-stuff. This is sort of how science works. And it is powerful magic. And by no means trivial. Nor is it all some kind of “ruse.” But its modes do not conduce, in my view, to successful orchestration of social life in which humans flourish in their non-inhumanity, and do so well with other beings. The reasons for this should be obvious: it is an “inhuman” project, so it deals imperfectly with humans.
So give me Isocrates any day over Socrates, if the project is organizing a polis. Proto-pragmatism? I can see it…
CA note: “Concepts are more like a beating heart that reoxygenates the blood provided it is connected to the rest of the circulatory system.”
Bruno Latour, The five loops of the circulatory system of science (1999).
Ok. For the last thirty-five minutes we sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor and tried to do something along the lines of a “consciousness-raising” exercise — with “taking care of the youth” as the theme. It only sort of worked, maybe. Or even maybe didn’t work. Why not? Hard to say. But it was interesting to change our body positions, and reconfigure ourselves in the room.
And as for the Stiegler itself, I will say only that I do subscribe to the idea that education itself can be understood as the formation of attentional capacities. Some of you may know that I have given a lot of the last decade to work in this area (I am very actively involved with this non-profit activist coalition, called The Friends of Attention, that works in that area, and did this book last year).
Oh, and while we are on links. Here is a link to the gig-of-old: Jeff Dolven as the Socratic figure “Caspar Tootles” in a redux performance of the Symposium.
[mischievous winking emoji]
I’m going to start with some high-altitude thoughts about the readings—a map I made in my head on Wednesday morning, which, inevitably, we did not follow, but may be worth laying out for you now. Or maybe not a map, but a series of sketches. Let’s start with Plato, and the elenchus, particularly as we encounter it in the Meno and the Protagoras.
This one you probably have to imagine in three dimensions, because each turn is also supposed to be an advance in the conversation; so, a spiral staircase, headed up. Or, headed down?—if its fundamental work is critical, dismantling opinion. Or then again, maybe it’s just spinning in place, and the effect is dizziness, or perplexity. At all events: here is the idea that teaching is closely entailed exchange between two parties. You might lengthen one or the other of the lines to suggest the predominance of one or the other of the speakers. There are power effects here, as Lauren observed. But let the diagram stand for the moment as at least an idealization of dialogue.
This one is simple enough: Isocrates is a rhetorician who performs in public, and his speech goes one way. This is what Socrates so distrusts, the continuous utterance that is never accountable to itself or to its audience. It flows on, untested. Isocrates clearly does believe that the polis can benefit from such speech. That said, as a diagram of his pedagogy, it implies more than it shows, for what he is defending is training in rhetoric, which is a matter of exercise, effort, practice; and typically, of the analysis of speech into its component schemes and tropes, to facilitate that practice. Education is training to speak in public. Also, to some extent, theater?—another term that Socrates abjures.
Now how about this?
What a hopeless project, a diagram of Stiegler! But what I am attempting to capture are the long circuits of human experience that for him are both the work of education and the quality of attention. I find the argument challenging, but hugely stimulating: the idea seems to be that when the young study with the old, they internalize old and deep, even mythic patterns of thought that undergird the specific lessons we think we are teaching; we may not be conscious of these patterns (“tertiary retentions”), but they are nonetheless available to imitation. [Maybe I’m digging into the question of “transgenerational learning” too literally here, but this did make me wonder – is there a school that takes this into consideration in a meaningful way? This feels like one of the great losses of the learning-as-career-making model – that the only intergeneration exchange happening in a typical classroom is two pronged, split between the teacher (almost always older), and the students (typically of a similar age). While there are important exceptions to this rule, I can’t think of a school that meaningfully considers age as part of the makeup of the diversity of experiences that constitute a meaningful learning environment (maybe something like Columbia’s School of General Studies, for ‘non-traditional’ degree candidates?). While intergenerational learning is happening at some MFA programs (though not, it seems, necessarily by design), I can’t think of any humanities oriented degrees that support “learning” as such beyond in a transgenerational setting that doesn’t ultimately amount to job training. But maybe a school is the wrong place for this kind of learning entirely? – CB] Attention itself is not measured by time spent in concentration on a given object, but rather, by the thickness of the encounter, the ways in which a given act of reading (for example) activates associations that are transgenerational. [I really care about this part of this text, and love what you are doing with it here, Jeff; I have inserted a longish comment on this part of Stiegler here, which is also a gloss on Dolven’s analysis -DGB] [[I’m trying to take in what’s being said… taking note of Steigler’s singularity of attention. So, we have one attention to give at one time. Riffing on DGB’s physics invocation with “scintillates”, like a laser, this attention can ‘ping’ and excite an entity. The depth of attention depends on the amplitude of excitation, which may resonate and excite other layers in the “circuit” (or we can call them subdominant modes). Decoupling the depth or amplitude of attention from a linear marching timescale in this way … is liberating? With the attention we pay, time is not money. Does this singularity of attention imply that learning is necessarily discrete and diachronous (referencing back to JD’s note earlier note), like the stitches in Stiegler’s knitted textile? Idk, because, like, Voldemort splits his soul into seven pieces, can we divide our attention into multiple, synchronous parts and expect to end up somewhere good? Do hypnotists deal in this type of magic? Asking for a friend. -LD ]] [[[Hey — just quick to say: I love to read LD digging in on this metaphor; I am not sure Stiegler himself thought it in ways that were especially concerned with the fine-grained elaboration of the “vehicle” in quite this way, but I DO think the proposal holds up under such scrutiny. It could be a very cool project to play it out a few ways along the lines you explore here. -DGB]]]. Quite odd!—given that we usually think of attention as a perfectly circumscribed subject-object situation. But it’s worth trying to get your head around, this proposal that to attend to an object is to activate these associations/affinities/contests etc. Which would be to say that attention is a meaningful condition, not just a perceptual one, and that the more meaning there is, the more attention there is. I think that’s right? So the diagram suggests long circuits across four generations, and you might think of an act of attention as happening anywhere along that range, cutting across two, three, or four lines of transmission. So what, you might ask, is the implicit pedagogy here? Play is one example for S., especially with a Winnicottian transitional object. (This is in keeping with his organology, which is to say, his sense that human organs and various technical prostheses are to be considered together as part of the larger project of nootechnics; another really hard idea, but he wants us to wean ourselves from categorical distinctions between, say, the hippocampus and the Aeneid and the internet.) Another vital scene of instruction, for him, is reading itself. Play with a book?
The last one is simple:
You could, of course, prefer an architectural model for the pedagogy of Womanhouse, a house of many rooms, some of which are stages. But the circle is the basic arrangement of consciousness raising at it was practiced around 1971, going around, with everyone speaking about a common topic. It’s quite different again from any of the foregoing. There is opportunity for testing, for debate, of Socratic sort—but it is not built for that, because there is no necessary argumentative link between any two positions on the circle. It seems to be optimized for an accumulation of ideas and experience, on the assumption that the participants will learn that way, responding to one another, to be sure, but in a more holistic way, with less emphasis on testing the ideas of any one member. It seems to be the group that is learning. And what an open word “consciousness” is! There’s probably another affinity with analysis or group therapy, and there, maybe a connection to the Socratic scene in the sense that the activity is arguably critical—not because it undertakes specific refutations or unveilings, but because such talk in a supportive environment about charged topics (sex, gender, labor!) will surface ideological assumptions, raise them up where they can be seen.
CA note: How can a democracy deal with questions of affect and time, with pre-dividual networks and virtual threats? “While the social nervous system may be stimulated to react to the uncertain threat of a (place something here), somehow the same elements work in reverse with a crisis like (place something here), in response to which our sense of emergency towards a virtually certain disaster is dulled. The dispersion of the threat into a surround of fear seems to make it inescapable, while the same dispersion around (place something here), the difficulty perceiving it as an object or event, allows a perpetual deferral of action. This suggests the need for a theory of democracy which can account for affect in more complex ways; we ignore them at our peril.”
Tony Cokes, Evil.12. (edit.b): Fear, Spectra & Fake Emotions (2009): https://vimeo.com/250387442
So: back-and-forth, broadcast (and the training for it), long circuits, the circle. All schematic models of a pedagogy that might define a school, or be included in it. I mentioned John Durham Peters in class, and you can read what he has to say about dialogue and broadcast in Speaking into the Air. And I should also say, this kind of diagram-making is an old habit of mine, as you can see in the rest of that chapter from Scenes of Instruction that Graham cited last week.
OK: so we might have made the class a geometry lesson, if my whimsy had played out: what did happen? We were launched with two wonderful thought pieces, for which thanks to NB and RS. I’ll just ramble around our conversation a bit. The Meno and the Protagoras are both centrally concerned with the question of whether virtue is knowledge or not, and also whether it is many or one. You might be able to argue that these are versions of the same question: that is, if there are many virtues, none reducible to the other, then you have yourself a taxonomy, which you can memorize, repeat, and so on. If virtue is only one thing, it seems less knowledge-like, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between two versions of coming to a conclusion, 1) an essence or 2) an aporia. I’m getting dangerously close to trying to do philosophy here, though, and so let’s stick to pedagogy, which is where our discussion was. (Except that in these dialogues, are philosophy and pedagogy properly distinguished?—and that is not true of all philosophy.)
I feel like we didn’t quite get to how dialogue is really supposed to teach you. We should keep thinking about that. But we were very attentive to possible deflections. One was theater, which seemed to be, from Socrates’ perspective, the performance of knowledge you already have (see the passage DGB cites), particularly as a continuous, uninterrogated utterance. [Shameless plug here: I co-taught a course a few years back on theater and teaching — it was called “The Enacted Thought,” and I think I showed you all the thick discussion thread that came out of it (we did a performance together as the final project, and it travelled to a theater festival in Europe) – DGB] Mere theater, that is, with all the ancient prejudices about its seductiveness and inauthenticity. To perform a thought in this way, for Socrates, is not to know it, but merely to hold it as an opinion, effectively, a script you read from. On the other hand, there was a really interesting line of discussion about the theatricality of the dialogue form itself, with its multiple characters, its currents of affect, its obdurate im-personation of even the most abstract reasoning. Why, why? To remind us that reasoning is never unsituated? To model for us how dialectic can be pursued even in the variable weather of human conversation? Is all this human stuff interference, and Socrates has to teach through it, if teaching is what he is doing? Or is this all somehow part of the teaching?
There is also the deflection of desire (that is, desire as deflection, from dialectic), the various flatteries and half-seductions that arise, and here we might ask some similar questions. Is this how to teach—part of the art of manipulation that holds open a space for dialectical rigor? Or is it somehow part of the lesson? (Elsewhere, of course—especially in The Symposium—desire will be the ladder up which knowledge must climb, or the lower rungs of it, at least.) One thing that desire did was make us aware of power, and the potential for forms of domination in such exchanges, especially when they are so asymmetrical. One way to abjure power relations is to defer to method, inquiry, etc., but these dialogues are interested profoundly in the techniques of personal manipulation—they have often been read as celebrations of Socrates’ thought, but none of the difficulty we experience in reading them that way is extrinsic or accidental.
And that torpedo fish, yes yes!—a lot here finally turns on how we value that condition of numbness. Is it a way of starting over, resetting; a kind of remedy to our complicities, an opportunity to re-found our knowledge? Or at least, see it fresh? (Is it like being grabbed or shaken by radical irony, for Lear?) But funny to think of that as being numb. Numbness seems like the opposite of ecstasy. Is it? Quite remarkable to think of education as directed toward this state of paralysis. Again, an interruption of education, or the only moment that could truly be called education? I don’t think Stiegler thinks this way, with his emphasis on long circuits. Is Socrates a circuit breaker? (I suppose I should say I’m also really interested in perplexity generally: often the difference between people who are comfortable in school and people who are not has to do with how comfortable they are being perplexed. If you expect to know the answer right away, if you assume that the teacher is the teacher and the smart kids are smart because they somehow already get it, you are going to feel awful a lot of the time. But if you think of puzzlement—DGB might return us to the phrase “negative capability”; is that anything like numbness?—as full of potential, as fertile, as propaedeutic rather than terminal, and as everybody’s predicament and privilege—well then, you might come to be quite happy in school; at least, if your school is one that gives you time to be perplexed.) [“Negative capability” is an odd phrase. It seems to describe tolerance for ambiguity. That might fuel the latent abundance JD invokes. But it performs its own kind of ambiguity when we think about its origin. Apparently, it was coined by the poet John Keats in a letter discussing Shakespeare. The Bard beats other poets like Coleridge, Keats says, because he’s untroubled by “any irritable reaching after fact and reason” when faced with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” baked into human existence. Knowledge-hungry poets like Coleridge, on the other hand, are “incapable of being content with half-truths.” I get that Romantic poets and friends of poetry probably think this hits the mark. How else to perceive the identity of beauty and truth than by suspending that pesky drive to be logically precise. But do we really want to sacrifice fact and reason on the altar of poetic truth? Is the beauty-truth really “all ye need to know?” Take “negative capability” from aesthetics and put into politics and you might get something like the cognitive dissonance, with all its pseudo-justifications, that we see so much of today. RS]
OK: to the break! And then back. Consider that circle a first experiment in something it would be great to get comfortable with and good at, fitting ourselves into a new pedagogy, in this case the discussion-circle of consciousness raising. I took my little description from Priscilla English’s “Womanhouse: A Feminist Creative Environment,” which she wrote in 1972. She quotes Judy Chicago: “We started having consciousness raising sessions during which everyone sits in a circle and speaks individually on a single topic—your relationship to your mother, anger, sex, whatever. Soon patterns begin to appear, not patterns of personal neurosis but of the culture’s dogmas regarding women. This gave us a lot of material to build art from…” (2). I gave a general description above, but it’s worth observing that Chicago is especially interested in the way that a group can discover how thoughts experienced as personal neuroses can be recognized as a culture’s dogmas—or one might say, as ideology. Quite a different way of surfacing ideas from dialogue (or even for the group-Socratism of Habermasian speech situations?—that’s a tendentious characterization, not sure I would sign of on it, but I’d like to think more).
Anyway—a little bonkers to think of consciousness raising as a way of coming to grips with (is that the metaphor?) Stiegler. But we’ll have to see what we can make of the misfits as well as the good fits. If bonkers, why? Certainly it is not a good mechanism for the canonical pedagogical activity of paraphrase, not in any order, anyhow, that would track the argumentative progress of the text itself. What did we get instead? Quotations, which could resonate; the shorter the better, maybe, in that space? (“Intelligence is taking care,” is that right?—that was raised up for me by hearing it together as a group.) A little bit of paraphrase. A couple of moments of testimony to the experience of reading the book, its difficulty, its language, and so on. A few key ideas surfaced, about long circuits and short circuits of attention. I don’t think any of us stood up feeling like we could do a better job of putting the arguments of those opening chapters in our own words. But it’s an interesting thing: If I could do that on Wednesday afternoon, and could do it Thursday morning, I would probably do it a little less well (less thoroughly?) next week, next month, next year. For most of us, such arguments are hard to hold in the head, at least without refreshing. But were there moments from that circle that will linger in mind? Even, more than a satisfying passage of group-exegesis might have done? I speak as a real devotee of that latter project. It’s possible, if we had more practice with the circle, that we could use it better together to surface the sorts of patterns that Chicago et al. found in their sessions.
I was going to be shorter this time. I’ve been longer. Forgive me. One final thought. We’re in an unusually reflexive environment, all semester: what is teaching? What is learning? Is it this? (Pointing to a text.) Is it this? (Pointing to—the room? Someone else? All of us?) That’s a little weird for me. But in a good way! For it to really work, we’re going to have to manage a week-by-week balance between digging in and standing back, inhabiting the form of pedagogy we find ourselves in (there will be moments when it will be pretty traditional I expect!—and other moments when it’s not), getting the most out of it, and also stepping away. There were a few moments in the last class when we were all at the edge of the pool—I just want to say, let’s jump in! That jump might take the form of questioning the question, or redirecting it, as (or more) usefully as answering it. It’s all interesting for us. I’m really looking forward to next Wednesday.
-CT, er, JD
[We were unfortunitly unable to truly speak about “womanhouse” at the end of class. I Brought up Phyllis Birkby and her architectural work in class so I wanted to insert some of it here for any one interested. Id also recommend checking out “The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity after World War II” by Stephen Vider which mentions Birkbys work on queer living. -CF]
* * *
John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, eds. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1996), §31-99 and §147-216 from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and §1-7 from Of the Conduct of the Understanding .
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Emile , tr. Allan Bloom (New York : Basic Books, 1979), Books I and II ( pp. 37-164) and part of Book IV ( pp. 211-257).
Julie L. Davis, Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), focus on chapters 1-4.
OPENING THINK PIECES
Last week we spent some time thinking about Socrates’s theory of knowledge—as DGB posed it in his post-seminar reflection, What does it even mean to teach when you think everyone already knows everything? John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education gives us an opportunity to ask the converse: What does it mean to teach when you think everybody starts out knowing nothing at all? What does a complete education look like if the human mind is a perfect tabula rasa? Locke answers that question with a far-ranging set of prescriptions (and proscriptions, too) for the liberal education of young gentlemen, stretching from the cradle to the altar and touching all phases of early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Virtue and its inculcation is one of the principal concerns of Locke’s treatise, giving us another lens onto one of the central questions of the Socratic dialogues, which motivated our discussion last week: what is virtue and can it be taught?
Locke doesn’t deny that different people come into the world with different aptitudes and capacities—differences we might call innate or genetic—but he ascribes to education a far greater role in development. As such, he is unequivocal on the question of whether or not virtue can be taught: it can. When a person lacks virtue, Locke sees a failure of education, not a foregone conclusion determined by immutable constitution (here we might think of the examples of unvirtuous sons of virtuous fathers which Plato’s Socrates invokes to demonstrate the opposite claim—for Locke, those sons weren’t destined to be bad, they just needed better tutors). The point to which Locke returns most often and most insistently in Thoughts Concerning Education is the importance, above all else, of a virtuous teacher who can model virtue and instill it in his pupils.
Modeling is key here; as Locke writes, “Children (nay, and men too) do most by example. We are all a sort of chameleons that still take a tincture from things near us….” (44–5) Learning for Locke is in large part a matter of imitation, and for this reason he regards it as critical for parents to surround their children with suitable exemplars of virtue and to protect them against contact with the unvirtuous. [Chameleons here, dogs in LD’s post below, squirrels back in week 1, torpedo fish in week 2 – wondering how/why certain other animals help us think about the capacities/deficiencies of the human animal as regards learning. New Schools, an epistemological zoo? – RS] [[Oh! Interesting proposal, but I have to admit that thinking with/through animals could also be dangerous as it could easily imply a projection of anthropomorphism. Lorraine Daston reminds us that, “The language of perspective carries with it weighty assumptions about what it means to understand other minds. Within the model of a world divided up into the objective and the subjective, and armed with the method of sympathetic projection, understanding another mind could only mean seeing with another’s eyes (or smelling with another’s nose or hearing with another’s sonar, depending on the species)—“put yourself in his place,” as Lloyd Morgan titled one of his chapters.63 Understanding in the perspectival mode implied experience, and individualized experience at that. Here I can only hint at the several intellectual and cultural shifts that created the perspectival mode: the habits of interior observation cultivated by certain forms of piety; the increasingly refined language of individual subjectivity developed in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel; the equation drawn between sensory experience and self by sensationalist psychology; political and economic individualism; the cult of sympathy, which expanded to embrace first children, then animals, and finally denizens of other times and places. Whatever the historical forces that forged it, the perspectival mode was most decidedly a creature of history. It is not simply another form of subjectivity; it is the apotheosis of subjectivity as the essence of mind.”
With this said, I think that it’s not only to think from the perspective of an animal, instead of engaging proactively with other forms of knowledge. There are really interesting projects working on reimagining and opening Natural History by introducing other types of knowledge such as Indigenous Knowledges and vernacular ones. Understanding the world in different ways implies to proactively engage with this type of knowledge. It is to care for them, and from there maybe we could start to speak about thinking from the perspective of the other. It requires action and movement. I think that nowadays there is kind of a tendency or a trend (sometimes without the real engagement with the proposal) to say, thinking from a non-human perspective, which at some point should be revised as it reflects on the real power of the proposition. Which I believe is certain and powerful. But, I also think that it requires engagement, reflection, and dedication. I would recommend reading Batsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environment History of the Bering Strait.-TU]]
(Locke repeatedly uses the language of contagion to describe the corrupting influence of the ill-bred on the impressionable young gentleman, with particular revulsion reserved for servants—the class implications there are discomfiting to say the least.) This is why Locke considers tutoring the ideal mode of education for a young gentleman; he has the best chance of becoming virtuous if he is exposed principally to the example of a virtuous tutor and shielded from the sort of corrupting influences he might encounter at a grammar school.
[On the topic of ‘example,’ Locke reminds us that children are profoundly influenced by the company they keep. In the context of an education, this company is rarely the choice of the child. Through his reflections on the impact of the relationship between parent and child (and later, tutor and child) on a child’s development, Locke insists that the difference between a good education and a bad one (perhaps, then, a good adult and a bad one) hinges on the presence of the right teacher. As AK mentioned, this presence is important enough that if possible, an education received at home may be the only way to prevent the potential for encountering damaging influences. Although Locke’s argument does not anticipate the extent of this damage, perhaps it gives us one possible lens through which to view the impact of the extreme familial distance enforced by the boarding school movement described in the Davis piece. -EH] [[Interesting point… – DGB]]
[[[CA note: I’ve been thinking a lot since reading Locke about the hobbyhorse. I was introduced to the idea by Simon Schaffer when working with him last year. In one sense, the hobbyhorse is a tool or machine to exercise the mind and body. A device of recursion. Some see the hobbyhorse as a substitute for the body itself. But in another sense, the hobbyhorse is also a mechanism of entropy. Whatever your hobbyhorse is can drive you into a delusion, or even a kind of madness, heating you up more with every encounter. Disguised as a play-thing, the hobbyhorse is also a weapon. Is the endeavor for virtue a hobbyhorse? A ‘prolonged practice of bodily discipline’ as described below, it would seem that virtue is a carriage that works the mind but never arrives at any finite destination.]]] [[[[we don’t have a color for fourth-degree comments — so here, I just invented one; but wanted to insert a link to this canonical meditation on hobbyhorses, which launched a line of comment in the philosophy of aesthetics – DGB]]]] [[[[[I have to admit this was my first read of the Gombrich, and—wow! I loved this essay. I cackled at “The ‘origin of art’ has ceased to be a popular topic. But the origin of the hobby horse may be a permitted subject for speculation.” (E.H. Gombrich, “Meditations on a Hobby Horse,” 5) I’m very much of the opinion that totalizing theories of the origins of art are doomed to be beautiful failures at best but are enormously interesting for what they can tell us about the horizons of possibility for art-making in their present.
I found Gombrich’s notion that substitution, rather than representation, was the originary impulse behind the symbolizing and form-giving activities we’ve come to call art a really productive lens onto theories of projection and the transitional object in psychoanalytic theory. Gombrich proposes that the most basic impulse toward symbolic representation originates in early childhood object-relations, when “The child will reject a perfectly naturalistic doll in favor of a monstrously ‘abstract’ dummy which is ‘cuddly’. It may even dispose of ‘form’ altogether and take to a blanket or an eiderdown as its favorite ‘comforter’—a substitute on which to bestow its love.” (Gombrich, 4)
I’m reminded of the passage from Donald Winnicott’s Playing and Reality that Stiegler quotes in Taking Care of Youth and the Generations: “Transitional objects and transitional phenomena belong to the realm of illusion which is at the basis of initiation of experience. This early stage in development is made possible by the mother’s special capacity for adapting to the needs of her infant, thus allowing the infant the illusion that what he or she creates really exists.
This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in respect of its belonging or external (shared) reality, constitutes the greater part of the infant’s experience, and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work.” (Donald Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 19)
Along with imitation, practice is the other mechanism by which virtue—and anything else—is learned. Insofar as Locke’s young gentleman is virtuous, it is due to “habits woven into the very principles of his nature” (32), which have been formed by repeated practice and reinforced with praise. It is only by means of repetition that behavior becomes embedded into the pupil’s nature, and thereby becomes natural—or, to use a favorite word of Locke’s, “easy.” At several points Locke invokes a corporeal analogy—just as grace or “carriage” is achieved only through steady, prolonged practice of a bodily discipline like dance, so too is ease in mental operations the product of repeated exercise.
Locke is not concerned, as Socrates was, with the definitional problem that virtue poses; we don’t get any disputation in Thoughts Concerning Education about whether virtue is a unity or a multiplicity of qualities. For Locke, the function of virtue is essentially a regulatory one: “all virtue and excellency,” he writes, “lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires” (29). Virtue is the power to resist temptations and govern unruly appetites; it is the power of self-regulation. The “self” in self-regulation is critical, because it points toward what is to my mind the concept underpinning Locke’s entire theory of education: freedom. Freedom is the bedrock principle on which Locke’s model of liberal education rests; the ideal subject of liberal education so conceived—which was the exclusive province of gentlemen—was a “free” man, which is to say an autonomous agent, not subject to either coercion or the constraints of everyday necessity. (Locke’s freedom is not, needless to say, libertinism, but the capacity for voluntary action regulated by virtue, which is in turn the ability to restrain one’s desires.)
Locke is adamant that coercion, in the form of excessive rule-making and punishment, should be avoided in education, as it only disincentivizes learning by clouding it with negative associations. Education should be self-motivated rather than compulsory. It should emerge out of a genuine interest in, inclination toward, and desire for learning. It should ideally take the form of play, which for Locke necessarily means free play. There is, Locke stresses repeatedly, no reason that study cannot be recreation, if only the pupil is allowed to approach it in the spirit of play and does not regard it as compulsory. (We can debate whether or not this is true—to me personally, the forms of edu-tainment that Locke proposes, like the thirty-sided die with letters on it, sound pretty dreary.) Conversely, there is no form of play that, if made compulsory, won’t become a chore. Play, or recreation, terms which Locke uses more or less interchangeably, derives its benefit from the change it introduces; it works by providing respite from whatever activity came before it, thereby “easing the wearied part by change of business” (155). In Locke’s model of education, the pupil learns best when freely alternating between useful activities that, through their variation, become reciprocal forms of recreation—say, translating Ovid in the morning and grinding lenses in the afternoon. He writes, “…it would be none of the least secrets in education to make the exercises of the body and the mind the recreation one to the other” (151). Locke’s model of education, then, is one that privileges intricacy—the free and mutual interaction of a multiplicity of complementary parts, out of which emerges a complex whole.
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[LD starts here:]
In Locke, p. 35 “Remove hope and fear and there is an end of all discipline”
On hope: I felt some resonance with Locke’s description of rewards that pertain to the subject of learning as a means to encourage more learning, vs. extraneous treats that train a learner to expect treats and not to enjoy the task that won them.
I couldn’t help but think of my dog in this. He’s a great learner and loves to work. He responds to cookies (many of us do), but I’m reminded of his self-rewarding behaviors that need only the most subtle directions to invoke dramatic action. I’m thinking of herding (his true life’s passion — his whole body will change at the slightest intonation of voice, eye motion, or pheromone that could imply a herding job needs doing), agility (running around an obstacle course on command, close enough to herding), and even the move to wipe his face after eating on a basket of dog toys vs. the white sofa…it’s ultimately his choice, but he’s happy to follow my suggestion. I say “wipe your face” and gesture casually to the basket and he obliges without issue. While not as obvious as the couch, the scratchiness of the basket must feel good on his face. Plus, some verbal praise is involved. Not one cookie was dispensed to capture this behavior. With the exception of agility — a two-being sport of athleticism and cross-species communication that requires practice — these other behaviors were learned by accident. I asked, he took me up on the offer, and then it became a pattern.
[I love this addition to our “epistemological zoo,” especially as the human of a cattle dog mix. This led me back to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto and had me noticing the resonances with Locke in her short section on what she calls the “positive bondage” model of agility training. Haraway concludes, “In dogland, I am learning what my college teachers meant in their seminars on freedom and authority.” -AK]
On fear: I’ve been wondering if fear is necessary for learning. For some, maybe fear comes from ourselves. If I don’t post this response before 2pm today, I fear I will be judged incapable, disorganized, etc. So I make arrangements for this aspect of learning to happen on time. If I didn’t harbor this fear or anxiety about judgment, I would have probably designed my morning differently and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reflect on these topics in this way. But is fear necessary for discipline? Is discipline i.e. the following of rules, necessary for learning? The etymology of “discipline” suggests a link: “penitential chastisement …suffering, martyrdom… learning and knowledge” !!
On princess dresses:
p. 190 in Davis:
Quoting a teacher/administrator from Heart of the Earth, “Identity. Teaching these kids identity. That’s what it’s about. Make ‘em feel good about themselves, they can do anything they want”
In the Survival Schools, knowledge-of-self combined with confidence in this knowledge became the tool they had to foster learning under immensely adverse conditions. I think this contrasts with what I hear in the Rousseau, which is focused on outward-oriented learning. On p. 61 he imagines a child that comes into the world as a grown man. “This man-child would be a perfect imbecile… he would see nothing, hear nothing, know no one, would not be able to turn his eyes toward what he needed to see”. Here, the focus is on sensing and ultimately making sense of the outside world. What is learned is detached from and ultimately greater than the self. In Survival Schools, it is the opposite. Where is the source of this knowledge to be learned and how does one go to it?
Related, in Locke, p. 27-28:
“The coverings of our bodies, which are for modesty, warmth, and defense, are by the folly or vice of parents recommended to their children… and when the little girl is tricked up in her new gown and commode, how can her mother do less than teach her to admire herself by calling her her little queen and her princess.” Here he gives a critique of valuing outside fashionableness, described as a vice. He thinks this clothing for non-utilitarian uses breeds “vanity and emulation,” sowing the seeds for material desire later on.
Ok… I can see the point here if the parent is, say, forcing their children into fussy clothing. On the other side of this conjures the infamous and beloved princess dress. Setting aside gender normality for a moment, I’m just thinking about princess dresses as a type of self-inspired, creative act of dressing that transcends utility, which probably exceeds Locke’s meaning in the text.
In terms of Survival Schools, I’m wondering how our outsides give shape to our insides and vise-versa. In Locke, like Rousseau, the gaze of learning is turned outwards. Pupils learn from their environment to then go off to do work on it in some capacity. To Locke, a garment is fundamentally a covering. Modesty is key and the individual is hidden. The pupil must be taught, vs. revealing what might already be known.
[ Several questions are hovering around this theme of inward/outward learning. Is Locke’s tabula rasa and his conflict between keeping a child at home (where they remain innocent/ignorant) versus sending them abroad to school (where they become sheepish or conceited) related to the dominance of the nuclear family in Western culture? Locke favors relating to children as teaching (expressing gratitude or showing disappointment), but limits relational opportunities mostly to parent-child or tutor-student whereas Survival Schools merge family and education and predicate learning on this very relating. How wonderful not to feel ashamed for being weak at math and requiring assistance from more advance students…because presumably there is also a place for your own strengths help others in return. This reciprocity between students is critical–success is not measured against another’s, but reliant on it. -PH ]
For an art reference related to garments, identity, and the environment, I’m thinking of Nick Cave’s sound suits.
[ This made me think of Ana Miljački’s “Not-Habits” in Log48 which describes the wearable game, Balls for All, that MIT architecture students created together to reflect on and recast the theoretical tenets of “self-management” in the context of socialist Yugoslavian architecture. “It rendered bodies partially (and comically) immobile yet connected by a circular fabric with five body sleeves and a collective collar…The goal was to collectively, through different forms of cooperation (involving jumping and moving in space), place a series of 10 balls into specific holes at each of the four levels of the game. The players either won or lost as a collective.” -PH ] [[I have added links on the Nick Cave reference above (and a pic too), but would love, as we build out this site, if folks are comfortable adding (appropriate) links/images where relevant — as here, perhaps, with Balls for All? –DGB]]
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[CA starts here:]
I begin my post for this week by highlighting a common fear among our assigned scholars, articulated well by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile, or On Education: that “everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Debilitated by desire and irrationality, mankind should overcome common propensities through the force of learned willpower. Our scholars cry out in defense of rational training for the sake of individual and societal progress but do so with different beliefs and ideologies.
John Locke valued above all else the rational man. But what exactly do we mean when we speak of breeding such a man? After publishing his pivotal Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke compiled a series of letters he had written to his friend into a book on how best to raise a child. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1963) is essentially a manifesto for parents, albeit devoid of implementable instruction, on how to foster rational thinking in children starting at a young age. Within his letters, Locke developed a new theory of education that prioritized lived experience over memorization and study. Simply put, parents should treat their children as if they were adults.
His theory exists in stark contrast to the Socratic method introduced in seminar last week, because Locke maintains that the human mind is a tabula rasa or blank slate; less the Republic and more Theaetetus. For Locke, we are not born with innate qualities, unwittingly harnessing the wisdom of past lives lived only waiting for the truth-sayer to enlighten us. We are not Pandora’s box within which all knowledge is contained. Humanity is not bound by original sin nor is it intrinsically equipped with logical propositions. Rather, we are born equal in the sense that we are equally without knowledge and must be shaped into rational beings. There is a caveat, however, which is that we must be shaped correctly.
In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke is very clear that there is a correct way to raise a child. This is a convenient time to mention that Locke never actually had children. The closest he was to conceiving is his posthumous recognition as the father of liberalism. Funny that a man who never fathered a child be so resolute. [This is an interesting point about some of the disconnect between ideal and practice. We can see it a bit in Rousseau, too. For instance, In Martha Nussbaum’s 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, she writes of this lack of practicality: “Rousseau did not set up a school, and Emile tells us little about what a good one might be like, since it depicts a single child with a tutor. In this sense, it is a profoundly nonpractical work, albeit philosophically deep” (Nussbaum 58). How necessary is it that an educational project appear practical? Can we buy into it even if it seems far-fetched? Might that even make it better?…MG]To become a virtuous and rational adult, argued Locke, children must seek out learning on their own and in so doing practice restraint while still nurturing curiosity.
[What does it mean, for Locke, to be a virtuous adult? It seems to be the utilitarian production of a self-sufficient little gentleman, who manages the affairs of his familial estate, the patriarchal inheritance that rotates through the generations. Play seems useful only by virtue of its eventual result – the rational man contributing to Enlightenment ideas of the social order. His take on the social utility of poets seems indicative of this… “I know not what desire a father can have to wish his son a poet […] it is very seldom seen that anyone discovers mines of silver or gold in Parnassus.” S 174 As a poet, this stings… and hits the mark exactly….. CB]
Throughout his letters he associates virtue with rationality and rationality with asceticism. On restraint, Locke writes “he that has not a mastery over his inclinations, he that knows not how to resist the importunity of present pleasure or pain for the sake of what reason tells him is fit to be done, wants the true principle of virtue and is in danger never to be good for anything.” But how does a parent teach their child to have will? Locke responds with education: “I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.” By education Locke does not mean prestigious schooling. On the contrary, Locke endorses at-home education so that a child forms habits of reasoning that, with consistency, become second nature.
Even if we are to put aside inequity issues with Locke’s approach—for instance the fact that not all parents are educated to the level that they wish their children to be educated or that not all parents are fiscally able to educate their children—serious problems and questions remain. If we take at face value his assertion that children should be treated like adults, how exactly are adults to be treated? Is it too much to envision that forms of play outside of language learning and drawing for sport be considered? Do we want to live in a world where adults seek out esteem over pleasure in all cases? One where desire is taken to be transgression? [Perhaps generative to consider how desire (drives?) operates in Rousseau vs. Locke, and its relationship with education and subjectivation, as opposed to the traditional scholarly focus on their divergent conceptions of human nature.-NB] And is there merit to nonsense?
~ Seventy years after Some Thoughts Concerning Education Rousseau published Emile, establishing his philosophy of education and how to raise a child to conform to that philosophy. Although Locke and Rousseau share commonalities—importantly, the provocation that we are a set of contradictions in conflict with ourselves for the course of our lives—Rousseau believed that we are born with innate instincts. In fact, he sought to denature man. Cursed with natural inclinations, Rousseau viewed humankind as turning everything upside down; disfiguring everything; loving deformity; as monsters. Such was made clear in the first three sentences of his book.
Like Locke, Rousseau existed in opposition to the Socratic method insofar as he did not support the idea that every man has the potential from birth to untap all knowledge of the world. Unlike Locke, Rousseau believed that we are born with preexisting qualities, that is, with stupidity or what he called ‘original dispositions’: “We are born weak, we need strength; we are born totally unprovided, we need aid; we are born stupid, we need judgment.” Both Locke and Rousseau also privileged experience over other forms of knowledge production. “The man who has lived the most,” writes Rousseau, “is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life.” Odd that within a single framework the aspiration to feel is exalted while that of desire is disparaged. Interesting that Book I ends with an image by Ovid from Tristia; a work of exile. The human condition for Rousseau is, perhaps, wayward by nature, and thus, to feel is to learn from wickedness whereas to desire is to amplify it. Speaking of Emile, Rousseau writes “To suffer is the first thing he ought to learn and the thing he will most need to know.”
For the sake of consideration, I moved past assumptions of equity made by Locke, but it is impossible to overlook the discrimination committed by Rousseau. “To put it generally,” he writes, “nothing is duller than a peasant and nothing sharper than a savage.” Painfully shallow interpretations of both stereotypes repeat throughout his texts in order to conjecture on society creation or otherwise individuation. It would appear that virtue and morality are of the highest regard and yet not practiced.
And what of Julie L. Davis? Thank the institutional gods for Davis to close this week of readings. I end my post here in the hope that we prioritize Davis as a group in discussion. Until then, I have copied a link to Rabbit’s Moon by Kenneth Anger (1950):
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[TU starts here]
[Reading Locke and reflecting on some of his postulates made me think about a question I have long had in my head: What is an adult and what is a child? Locke elaborates on the importance of habits in the development of children towards the “virtuous” world of reason. He seems to express in this way a teleological path in which children must acquire the power of virtue in order to move towards what Locke calls “civilization.” There is thus a dichotomy between civilization and what Locke postulates as the world of ignorance. As a result, the child is presented as a subject that must be disciplined in order to become a “man” who is close to civilization and far from barbarism. The problem lies in the fact that his postulate openly states that this must happen away from the space of reflection (habits lead to repetition and internalization of knowledge). It is here where I want to focus and orient my comments/questions. What is reflection today and how are formative processes related to it? What space does critical reflection occupy among us today and how can we approach it in the pedagogical field? Does reflection occupy a central place in our development as adults?” How could we expand our reflection?
For this I would like to think about the child/adult transition. It is the passage of childhood to adulthood that I would like to explore, or to put it another way, the “unidirectional” space of teaching from an adult to a child. What are the forms an adult acquires to become a teacher? Could we say that education/the world is adult centric and that we should open ourselves to learn more from childs? Could we think of childhood as a critical school for the expansion of reflection?
Within educational spaces, we don’t give enough importance to playfulness, to transcending the adult form, and being able to imagine, play, understand, and reflect freely. In a world defined by the digital culture and the algorithmic loop, it is necessary to consider how we can transition from the rigid forms of the “adultocene” to a world where images (we need images) can be imagined and where curiosity could be restituted. The question is, how do we transcend form?
There is space to play in education?– TU]
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(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS BY JD & DGB BELOW)
There’s a weirdness to observe, to start, that we barely had time to open in class: Locke and Rousseau are both fundamentally skeptical of school; their vision of instruction is one-on-one, relations between tutor and student (or father and student) that are hardly, as we say, scalable. So whatever we think we learn about school from them, or whatever generations of educators think they have learned, it has been translated into institutional frameworks in which neither philosopher had any confidence. With Rousseau especially, you have to wonder if he does not implicitly declare education an impossible project from the outset. That said—both are perennials in the handbooks of educational theory. What do they offer to the professions of school? And given that they are writing about children, what do they offer to to our class, given that our business is mostly with higher (?) education? There is vastly more thinking about pedagogy for children than for adults. When does a college or its equivalent look back to childhood for inspiration? What relation does a college sustain to childhood—something that is put away, something that is renewed?
(So interesting to ask that question, what is a child: some back-of-the-envelope histories of European thought will say that Rousseau originates the category; that before him, children were little grown-ups with faculties that differed in degree but not in kind, and after him, they became reservoirs of original virtue that age drains away; interesting to ask, is Steigler an anti-Romantic, in his emphasis on maturity, responsibility, etc.?—though he has an interest in play. Anyway, I also want to hold onto the idea that the child is an embarrassment to the project of thought. Rarely so stated but often implicit. And who genuinely overcomes that embarrassment?)
What do we carry forward from these two thinkers? I found the discussion of habit really useful. A schematic reprise: Locke emphasizes the importance of surrounding the child with models of virtue to imitate. (Hence, no school!—too many bad examples—rather, a controlled household.) He has little faith in rules, and in the kind of memory that stores rules; virtue should require “no thought, no reflection” (§64). It becomes natural in the child by daily practice. Nature for Locke then is not so much a fount of virtue, as it is a model of integrity—we derive our habits from society, from (as we discussed) a fundamentally social regime of “esteem and disgrace” (§56), but practice makes them natural in the sense (as AK observed) that they are easy and unconflicted. That may explain the striking, almost shrill concern about affectation (§66). To be affected is to inhabit your manners artificially, as pretense rather than as nature. Perhaps this little outburst is Locke’s attempt to preempt an intuition that, much later, takes the form of Bourdieu’s critique of education as the reproduction of social class. To be affected is to show the seams between your class and your nature; Locke has a general commitment to human equality, and at moments like these his thought shows the strain between this idea and generational inequalities of class. (There is so much less stress on the system if the aristocrats act natural!) Anyway: Locke’s child is a blank slate, as we discussed; his aptitude for imitation must be carefully managed to insure that the proper behaviors become natural by habituation. In lieu of a diagram (maybe somebody else can think of one?), an analogy:
habit : nature :: nature : nature
Crucial here is that habit is not identified with nature, it just has to be made, by practice, as natural to man as nature’s way of being is to nature itself.
Rousseau’s fundamental difference here is that he rejects all habit formed by social imitation. Not social habit made natural, but nature itself as the only habit. An equation again:
habit = nature
The equal-sign here being not a natural law, but an imperative: must equal. The child’s original virtue (not a blank slate, but pure good) can only be corrupted by his entry into the economies of adulthood. So the passage that DGB gave us in class:
“Let his haughty head at an early date feel the harsh yoke which nature imposes on man, the heavy yoke of necessity under which every finite being must bend. Let him see this necessity in things, never in the caprice of men. Let the bridle that restrains him be force and not authority.” (91)
Life should not be easy for Emile; in fact, the foundation of humane solidarity is recognition of others’ suffering on analogy with one’s own, or pitié. But he should always encounter resistance as a concrete fact of nature, rather than as an assertion of another man’s power over him. “Thus the words obey and command will be proscribed from his lexicon, and even more so duty and obligation. But strength, necessity, impotence, and constraint should play a great role in it” (89). You can feel him pushing back here against Locke’s “esteem and disgrace” (§56). (For Locke, those social temperatures, one comfortable, the other not, are meant to replace alienating punishments, and especially beating; whereas for Rousseau, they are equally corrupting as expressions of human authority, and who cares what physical marks they do or don’t leave.) So we observed that Rousseau is strenuously concerned to teach by experience only, in order that the child will never have to defer, in these formative years, to ideology, and will never encounter anything that he cannot explain to himself in terms of the necessary structure of a world of things. (Never mind that the most extraordinary manipulations are required to sustain this condition in our fallen world; there is something of the Truman Show about some of the little plays and games that Jean-Jacques stages, particularly if we imagine ourselves as the audience of this idiosyncratic experiment.) How could all this possibly translate into a progressive school? We’ll get to ask that question with Dewey—but any school that tries to structure a child’s experience to maximize encounter with natural constraints and minimize impositions of incomprehensible authority owes something to Emile.
A side note: I got really interested, with both thinkers, in the question of steps, gradations, degrees etc. So Rousseau accustoms Emile to cold water by “slow, successive, and imperceptible” changes in temperature (60); there is a similar habituation to masks and the sound of firearms, by “carefully arranged gradation” (64). Sometimes steps are a technology of explicitness (steps of a proof), and sometimes, of insensible persuasion. Rousseau’s introduction to language seems to raise those questions too. Whereas Locke’s seems more holistic, in the sense that while there may be some stepwise instruction, you learn to speak by listening to others speak, and there is no harm done if you don’t understand everything yet. Ideology is part of what you are supposed to get from speech—it should just be the right ideology. The basic juxtaposition between gradation and holism may be a theme to keep following.
A quick note on those survival schools, which we did not talk about much, but to which I hope we can return, at least as a point of reference. Do Locke and Rousseau give us any purchase there? Or vice versa? Setting aside the various mediations of influence (which would run through the “Open Schools” movement that Davis briefly discusses  [I found this reference useful on this important movement -DGB])—the schools in the broadest sense seem to take a path that is not marked out by either of our philosophers, though they can provide points of reference. That is, the survival schools’ project is to intercept decades of catastrophic ideological capture by a settler colonial “logic of elimination.” The remedy is an education grounded in indigenous knowledge, infused with political consciousness, and anchored by commitment to family and community (129). Social imitation of elders is fundamental; but those elders also embody a traditional, sustainable, collaborative relation to nature. There is also a strong emphasis on individual learning, each student “at their own pace, in their own way” (108). Locke? Rousseau? Not quite either. Is there an implicit philosophy here? Or a practical accommodation? Or, again, a tradition, and how might that be different from either category?
There are also some pedagogical questions to keep in the back of our minds as we push on. Davis is not primarily interested in how teaching happens—but she is quite interesting on circles, as a shape for architecture, for the arrangement of bodies, for the understanding of the school’s relation to nature, and for the conceptualization of its mission. There are some images of school documents on pp. 160 and 161 that are really interesting, the “circle of learning” but also a grid class schedule. Do certain schools, or certain pedagogies, favor particular shapes in their self-representation?
Shapes! That brings me back to a thought from the beginning of class, how the disciplines converge on the space of the classroom and the project of education more generally, both because they are all taught there, and because they all have a claim to explaining how that teaching and learning happen. If you want to understand a school, what are the relevant questions? Everything from the theory of knowledge that subtends the pedagogy, to the configuration of bodies (circles, as at the survival schools, or squares, or rows, etc.), to the modes of discipline, to the freedom of movement in the space (what space?), to class relations (students to students, to teacher, to the community, etc.), to forms of address and politeness, to the particular structure of the routines and exercises, and I could go on and on. Could education ever be a proper subject matter? It seems embarrassingly unbounded. In looking at schools we are messing around in a difficult-to-control nexus of theory and practice, and it is very hard to rule out any of the fantastic variety of variables that affect the scene of our interest. Since we do not have the (dis)advantage of a disciplinary consensus in the room, we will have to make a virtue of these contending claims. Whether to master or to capitulate to their variety, I’ve started a sort of annotated list on a new page of the site [TK, but soon!]. Everybody can contribute. Here too, the rule is only to add, never to delete, but let’s keep it all in black-and-white, as distinct from the comments structure of our discussion thread. You’ll see the format and it should be easy enough to keep.
[QUICK NOTE HERE: This sounds key, and we need to begin to gather this stuff into the kind of TEMPLATE of questions/analytics that we are all going to commit to using as we work up our final-project “Dossier” of (historical) “New Schools” — I propose we use some up-front time in our next seminar to begin to get some of this stuff up on the board in an explicit and focused way… – DGB]
Enough! Or too much. (That’s Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and say, literature folks, how about Rousseau on prosody, p. 72? And oh no, I never said anything about Matthew Spellberg’s visit—maybe I’ll chime back in, but I have detained you long enough for now.)
* * *
[DGB starts here:]
We opened this week with a kind of preamble, offered by Jeff, in which he took a few minutes simply to invoke the extraordinary diversity of the questions with which we are attempting to wrestle in this class. One could have heard this moment in class key of an apology — as in, “we have really bitten off a lot more than anyone could possibly chew in this seminar, so, um, sorry about that…” But it was also possible, I think, to hear it in the key of exhortation, as in, “we have a LOT of work to do in this class!”
In practice, I think I heard Jeff expressing a very earnest reckoning with his own expanding sense of the richness of our domain. I share that sense, and I think he and I both hope you are each feeling some of that with us.
Because it’s true! In that little overture, we got a bunch of stuff up on the board — GIANT questions, and so many of them. After all, any theory of “school” must involve, of necessity, a theory of knowledge. And that means having both an account of what knowledge is, and of how it can be acquired.
But that is not all.
Any theory of education also amounts to an account of how to go from “nonage” to “maturity,” or, to use closely related language, from “childhood” to “adulthood.” This is going to require a workable specification of those endpoints. Meaning, we are going to need to know what a human being “is” in its (nascent, degree-zero) essence, as well as some positive formulation concerning the kinds of beings (social, political, ethical) to which we should properly aspire.
So already we have run through most of the domains designated by the fields of epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy. And there are still other questions: What is a child, anyway? How will we recognize “adults”? What sorts of spaces, places, activities, and affects conduce to the teaching and learning we need? And who will teach? When? Where? How?
Confronting this daunting scope, we found ourselves wondering if there was not, perhaps, something essentially embarrassing about education, at least as far as “philosophy” is concerned. If this many fundamental philosophical problems are at stake in the problem of education, could one not worry slightly that “what philosophy actually is” amounts to a particular way of worrying about education? How, then, do we find ourselves with “Schools of Education” — these late-spawning collegiate-satellite institutions that stand in relation to the modern research university in peculiar (and perhaps not wholly savory) parallel with other “professional” schools (like business, say)?
We sat with all this.
And then I offered my own little preamble. Mine emphasized, at least in part, my considerable discomfort with the Rousseau reading for this week. I mentioned that I first taught this book as a fresh post-doc back in the 1990s as part of the Columbia University’s “Great Books” curriculum. I mentioned how interesting it was for me to go back to my notes from that reading — and to find myself wondering, in a basic way, whether this book remained “readable.”
I should perhaps confess right from the start that I never really liked the book (I don’t care for Rousseau; I remember finding Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire a nauseating cocktail of bad faith and curdled narcissism), but on this most recent encounter I found Emile genuinely awful (cloying, mad, wicked, contemptible). I don’t remember experiencing such a powerful revulsion at my last pass. What had changed for me?
To be clear, I didn’t ask that question in class, but I can ask it here. But I’m not quite sure how to answer it. The world has changed, yes. That is part of it. But I myself have also changed. When I first read this book, I did not have children. I have two of them now, and they are teenagers. There is no question that this experience has sharpened my impatience with a book composed by an author with what I experience as an unpleasant knack for indulging his indulgence of himself. My patience for that modality was considerably greater when I was twenty-seven years old — it is possible I didn’t know any better.
Plus, what he has to say about child-rearing is just so unbearably stupid so much of the time. Worse than stupid. Brutal and damaging. Culpable. Perhaps even in the wider context of child-rearing at the time (about which I know not that much).
In our actual seminar, rather than permitting myself undo performative self-scrutiny as far as all this is concerned (welcome to Graham’s Bildungsroman in relation to Emile), I framed my preoccupations as a kind of aspiration: I expressed the hope that we might, in the course of our discussion, succeed in achieving a genuine hermeneutic reckoning with this text. Which is to say, I wanted to hear from you whether the text could “speak” across time. What does it say? What can it be said to say now, to us? What work is involved in answering those questions? For each of you?
Did we get to that? Maybe. To some extent. I am not absolutely sure.
We dug in, anyway. And we worked our way through the think-pieces, and began to press here and there in the Rousseau and in the Locke, as well.
Dolven brought us in here, on page 93, on this strange idea that what we are really perhaps aiming for is simply trying to extemporize across those first years: a theory of early child development that simply wants that phase of things to be over, with what the theorist understands to be “minimal damage” — and that seems to mean minimizing, to the extent possible, dealings with (corrupted) humanity.
Building on that, I suggested we look here:
Since that idea (that key to successful early development is to maximize the encounter with THINGS, and minimize the encounter with WILLS) goes to the heart of the matter: since the real problem, for Rousseau, is “amour-propre,” and since “amour-propre” is a function of seeing oneself in relation to others (subject to their will, enabled to dominate them, etc.), it is essential to minimize such challenges until, in effect, the age of reason. Even then, this will be the hard part of education (which we did not get to in our reading). But before one is properly equipped, the bruising and puffery and dishonesty of “social-scheming” must be avoided at all cost.
I am going to bracket any real comment on this gloss. Though we spent some time on the place of “state of nature” theorizing in both Locke and Rousseau, and we talked about the place of “noble savage” in this strange way that Rousseau conceptualizes human development.
At a certain point the very legitimate question was raised about Rousseau’s actual experience with children/child-rearing. Was it not the case that neither Locke nor Rousseau actually raised any children at all? And to push this awkwardness, do we not read that Rousseau, specifically, abandoned his own five children to orphanages (a kind of death sentence in the period)?
If one felt disgust with Emile, one could feel it along this axis — though there are others too, to be sure (the misogyny, the ugly shadow of racial/colonial violence that looms at the margins of both these canonical authors). But I got pretty excited by the prospect of using this particular objection (“Rousseau didn’t know anything about child-rearing!”) to tip open an interesting, if perhaps marginal, line of what might be called “meta-interpretation.” After all, for a follower of Leo Strauss the crucial insight is exactly the realization that Emile is not, in a deep sense, a book about “child-rearing” — it is a book “about” philosophy. Nay, it IS philosophy. In this sense Emile belongs exactly in the lineage of a work like Plato’s Republic (with which it is sometimes paired). Yes, on its face, that is a book about the ideal city state. Except, again, according to the exquisite esotericism of Strauss, that is really only the “surface” matter.
I am hardly advocating for this reading of Emile (although Allan Bloom, who translated it for us, might well have done so — if, perhaps, only in a sufficiently intimate seminar setting), but I do think it matters that we insist upon the essentially revolutionary-philosophical ambitions of the text. Of Rousseau’s other work from this period (The Social Contract) it was said, “the second edition was bound in the skin of those who laughed at the first.”
This revolutionary timbre of Rousseau’s work came up as we contemplated (with some horror, I think?) the extraordinary way in which Rousseau’s apparent commitment to truth and authenticity and the glorious integrity and purity of nature seems to require a pedagogy so suffused with the most elaborate games of theater and baroque deceptions and outright lies. The revolutionary must start from where things are. In a bad world, bad things will surely be required. Lies may be necessary to combat the lies that have walked us away from a preceding “golden age.”
I’ll mention only two more things that went by quickly, at the end, but that I don’t want to forget:
1) Is it possible to read both these texts (the Locke too, but especially the Rousseau) as works that surface, awkwardly, a kind of male fantasy of “male reproduction”? Do we discern an effort to “birth” a male-child from the male mind, without reference to women — their bodies, their minds, their time? It seems likely someone has offered such a reading, but I do not know of it. Do any of you?
2) As I grew increasingly desperate in my exasperation with Rousseau (try reading the magician part that we skipped in Book III! Ugh!), I experimented with a kind of salvage-interpretation. Could the text be read as a kind of trauma-script, in which we are obliged to watch Rousseau perform some sort of apotropaic reckoning with the (ghastly) ghosts of his own experience of education? It almost made me patient, for a spell. Emile as its own kind of “survival school”…
We talked most about the Julie Davis book in the last part of the seminar, when our guest, Matthew Spellberg, took us into the work of Outer Coast. The language lesson, for all its essential primary-ness worked a certain magic. Or at least I thought I felt it. Right. Yes. The words. They are the start. Of thought. Of talk. Of learning.
And that absolutely bottomless story, the folktale, of the disappearance of the big monster animals. Which vanished because… in the showdown… they… said their own name (instead of that of the “opposite”). Such a charged image.
I felt, after listening to Matthew talk about the integrity of the Tlingit language with its geography and its traditions and its people, that I had taken a step closer to inwardness with Gadamer’s dictum: Being that can be understood is language.
John Dewey , Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), familiarize yourself with the book, focusing on a closer read of chapters 6 (“Education as Conservative and Progressive”), 7 (The Democratic Conception in Education”), and 24 (“Philosophy of Education”). (And here is a cleaner pdf of a more recent edition, for the accuracy of which we do not vouch.)
Danielle Allen, Education and Equality (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016), read chapters 1 and 2 (“Two Concepts of Education” and “Participatory Readiness”).
Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965). This is a classic text. Read all (efficiently).
Henry Cowles, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), chapter 7 “Laboratory School.”
“The Oakland Community Learning Center (1977),” episode of the PBS/WGBH youth show Rebop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dYsjDqUdr0&t =82s
OPENING THINK PIECES
[MG starts here]
I am going to focus on Danielle Allen for this week, not just because I think she’s a great political theorist but also because her conception of education has always puzzled me. On my reading, Allen gives us a picture of a kind of education which is valuable for completely instrumental reasons. This might seem somewhat surprising; after all, in setting up her idea of participatory readiness, Allen writes that “This is the policy domain in which the intrinsic egalitarian potential of education most fully shows itself” (p. 26). It may be tempting to read Allen here as suggesting that education, when enacted through egalitarian mechanisms, is actually intrinsically valuable. But this is at odds with the argument she gives us in the next chapter. There, Allen explains that “the most effective way for us to direct our educational system towards egalitarian ends could well be participatory readiness” (p. 33). For Allen, education–as she specifically lays it out–is the means by which we achieve these egalitarian ends. If we could achieve such ends through some means other than education–and I acknowledge that this is a big “if”–it seems to me that Allen would have to give up on an important part of her argument.
Maybe it’s a bit unfair to Allen to force her into this intrinsic/instrumental binary; as she says, “Thinking clearly about education requires shifting effectively back and forth between these two registers: the social and the individual, categories that track neither a public good versus private good distinction nor a simplistic utilitarian versus nonutilitarian distinction” (p. 18). But she also sticks to her guns in defending the instrumental value of participatory readiness, holding that “The preparation of citizens through education for civic and political engagement supports the pursuit of political equality, but political equality, in turn, may well engender more egalitarian approaches to the economy” (Allen 32). On this reading, even the egalitarian aims of education are actually instrumental.
That education be valuable for instrumental reasons is not, to be clear, wholly problematic. Where I think Allen starts to run into some difficulties lies in the particular ends she sees education as serving. Consider the language requirements Allen builds into her definition of participatory readiness. This first pillar– “verbal empowerment,” as she terms it– “consists of interpretive (or exegetical) and expressive skills” (p. 40). Moreover, for Allen, “The analytical skills that constitute acts of interpretation only ever manifest themselves in language: diagnoses of particular circumstances and prescriptions of what is to be done” (p. 40). This seems to me to be a rather exclusive picture of education. In practice, it seems as though those who would excel in this kind of instruction are members of some kind of dominant group: they are those who already understand the norms of expression in a given language. How might those for whom English is not their first language, for instance, fit into Allen’s model? Why must communication be verbal to be effective? To be fair to Allen, she does seem to think language is always accessible; she writes that “The great beauty of language’s power as a catalyst of human capacity is that we all have access to it, so any of us can choose anywhere, anytime to plumb its depths and climb with it to the heights of human achievement” (p. 49). But this seems patently untrue. Language is widely accessible to certain people, to certain groups. But it remains closed off to others. Moreover, even in Allen’s ideal conception of education, where such verbal empowerment really is available to all, it seems to me that all it really serves to do is legitimate the already dominant form of discourse. I’m not entirely sure that this model contains within itself the mechanism for progress.
Perhaps briefly turning to the “Oakland Community Learning Center” documentary offers a good counterexample. I was struck by the fact that the aims of that educational system seemed to be at least in part to develop in its students an orientation towards the community. But it never gets called “civic education.” I admit I am just speculating here, but it seems to be that the use of civic education implies a broader scale than the more local Oakland community. It might include, for instance, an implicit legitimation of the very Louisiana schools system against which the Oakland school has positioned itself. All of this is to say that Allen sees education as serving broader society; in so doing, she assumes that that society is worth serving. At the very least, it’s one which is capable of improvement. Allen’s instrumental understanding of education is one that necessarily and implicitly works within the system. If we decide that the system doesn’t work, I’m not certain that Allen gives us much of a way out, especially in an educational sense.
Finally and perhaps least importantly, I also wanted to mention that I’ve always found Allen’s view of participatory readiness to be particularly demanding, especially if we view her own life as a model. In 2022, she ran for governor of Massachusetts and, I think in so doing, managed to fulfill each of the three “core tasks of civic agency”–as expressed through the “civically engaged individual,” the “activist/political entrepreneur,” and the “professional politician” (p. 36)–that she establishes. As a result, I have sometimes felt in my more cynical moments that Allen’s ultimate vision of education is a system that produces more Danielle Allens.
[I feel this! -LD]
* * *
[EH starts here]
In considering how to place this week’s readings in dialogue with each other, I wonder if a shared interest in dualisms (understood as comparable to ‘rival conceptions’ for Veysey and ‘dichotomies’ for Allen) might be a productive place to begin.
In Chapter XXIV of Democracy and Education, John Dewey offers several – labor and leisure, practical and intellectual activity, man and nature, individuality and association, culture and vocation – as finding their counterparts in the chief problems of classic philosophy. In doing so, he builds an argument now familiar to this classroom that “the fact that the stream of European philosophical thought arose as a theory of educational procedure remains an eloquent witness to the intimate connection of philosophy and education” (386). For Dewey, because education is the process through which necessary societal transformation takes place, and practical transformations in philosophy, education, and social ideals must take place concurrently, philosophy can then be understood as “the theory of education as a deliberately conducted practice” (387). [ I found Cowles’ history of psychologists adapting the scientific method as a problem-solving adaptation fascinating. For Dewey, “education is a constant reorganizing or reconstructing of experience,” (89) a process for which change is key. Thinking “is occasioned by unsettlment and it aims at overcoming a disturbance.” (380) Change, unsettlement, uncertainty—these are all so difficult for the human brain to contend with. Would this be different if methods of science hadn’t turned descriptions of science into prescriptions for how to think scientifically? At what point does descriptive become prescriptive? How does this interact with the conceptions of utility in education? -PH ] [[CA note: Thanks for this comment. Today I received a package in the mail. I bought a microphone and it came with this inside. A manual on how to make an origami bird. I haven’t seen anything like this with a commercial object in some time. Our capacity to reconstruct is not lost yet, even in the distant realms of microphone commodities. We might still be unsettled by strangers from afar for the better, not for the sake of art or knowledge, but simply for the sake of doing.]]
In his survey of the history of educational philosophy, intended perhaps to “utilize the products of past history so far as they are of help for the future” (a future to which we now belong, and from which we now read Democracy and Education similarly as a product of the past), Dewey begins with Plato (86). [You raise an interesting point about temporality–even as we try to come up with ways to consider education in the here and now, we are constantly going back to the texts of the past. Even a kind of education depicted in some futuristic utopia would be constrained to its own present, which is to say our past. -MG] As to the question of why – “it would be impossible to find in any scheme of philosophic thought a more adequate recognition on one hand of the educational significance of social arrangements and, on the other, of the dependence of those arrangements upon the means used to educate the young” (104). In considering the Platonic conception of education, through which individual realization is achieved alongside social stability, within the context of a democratic society, Dewey identifies a fundamental conflict between the social and the national aims of education (113).
Following his assertion that terms such as the individual or the social (as they relate to conceptions of education) cannot fully be understood apart from their context, and that implicit in the conception of education as a social process is the existence of a particular social ideal, understanding education within the particular context of a democratic state becomes necessary. He wonders, “is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted?” (114) For Dewey, this question is equally concerned with considerations both within and without the state itself. Internally, education must confront class divisions in relation to present economic conditions. Externally, it is bound by ideals of national unity.
A century later, Danielle Allen continues to ponder similar questions in Education and Equality, with a specific interest in the impact of policy on egalitarian educational reform. Like Dewey, she identifies the economic conditions of a society as being inextricably linked to education as a social practice, so much so that “discussions of educational reform are very often proxies for conversations about poverty” in a way that often renders the distinction between the two somewhat unclear (3). In framing her discussion about the connection between education and equality (economic and otherwise), she proposes a hesitant yet clear dualism: the vocational versus the liberal?
She cites a familiar postwar American story in which education functioned primarily as preparation for the global economy, a vocational orientation supported by decades of national policy and emphatic political rhetoric. Although the reactionary impulse to contrast the vocational with the liberal evokes a certain image of elite liberal arts colleges, Allen insists that there is a larger structural benefit to reconsidering the relative value of both. (The lingering ghosts of the liberal arts college as discussed by Veysey would be fascinating to consider here but for the purpose of time I won’t get into it – other than to say I think there are valuable contributions to this conversation in his description of the gentleman scholar as a largely apolitical subject.) In doing so, she hopes to extricate the conversation from questions like “is the point of education enriching the life of the mind or securing a job?” towards a potential opening up (9).
Ultimately, after a reconsideration of Platonic conceptions of the relationship between the individual and society through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (summarized extremely briefly as an exploration of the impact of individual human flourishing on the social whole), Allen lands on ‘participatory readiness’ as a way to account for the civic alongside both the individual and the social. In doing so, she provides a response to Dewey’s concern with how education must be specifically considered within the context of a democracy. Allen’s concept of participatory readiness is concerned not only with participation at the level of the political community but also that of intimate and communitarian relationships (27).
According to Allen, it is in participatory readiness, a foundation upon which forms of participatory democracy might be able to engender significant political change, where education’s true egalitarian potential lies. Functionally, this participatory readiness depends on the development of “verbal empowerment [rhetoric], democratic knowledge, and a rich understanding of the strategies and tactics that undergird efficacy” (40). Assuming an education can provide competency in these three categories, it is then in the consideration of what exactly students are being prepared for (ready for what?) that we can ground the argument in an actual democratic context. Allen describes a personal discomfort with the semantic distinction between ‘civic engagement’ and ‘political participation’, rooted in the distinct rhetorical valences of ‘civic’ and ‘political,’ with political being the more charged term (33). In working through the implications of each, Allen cites several case studies, providing a context to which The Oakland Community Learning Center feels like a powerful addition (especially in response to the previously mentioned question of ‘ready for what?’).
By way of a conclusion, Allen ultimately cites the humanities, a liberal arts education, as the “unlikely hero” of her story. I was struck by the assumption that this conclusion would be a particularly surprising one. In other words, unlikely how? The liberal arts education as an answer to many of these questions is, if anything, an incredibly familiar one (so much so that it was introduced at the outset of her argument as such). Perhaps it is unlikely primarily in its position relative to equality. The problem, then, becomes cultivating participatory readiness not only in liberal arts colleges but in the public education of American children.
In some ways, The Oakland Community Learning Center provides a practical example of what this type of education might look like. It also provides a reminder that forms of ‘civic engagement’ such as participatory readiness as the intent to participate in democratic elections leaves gaps that forms of ‘political participation’ have often needed to fill. Despite the relatively benign tone in which the school is presented to us, the context of its existence elicits a sense of how stark the discrepancy between the social and the civic often is. Arguably, it answers Dewey’s question, “is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted?” with an emphatic no. A much more local sense of the social, along with a more nuanced idea of what individual flourishing must look like, is the only context in which a school such as this one could be implemented. It is also distinct from Allen’s proposal in that the pillars of participatory readiness in this context are not abstract – children must necessarily understand the civic, and the political, in much more explicit terms.
* * *
[CB starts here]
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
I was reminded again and again of Benjamin throughout this week’s readings. I keep returning to the (maybe unanswerable) question – what is education for? The answer to this question seems to vary widely in each text we’ve approached this semester. For Allen, education is essential for the production and reproduction of the state. The American university system seems part and parcel of this larger project. If education’s purpose is “the awakening of a human being,” (Allen 12) as per former Cornell/University of Iowa president Hunter Rawlings would lead us to believe, a larger set of questions must be asked – what determines the human being? Who determines the condition of wakefulness? Waking from what? There seems to me to be a quietly sinister civilizing bent to Rawlings’s declaration, especially when an essential part of education, per Allen, is to “prepare ourselves for breadwinning labor” and “prepare ourselves for civic and political engagement.” This is an education meant, explicitly, to create citizens actively engaged in the project of state-making. The need to make “ordinary citizens […] proud to be involved in politics” as the chief moral and intellectual effort of education seems to leave room for the eternal reproduction of inequality, so long as the nature of citizenship is premised on in-and-out groups and a system of dominations we’re all too familiar with. Allen’s pedagogical model seems to take on an almost utopian bent – the creation of a society of ideal citizens that will create a more perfect democratic state. Allen’s conception of education as a pathway to political equality is premised on the belief that the political system reified by that education has the capacity to be equitable.
Why take for granted that the state and the citizen are the social formation that education should prepare us for? Maybe the continuing global logic of state-sponsored economic extraction is inescapable – but what about an education that can prepare us for some yet-to-be-imagined formation that can move beyond the harms recreated again and again by presently extant political systems? This seems to me to be a “participatory readiness” of another kind. Beyond the sanitized Reading Rainbow view of the Oakland Community Learning Center, the decentralized learning method the Black Panther Party established throughout their schools seems to belie an investment in a liberatory political philosophy that moves beyond the vertically organized hierarchical structure the typical student-teacher relationship is premised on. If “readiness” is the measure of education, what is the Oakland Community Learning Center readying its students for?
Both Allen and Dewey are concerned with education’s temporal orientation. “The individual can live only in the present,” Dewey tells us. This seems to be self-evident, but points to the near messianic requirements of education laid down in some aspects of pedagogy – that the present must redeem and exceed the past. Education can be “retrospective” or “prospective” (Dewey 92). Education for Dewey is a constant process, the “continuous reconstruction of experience,” which can happen on an individual as well as societal level. The goal of that continuous reconstruction is a departure from the past, such that “better habits shall be formed, and thus the future adult society be an improvement on their own (Dewey 92). The social function of education as a device for forming a social unit seems universally recognized, but “the conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind,” (Dewey 112). Dewey demands we answer this question before pedagogy is considered, and Dewey’s definition of an “undesirable society,” (detailed on 115) sounds suspicious like the one we currently inhabit.
The winds of history propel us into the future, if ever they arrive. Benjamin demands a readiness too – what is important, he tells us, is how the sails are set. This is an educational model, a participatory readiness [Such an elegant reading of Allen and Dewey via Benjamin, precisely instantiates several of the pedagogical modes––Socratic, Sophist, “liberal,” etc.––we’ve encountered thus far in a single phrase. –NB). The mission of education first then seems to be a coming to awareness of the fact that there are sails to begin with – the concepts (words? What to make of this elaboration in the two quotes) that allow history to propel one forward. The art of setting the sails is the premise therein of education – like Dewey, like Allen, language is the premier vehicle. It’s knowing what to do with it, and being prepared to use it, that gives education its forward momentum.
Quick addition – an article on Dewey’s ideas on eugenics, education…
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS BY JD & DGB BELOW)
Our session today had some real zing to it — at least for me. Collecting myself, now, an hour or so after the seminar, I feel such gratitude. I am experiencing an acute awareness of how deeply I cherish two hours and fifty minutes of time like that. How fortunate I am that my life has worked out in such a way as to share time and thought and texts like that with you all — and with Jeff, of course. What goodness.
I notice, too, gathering my thoughts like this, how perfectly conformal my present activity is with Dewey’s theory of experience-as-reconstruction.
What I am doing right now, it becomes clear, is exactly “gathering up” our class for myself (and for you, dear reader). And this reflexive retrospection amounts, I think, to a paradigmatic instance of that process by which “an experience” (first half of the dialectic) becomes “an experience” (completion of the dialectic). By the end of the first half of our seminar today, I found myself offering something like an impassioned plea for the power of this idea: that experience as such arises as a kind of hitch in time, and involves a dynamic looping-through-to-carry-forward.
This theory of experience has wider applicability within Dewey’s work (its importance in Art as Experience came up in our discussion), but it feels right to say that in Democracy and Education the concept is deployed in a very pure and direct way. Basically, as he puts it:
[From p. 82 in the Carbondale collected edition]
Which then gets further glossed two pages later:
So there it is: “every such continuous experience is educative, and all education resides in having such experiences.” There you go. That is the theory here.
And it is compelling, too, I think (despite the notably lackluster exposition).
I have to think more about this, though. Because I find Dewey’s “theory of experience” absolutely essential for thinking about life and thought. But I am not sure I am comparably enthusiastic about his “theory of education.” It feels reasonable, I guess, but it does not spark my imagination. Or, to put it another way, the “experience” part does spark my imagination, but somehow as experience is reconstructed “as education” itself it somehow loses something (for me) of its exhilarating infinitude — its crystalline imminence.
Why is that? Hmmm. I am not sure. And this may be less a thought than a mood.
But perhaps it has something to do with the way that the assimilation of (Deweyan) experience to education (“The Education Project,” democratic education, etc.) effectively places nothing less than reflective consciousness itself “in harness.” Dewey’s theory of experience offers an account as good as any I know of what is most magnificent and outrageous about human being.
And that is an amazing achievement.
But am I alone, then, in feeling that there is something of a come-down in seeing such grandeur turned to “a good cause?”
Maybe I am just being silly. What better “cause” could you want than the future, for heaven’s sake? And, for that matter, a future with and among a maximally diverse community of other human beings with whom one shares a rich and elaborate array of shared interests? These, recall, are Dewey’s “criteria,” his “standard”:
What’s not to like?
Plus, it gets you democracy as an experience-sharing system.
So what is it that occasions my slight descent-of-mood as we move from “experience” to the “education” that is essentially conformal therewith?
I’m really not sure.
Or perhaps I am.
In the end, it may be that I find myself recoiling from what Dewey himself likely considered his actual achievement — namely, that his system (like that of Darwin himself, who becomes legible retrospectively as a kind of proto-pragmatist) is all process.
No substantive content. No ideals. No foundations. No “aspirations,” exactly.
What substitutes for these (and it is a likeable substitution; perhaps, in the end, even preferable, in a prudential sense) is really something like “a positive attitude,” or a “generally disabused empiricism made more palatable by liberal sprinkling of American optimism.”
In practice this may be a better package (for rulers, for teachers — who knows, maybe for everyone) than the balked transcendence of metaphysics.
But even so, it is not my cup of tea. On the contrary, I hold a candle for the god-struck, for those who would place the “ends” inside or beyond us — and then point urgently in that direction, telling us with passion (in song! with gestures!) what they discern where the eye won’t reach.
Yes, so — well, sorta obvious, really, no? After all, I was up there at the front of the room talking about this stuff with ash smeared all over my forehead…
Right. But the god part is not required. After all, metaphysics itself was invented (in its Comtean form) as precisely a work-around with respect to god-talk.
Which perhaps sets us up to reach back — back to the Allen. After all, I have begun these reflections in a way that is unfaithful to the chronology of our conversation. It was with Danielle Allen’s Education and Equality that we actually launched.
We reviewed how Allen wants to use Rawls’s “Two Concepts of Rules” as a model by which to parse the explanation from the justification of education, separate the way the state (or other high-level social structure) will inevitably activate education for the purpose of social reproduction, etc. (instrumentalize it), from the way human beings can pursue education for ends that are unassimilable to those determinate (and broadly establishmentarian) aims.
And what might humans actually want? They — we! — want “awakening” (here from the end of the essay, p. 50):
There was a moment in class that I experienced as one of some intensity, where that ideal was invoked, and given its shimmer: YES, that boundlessness of us, and our essence lying in the ever-untapped and always emerging new reach! This is exactly the powerful and emancipatory and affirming vision of the central creed of the Enlightenment.
But also… NO.
Since this same notion constituted the battle-standard for a militant universalism that scorched the earth of countless thick traditions within which many (all?) humans had found the stuff of their existences.
And you cannot really have it both ways. Either YES. Or…NO.
Or is that silly? Childish? A cartoonish simplification?
I won’t answer those questions. But I will say a word about dullness. There was another moment in the class in which we took a turn into a delicate matter. One hard to discuss well.
Why do both these texts, the Allen and the Dewey, feel a little…dull?
Is this fair? I leave room for any of you who did not experience them that way. Fine. Good.
But for some there was a need to surface that fact. Does it matter?
It may. In that there is a kind of argument to made about philosophy that what it consists in is the hard work of keeping the most important terms vital. This may mean renewing them. It may mean protecting them from misuse. And it may mean giving those terms the urgency and spangle by which they retain their presiding significance to thought and life.
By these lights (but are these lights to be trusted? does their association with Heidegger give us pause?), dullness is a philosophical failure.
Worth further reflection.
[Is dull an artifact of not fully recognizing oneself in the object? (Freire 105) -LD]
There was much more. We made a loop through the Black Panther schools, and we spent a lot of time in the last hour building out a slate of questions for our analytic template (which we hope to use in the final project part of the course).
Here is the that blackboard, which we need to transcribe:
But for now, I think I am done.
A really great class, I thought — for which, THANK YOU!
* * *
[AND NOW JD]
I’m tempted to say that Dewey would really have liked that class—just because it had a particularly satisfying shape to it, beginning, middle, end. Here’s a passage from Art as Experience, still my favorite of his books (of the ones I’ve read, that is).
Experience is the central term for Dewey, and this passage captures something of his polemical development of it: it is not merely a neutral term (for the organism’s relation to its environment), but a normative one (for life lived with alert self-consciousness and shaping intelligence). The good life is one that is full of experiences, and experiences have a form that promotes them to something like aesthetic reflection.
Let me try to draw out the form of our conversation as an illustration. We began with MG’s thought piece, and her basic question about whether Danielle Allen’s commitment to a pedagogy of “human awakening” in the first essay of Democracy and Equality was sustained in the pragmatics of the second, about participatory readiness and income inequality. Across a lot of the talk that followed, there was a mix of respect for Allen’s determination to synthesize philosophical commitments and policy data, and frustration that her prescription seemed to reinforce a liberal, incrementalist project that offered structural challenges neither to democratic institutions nor to the authority of markets. (Though as DGB pointed out, she makes passing reference to some stronger medicine in the book, e.g. admissions lotteries.) There’s a lot we can carry away from that discussion about what we can want from education. But I want to focus on that split that MG diagnosed: can the two kinds of rules (the eudaemonistics of the classroom, the cool strategizing of policy) be held together in the mind, in practice? If we justify education economically, can we remember that awakening?
The problem reminds me of the story that Veysey tells, in a book that also falls into two parts: the first a set of “rival conceptions” of higher learning, proper to the history of ideas, intellectually pure, sharpened by argument; the second the “price of structure,” all of the often tacit compromises by which the interests and ideals of the university’s various constituencies get welded together in an impure but evidently durable institution. Is this MG’s disjunction again? What do we make of it? Is the disjunction—within a work of political theory on the one hand, across forty-five years of history on the other—a failure of philosophy? A compromise philosophy must make? Is the dissatisfaction that we feel as thinkers something we just have to grow up and deal with? Or—is that precisely the kind of growing up that a new school has to prevent?
(A brief interlude on the teaching of language: that has to continue to be central for us. Again, some ambivalence about the sometimes starry-eyed embrace of it in Education and Equality. EH asked, does everyone have the same access to self-realization in language? “Access” was LD’s word, meant to split the difference between the pragmatics of accessibility (in the sense we might use under the ADA) and something more like the intellectual availability of ideas in a complex matrix of imperfectly distributed knowledges and skills. EH wondered if we might do better with languages, plural. At all events—so many schools have placed language teaching at the center of the educational project, we’ll have to keep thinking and thinking about what it is doing there.)
OK—now, Dewey!—whose pragmatism is a sustained attack on philosophical dualisms, the mind-body distinction and all the other distinctions that flow from it. He has an approach that carries him across the theory and practice divide that Allen and Veysey, in their different ways and for their different motives, respect; or rather, he diagnoses that divide as a failure of understanding which his pragmatic philosophy can address. (And in so doing address some consequent failures of practice in politics and pedagogy.) So in the chapter on “Philosophy of Education,” we get his declaration that “philosophy is an attempt to comprehend—that is, to gather together,” and that it is characterized by “generality, totality, and ultimateness” (334). Not, however, the totality of a synchronic system; rather, a capacity to integrate all experience by recognizing the interdependence of organism and environment (the “specific continuity of the surroundings with his own active tendencies” ). The exercise of authority, or the instrumental application of knowledge—subjects working on objects, in one direction—are situations better understood as feedback loops, each term modifying the other, provisionally separable for the purposes of thought but not separated in practice (and really, practice is all there is).
So, on the level of an individual’s education, the child learns by “entering into the activities of others and taking part in conjoint and cooperative doings” (28), sharing in “the ways in which persons…use things” (32). Routinized or repetitive rule-following, in which the rule follower is sheltered from change by the rule, can never be education. But a child who works themselves as they work the garden (who is changed by it as they change it, in an activity of mutual construction), that child is learning. And the meaning of the activity consists in this use, not instrumental use, but praxis; the more intense the feedback, and the denser the relation to others through that practice (and—here we come close to Stiegler—the more the tradition and history of the practice are implicated), the more it all means. (“It is the characteristic use to which a thing is put, because of its specific qualities, which supplies the meaning with which it is identified” .)
This ideal of experience (interesting phrase!) translates to politics in ways that we discussed: the basic social values for Dewey are the shared interests of groups, and the degree of open contact among (potentially overlapping) groups. If democracy promotes the maximum of both, then we have an argument for that form of government as both supportive of and supported by education: “all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative” (8). If you feel a lot of familiar distinctions slipping away from you here, well, that’s what it’s like to be a Deweyan pragmatist. There is a basic commitment to the idea that human suffering is produced by defensive distinction-making, and relieved by open communication, so that education and communication and democracy and, for that matter, art (“All communication is like art” ) become effectively synonyms. It can seem a little simple minded—but then, all happy families are happy in the same way, right? And because we are such inveterate distinction-makers, there is no danger that the philosopher, whose job it is to walk us out of the labyrinth of our contradictions, will run out of things to say or work to do. (Though the work is arguably easier to do with kids, who are early in the game of building those distinctions/defenses/economies.)
We had some questions for Dewey, especially about the apparent friendliness of his project to capitalism, and also whether it has an adequate capacity to recognize and respond to tragedy. (Though you can imagine his response: tragedy is itself a defense, the ennobling of a failure to communicate that could have been preempted by communication; what if Cordelia had said a little more to Lear, and more to the point, what if he had listened?) The line of discussion about evolution was really fascinating and I’ll leave it to DGB and others to make a record of that here. I’ll only say that Dewey’s sense of a corroborating homology (or deep structural sympathy) among Darwinian evolution, child development, and scientific method, as modes of “learning” by trial and error, is part of our story about schools and nature. In his way, Dewey is as committed to nature as Rousseau, though it is an idea of nature that is structured by his social commitments (by flourishing diversity, rather than by free and ruthless competition). Here it should be said we come around to those big “what is education for” questions that CB put to us.
Arnoldo Moen, ENTRE AS NYMPHEAS, Buenos Aires Calle Florida N. 314 (1896). [[OK, I went down an internet hole sussing out this image, and the elliptical citation. I learned some things. But cannot say I am clear on why it is here. In the process (and the outcome) I permitted myself to reflect on the relationship between such an inquiry and the general quarry (teaching/learning, their nature[s]). It is possible I was having an “experience” along these lines. -DGB]]
There are some interesting pages in Dewey about the how of his progressive schools, e.g. the encounters with raw materials (rather than Froebel boxes!). We’ll want to keep that in mind as we think about what it’s like to be in the classrooms we explore. Also a general question about the value and meaning of childhood itself. In the chapter on growth, he observes that “for certain moral and intellectual purposes adults must become as little children” (47). Some schools want to get the person safely out of childhood. Others may want to safeguard childhood, to ensure that as much of it as possible survives into adult life. (But which parts?) Maybe that is one way of looking back on the shape of the seminar: it began with a cardinal distinction that might be rewritten as the difference between child and adult; it ended with that difference much diminished, in favor of the child.
And a quick coda!—having read DGB’s terrific reflections above. Boring, yeah—that’s a tough one! Dewey in particular: who among the philosophers is more concerned with immediate interest than he is, more impatient with remote obligations? Perhaps he was a man who specially hated to be bored. But the wonderfully patient reasonableness of his commitments does seem directed at talking us out of our passions, in favor of more manageable emotions, or even dispositions. (G and I have taught Phil Fisher’s The Vehement Passions in the past, and I am thinking of him when I make that distinction; and in back of him, Albert O. Hirschman.) Dewey was a great lover of art, co-creator of the Barnes Collection, but he wants a world in which nobody would ever have to write King Lear, yes? And wouldn’t that be a better world? Who could disagree? But I have so much at stake in the transport of those tragic compensations, and I can’t separate out my debt to and need for art from the strangely compounded ecstasy of such encounters. When we ask about the place of art in education, we can’t be asking only about art therapy, or a sort of I. A. Richardsian higher reconciliation of inner conflict, can we?
Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018 ).
John Carson, The Measure of Merit: Talents, Inequality, and Intelligence in the French Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), read PART III, “Merit, Matter, and Mind.”
Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), read chapters 1-4 (“Democratic Minds for a Complex Society,” “The Creative American,” “Interdisciplinarity as a Virtue,” and “The Academy as a Model of America”).
C.L Barber et al., The New College Plan: A Proposal for a Major Departure in Higher Education (Amherst, MA: NP, 1958), skim, with a focus on the first dozen pages.
OPENING THINK PIECES
[TU starts here]
All intelligences are equal
While reading Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed I could not stop thinking about the notion of possibility.
What’s possible appears to be defined by the social order (the order of things) that has shaped our understanding of the world. Understanding (in these terms) appears to be central to Rancière’s argument as it is presented as something that couldn’t be acquired without the explanation of the master (old). As per Rancière, the complexity towards understanding resides in the presence of the master and the necessity of acquiring knowledge by the pedagogical model of explication. Explication is what establishes a distance between the ignorant and the knowing minds. It is this distance that prevents us from understanding, paying (good) attention, or reflecting critically on the world around us. Explication turns into a vicious circle that resides in [even constitutes, no? – DGB] the principle of hierarchical knowledge. The child overwhelmed by the principle of explication lost the capacity of developing its own intelligence, the same intelligence he uses to learn to speak and create associations with the objects surrounding him, his intelligence is subordinated to the intelligence of the master and thus he starts the guided way to become a “man of progress.” The path of progress fostered by explication and stultification is defined by the subordination of one intelligence to another.
Emancipation is the path explored by Rancière to disrupt the circle of power provided by the art of explication. To be emancipated is to recognize the capability of one intelligence to be guided by itself, to recognize the potential of the human mind. In this vein, to emancipate is to teach someone the possibilities to learn without explication, is to unleash the possibility of humanity learning by themselves, it is the possibility of tackling the distance between the ignorants and the people who know. It is the possibility of generating multiple layers of understanding. It is important here to remark that those that are not aware of their intelligence and its capabilities are excluded from the world of intelligence, thus subjugated to the world of the man of progress. Ranciere remarks that to perform the emancipation action one needs to be emancipated, one needs to believe in the statement: all intelligences are equal. It is necessary to believe in the possibility provided by this statement. Rancière remarks then that whoever emancipates “doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn…” (Rancière 1991, 18).
What a fascinating and important quote, to know that one could learn. We all know we can learn but do we really know that we can learn? Do we really think about the possibilities and capabilities of our intelligences? Here I would like to circle back to the question that triggered this think piece, on the question of possibility. Knowing that we could learn something opens the possibility of curiosity. Of understanding and reflecting on the world under different parameters. Curiosity is an important and crucial aspect for the development of imagination. Images that could broaden our limits of our understanding. Images that could revert the narrow images of explication and progress.
Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing explains that progress is a forward march, that it is highly defined by the idea of what it means to be a human being. The concept of progress as a forward march implies that all temporalities are defined under the narratives of progress. For Tsing, the importance is to look for all those temporalities that don’t fit into progressive narratives (she uses the unexpected appearance of matsutake mushrooms as her example), because they could show us “how to look around rather than ahead.” (Tsing 2015, 22) We could easily relate this narrative to Ranciere’s definition of the man of progress. If progress implies the generation of intelligences that subjugate other intelligences into their temporalities, it is in the principle of emancipation where we could find the possibility of thinking beyond the narratives of progress. If our capacity of understanding is defined by the world that is presented to us, then we need to expand the boundaries of our understanding by unleashing the true potential of all intelligences (here I would also like to say that we need to also consider non-human intelligences as important for liberation and equality).
Thinking of all intelligences as equal opens up the possibility of thinking, of making to think, of thinking to think, about what is not part of this oppressive narratives. Emancipation is about the possibility of generating new understandings by awakening our attention to what was left behind.
We could further extend Rancière’s act of emancipation by adding this provocative Bruno Latour’s quote of what does it mean to be a subject: “To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.” (Latour 2014, 5) Ranciere’s statement that all intelligences are equal is an attempt to see what can be done with such an assumption. This was the motivation of Jacotot, the possibility of making others to do. Emancipation is the possibility of making others do, it is the possibility of assuming that all the intelligences are equal to recover the lost autonomies that have been lost by the forward march of progress.
As I am linking the act of emancipation to the Latourian act of sharing agency, I would like to close this piece with one of the most beautiful quotes I ever read in regards to agency. I would like to think of emancipation (and other critical pedagogies) under these parameters so nicely expressed by the Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret. She defines agency:
Agency, therefore, appears clearly as the capacity not only to make others do things, but to incite, inspire, or ask them to do things. This is how oeuvres or divinities achieve their existence and acquire agency in turn. This is how flowers gain agency, through becoming enabled to make their companion pollinators be moved by them, and this is how the latter could themselves be agents, through becoming enabled to make the flowers able to attract them, and in turn to be moved by them. This is why agency always appears in a flow of forces. Agencies spring in a flow of forces, in agencements that make more agencies: the one who makes others do, the one who makes others move, the one who inspires others to be inspired, and the one who is therefore induced, mobilized, and moreover, put in motion, activated. (Despret 2013, 41)
[This is indeed a very lovely quote, and its emphasis on action “at a distance” had me in mind of the concept of “induction” — before Despret himself invoked the term. The notion of induction, and its theoretical potential, was at the center of this piece I did recently, as a contribution to the work of the very brilliant and disorienting artist Nora Turato, whose channeling performances are indeed legible as a form of transformative pedagogy, effected through close and medium-like attention. -DGB]
Emancipation is about activation. Activation involves the possibility of creating multiple (and significant) patterns of reality (understandings).
All intelligences are equal.
[NI starts here]
Jumping off of our discussion last week about the effects and potential consequences of the dull delivery of brilliant thought, I was brought back to that theme at two points in this week’s readings: first, in Rancière’s account of Socrates’s refusal to play the game of oratory, and then in Cohen-Cole’s lament of Dewey’s casual disregard by the Educational Policy Committee and the Harvard Red Book. The Dewey point is a less developed thought, so maybe I get that out of the way first. Cohen-Cole cites committee member Ulich’s surprisingly offhand dismissal: “Through basing education on merely instrumentalist concepts [Dewey] gives no philosophically satisfying answer to the problems of values and goals of both education and democracy” (JCC 21) – apparently this “was received with no objection”! Our discussion last week would surely object — we clearly saw something in Dewey’s treatment of “the problems of values and goals of both education and democracy.” Cohen-Cole assigns EPC’s short shrift on pragmatism as a closed-mindedness, demonstrating the extent to which the committee was “largely content to approach social thought, philosophy, education, and democracy through their own knowledge” (21) — to me this seems left underexplored. Obviously Dewey was taken up elsewhere, and has had great impact, but after reading Cohen-Cole’s vivid accounts of the midcentury educational elites’ fixation on the quasi-institutional spaces of the salon, the conference, and even undergraduate common houses (27-30) – literal smoke-filled rooms! – it made some sense to me that Dewey, for all his deep investment in democracy (likely deeper than the ideals of Harvard common room “conviviality”), would not be invited to this particular party.
(Side note: If we are going to include “food” as an aspect of our New School dossiers, I’d like to point to Margaret Mead’s theory of conference catering on JCC 132: international conferences should allow “choice of foods that occur in a simple state, like fruits and nuts, to comfort the stranger” – but in all cases there should be ample food and drink, so that full stomachs give a sense of “repletion…mistakenly attributed to the intellectual fare instead of meals”; “it is important to have stimulants and snacks available, particularly late at night.”) [Love this! – DGB]
I find myself perceiving a rhyme between this account of Dewey, and Rancière’s surprising, rather damning account of Socrates’s participation in his own trial (JR 93-96):
“Socrates did not want to make a speech to please the people, to seduce the ‘ungainly animal.’ He didn’t want to study the art of the sycophants Anytus and Meletus. He thought, and practically everyone praised him for it, that this would decay his own philosophy. But the basis for his opinion is this: Anytus and Meletus are imbecilic sycophants; thus, there is no art in their speeches, only recipes; there is nothing to be learned from them. Yet the speeches of Anytus and Meletus were a manifestation of the human intelligence like those of Socrates…Socrates, the ‘ignorant one,’ thought himself superior to the tribunal orators; he was too lazy to learn their art; he consented to the world’s irrationality. Why did he act like this? For the same reason that defeated Laius, Oedipus, and all the tragic heroes: …He thought that he was the elect of the divinity. […] A divinely inspired being doesn’t learn Anytus’s speeches, doesn’t repeat them, doesn’t try, when he needs to, to appropriate their art. It is thus that the Anytuses become masters in the social order.” (95-96)
“It is thus that the Anytuses become masters in the social order.” Socrates’s refusal to play the game, to ‘stoop to the level’ of the orator, to descend from Philosophy to Sophistry, Rancière argues, is not an act of martyrdom, but of lazy pretension! Paradoxically, in the middle of his critique of rhetoric, Rancière points out that the “orator’s language” is not something to abolish, because in the framework of universal equal intelligence, Socrates is not superior to Anytus; it is “shameful for Socrates to have lost the battle and his life to Meletus and Anytus…The orator’s language, must be learned.” Anytus may have hegemony on his side, but Rancière seems to make something of a pragmatic, “tactical” case that disengagement from the hegemony of rhetoric won’t achieve very much – in fact, it’s “shameful” to do so. Instead, oratory is to be “appropriated,” not to become its new master, or consign it to oblivion, but to treat it as a “book,” as arbitrary as Télémaque, from which a system can be discerned, and new lessons can be discovered. Rancière allows that even a professor, the explicator extraordinaire, is also a “book” to be learned from, but never by intention, only by fugitive transgression (102).
But the vitality of such new lessons is, in Rancière’s account, extremely fleeting and fragile; I found his explorations of intellectual emancipation’s retrenchments, dilutions, and counter-appropriations in the final chapter harrowing, even heartbreaking. He insists (or, Jacotot insists?) that emancipation cannot become the basis for an institution, because it is precisely institutionalization which “spoils” the method (103); so-called “Progressives” can appropriate Jacotot’s terms, and theories, but they can only reproduce the letter (however distorted), not the spirit, of his lesson. Fortunately, the lesson will never perish, because it’s “a natural method of the human mind” (105), but it can never be inscribed as a social institution either.
[Quick thought here on NI’s lovely parenthetical above (“or, Jacotot insists”): from a methodological perspective, that such a confusion/elision is possible — indeed, that it is effectively unavoidable in reading this book — really goes to the heart of the matter, no? Rancière’s is a performative book. It declines, I think, to “explicate.” It simply “ventriloquizes,” no? Which is the limit case of “translation.” My point is just that the book is an example of conceptual promiscuity, of intellectual contamination — of mingling with the source-material as a form of thought, and as a form of sharing of thought (in several senses). I think this is a super deep and important idea. (I talk a bit about this stuff here, at the end, in an aside about the late John Irwin’s crazy, brilliant The Mystery to a Solution (1994). But there are countless other examples of work that effects this magic. A genuine genius of the genre, for instance: Luce Irigaray – DGB]
On what level does the lesson lie, then? With “individuals and families” (128), who work within and against society: “A society, a people, a state, will always be irrational. But one can multiply within these bodies the number of people who, as individuals, will make use of reason, and who, as citizens, will know how to seek the art of raving as reasonably as possible” (98).
This reminds me that with Jacotot we are back with the small, artisanal scale of Emile and tutoring. A universalized tutoring rather than something hoarded for a particular social strata, sure – but while I’m taken with Rancière’s critiques of Progressivism, I can’t help but look around, and notice that we do live in a society, and wonder if there is any way to treat the problem of thinking the macro scale, and its inevitable disappointments, with the same vitality and optimism as Rancière finds in the micro? Is it possible to make something more of the macro, in the same constructive spirit that Rancière announces in his treatment of rhetoric/sophistry? If Socrates should have deigned to engage “the Anytuses,” what might we gain by engaging the macro?
[Oh, such a powerful last set of questions. And isn’t that the place where we have to pick up the Freire?
Or, for that matter, Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed.
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS BY JD & DGB BELOW)
So much, so much, so much. I was, as I expressed, kinda excited going into our seminar this week (because I felt the readings crossed and amplified each other in so many interesting ways), and then our time together actually exceeded my very high hopes/expectations.
We went in with the Rancière, and we did some basic work to surface the central claims of the book. “Explication,” as a pedagogical modality, amounts to a structured liturgy of “stultification.” It installs, by means of what we might call “distance-management,” the deprecation in then purports to address/resolve. Though in practice what is enacted is essentially a continuous “positioning” inimical to freedom and equality.
So far so good. It is an interesting claim. Did we feel it “all the way down”? I dunno. Becauase it really does scorch the earth of “education” as we mostly know it. So it is hard to take on board in an educational setting (i.e., “Princeton University”). All us well-meaning teachers, actually extending a catastrophic tsunami of mind-destruction everywhere we go. Ooof. Did we really reckon with the idea that we are, in this analysis, in a position perfectly conformal with those benighted nut-jobs who propose to bring about peace by waging continuous war? Sometimes being well-meaning just isn’t good enough…
[This is not a radical or edgy comment to make, but on this note of “scorched earth” I had this nagging feeling all through the Rancière that I obviously DO think there is something to to people sharing the insights that they have accumulated through their experiences and labors, when they have traveled further than you down a path which you are currently pursuing. Initially I typed “expertise” here, which would be so stultificatory, endorsing the kind of veiling-distancing that Rancière/Jacotot calls out – but I wonder if there is a way to appreciate insight-sharing across an asymmetry of experience, without creating that kind of value-differential?
To be more concrete: for undergrad I went to a small liberal arts college which definitely still takes a lot of its cues from the spirit of the New College Plan. We had small seminars with full-time faculty all the way through, and I think I had two lecture courses total; my department (Art History) never offered any kind of survey, only specialized seminars. I can’t be the only person here who has had the experience of the “dialogic” space of the seminar misfiring – where the students don’t seem to get to the heart of a difficult text, or maybe worse yet, the conversation ends up in some cul-de-sac, not with a Socratic ‘torpedo-fish’ but a lame duck. I remember this happening once (actually, maybe it was with Bourdieu?), 2 hours of everyone flailing and the professor not intervening. I remember looking at the professor toward the end and thinking, “You wrote a dissertation on this exact author, surely you’re holding something back that could be of use to us, after all this.” But she held fast to the rule of student-led dialogue. Such moments in my seminar-centric undergrad gave me a thirst for a survey and lectures (which I think can be “books” in Rancière’s sense, to be treated critically), some breadth to offset the depth — and some explication to offset the emancipation? Something more than the verification of my attention? Maybe the grass is always greener on the other side… – NI][[Ditto to all of this, as a liberal arts alum myself. Adore Rancière but this is an experiential antinomy I found as well –NB]] [[[Commenting here (thank you to both of you for getting this thought into the mix): I guess I just really want to be clear that my effort to “get-with” this idea should not be taken to reflect my own actual commitments. As an occasion to “tarry with the (pedagogical) negative,” Rancière/Jacotot cannot be beat, I think. And I do think openness to thinking absolutely “otherwise” is an invaluable component of (the actual life of?) thought itself. But the scale of my own thrill of working with the idea is exactly proportionate to its basic distance from my formation — thus, also, in meaningful ways, from my sensibility. How distant? Very distant! Example: earlier in my life, I spent two years under “spiritual direction,” meeting weekly with an older Jesuit priest, within the framework of the Ignacian Meditations. He was, essentially, my “elder.” And I adopted, formally and naturally, the position of the “acolyte.” He knew the way. It was his life. I wanted to walk the way he knew. So I followed, week after week, doing the exercises he gave me for each day. It was very definitely teaching and learning — and absolutely trans/formative for me. I would have trouble understanding a world that did not have space for that kind of teaching, and that kind of learning. But I see no easy way of fitting any of this into the Jacotot/Rancière paradigm. (After all, such pedagogical relations are constituted by power/positionality imbalances, and the “distance” dynamics involved go well beyond those of conventional “lecturing” or other forms of classroom “instruction” [along the lines invoked above in the comments of NI and NB]). FWIW: what I am here invoking in my Jesuit story does stand in a meaningful relationship to the history of monasticism, and that tradition is, of course, a very significant feeder-stream for what comes down to us as the “university” and its humanistic activities. – DGB]]][[[[And just a very general coda to this great exchange, to do with the theory and practice problem—the tendency of educational theory to project pure positions, and its impact on actual classrooms. You get it in the back and forth between teaching skills and teaching knowledge, between winning interest with the familiar and challenging it with the strange; the debate over whole language and phonics in primary ed. is germane. For a method to have philosophical rigor, and charisma, how partial, how narrow does it have to be with respect to the varieties of human learning? In the case of Rancière—not only am I missing the lecture, but I am missing the example of someone who knows what I want to know, who has figured out a way to live in it and share it. Now Rànciere might just say to that seminar leader that she abrogated the role of the ignorant schoolmaster, which is not to sit back as an unmirroring analyst, but to say (ideally, at strategic moments!) show me, show me, show me. That might have been a very different and a much better seminar if she had. But she also declined to offer an example. Can you, as a teacher, be an example without being an authority? How would that work? – JD]]]]
And what about education as a practice of equality? This is a powerful idea too. And wants to be held against various liberal-scientistic projects for managing the challenge of democratic education. We can posit equality as an initial condition (and decry the loss of this Edenic state across inequitable conditions. And we can promise education as a mechanism for retrieving or creating an equity that we clearly see does not obtain. Both these moves are on display all around us. And in John Carson’s The Measure of Merit we read about the role of the psychological sciences in giving metrical “substance” to these projects. But Rancière/Jacotot is/are pushing another program altogether: education as the verification of equality. We do not do this. We do not really even have much of an idea of what such a practice of education would look like. Or, well, what of it we know, we glimpse in the panecastic methodology on display in these pages. We tried a bit of that before the break.
But before I turn to that, it is worth remembering that there are a lot of things going on in this book. For instance, we spent some time on this passage (p. 13):
Which is fascinating to unpack, for what it implies about the place of the will in relation to the “intellect” (the superb historian of science Lorraine Daston has a valuable older essay on this topic, entitled “The theory of will versus the science of mind” which is in an edited volume from the 1980s put together by Ash and Woodward, The Problematic Science: Psychology in the Nineteenth Century).
I personally, as a guy who spends most of his academic and creative life thinking about “attention,” found the gloss on p. 25 particularly stimulating: “Let’s call the act that makes an intelligence proceed under the absolute constraint of a will attention.” This makes “attention” the essential act of learning — and thereby, I think, the core cognitive/sensory operation of emancipation. (Stiegler would, I think, agree; and I pretty much think I do too — this is, I believe, the core program of the “Twelve Theses on Attention,” and also the “Manifesto for the Freedom of Attention,” both texts that I have a relationship to through the “Friends of Attention” collective, to which I have alluded above).
We ourselves did some “paying attention” along these lines, in class, as a kind of impromptu panecastic exercise. We decided to run a little experiment on the facially uncanny proposition (repeated a number of times throughout The Ignorant Schoolmaster) that “everything is in everything.” Could this be so? If it is an ontology, what epistemology is implied?
There was a temptation at this point to let Justin E.H. Smith take us on a loop into the Monadology, but that seemed troublingly out of step with a truly panecastic methodology (“all explication-addicts, please raise your hands…”), so instead we just decided to Jacotot the problem: we teed up page 22-23 (I am showing here the bit on which I focused)…
…and paired up. The assignment: LOOK AT THE PAGE. Just look. Follow the “method.” Which means, simply taking in what is given (“Calypso…Calypso could…Calypso could not…”).
Not obvious that this was going to yield anything. And it seemed, I think, pretty odd as a practical program of inquiry in a graduate seminar setting. But we went for it.
And what happened?
Well, it seems like quite a lot of amazing stuff, actually.
I won’t try to rehearse it all, but here are a few of the things that we saw in my group:
And yes, also:
Sadness (the word, that is, but…)
Two persons, only one of whom was speaking. (Get it? Dolven said this. It took me a moment, but I am always a step slower than he is…)
Did I, personally, see the ancient “egg and dart” (with all it implies) in the juxtaposition of the “O” and the “L”? Hmmmm.
We were less sure if we could “see” the large question of where all of this stuff came from. Is the problem of origins, of genealogies, visible? Hard to say. (This was my question; it is essentially the question of a historian, always curious about how time can be seen…)
When we regrouped, we floated the core question: so… is everything in everything? I jotted down a few of the ways in which it seemed we might have evidence in the affirmative:
-AK and CA surfaced a powerful notion that a “positive capacity of dormancy,” which certainly seemed charged with the infinite to me;
-Another pair played with the idea of the (infinite) recombinability of the forms on the page;
-Who was it who noticed that the paragraph on p. 22 began “As you have understood all things…”? [This was NI] Which suddenly seemed rather uncanny…
And there were other ways that “everything” did indeed seem to peek up at us from the page.
As we moved into more general conversation before the break, I found myself acknowledging that I had been, across the exercise, concerned to try to find the material/physical everything from a start in anything — to get to matter, forces, nature itself, at all scales. But the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that this was really all that important. After all, the realm of the real, vast as it is, turns out (on a colorable analysis) to be really rather determinate, rather limited in its finitude, in comparison with the full scope of imagination. And isn’t THAT fullness available anywhere, in anything, or in any subdivision, however minute, of anything?
Hmmm. Maybe THAT is Jacotot’s actual point.
This construal gained force for me as we turned to the final citation from Jacotot that Rancière provides, on the penultimate page of the book:
This is a very beautiful idea. And I am deeply sympathetic. It is, of course, in the end, a plea for art. For art as life. (And this book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, with its “activation” of Jacotot, is more like art, perhaps, and more a plea for art, than a work of educational “theory”). But I suggested that I believe this paragraph does ask that we square up to some relatively scary/non-funny stuff.
This is, as I see it, ultimately, a frankly irrationalist project of ecstatic intuitionism. The politics is anarchist. The project aesthetic. There is no “criterion” on offer — no “reference,” no “ground” (at which to point, on which to stand, under which to hide). There is only a sacralizing commitment to that which sings. And to singing. [Hmmm, let me try a different reading—ecstatic, painfully episodic mask-ripping—that’s the OLD MASTER, isn’t it? And isn’t he is pulling of those masks for an audience that is addicted to this parade of revelations? The history of philosophy, a history of fleeting thrills, maybe cheap thrills. Whereas the panecastic method—it is the opposite of ecstasy, isn’t it? Just at the moment when you want to take wing from the object, that’s when the master says again, tell me what you see; bring your eyes back from the heavens to the page. Maybe maybe there’s an ecstasy of investment in the object: ecstasy in some limited sense of getting outside yourself. But the affect seems much more willed and disciplined, much more contained, and intuition is the enemy as much as authority is. (Intuition is another form of authority—at least, when somebody asks you about it, where do you point?) – JD] [[I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe, Jeff. But I read the passage above as pretty explicit in its celebration of full poetic emancipation, with pleasure as the relevant objective/rationale. The part where one returns, sort of dutifully, to the object (“from the heavens to the page,” as you put it) I don’t really see in the passage above. What I see is: “Come and we will make our poetry. Long live the panecastic philosophy!…It gives itself over to the pleasure of the imagination without having to settle accounts with the truth.” The OLD MASTER’s joy “doesn’t last long,” we are told; I think the implication is that the joy of the panecastic philosophy is unending (it is the ultimate good trip, which goes on forever!)… – DGB]][[[Returning, here, to the earlier mention of “F is for Fake,” which is also one of my favorite movies. Throughout this course, I’ve been thinking a lot about a line Welles delivers towards the end of the film, which has been invoked (purposefully?) here – “A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. ’Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’” I wonder, here, if we can think of learning as life as art – the continual project of unending renewal. The trickiness arrives in making the project of that art-making a collective one. Can that work, that singing, ever happen in chorus? -CB]]] [[[[I guess maybe I am diverging the thread a little bit, which is not my intention, but could also be understood as a way of adding other layers to the already stratified and rich back to back. CB’s quote moved me directly to a thought I was having in the last few days. I really like that quote from F for Fake, I remember using it once when reviewing some music shows for a magazine in Buenos Aires. Here my reflection, the quote starts with “A fact of life: we’re going to die” and ends with “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” This is kind of a manifestation of saying, the future is there but we shouldn’t “care” about it? What does it mean living without the future? And why? What does singing mean in this case? It is like a manifestation of being present? A quality of being that cares about what we are doing? Mmm, OK. Ok. Ok. Maybe too messy. I’ll bring someone into the thread. This week Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing gave a talk in Princeton, as part of the Ecotheories Colloquium. She was mainly presenting the Feral Atlas, a digital project that is really interesting. She shared with us this “paper” titled “Feral Atlas as a Verb: Beyond Hope and Terror” that I found really useful and provocative. In short, I want to refer to a concept in regards to the future. The future is presented here as the dream of magical plentiness, certainly defined by the forward marches of progress. So she states that to move forward is learning to live without the future (this fake idea of plentiness). And this will provoke a move on the attention. That is to say, if the future of magical plentiness is no longer there, then we need to care about the presence and the consequences if we don’t care. To learn how to think without the future is to redirect our attention beyond hope and terror, dystopia and utopian worlds. In a sense it implies to care about who we are NOW and how we want to live NOW. The future is now, not later. So pivoting back to the quote, what does singing mean? They know they are going to die but their words won’t be silenced. They shouldn’t. Keep singing!-TU]]]]
I am, myself, kinda into it. But there is every reason to walk into that project with some hesitation. In Jacotot’s moment (the moment of Fourier, and Saint-Simon—the moment captured so beautifully by Frank Manuel in The Prophets of Paris) it was possible to believe, in a particular way, in the glowing imminence of everyone doing exactly what they wanted. Believe that this kind of radical emancipation was going to produce (magically? Naturally?) a new kind of social harmony. Others at other times have believed this. But do you? Do I? Is it credible, in the early twenty-first century? Let me sharpen that point: is it ethically defensible to pretend to such belief? Perhaps only if you believe in a God who has a plan. But that is a heck of a gamble. [This seems as good a place as any to register my reservations about this project in the form of a pair of epigraphs from Agnotology (2008), Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger’s edited volume on ignorance and its production:
“We are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance.” Thomas Pynchon, 1984
“Doubt is our product.”
Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, internal memo, 1969
We took a break. When we came back, we dug in on the Freire. I am going to have to cut these reflections a bit short. But the conversation was really good. We acknowledged that despite the “datedness” of the book, it is in fact very much “our contemporary,” given how ubiquitous it seems to be as a go-to text in Ed. schools. I took you all through some of the raillery of our friend who is currently a high-school teacher, and for whom knock-off Freire-sprach has become a total bête noire.
But I also copped to the fact that, despite having been primed in those conversations to dislike the book, I found it totally beautiful — touching and earnest and worthy. I just really like the earnestness. The integrity of vision. The commitment to love (a term that has not really come up in our survey of the philosophies of education to this point). The essential armature of the thing — Hegelian, via a humanist Marxism, colored by a Liberation-Theology-inflected Catholicism — feels so charged with hope. Humanization? As against DE-humanization? What’s not to like? It made me reach for my Ivan Ilych (Deschooling Society ) and my Gustavo Gutierrez (The Theology of Liberation ). I get moist-eyed with this stuff.
[“As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternization of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace. Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune.”–Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844-1845, 43—-NB] [[“It will be seen how in place of the wealth and poverty of political economy come the rich human being and rich human need. The rich human being is simultaneously the human being in need of a totality of human life-activities—the man in whom his own realization exists as an inner necessity, as need. Not only wealth, but likewise the poverty of man—given socialism—receives in equal measure a human and therefore social significance. Poverty is the passive bond which causes the human being to experience the need of the greatest wealth—the other human being. The dominion of the objective being in me, the sensuous outburst of my essential activity, is emotion, which thus becomes here the activity of my being.” (91)
Need as wealth. Need for the other as the highest form of wealth, revealed most acutely through the experience of material poverty. No self-realization without the recognition and acceptance of one’s own need, which is to say without serious vulnerability. The 1844 manuscripts were recently described to me as corny, but I love these texts—maybe the earnestness is treacly, but I could take a bath in it. -AK]][[[YES! Can’t think of another text that so intimately shaped my own intellectual-cum-political development, esp. given my grumpy/contrarian proclivities––That earnestness is constitutive of its normative and imaginative power. Ditto, ditto, ditto. –NB]]]
I tried to put a kind of bow on the whole thing in the last two minutes, in a rushed-stupid way. But the general gist of it bears repeating, I think:
1) We read bits from the “plan for a new college” document that marked the founding vision of Hampshire College.
2) Jeff and I owned as to how full of sweetness and promise and light it all felt (and how close to the discourses of the university to which we were each formed — or at least of which we each caught a taste, now and again, from some old-timers).
3) We drilled into the biographies of the committee members.
4) We noticed that they came out of the VERY WORLD of post-war thinking about education and democracy that Jamie Cohen-Cole so effectively invokes in The Open Mind (i.e., committed to the vision of forming essentially anti-authoritarian citizens for a Cold War world — by means of the inculcations of virtues native to the academic common-room of the early 1950s).
5) We noticed that some of them were bona-fide Cold Warriors.
6) We (or I, anyway) got a little shiver, feeling a through-line across our reading for the week, to wit: a commitment to those very “virtues,” sent on a kind of war-path through Latin America in the very period that spanned Conant’s General Education in a Free Society (1945) to the New College Plan (1958), produced the exact conditions against which Freire conceived his critical pedagogy of Marxist emancipation!
Of course it is not quite that simple. But it is also not quite not that simple.
I will carry the thought with me, going forward.
* * *
First off, let me link us all to the list of questions for a school that I cobbled together from our conversation week before last. Let’s make this an open-source document: everyone should feel free to add new headings or new sub-questions to existing headings. Out of this undisciplined curiosity, I expect we’ll develop the template that will guide our new schools dossiers for the end of term.
Now let’s see—maybe a few reflections on our spontaneous enactment of Jacotot/Rancière’s everything is in everything pedagogy. RS went so far as to say that it was the happiest ten minutes of his Princeton seminar career, and I get the sense there was general enthusiasm. What was so good? It was a focused site for immanent attention; it was collaborative, playful, inventive. [I wanted to remind everyone of the rich tradition of pedagogy that insists upon direct sensory encounter with immediately presented realities; this sort of thing lies at the heart of the “Object Lesson,” which had a rich politics across the nineteenth century. Poke here for a lovely short piece (by a former IHUM student here!) on this tradition… -DGB] I would say that though we set it up for two people, it was not dialogue, or at least, not the sort of do-you-understand interrogation for which Socrates is always the model. Instead, “Show me what makes you say what you say,” back and forth. Lots of wonderful strange immediate perceptions and associations. You could start to see patterns, larger economies of understanding, even emergent principles; some people did. You could also, I suppose, start to see contradictions, though the exercise seems not to privilege such analysis. (In contrast with Freire’s codifications, which are constructed to help students recognize contradictions in their own experience, as a step toward political awareness and empowerment.)
The next paragraph of Rancière begins: “The book prevents escape. The route the student will take is unknown. But we know what he cannot escape: the exercise of his liberty.” This is a formidable paradox: on the one hand, the boundaries of this game (can we call it a game?) forbid the players to repair to authoritative preconceptions that cannot be proved against the shared object; on the other hand, they have to keep playing. That puzzle is close to my curiosity about the displacement of a hierarchy of intelligence with a hierarchy of will. But in our ten minutes, it hardly felt like an oppressive demand, to stay in and with that paragraph. How long could we have gone on? Where would it have led? Might we have arrived, eventually, at something like a reading of the passage, even a critique of it? Or something, someplace more useful than that?
The Rousseauvian lineage seems crucial: an encounter with a thing (a text), not with an authority. Rànciere does not need nature, he just needs something, anything, that it external both to student and to teacher. Would Freire say, this pedagogy offers insufficient defense against the ideology of the arbitrary object? In learning French from Telémaque, what else do you learn, about gender, politics, etc.? What is at stake in the choice of a literary text? Would the Deweyan pedagogy of raw materials (for the youngest children: a scrap of leather, a dowel) work as well? I loved Graham’s question: this pressure on invention, keep talking about this thing, exhaust your intuitions, keep discovering it, is it an exemplary exercise of the imagination? An act of aesthetic attention in a Kantian sense? Everything is in everything and everything is art. [Reading back through this after our class in week 6, I am struck by the way we returned to this same issue — the iterative novelty of the expansive imagination; though in week 6 I would argue that we thought the “other side” of this form of infinitude, discerning it as not unlike the infinity of the natural numbers (which do indeed go on and on forever); but which remain, in Cantor’s terminology, “denumerable” (or “countably infinite”); note that between zero and one there is also an “infinity” of real numbers — but THAT infinity is non-denumerable (it is literally a higher order of infinitude). I think Kierkegaard would have been into that… -DGB] Dewey might approve of that. I do wonder if that account forbids us an outside, a fundamental or radical difference—a space apart in which to stand. But then, Rancière might say, what this practice makes happen is the experience of the equality of intelligences, and that experience itself is the way we liberate ourselves from ideology (from the unequal “distribution of the sensible” that characterizes ordinary politics, to use a phrase from elsewhere in his philosophy; thanks to NB for giving us a few pointers there).
The end of the book is so strange, as NI pointed out in his post, and with his questions about scale: R. turns the universal method to learning rhetoric as a tool for political action in a world where the equality of intelligences still goes unrecognized. This feels like another rift between school and society, or theory and practice (a questionable mapping!), of a sort we see in Allen and Veysey, and that Dewey tries to overcome. That question of how a school manages the difference between its own methods and structures, and the world outside, will keep bugging us.
Freire is such a fascinating contrast. Rancière sets up his classroom anywhere, and works from anything. (The ideal object is in a language the students cannot read!) Whereas Freire proposes a method by which a group of intellectuals, or at least, teachers, can go to a village, study the thematics there, and devise codifications that will help their students begin to recognize the forces that oppress them. The emphasis is on collaboration and cooperation, but that is achieved over time out of an original asymmetry. It was amazing to have the voice of Jac Mullen texting in from New Haven, with what sounded to me like one cardinal objection: that commitment to self-study, to codifications of the students’ immediate circumstances, has meant schoolchildren are never allowed the Rancièreian encounter with something that is fundamentally different from themselves. Jac allowed that this was a particular appropriation of Freire, and it seems fundamentally important that Freire is teaching adults, toward agency as fully mature participants in social change, even revolution, and not kids. Still the contrast seems to be another fundamental choice for a new school: how other (to what extent, and in what way) is the object of pedagogical attention, the thing being studied? As a student, must you begin with yourself? Or precisely not? Is that a choice well posed?
(With respect to the historical conversation about open-mindedness, and the Hampshire College plan: there is an implicit question here about the role of books, and of tradition. Freire aligns with Dewey at least insofar as neither of them seems to privilege the study of literary texts in the way that humanist education has for so many centuries in the West. Rancière could use any text, yes, or any thing?—but the fact that his example, from Jacotot, is a work of literature connects him to a tradition that privileges encounters with a canon. The story of the Harvard Plan is of a wrestle over how important great books were to the ideal of open-mindedness, and great books won, for a time. Everything is in everything—but especially in Shakespeare?)
Let me just say before I sign off how much I too enjoyed that interlude of everything. I love school best when it is an absorbing game. Having written that, I have qualms, and I am tempted to qualify it, to frame it, etc.—but I think I won’t.
[LD was absent … adding some additional reflections on Freire here:
As I make my way through the texts in this course, I feel like there is a repeated argument being alluded to about theory and practice. Almost in defense of theory — which seems odd in a traditional university setting, but less so when I think about the protagonists. This is something that I think a lot about, in and out of the studio. There isn’t much room in science to work on this, so I wash ashore in a humanities seminar!
In terms of being part of a discourse, I don’t think many artists actually want to be “emoting in a room” but how do you find yourself and your work immersed in a discourse as opposed to sprinkling it on at the end à la intellectual problem-solving, or maybe submitting to discourse in some kind of Freire-ian oppression scheme. I’ll admit over and over again (to myself and now in semi-public!) that I find so many of my own experiences of ‘learning’, particularly in the humanities, oppressive in the ways that Freire describes. And so a lot of what I have been focused on in the studio for the last 16+ years has been trying to wrangle myself out of that invasive intellectual vine (for all of the gardeners out there, what is your relationship with English ivy?). Why has it been so hard to make after college, when before I was ‘educated’ it was easy?
I hear an insistence upon discourse, and with discourse, talking.
p. 87: “To speak a true word is to transform the world” This seems powerful, but is it always to speak? Can it also be to not-speak? Is negative capability a myth?
Freire addresses silence on p. 88 “human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanely, is to name the world, to change it.” Then in footnote 3, he brings up meditation as some acceptable form of silence — but only “profound meditation” where the meditator is “bathed in reality; not when retreat signifies contempt for the world and flight from it.” Silence comes up again a bit later, but I’m having trouble finding the page…
I understand that Freire is speaking to (with) a specific and noble educational task. And I did really enjoy reading this! But for my own selfish reasons, in all of it I found myself missing some of the more humble forms of silence.
Can we talk about the space and time when no words have yet formed? Or a space-time when no dialog is needed, or when naming complicates (at best), or vanishes (at worst?) — like the shax̱dáḵw story a few weeks ago. I’m not sure I fully understand it and would love a chance to revisit that story.
Is there a space and time between Freire’s “historical schizophrenia” and injecting a ‘blah’ “I don’t know” into the dialog? I don’t know, but I feel that I spend a lot of time there; it feels like important time to spend. When and how does reflection take place? Is it always by talking? Is our human experience only to savor and remember and build upon and evolve around what was spoken? Clearly, he is a human-to-human type of humanist.
In my other work, the science that I do and learn, I think a lot about nature and the physical world that doesn’t speak. You cannot converse with nature — or can you? It doesn’t talk back. It just does as it does. I feel that Freire’s argument (and others) oppresses the study of nature, i.e. science.
Finally, there is also a silence of omission. Is omission a way to oppress an oppressor? Or does omission create an abstraction that could “interrelate dialectically in the act of reflection” (105). In fundamental science, we regularly employ the art of omission. Extra ‘stuff’ in data is silenced while we derive abstract descriptions of phenomena that do a good-enough job of representing our observations. I think this is fundamentally different from learning and researching in the humanities, at least as (they?) have been served up so far.
And to that, Freire leaves me with questions about how on earth are we supposed to teach science? I really don’t know how scientific curiosity can be cultivated (?? really not sure of the best word) without more attention paid to silence. My experience in learning and practicing non-biological, non-social, ‘hard’ (actually quite soft) physical science so far has really had nothing to do with asking or answering questions, despite what we end up writing in introductions, abstracts, and grant proposals. If I could possibly put some words to this so early on, it might have to do with being, doing, and thinking among things. ]
* * *
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, NY: 2013), pp. 1-99.
Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Available at archive.org and at Firestone and Marquand.
Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument (New York: Dia Foundation, 2015), peruse the full volume (also available in Marquand), but read the section entitled “Fieldwork,” pp. 35-90. See also https://www.diaart.net/gramsci-monument/.
OPENING THINK PIECES
[PH starts here]
Transgress verb / 1: to violate a command or law; 2: to go beyond a boundary or limit; transitive verb / 1: to go beyond limits set or prescribed by; 2: to pass beyond or go over (a limit or boundary)
To read bell hooks’ collection of essays on pedagogy knowing we will enter a classroom where the very things she discusses can or will be put to test is a confronting, exhilarating experience. The experience is pleasurable (and in its equal address to us teachers and students, feels like receiving a collective gift) and it is terrifying—how do we hold ourselves accountable to self-actualization, shared responsibility, incorporation of embodied knowledge, and risk-taking in spaces where we are taught, over and over, the Cartesian mind-body split, a split where ideas are always more important than language?
Engaged pedagogy asks us to think of the moment of not understanding as a space to learn, particularly in the context of language, particularly in a multicultural society where standard English is weaponized to silence and censor non-white voices. “Such a space provides not only the opportunity to listen without “mastery,” without owning or possessing speech through interpretation but also the experience of hearing non-English words” (hooks 172), in this case, black English. [This quote stood out to me too, as did her conclusion to this chapter, “To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy…We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.” (hooks 175) – MG] Engaged pedagogy asks us to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of one another in every relational form: teacher-student, teacher-teacher, student-student, teacher-world, student-world. It only works when everyone’s presence is acknowledged, everyone takes responsibility for classroom dynamics, and everyone is committed to a collective effort.
hooks models engaged pedagogy for us through the various voices and literary formats she chooses to take on within the book—anecdotes, playful dialogue with her writing voice, dialogue with a friend and fellow teacher, and the traditional essay. In starting many of the chapters with critical reflections on her own life experiences (a deep depression, a personal unmooring or crisis of meaning, anger that injustices of racial integration brought up in her, a yearning to belong amidst household dynamics she questioned as a child), hooks acknowledges the connection between ideas learned in university settings and those learned in life practices. “We must return ourselves to a state of embodiment in order to deconstruct the way power has been traditionally orchestrated in the classroom, denying subjectivity to some groups and according it to others. By recognizing subjectivity and the limits of identity, we disrupt that objectification that is so necessary in a culture of domination” (hooks 139). Identifying and understanding the place from which we speak is foundational to establishing and maintaining theory as liberatory practice.
Like Freire, hooks’ pedagogy centers around love, but this is not to say it is without discord and pain. Provisioning space where we can confront fear, hatred, and the negative histories which shape and inform our contemporary interactions, therefore, is essential if we are to theorize without reinforcing systems of domination. There are examples of such forums throughout the text (hooks’ description of space for Black women to openly express themselves and let go of some of their hurt, the seminar she and Chandra Mohanty organize for teachers, or the year-long roundtable Ron Scapp describes at Queen’s College), but hooks shows us such dialogues too. She offers a poignant critique of Diana Fuss’ Essentially Speaking, and in the next chapter, reminds us that trashing overly complicated or misguided theory also furthers the false dichotomy between theory and practice…hooks is keenly aware of the politics of citation. The list of thinkers she draws upon is extensive, but what is unique is that among them, are her students. She names her students, includes the words they have written, and reflects on how she has learned from them, just as they have from her.
I’m struck by how sonic an experience it is to read The Undercommons. Its language and grammar, in unsettling our expectations that it will fit into any recognizable form—any genre we can name—reflects the very ethos of the undercommons. The undercommons is where the project of “fugitive planning and black study” takes place. It is a project that embraces movement with and amongst others in brokenness, a state of being brought into existence by chattel slavery, colonial settlement, and the institutions formed in their wake as a means of reinforcing such projects of conquest: prisons, universities, systems of debt and credit. What does it mean to study? Why is it difficult to study—in the sense that Moten and Harney describe—within traditional university institutions today?
The undercommons is not a single location or even a gathering of individuals. It is to “hear them whisper one another’s touch,” it is hapticality. “Hapticality, the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come is here. Haptiality, the capacity to feel through others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you, this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem.” It is the feeling of holding and being held.
* * *
[CF Starts here]
The Gramisci Monument-
First thoughts – ??? “WTF”
I now understand why people say architects are awful writers.
I’m not sure where to begin. Most of Hirschhorn’s writing reads as a self preachy manifesto. I left this reading wanting to really highlight – Theory results in practice. Your actions have impacts on others around you. It’s then up to the user and the impacted party what they take away and how / if they own the identity separately from the artist.
Hirschhorn is coming from a place of immense privilege, one that is not only brushed over in the writing but privilege that is “sadly” bestowed upon the artist. He refers to himself as a “warrior” saying that art implies a war to fight. He himself as the artist making art is a sort of sacrifice. But what of the people living within this community? What kind of fight have they been through? One where this military language has much more of a deep impact. He is an outsider, what right does he have? He even points out “no one asked me to do the “gramsci monument” and no one asked me to do it in the Bronx”. Ya no one asked. Goodness shall we all just bow down to your suffering to do art here, where people live, work, play here every day. They have no choice like he has. He gets “paid” for his work.
Using the real living experience of others to boost your ego and work is quite insulting. There are multiple points where he refers to the community as “other”. They are separate from them. As if he should be thanked for “rolling around in the dirt” with the “underprivileged”. Even putting them to work on his own project. This rang very icky to me. Especially after reading his thoughts on “unshared authorship”. He wants to be a “warrior” yet, “I don’t share responsibility of my work and my own understanding of it”. His view of authorship, of “truth” comes from his privileged perspective that is never addressed.
Even from the first paragraph he’s completely out of touch with how his art impacts the community. “I like” and “I’m interested in” repeated again and again. Good for you man but where does the real impact come in? I was waiting to hear what his interests drove and how he used them to make the moves he did.
I wanted to point out the area he made this project In. I was very interested in hearing about the history and how the people living there came to be. The response article helped with that as well as looking at the pictures of billboards, and double fenced in properties. He did meet with residents, but spoke not of their Individuality within the space but of their willingness to do his labor for him. Yet again taking advantage of the people, while saying they should be thankful he’s even there.
I place these images of posters here to raise the question of necessity combined with commodification. When our sense of necessity is so clouded by the marketing of commodities, coming from someone of Privilege.
The last thought I was left with to circle back was, it’s not about you, it’s about the impact of your work. It’s public!!! He does support this mindset in some parts. Setting up your practicing values is important and pointed out on page 57. He understands that solutions can’t be utopian, they have to be realistic. I’d also like to challenge that. If they are realistic will they always be systematic? If solutions are outside of the system can they then influence the system? Or is that just utopian?
At the end of the day I feel if we are in a privileged position to impact people with our teaching or designing, it is our responsibility to take on those effects. How can we make our work accessible to everyone? How can we do justice to those individuals? Distancing yourself from the user to your work is a cop out. “I’m an artist, not a social worker”, yes, but you still have a real tangible impact on others.
In all, this obviously riled me up. It’s one thing in class to talk about the theory on a PHD level, but that must move into practice. So I question how we can make this accessible. How can we truly understand our role in relation to others?
[Interesting to read this flame on Gramsci Monument. I have always felt a bit sad that I did not make it to see the installation/project when it happened, and I feel that puts me at a disadvantage in any effort to speak to the qualities of the whole thing. I will say, though, in its defense, that a former student of mine, Lex Brown, an African American artist I really respect, worked closely with Hirschhorn and the community of the Forest Houses across the summer of 2013. I have always had the sense that she came away from the time with a deep appreciation of Hirschhorn’s work, his vision, and the way he worked in the Bronx. You can read her essay on the project here. Her account of the time has always meant a lot to me. I do not offer all this as a simple “response” to CF’s concerns, but I do think these views belong in the conversation. -DGB]
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS BY DGB & JD BELOW)
I was sorry not to be in the room for our session this week, but the scheduling did work out in an interesting way. I zoomed in for our seminar, because I am in Helsinki this week—doing the first part of an appointment at the Academy of Fine Arts. My official title is “visiting professor and artist” and I am running a studio, doing studio visits with the MFA students, and giving a public lecture. I’m scheduled to be back for the second half of the appointment in May.
[Oh man, I would have Zoomed in if I knew — I was in Vegas at a conference with 10,000 physicists -LD]
So this made for a very interesting context within which to return to Singerman’s Art Subjects, a book I really admire. As I joked at the start of class, rereading the book gave me a little shimmer of the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Remember the uncanny final lines, where Aureliano is reading in the book of fate, and comes to the end, where his own fateful reading is recorded?
Ok. I admit it. My reading chapter six of Art Subjects wasn’t really like that at all (no windstorm, no destruction, no swansong of the epoch). But it was kinda crazy to find myself poring over pages that spelled out the historical framework of the “visiting artist” as a feature of art education — after a day of trying to “be” some version of such a figure.
Moments of such studied self-awareness are very much at the heart of Singerman’s inquiry. Since at least one of the major preoccupations of the book is the way that “understanding what it means to be an artist” has become, in effect, the “subject” of artistic education. In answer to his poignant opening question (“Although I hold a Masters of Fine Arts degree in sculpture…I cannot carve or cast or weld or model in clay. I think the question that I began this book to answer is, why not?” [p. 4]) Singerman offers…this book! He does not possess “the traditional skills of a sculptor,” but he is deeply attuned to what it means to lay claim to the identity of the artist, as his study places richly in evidence.
[Inserting some reflections about the crit as a core pedagogical tool for graduate training in art (and architecture) and its coincident harshness in a set up that emphasises the artist as both object and subject, as discussed on page 211:
It’s particularly poignant to me that Singerman utilizes “her” as the omniscient pronoun to encompass all art subjects because this disciplining of students rather than their skills or the objects they make, seems still to be disproportionately severe towards women (at least in schools of architecture). It’s possible to say this because there are numbers that point towards it: women make up just more than fifty percent of architecture students in the U.S., and only thirty percent of licensed architects. Somewhere along the line (or I’d argue, at multiple points along the line) there is a disconnect. The architecture crit tends to favor those that fit the same student profile as when the format was first introduced at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1950s, the same person perceived to be capable of “singular, creative genius”—a concept which still looms large within the discipline (a discipline that in practice, very much relies on collaboration). We puzzled a bit about why the architecture crit can be more unrelenting than the art crit and John May does an excellent job pointing us towards some answers in Under Present Conditions Our Dullness Will Intensify. He describes the basis of the architecture crit as juridical, and how instrumentality in architecture relies on the equipmental, which replaces orthographic representation with the perpetual presence of data. Not surprisingly, the crit has become a site of resistance on the part of architecture students, and more and more, educators are confronted with reevaluating its pedagogical role within architectural schools. Cooper Union hosted an entire conference on the topic sometime in 2021, which regretfully, I’ve been unable to locate in their lecture/conference archives. –PH]
In the end, however, (and interestingly, I think) he appears to have decided not to claim that title. As he writes on the last page of the book, “In assuming the name of the artist as a professional name, one assumes a responsibility, an obligation to that name’s past as well as to its future.” (p. 213). Having erected a notably serious bar for the project (a project often quick to thumb its nose at seriousness), Singerman evidently leaves the responsibility to others. (Though he has been part of the training of a lot of artists, across a distinguished career teaching at UVA and Hunter).
His is a remarkably detailed and intimate inquiry into what it has meant for art, across the twentieth century, mostly in the United States, to come into relation to the modern research university. There is a great deal in the book: a fascinating look at the way gender and heteronormativity informed the refashioning of the artist in the first half of the twentieth century; a striking argument (one that dovetails very nicely with our reading in Jamie Cohen-Cole last week) concerning the triumph of analytic “visuality” in conjunction with the Cold War; and some stuff that I really like about the way that Abstract Expressionism made “being an artist” into the subject of the work in a new way. Singerman is at pains, in the final pages, to disavow a narrative of decline, and he nuances his account of the process by which artists have found homes in colleges and universities. But in the end, I think he calls out the core issue with power and precision:
[NB: I have blanked out a profanity of enthusiasm in my marginalia, which seemed excessive to post!]
The references on these pages are to Michael Fried’s touchstone essay “Art and Objecthood” of 1967 (which is mad, and always worth a look, if you do not know it). But Singerman puts his foot down at the start of that second paragraph: “This university science precludes the otherness of the work of art.”
In essence, I read this as a very precise diagnosis of the cost of playing by the rules of “knowledge-production” within the disciplinary architecture of the modern university. The project of disciplinarity posits a progressive enterprise of sequential displacements — the new steps beyond the old, and meaningfully replaces it. These dynamics (of what amounts to “planned obsolescence”) are governed by the social technology of peer review. This is the model of the sciences, and it has worked very well indeed in that arena. It has also become, for better or worse, the dominant model in all of the social sciences and the humanities on campus. We are all “scientists” now, in the Weberian sense invoked by Singerman.
And what is lost?
Or perhaps that is to beg the question. Maybe nothing is lost. Maybe art, too, can come aboard. After all, there is surely a rich history of artists themselves staging “paragone” in which to outdo each other, as well as a perfectly real history of artists insisting that the art of their own moment was simply “better” than the stuff that came before.
But Singerman seems to hold out for something else. Is it a kind of romanticism? A gesture at some kind of fantasy “sky-hook” that could lift us out of time itself — which is, of course, endlessly going “on and on”?
It is hard to write well about this sort of thing without producing sentences that look like a mystification. Fried’s own formulation is as good as any: what he wanted from a true work of art was “Presentness.” And what does that mean? You will have to go and read his essay. He famously short-hands it this way in his gnomic valediction: “Presentness is grace.”
But that may not help very much.
(Although he helps you out with an epigram for the essay that suggest “grace” may mean something like the spontaneous sense of the infinite mystery of the created world itself — a fully theological gloss that he does little to denature.)
I assess Singerman (if you are reading this, Howard, and I have you wrong, I apologize!) as having a soft spot for some version of the Friedian analysis. Not that Singerman needs to be on board with Fried himself (that has become much more awkward since the revelation of the distressingly homophobic language Fried used, at the time of his essay, to denigrate the aesthetic program of literalism/minimalism). But Fried holds out for something other than “more.” He doesn’t want mere novelty, or the titillation of something a little different, or a chance to spend some time with the next thing. He wants works that defy time — works that are, in some basic sense, incomparable. Works that are, to use Singerman’s term, OTHER.
Ok. Get in line to offer a critique.
I can practically hear the eyes rolling out there.
All these old (white) dudes, still feeling around in the dark, hoping to be touched by a god. Or the next best thing — a genius. So pathetic.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
Are we all sure that we don’t want something other than progressive knowledge-producing enterprises? Are we all sure that the image of incremental “advancements” into the future will suffice? Or that we have no options?
My own views on these issues are perhaps obvious enough. But I will breast my cards (?) for now. And focus on what happened in our conversation Wednesday!
We took a turn into a discussion of Kierkegaard’s extraordinary little essay On Repetition, which lays out the essential problem of “novelty” (e.g., teaching English by trying to get students to say something new about the first five lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost) in the following terms: novelty is, in fact, never new; it is always THE SAME, precisely in its always trying to be new. Nothing could be, therefore, more thoroughly predictable. Hence, it is the labor of spirit to recognize the hapless futility of the quest for “novelty,” and to take the inevitable step: to will ONE THING (instead of endlessly fleeing this necessity is a series of fatuous evasions).
[A note on the idea of novelty (and its impossibility) as it relates to pedagogy, which circles back to children and historical theories of development:
A recent very short article in the Atlantic explains the data behind why children are reading less and less, and in the process, losing the love of books and storytelling (also interesting in relation to Jeff’s reflections on the role of storytelling at Outer Coast). A survey in 2020 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that the percentage of 9 to 13-year-olds who read for fun daily has dropped significantly since 1984. But the culprit is more than the ubiquity of smartphones and the effects of the pandemic on learning—librarians and educators express that the cause is also pedagogical, in how children are taught to relate to books. Where the focus in the 1980s was on reading as many books as possible and engaging them emotionally as a way to develop necessary critical reading skills, today, the focus on analytical reading seems to be extinguishing children’s natural ability to enjoy books or engage with them emotionally. The article attributes this to the amassing of accountability laws and policies (starting with No Child Left Behind in 2001), which put pressure on teachers to focus on standards-based assessments over best practices in learning—which most often stem from engaging students through narratives and their associated emotions en route to the analytical.
Reading is such a formative part of human existence! The contemporary dilemma seems to point us back to bell hooks’ engaged pedagogy. If students are encouraged to develop different writing and speaking voices, to make more connections between ideas learned in university and those learned in life practice, then they are more apt to produce an “original” idea—one that is constantly being updated through an intersectional lense—in response to reading Paradise Lost. –PH]
For Kierkegaard, this was an exhortation to take the leap of “faith,” and…become an orthodox Christian.
Bracketing that conclusion (which may strike you as an anticlimax), the diagnosis of the puerile hyperactivity of novelty-seeking should sting. And I think Fried’s moving around the galleries looking for GRACE, is best understood as a late whisp of the very transcending monism on display in Kierkegaard. And if I am right about Singerman’s slightly oblique invocation of an “otherness” in the work of art, then Singerman may be feeling a whisp of that whisp.
Should anyone care? Why must we keep circling these longings for transcendence? What relevance do they have to a course on the history of education?
That will be for you all to judge. I will say only that the reason I am in Helsinki this week — the reason I have committed myself to the maintenance of a creative practice — is that I believe the most important work of the university will not, in fact, be served by the “science model” of knowledge production. And that the actual “otherness” of art offers a way to hold space for the stuff we (actually, desperately) need.
The conversation took an interesting turn as Justin introduced the question of Chat GPT, and the way it may be in the process of rendering the “incremental novelty” project obsolete — in that the full course of such novelties may soon be synthesized, iteratively. This feels to me like a lovely capstone to the Kierkegaardian warning. We may be on the cusp of seeing his diagnosis literalized.
And so, then, what?
Well, something else. Something different. “Understanding”? Maybe. “Experience”? Perhaps. But note: neither of these test very well. They make it much harder to discharge a basic function of the university professoriate: sorting the students, from best to worst. How bleak.
I have written a fair bit, so I am going to draw this to a close, without trying to summarize our discussion of the Moten or the hooks. And I am leaving off a defense of the Gramsci Monument project (to which I am sympathetic!), but it was refreshing to get a critical blast in our set-up think-pieces for this week.
I will mention that we did not take up hooks on eros and education. Talk about Teaching to Transgress…. It feels like her positions here are difficult even to discuss. (Unsettling side note: in prepping for class, and trying to figure out what writings were out there on that aspect of her work, I found myself very quickly in a very cringy series of dark-web-reddit-threads, where her writings are indeed preserved and discussed, by creepy incel-types and folks with handles like “Dankprofessor.” Eew.)
Oh, and I discussed, briefly, a grad seminar I had that sort of unraveled when we read The University and the Undercommons. It is very much a text of our moment, and the rancor it aroused in that class bore witness to the way the book can touch nerves. In our discussion this week, I myself tested a kind of “antinomian” interpretation: reminding us that there is a rich tradition of absolute defiance of all rules and regulations — a wanton flouting of norms — by those who sense themselves so completely possessed by righteousness, that they reside beyond where rules can reach. What did Augustine say? “Love, and do what you will.” And perhaps that is a way to think about what goes on in these pages. Love study. Enough. And you can do no wrong.
* * *
Hello Seattle!—on the way up to Sitka; this is the last I will write about the course before whatever happens up there happens. And let me just pick up where Graham left off, with Hirschhorn and Moten and CF’s WTF interrogation of the Gramsci Monument (above). The major concern there was basically that the monument was an unacknowledged act of colonialism—a privileged artist (white, European, with the backing of major and well-funded institutions) extracting art-world capital from a community that would never get to share in it. CF points out a lot in the language of the catalogue that suggests rupture and pretense in the solidarities of the people who work and live there. I actually have a hard time imagining the whole thing getting momentum in 2023. Were things just different enough in 2013? If so how so?
I’m not student enough of the art world to give an especially good answer to the historical question. And I have never met Hirschhorn—but I know people who know him, and I get a sense from the writing that there’s no understanding how it could have come to pass without at least a guess at who he is. The catalogue is full of testimony to his energy and his charisma, how hard he drove everybody and himself, his evangelical fervor about the project, his gift for punchy aphorisms (I do love “Quality = No! Energy = Yes!”). Everything cardboard and duct-taped about the monument suggested that it was an event, an in-joke about institution building, and anybody involved in building it was in on the joke. His constant presence must have been a constant invitation to play along. All the writers who contribute to the catalogue make a big deal out of how he was there all the time—one wonders, what would have happened if he had stepped away for a day? Maybe everybody would have woken up and blinked hard and said, wait a minute…
…but he never did step away. And my guess is that precisely the cluelessness, the tone-deafness that CF calls out was integral to pulling it off. He just didn’t, in some basic way, get why this shouldn’t work, why everybody shouldn’t pitch in and believe in it and love each other and love him; critique didn’t have much purchase, because his narcissism was too generous and too inclusive. And his energy! Not everybody has that. Here’s this guy who says, let’s build a monument to Gramsci in the Bronx, come on, come on, come on, let’s go, and you could say, no, but then what would you do with yourself? Hang some more pictures on a white wall? If he shared your misgivings, it would be over in a second, you’d know you were right—but he doesn’t, and then maybe you don’t quite believe in them yourself the same way, and this just might work. And for the people in the neighborhood, what’s to lose?
I could be totally wrong about Hirschhorn. Maybe he was brilliantly aware of the dynamics. Either way, the real point I’m trying to make is just that for all that we might say about the structures of a school, the charisma of the teacher, of the founder, can be significant in ways that embarrass any other explanation. (This just doesn’t get much theorized; John Guillory on Paul de Man, in Cultural Capital, is the best attempt I know.) Who is more equipped than Fred Moten to critique the whole project? But he seems to have gotten with the vision of it and gone and hung out and joined in. Maybe, per “The University and the Undercommons,” he was stealing. But from Hirschhorn? Or from the Whitney? Was Hirschhorn stealing from the Whitney? Again I might have this all wrong—but I have this idea that Hirschhorn allowed a lot of people to suspend their disbelief (and maybe just maybe that’s how a lot of people used him—as this crazy German artist whose cluelessness allowed a folks to lay down their critical arms and try something?). And from the the standpoint of the residents of the Forest Houses, what’s to lose? As somebody says laconically at the Housing Authority hearing: “nobody else is doing anything.”
None of this blunts the force of CF’s questions. It’s a questionable explanation, and it is certainly not a justification. We might want to keep thinking about the relation between the Monument and the work we have seen Freire describe, with his investigators going into the villages to learn the generative themes of the community. Different in kind? In degree? (In tactics?) Also the situation for Princeton, as a uniquely concentrated site of high cultural and financial capital. I’ve heard people talk about trying to push the art collection out into temporary exhibition spaces in Trenton, getting faculty and grad students to run workshops etc. Could that be done well? What is there to learn from Freire and from Hirschhorn about such projects? Or do they still participate in a logic of cultural capital that sustains a metropole? (Moten might ask—can you study without stealing? If they have just given it to you, or loaned it to you, then have the conditions for study, real study, been spoiled from the start?)
[I went to the Gramsci Monument! I had written part of my undergrad thesis on Hirschhorn that previous academic year, and conveniently enough, Gramsci Monument and I both arrived in New York the summer after graduation.
One thing that seems important is that this was Hirschhorn’s fourth attempt at a public “Philosopher Monument,” and it learned from mistakes and problems from the previous projects, and built on their successes. All of them were installed in peripheral neighborhoods, usually on the occasion of big, flashy contemporary art exhibitions: Spinoza Monument in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, Deleuze Monument in Cité Champfleury, a public housing district outside of Avignon’s historical boundaries (on the occasion of a big citywide group show); and Bataille Monument in another peripheral, poor exurb of Kassel, during Documenta 11. All of these were subject to controversy and critiques similar to the ones we’re exploring here. Vandalism was a big part of them – I think the “statue” of Deleuze got pretty much destroyed very early on in the project’s run. And if I recall correctly Spinoza Monument got wiped away entirely as litter.
Hirschhorn’s insistence on being at Gramsci Monument every day (as JD mentions) is partly a response to those vandalisms – his idea being that if the guy responsible for this stuff is around and accountable, this will lessen resentments and create a possibility of trust. And I don’t think any serious vandalism or scandals happened at Gramsci Monument. That’s not to say he “solved” the problem of public hostility – you could look at the architecture of Gramsci Monument as more of a “fortress” than Deleuze Monument, which really was just sitting in an open field, and so much easier to attack. But there also wasn’t really security at Gramsci, and all of the locks on the computer rooms, etc, were very, very provisional.
When I went, I was definitely skeptical, and curious to see how (and whether) the people of Forest Houses were engaging. I went toward the end of the summer, and never on a day with a prominent event. So it was much less packed than the documentation in the book, and it was definitely not as packed. I remember kids using the computers in the computer lab, and kids dipping their feet in the little fountain, and people buying $1 hot dogs at the food stand. There were copies of the “Gramsci Monument Newspaper,” whose contents were determined by Forest House residents — but at the end of the summer, they were straining to fill the pages with content. I remember walking into one room to find Thomas Hirschhorn pacing around by himself, packing up folding chairs from some event that day (probably the daily “philosophy lecture” from Marcus Steinweg). He looked up and saw me, obviously clocked me as an “art person” who recognized him, and went about his business.
I made a point of asking people from the neighborhood how they felt about the project. The message I remember getting was that they were glad that there was *something* going on, and that they could only hope that there could be something like the Gramsci Monument in Forest Houses every year. I was sad to know that there wouldn’t be. There’s something there about how this project, like lots of more straightforward NGO work, leans on a climate of austerity, a paucity of social safety net, for its self-justification. Kids shouldn’t need a Swiss guy to get them a computer and a hot dog. Yet, echoing JD’s quote from the HA meeting, “nobody else is doing anything.” That sadly clouds the effects of this project — people there were happy to have some work, somewhere for their kids to go. But that should be societal baseline, not horizon.
On the other hand, what would we prefer Hirschhorn to do with the budget that Dia Foundation offered him? Would we be happier if he applied this budget and energy toward a sculptural indoor installation at the Museum in Beacon? Would we be happier if he rejected it and someone else filled the Museum instead? It’s helpful noting the difference in tone between Hirschhorn’s works in public space, which have this kind of declarative, good-vibe inclusivity attempt in them, whereas his works for commercial galleries tends to be extremely hostile collages of scenes of global violence (TW for gory pics here). His hostility toward the white cube, and his optimism toward “public space,” is no doubt ham-fisted, but it also stages Cesar Cruz’s oft-quoted adage that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” In light of Hirschhorn’s hostility toward art institutions, and redistributive intent, I can see why Moten might appreciate the effort of Gramsci Monument, flawed though it may be.
I also noticed a bit of a “fugitive” activity built out around the Gramsci Monument, which is absent from the documentation in the book: people had set up folding tables where they were selling stuff, in hopes that they could get some money off of art-tourists like me. The type of stuff you see on Canal Street – jewelry, knockoff designer bags, collections of random stuff. I don’t know if there was ever any attempt to dispel this group, but they definitely had no qualms hustling the situation.
It’s the 10 year anniversary of Gramsci Monument. Someone should go to Forest Houses and collect stories from the people who lived there at the time, and who worked on it, to see how it feels with hindsight. – NI] [[Thank you Nick for giving more insight about the installation of Gramsci Monument in the Bronx. I have an anecdote, which was shared with me, about Hirschhorn and his participation in the 27th San Pablo’s Biennial. This edition of the Biennial was titled “Como Viver Junto,” which in English means, “How to Live together,” and was a direct reference to Roland Barthes’s lecture series Comment Vivre Ensemble. The main intention of the Biennial was to include projects that reflect on the concepts of coexistence, collaborative and community-based practices, sharing urban spaces, togetherness, love, etc. If you never had the chance of going through this edition of the San Pablo’s Biennial I think it’s a good time to explore it, as it has really interesting projects to reflect on Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument. Hirschhorn was one of the “main” (or maybe most famous artists participating), and with the many projects that were also participating there was an amazing Argentine project called Eloísa Cartonera. Eloísa could be defined as a cooperative between cardboard (wasted) pickers, artists and book producers. The project was created by three Argentinian artists (Javier Barilaro, Fernanda Laguna, and Washington Cucurto) as a response to the early two thousand Argentine economic crisis, commonly known as the 2001 crisis. The crisis was one of the worst crises in the history of Argentina and it had a huge impact on the employment rates, leaving thousands of people unemployed. This is the moment where picking cardboard became a subsistence practice and where cardboard implied the means of subsistence for many people. In short, Eloísa could be understood as a publisher and as a working cooperative. Basically, Eloísa buys cardboard from the cardboard pickers at higher prices than the price of the cardboard in the market. That cardboard is used to produce books which are manually painted (using a lot of Cumbia poster style references) by the employees of the cooperative. The texts are provided by hundreds of artists and writers, and in many cases publishing unreleased and unique texts, and the whole practice is sustained by the sales provided by the books. They are really amazing and unique pieces. I love Eloísa a lot. AND now, the anecdote ha! In 2006, they were both participating in the San Pablo’s Biennial, where Hirschhorn was as already expressed a big focus of attention. In one of the public programs or interviews (this story was told to me by one of the participants and I don’t hold all the details with precise accuracy), Hirschhorn was being asked about his artistic practice and how it could be conceived under the parameters of a collective practice. His answer was really interesting, as he said something like this, “if you want to see a really collaborative artistic project please follow me.” He took all the attendants to where Eloísa was located and presented it as a project that was maybe going to provide the answers to the questions asked to him before. From there Hirschhorn was usually attending Eloísa’s spot and providing them with some assistance and materials. Eloísa was a recently born project in a country highly affected by the economic crisis and the political turmoil, and their resources were kind of limited. I think that Eloísa is an interesting project to think about collaborative and sustainable practices as I think it is still producing books. It’s an important project on how art could actively and sustainably participate in response to certain social crises. Please find some images here. Or, please google them, it is a really fascinating project.
I have a lot of thoughts and questions in regards to these projects. It is hard for me to not empathize with CF critics of the ephemerality of these practices (maybe because I spent some years participating actively in community based projects and have the chance of seeing how important it is being there, and how frustrating should be knowing that this kind of projects won’t last). I also agree with NI that it is better doing something than doing another disengaged project. And this circles to my final reflection. I was reading Lex Brown’s piece shared by DGB earlier in this thread. There is a part that I really like, which says “I learned that love is showing up, again and again, and doing your work because you believe in it.” This reminds me of DGB first week take out: get a practice. And here I want to end by asking, when does academia (or art in this case) become a practice? A practice to engage ourselves with others? A practice that is not a closed circle? A practice that inspires others to do things? A practice that develops this kind of love, the love of showing up? So, where does art meet life? – TU]] [[[ Here TU answering to TU, just adding Eloisa Cartonera’s webpage where the story of the project is developed by them, kind of a primary source and really nice and lovely to read – TU]]]] [[[[Here me again noticing I didn’t paste the link-TU]]]]
We didn’t much talk about the idea of a temporary school, which almost feels like a paradox—why? Does the temporary character of the Monument solve any of the problems of school? If you put a painting in a storefront in a city and had a class about it, would that be a school?
Alright: just a few more thoughts about novelty, to follow up on Graham’s, and I am going to get on this next plane. It seems like it would be easy enough to set up a school that had no place for novelty. That would be the banking model, yes?—where everything comes to students under the aspect of the already known, where critical or independent thinking are discouraged as threats to a cultural consensus about the right values and the facts that support them. [Flagging here: while I can see the way that “a school that had no place for novelty” COULD take shape in the form JD sketches here (“banking model,” ubiquitous commitment to the “already known,” etc.), I would like to say that this is BY NO MEANS the only shape such an institution might take. (And is, maybe, best thought of as a kind of conceptual MacGuffin). After all, as the obviously undesirable specter of the “world without the new,” this story functions, I think, as a kind of straw man — a boogie-monster-tale by which we are herded back to the familiar bosom of our beloved liberal-“novelty,” and its ideological blandishments. For a dour, cold-eyed take along these lines, consider Boris Groys in this really interesting recent reappraisal of his classic On the New. For my part (I orient to all of this very differently from Groys, though note that he, too, picks up on Kierkegaard….), I have no difficulty imagining a novelty-rejecting school built around Freire’s “problem posing” model: the problem to which all are encouraged to recur would be something like, “can we figure out what the thing is toward which all these iterations of apparent novelty strive?” A wide open problem. And not an absurd one at all. On the contrary, some version of that very question rides side-car in every university/disciplinary inquiry in the “humanities,” does it not? And the Zen monk, concerned to find “the way” (or pursuing “enlightenment”) could, I think, see such an enterprise as having this shape. Hardly the “banking model”! But certainly not the pursuit of “novelty” either! Am I wrong? -DGB] . At the very least, such a school is easy to conceptualize, the work the students would do is pretty clear, evaluation pretty simple.
Then there’s the pressurized novelty that we could read Singerman as diagnosing in Art Subjects—it’s all the same next new thing; hence Graham’s citation of Kierkegaard, who sees us as deceived when we imagine that there is anything other than repetition. (There is only unwitting, distracted, repetition in the name of novelty, and the ethical commitment to repetition.) Let me dally for just a moment with the most abstract of questions by asking about the relation between aesthetic experience and novelty. A Kantian shorthand for aesthesis is the “free play” of imagination and understanding in our encounter with an object or a phenomenon that refuses the concepts we would bring to it. (As our friend Rànciere would say, “knowledge transformed into non-knowledge, logos identical with pathos, the intention of the unintentional” [The Politics of Aesthetics, 2004, p. 18]. Somewhere else he says that under the regime of aesthesis, we know the work of art because we cannot say what it is.) OK, so we do not already know; does that mean that what we are trying to know is new? That is certainly one way of interpreting the situation: the failure of concept is a function of our not already having a concept that fits, or, our existing concepts are getting crossed in new ways, or something like that. Such an explanation has an intuitive hold on us and I’m not sure it’s wrong. But I also wonder if there isn’t a confusion between the perceived imperative for stylistic novelty (such a feature of Western art histories) and the very different character of aesthetic experience. A little puzzling. (If aesthetic experience were not new, what would account for its distinctiveness? Possibly, a glimpse of universality?—something that is not new to us, but that we rarely get to see, mostly forget, etc.; that hits us as if it were new when we are returned to it. Kant might say something like that?)
Very abstract, I warned you! And incompletely thought through, and with respect to the philosophical tradition it invokes, definitely amateur. But let’s just call it the problem of the new anyhow. And if we admit that this is a problem, on whatever construction, we have to admit that education—at least, the ordinary scene of education, with a professional teacher and a student—focuses the problem more than any other site in our society. The teacher has seen it over and over again, or thinks they have, or fears it. For the student, it is new, or it seems to be, or should be, or must be, if education is to happen. How do we handle that difference? Is that a philosophical problem? Does it open onto a philosophical problem? (The privileged status of childhood with respect to experience, per Dewey?—the child as the paradigmatic, the exemplary aesthete?) At all events it is a practical problem that every teacher must confront in the most direct and daily, weekly, yearly way.
Probably has something to do with new schools.
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OUTER COAST INTERLUDE
[DGB I don’t know how to format it nicely as you do, but I took a picture of the Outer Coast whiteboard-TU]
Over the spring break, about half of our class (CA, JD, EH, PH, AK, NI, RS, TU) spent a week at Outer Coast, a new school in Sitka, Alaska, at the invitation of the dean there, Matthew Spellberg, who has his PhD from Princeton. (He visited our seminar back in March, in anticipation of the trip.) Among Outer Coast’s inspirations is Deep Springs College, and it borrows its three pillars, Academics, Service and Labor, and Self-Governance, from that 106-year-old institution. But where Deep Springs is isolated, and emphasizes self-sufficiency, Outer Coast, now three years old, understands itself to be hosted by the community of Sitka, especially the indigenous community, and everything students and staffulty do involves generous, respectful participation in the life of the town and the traditions of its people. Hospitality is integral to the values and the practices of the place, and as guests of the school, and the town, and the land and the sea, we were the beneficiaries of the warmest welcome, whether we were sitting in on classes or working to get ready for the herring egg harvest. (Or stammering our way into the beginnings of Tlingit: gunalchéesh!) The week was a deep experience for everybody, well beyond school, while also stretching school well beyond its familiar boundaries. I hope we’ll have a few reflections here before we get back to the syllabus. I can’t do it justice but maybe together we can convey some sense of what we learned.
I’m going to speak to something relatively pragmatic about the school, which I think is also representative, and that is the emphasis on storytelling. Every student in Matthew’s class will periodically be asked to introduce the day’s reading by telling it to the group as a story. On one of the days we sat in, the reading was the Book of Genesis (the syllabi are syncretic and comparative across Tlingit and Western traditions), and a student had prepared to retell the story of it. Our presence meant that lesson was postponed, but it was explained to us that this practice is frequent, and by no means limited to texts that are stories by genre. That is, a student might just as often be responsible for presenting a scholarly article in narrative form. I was so struck by this as a pedagogy, because it gives the student responsibility for sustaining attention—their classmates’ and their own—in the way that a storyteller does, giving us a beginning, a middle, and an end; characters (ideas) to follow across that arc; and the visceral sense of suspense (what is going to happen next?) and satisfaction (ah!—I knew it, or, what a surprise, etc.). It is such a practical challenge of teaching writing, to get students to imagine themselves as accountable to an audience as they write, not just fulfilling a set of formal expectations. Outer Coast students get a lot of practice in informing and interesting one another.
My sense is that the practice also allows students and staffulty alike to hold open their sense of what counts as knowledge and tradition (and how to understand, and loosen, that distinction). If you tell an essay as a story, it will sound a lot more like “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” one of the Tlingit stories that we read together—such telling is in some ways the reverse of the usual pedagogical practice in a humanities classroom, which is to treat a story as an essay, abstracting argumentative claims from its narrative structure. Not to deprecate that activity!—to which I am addicted, anyhow; but I have a new sense of its lopsidedness, the way it threatens to locate understanding only on the side of the distinction (again, questionable) between argument and narrative. Redressing that imbalance is one way in which traditional knowledges can come into the classroom on their own terms, or better, offering their terms for an understanding of other knowledges, other traditions. (What an important concept tradition is at Outer Coast!) Also—the experience of taking ten minutes to tell a story to your classmates cultivates a different presence in the classroom for storyteller and audience alike. We did not actually hear one of these stories (re)told, but we did hear three students deliver “polemics,” ten-minute testimonials on topic of burning concern to them (e.g., recidivism or open access to journalism). Outer Coast students do a lot of that, and so they do a lot of listening, too. It’s a little like a traditional, speech-making rhetorical education. Except that it’s also not, at all: there is no talk about winning an argument; the response of the group was always gratitude, expressed in everybody’s rapid foot-stomping applause. The nine students this semester were variously confident as speakers, but they all inhabited their time, and what they got from the group was a kind of attention and appreciation that was clearly a shaping force. Not an intervening, analytic critique of the performance. (Is there some of that? Perhaps, though we did not see it.) Rather, a kind of community ethos to live up to—I had the strong impression that the speaking and the listening were actively teaching each other. And again, the importance, for this kind of speech, of the paradigm of the story, and respect for the storyteller—paradigmatically, the elders to whom any storyteller in Sitka is an apprentice.
I hope we will have some thinking here too about knot-tying and ocean bathing and other things we did together. I was glad for the stories. Have I told a story here? I only think to ask now! I will be a long time with what we learned in Sitka.
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[TU starts here]
What did we learn at Sheetʼká? The land of the Tlingit, the people of the tides.
We learned m-a-a-a-a-a-a-ny things, a l-o-o-o-o-t of them, as it is written in the stories.
We learned that we could put our intentions in objects, that those objects could be shared in the form of gifts. We learned that the value of the gift is not in any standard, it lies in the intentions that it carries with it. It’s not about the object, instead the value behind the object. Yeiltʼoochʼ Tláa (Mother of the Black Raven, or Mother of the Oil that Smooths the Waters) told us to put
good things in the things we are. To be patient, and to care for our intentions and values. So we learned to paint drums, and we learned to weave baskets. Some others learned how to do jewelry and some others learned how to weave buttons. We all learned.
We learned how to say thank you and engage ourselves with the unleashing power of being grateful. We learned to say thank you in the Tlingit traditional way of saying it: Gunalchéesh. We learned to say thank you in other different variants. We learned how to say thank you very much. We also learned how to say thank you by also adding a hó hó at the end, that I still don’t know
what it means, but is another ramification for showing thankfulness.
We learned that repetition helps to fix concepts. Gunalchéesh, Gunalchéesh, Gunalchéesh. Repetition compounds the feeling, and the feeling ramifies into the consciousness.
We learned that one plus one is one instead of our common understanding of two. Adam noticed that when two drops meet they form one, not two. So we think about water and we think about the ocean. We learned that the ocean heals and that our soul could be poured in it.
We learned that trees and brains are a source of memory and that memory holds things together.
We learned that the light and dark are the preexisting condition for the other to exist. “Only in silence the world, only in the dark the light, only in dying life: bright’s the hawk’s flight on the empty sky,” Ursula K Le Guin reminds us. And we saw the eagles, and we saw the ravens, and we saw the seagulls, and we saw the starlings. Flying all around. Establishing patterns of togetherness.
We learned that naming the other first is more important than naming ourselves. So we try to learn how to speak. And we put our intentions to work in the pronunciations. So we try the x, and we try the x’, and we try the x. And then we try to say the k’, and then the k, and then the k. And we look for the sounds, sometimes in the bottom of our throats, sometimes with the help of a
student, sometimes with the help of Ron’s computer, sometimes in our memories and sometimes in our hearts. In the midst of this cacophony, we found ourselves submerged in a sea of polyphonic sounds. And we learned, we learned how to learn. We repeat the words and the sounds. With care. With love. And after many hours we realized. That we were there putting our
intentions into practice. That the value of our sounds resided in them. So we name, and we name, and we name, and we name. In Tlingit.
We learned that love unleashes a flow of forces. And we saw the love. And we feel the love. In the classes, in the ocean, in the people. And the students showed us the way. They stand in front of us with courage, with kindness, with openness, and generosity. And their words flow as the water in a river.
Shakira once taught us to construct images in our brain. And we did it. We traveled through the recondite places of our imagination creating images and temporalities.
Shanik told us about incompleteness, being broken, and acceptance. But their theory was immediately transformed by Ljáaḵkʼ (It is Never Killed). She kindly said, we are all incomplete, but as broken branches we regenerate. And this was the powerful metaphor of growing. We are not broken, we are growing.
We learned the ontological condition of the raven to transform things. We learned that things are not killed, they are transformed. Transformation springs in a flow of forces and forms. And we know that humans could turn into bears, into mosquitos, into ravens, into eagles. So we learned
about composition, we learned that the calcium of the stars is the same as ours. We learned that bacteria are everywhere and we are highly dependent on them. So we learned that we are only here because of the others.
We learned that Tlinglit treats their opposites with respect, because by honoring them they are respecting their common ancestors. The ones that are the others into the present. So we learned about memory and that memory is the unique way to inhabit the present time. So we learned from X’asheech Tláa, Louise Brady, to look into the past while engaging with our thoughts. We
learned about how the Tlingit people connect to their ancestors to bring their memories back into the present. So we learned to remember. We learned about the importance of taking a pause. Of cadence. So we learned how the Tlingit look for answers in the ones that are no longer here but
their presence reverbs in their memories.
We learned that there are things that don’t matter. Being perfect doesn’t matter, being serious doesn’t matter, being intelligent is not so important. On the other hand we learned that it is important to play, to be goofy, to enjoy.
We learned how to dance without being embarrassed of our movements. We learned how to be generous all the time. And here we learned that our joy could inspire others. That in our joyful eyes we were sharing love. We were sharing energy with each other. The same energy that was shared with us. So we learned how to host and how to be hosted.
And while by learning we realize that education is everywhere. Jeff once said, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. Tkl’ Un Yéik, Paulette Moreno, wisely added, education lies everywhere, in the sky, in the land, and in the sea. We were able to confirm that everything is in everything.
We realized how entangled we felt. We cried and we laughed, we shared our ears and time. We all developed our capabilities of hearing, of paying attention.
We learned to be one. We counted up to three to submerge our bodies in the freezing waters of Sitka’s ocean. Sometimes in Tlingit, sometimes in English, and once in Spanish. When I did it alone. It turned into a ritual. Into a ritual of love and happiness. Our bodies were cold but our hearts were warmer. We called it the ice plunge.
8:00 am: is there anyone up for an ice plunge? It’s below 30°F outside and snowing. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes ….
But beyond everything they teach us to be courageous, to be brave, as the bear expressed to the woman that married her. Be brave! Be brave! Braveness to work on the things that matter. Even if they hurt. Even if they hurt a lot. We learned that to put the body matters. Embodiment matters. So we learned how
the word should be embodied, and that when Tlingit people speak they stand up. Because speaking is a sacred practice. To share love, to share energy, to show respect. And here we learned that even under a lot of pain it is important to keep going. To keep the memory of the Tlingit alive, in their culture, in their traditions, and in their knowledge.
And beyond everything we learned, we learned to make knots. Different types of knots. A bowline, a half hitch, two half hitches, a figure. With different ropes and in different ways. Knotting is the practice of holding things together. Donna Haraway reminds us that “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” And from here we understand deeply the value of all our learnings. Everything is tied by the quality of these knots, in their metaphorical and literal description. The hemlock tree to the buoy,
the bag of stones to the base of the tree. The culture in its memory, the language in its repetition. The traditions in the practice of storytelling. Knots tie everything together. And we learned how to put attention in our knotting practice. Because now we know how important they are. They hold spirits together and with them the remembrance of the Tlingit culture. And we learned from the kindness of Alex, Davin and Oliver about the quality of our knots. They verified the quality of the knot, and with them everything will be held together.
Ron reminded me yesterday that we need to encourage ourselves to hold kindness and warmth, because these qualities hold each other up. We also learned this. And now after one week I wonder, how to become a river when I am feeling dry? How could I have the omnipresence of the mountains? How could I have the courage of a bear when knowing I am going to be murdered by the brothers of my wife? How could acquire the transforming power of the raven, or the vision of the eagle? How could I acquire the adaptability of water or the weight of a stone? I want to open myself as the branches of the hemlock trees to receive the eggs of the herring. I want to be transformed. I want to be activated.
And now, we cry.
And now, I am writing a think piece in the way of a story, or a poem maybe. It doesn’t matter.
Who told us how things should be written?
And now, I don’t know who I am. But I know that my words flow faster and my soul feels lighter. I feel courageous. And now, I know that I know everything I already expressed. And now, I know that I will remember.
And now this is the end.
* * *
[CA starts here]
Our week in Sitka was unlike any other in so many ways. Too many for a post. Rather than go over the week to describe my experience, I want to focus on a few relationships and encounters that moved me; opened me up.
On our first day we were put to work. Over the course of maybe nine hours, we produced what are called Herring sets — elaborate mechanisms built of trees, rocks, rope, recycled containers, ripped jeans, among other materials. Each set is designed to harvest up to 1,000 pounds of Herring eggs. During March and April of every year, Herring fish swarm into the waters surrounding Sitka by the thousands to breed and lay eggs. Herring is considered to be sacred in Sitka and their eggs from a single season support the island and its residents throughout the year. We did serious manual labor this first day, directed by locals who are committed to ecological preservation and community building, which for me was exhilarating. I traveled through time to when I was a child, responsible for keeping our family ranch running and learning from the land. This time the blazing heat of the Sun familiar to all who have lived in Texas was replaced by a blanket of snow and cool breezes of icy air coming from the water over our faces on the dock.
There was one person we worked with that first day who touched me in particular, and for me, she would shape the entire trip. Her name was Paulette Moreno, or in Tlingit, Tkl’ Un Yéik of the clan Leeneidí of the Raven Dog-Salmon Crest. I could tell that Tkl’ Un Yéik had reservations about us Princeton people. Although she greeted us with grace, her eyes gave away a suspicion that we might not be cut out to get our hands dirty. Her suspicion would change to pride by the end of the week, telling Patty and I as much on our final day before departure.
On the dock, we were taught skills, such as how to shed the needles off trees that were cut down from a mountain we could see and tie special knots that could bare the weight of the trees and the bounded rocks that anchored them, but we were also taught the why of what we were doing. Tkl’ Un Yéik explained that the Tlingit community undertakes this process every year in an effort to produce eco-friendly sets and place them in the waters before commercial fishing boats arrive. Their proactive efforts help keep the Herring mothers alive and reduce waste. And importantly, their labor represents a gift to nature that will in turn give back to them. No gift in Tlingit culture should ever be a stand-alone gesture. All gifts should be honored with a gift in return. This symbiotic relationship between all things is crucial for Tlingit people and should it be disrupted, a debt unpaid, the guilty party is made known with a monolithic shame totem carved in their likeness. Beyond our comprehension as visitors, there is an overwhelming sense across the community that land, animal, and humankind be of equal authority and significance. We would spend the next week with Matthew learning about this symbiosis in seminar and through readings of Tlingit stories, but it was most clear that day on the dock, doing the work.
Halfway through the day, Tkl’ Un Yéik asked if anyone would want to dig through the trash with her to find spare laundry detergent containers to serve as buoys for the sets. Patty and I immediately raised our hands. This job seemed less appealing than the alternative option of going down to the beach to pick up rocks, but to me, it was the better option because it meant spending one on one time with Tkl’ Un Yéik. I am so glad I did because the three of us would bond in that couple of hours. We laughed digging through the trash, and Téikʼoon Yéik told Patty and I about her ancestors, who come from the little and big milky ways. She translated her Tlingit name for us, which means the ability to transform from rock to a living being and back to rock. She embodies, as it were, the strength of stone and the fragility of human; the timescale of the earth and the fleeting moments of being alive. We came back to the larger group on the deck covered in odd smells and strange liquids and happy. I was then offered a bite of raw Beluga whale blubber, which I did not turn down. It was extremely odd to my mouth, and Patty laughed when she saw a smile on my face but a single tear running down my cheek before I swallowed. Apparently, I had failed to keep my composure. As it turns out, the blocks of fat are meant to be chewed on like bubble gum for hours, slowly reducing in its rich oil flavor and becoming softer. I am sure it is still inside of me nourishing my body, having not been totally dissolved.
On our final day, we returned to Tkl’ Un Yéik who had invited us to her home. Sitting at the edge of the water, with a wrap-around porch and warm lighting, her home felt like her. We stood on the porch while she drummed the beat of a song that is a traveling blessing. We had only days earlier learned how to make such a drum when we worked with a large group of community members in a gift-making session in town. She pounded the drum and sang out to the water while an eagle flew in perfect timing overhead. She looked into each of our eyes for another round of beats, offering her protection to every person there. Then, we went around in a circle to share what we had come away with after the week. To share our gratitude. It was at that moment that Tkl’ Un Yéik asked that Patty go last in the circle. She took Patty by the hand and guided her to the edge of the porch, where she performed some kind of cleansing ritual on her. I will not elaborate on this intervention as it is Patty’s to share should she desire. It was, I can say, very powerful. It left me in a suspended state of presence. When all had come to a close, the group left to get back into the cars while Patty and I stayed behind to speak with Tkl’ Un Yéik. We embraced — the three sisters (which is what they call the three mountain peaks that surround Sitka). Tkl’ Un Yéik looked into our eyes and said that we were more beautiful at that moment than we had ever been before and that we would be mothers. Her statements can be interpreted in many ways, like the Tlingit stories. Regardless, I find it rare to be met with such genuine affection. It is the kind of encounter that reminds you that you are human.
I end my post with two tellings of not-dissimilar stories. The first is a Tlingit story translated, and the second is a passage from Moby-Dick:
“Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us in this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the water; seaweed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittati was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he often commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, pp. 47-48
[And in a Blakean key…Does the whale worship at thy* footsteps as the hungry dog;/Or does he scent the mountain prey because his nostrils wide/Draw in the ocean? Does his eye discern the flying cloud/As the raven’s eye; or does he measures the expanse like the vulture?/Does the still spider view the cliffs where eagles hide their young;/Or does the fly rejoice because the harvest is brought in?/Does not the eagle scorn the earth, and despite the treasures beneath?/But the mole knoweth what is there, and the worm shall tell it thee./Does not the worm erect a pillar in the mouldering churchyard/Over his porch these words are written: “Take thy bliss, O Man!/And sweet shall be thy taste, and sweet thy infant joys renew!”-William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793
*Urizen, quasi-demiurgic incarnation of Reason and its violent abstractions (in this verse, the speaker is Oothoon, mythopoetic bearer of “the soft soul of America” and imperiled sensuous life)–NB]
[[To continue this poetry train – so many of the reflections from Sitka, and these works above, reminded me of CA Conrad’s work on Ecopoetics. A favorite attached below – CB]]
Oh, and Graham, this is for you, written out by Matthew. Jeff and I will explain in person.
[Hey! Y’all are gonna make me cry, with the whale stuff! Oh, and… strangely timely? THIS JUST RAN TODAY (it is my piece, pseudonymous, and finished while I was in bed instead of in Sitka with you all last week…) 🙂 – DGB]
* * *
[NI starts here]
I got to Sitka on Tuesday night, a few days after everyone else. So I missed the day of herring harvest preparation, which CA and TU have written about above. Catching up with everyone upon my arrival, it was instantly apparent how foundational and profound that day of labor was for everyone, and how that time spent laboring really set the tone of the trip. How it helped to forge a tangible connection with the land and its stewards, and how it helped to establish a bridge of trust and camaraderie between our ivy-league cadre and our hosts (human and otherwise).
To be honest, I was heartbroken to have missed it. For much of the trip I was wracked with guilt for being the only one to have not “put in the work,” to miss this first initiation into the Tlingit ecology of gift, debt, and gratitude which undergirds the Outer Coast experience. The activities and lessons that I did catch were nourishing and stimulating (I’ll describe a few below), but they asked far less of our bodies, our hands. I could not shake the feeling that I had not adequately “earned” them.
But on the last day, when Tkl’ Un Yéik invited us to her home (again described beautifully by CA above), she found a way to set this right, in a subtle and *multi-dimensional* gesture which was itself a teaching moment. One that I don’t still fully understand, which I hope will stay with me. During the travel blessing, when she looked into each of our eyes for several beats of the drum, I could only think “I have not even introduced myself to you; you owe me nothing.” When she asked us to go around and share our takeaways from the week, she asked me to go first, and PH last. I took this as an opportunity (if not a subtle demand) to introduce myself, and to acknowledge that one great lesson of the trip (the work of the herring preparation) I had only gained indirectly – that I regretted this deeply, and that I was grateful to her and her partner for welcoming me to their home and including me in the farewell song all the same.
Once we had all gone around, Tkl’ Un Yéik’s first move was to ask me to do some labor to help her. She pointed down to the shore, and asked me if I would go down and collect six more rocks for her, for further herring prep – about 12 inches wide, it doesn’t matter the shape. This way, neither she nor her partner would have to go all the way down there and carry all these rocks back up themselves. I was more than happy to do it – however symbolic my contribution really was, she found a way to give me some means of contributing, which truly felt like a gift.
The multi-dimensionality of this gesture lay in how Tkl’ Un Yéik’s ask to me set up her second move: her further ritual with PH, which involved not just PH but everyone else from the trip. It separated me out from something which was shared between them, something which I did not share in — and it did so in a way that was fair, just, and generous to me in my own awkward position. It was right.
From the shore, I turned up from the rocks to peek at the porch, and saw PH and Tkl’ Un Yéik at the corner of the deck – and I felt happy. At the same time, within that happiness, I knew that whatever was going on up there was not my business. I had rocks to collect.
There’s something in that story which has to do with opacity – the right for knowledge to not belong to all in every case, for some things to remain secret, or unspoken, or unconquered. I had been thinking about this already since two days prior, when another Tlingit herring protector, Louise Brady, offered to take us on a tour of Totem Park, in the Sitka National History Park. I think we were all expecting to learn about the language and form of totem poles – their arrangement within the park has something of a “sculpture garden” logic, and they were billed as the subject of the walk.
But Louise quickly dispelled that expectation. As it turns out, the totems in the park are not Tlingit, but Haida (a neighboring but distinct tribal group), all imported from Prince of Wales Island, some of which had been on display at the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair, as part of the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition.” As such, Louise did not bear the right to speak for the Haidas’ totems. So she didn’t. (Which is not to say that this rule is universally observed with such diligence: one Outer Coast student who came with had no problem unpacking the totems’ iconography for us, on the side). I thought there was something softly rebellious in Louise’s refusal of our expectations – that she would get in front of us and dissect these objects for us, that we would be handed (“banked”?) an art-historical nugget. Instead, through refusal, she brought up the limits of knowledge, and its ability to travel. At the same time, she also gently pointed to and subverted the Disneyland-simulacrum aspect of Totem Park.
Instead, she pointed us to what *was* authentically Tlingit, to which she *could* speak: the land. It turns out that the park was the site of a devastating battle between Tlingit and Russians in 1804 (“The Battle of Sitka”) – this is acknowledged in the park’s didactics, but in a rather anodyne way. Louise shared more visceral parts of the lore around this battle, from both Tlingit and Russian perspectives, and how she cannot visit this site without imagining how her ancestors might have felt looking down at the water, watching their strongest warriors fall before having to retreat into the mountains.
Some other quick thoughts:
– At various points throughout the trip, discussing our experiences among the Princetonian group, I noticed myself and others saying, “I really meant it when I said…” with some astonishment. How odd that we should be so astonished by really meaning what we say at a school. As a group we talked about how constrained the atmosphere at Princeton often feels, even in comparison to other “prestigious” institutions. Maybe this is something we can all talk about in seminar, since it’s something that we all share. Maybe we can work against that atmosphere, in this and other classrooms.
– Visiting Outer Coast in light of our reading about Black Mountain, I was struck by how fragile a new institution is. How much it is shaped by the personalities of the people who are there in its heady early days — both on the part of staff and faculty (at OC, elided into “staffulty”), and of the students, who may have even more of a say in the ultimate shape of this place than they realize. It’s interesting to think that many of our institutions, including the most monolithic and calcified ones today, first began in this strange, mercurial state.
(On this point, I have a hard time imagining OC’s vision to “franchise” out from Sitka – could such a place get off the ground without a Matthew Spellberg there all day, every day to steer it? How many Matthew Spellbergs are out there?)
– Speaking of the students: I was seriously impressed with them. I think they’re pretty brave for taking this great risk on Outer Coast, pitting their education on such an emergent, amorphous project. I would not have dared apply to OC at their age, since I was raised with the idea that education is about class aspiration, a pragmatic instrument of upward mobility. (I might have applied to Deep Springs had I known about it, because it has History and Prestige, and is thus legible to people like my parents.) To me it takes guts to be otherwise. I wouldn’t say this as strongly if the OC students seemed to be dropouts from respectable bourgeois families (as Duberman paints the students of BMC to generally be). Instead, according to Matthew and Bryden, about half of them are from different parts of Alaska, who have “maxed out” the opportunities that their communities had offered them, but at the same time they did not want to alienate themselves from their home state entirely. Other students seemed to be from similar circumstances in the lower 48 (Wichita, East LA, West Virginia). Some had dropped out from other colleges already, and some were taking gap years. Tuition is suggested donation, not dictated by FAFSA, but by each family’s discretion. It meant a lot to me to see this type of education to be extended to students from such circumstances – in my experience, a lot of people who go through “free schools” like Cooper Union and Deep Springs paradoxically tend to come from upper-middle-class families, who could in theory afford to pay tuition. We can talk about this more in seminar, maybe, but JD and I and a few others talked about the way that teaching at OC felt trauma-informed (around traumas of class, race, gender, etc) without overly centering those traumas. It was striking.
* * *
[PH starts here]
Where to even begin? Certainly with Kaasteen of the Chookaneidí Clan, an Eagle of the matrilineal moiety, and her role in the history of Glacier Bay, and within Tlingit culture at large. Kaasteen, isolated in confinement during her menstruation, calls out to a distant glacier, Here. Here. Here. beckoning it like a dog to come closer (dogs, we found out, are recurrent figures in Tlingit culture (so much so that “Dogs” were proposed as the fourth pillar of Outer Coast during the Staffulty meeting ice-breaker, along with the ecology pillar, mindfulness pillar, storytelling pillar, “building things” pillar, culinary pillar, and hiking pillar). That this girl on the cusp of adulthood is able to summon the glacier from inside her tiny cabin—breaking a taboo—speaks to the cosmic power of women and the ocean alike as life-giving forces.
Many of us were harrowed by the thought of a twelve-year-old “curtained off” from their family and friends for three years, EH calling attention to how this may affect us to read an early line of the story rhetorically, What was she thinking anyway / That young girl at the start of her enrichment? as if to say Kaasteen’s thoughts are inherently shameful or lacking in judgment. Apart from the practical, care-related reasons a society may protect a young woman when she becomes fertile, Sgóonwáan (student) Loosi offered us a sincere reading of these lines, expressing the extreme honor involved in this time of isolation when one is preparing to enter into the adult community of her clan. It is a time when shame is transformed into action and beauty, when Kaasteen learns to bead and weave, and think and think, and sink deeper into her consciousness, to know her mind more with each threaded bead, each crossing strip of cedar bark.
As disaster approaches, Glacier Bay becomes murky, “like diluted milk” and afraid, people prepare their canoes to flee. It is here where two versions of this story depart from one another—in Amy Marvin’s telling, Kaasteen sacrifices herself to the glacier and in Susie James’ telling, Kaasteen’s grandmother takes her place, saying I will stay in my mother’s maternal uncle’s house. / I will simply stay / my mother’s maternal uncle’s house. In both tellings, this broken taboo—Kaasteen’s summoning of the glacier—is as much life-giving as it is a disaster. It is the very moment in which the Tlingit people come together to fulfill the role of lifting one another up and the event that sets in motion the ongoing exchange of at.óow, or the reciprocal cycle of gift-giving between opposites (not an origin story, as Matthew points out, but a story of transformation). Kaasteen’s is the gift that keeps on giving. At.óow translated literally into English means “an owned or purchased object,” which we may understand better as something akin to stewardship (rather than ownership) and of living things (rather than innate objects), for at.óow encompasses land, stories, songs, names, celestial bodies, and hand-crafted, sacred objects which carry in them the memories and spirits of ancestors. In one, Kaasteen’s grandmother gives herself over to ensure future generations will go on and in the other, Kaasteen’s paternal aunts, all of them, with all of us go to her with skins and robes to keep her warm, food for her to eat, relinquishing ownership of things in her memory and in doing so, Kaasteen takes and holds their grief. She gives them strength to push off.
This is what Tkl’ Un Yéik did for me, for us. Rocking back and forth with her hands on my left shoulder, I sent my grief into the ocean and mother earth deposited a stone inside me, the landing of which sends ripples that we ride, together, back into the swing of routine. The drumbeat of Tkl’ Un Yéik’s travel song echoes through our writing, our designing, our walking, our conversation, our thinking. Just as at.óow functions like a tool for accessing grief in Tlingit culture, so too, do the waves that took what I carried and left. The land holds not only this, it holds us all together.
My own thoughts first murmured, “I’m not sure yet what to do with this experience,” as vast and as vibrational as it is. Now I know the answer is nothing (doing is a patriarchal imperative, the impulse to do arises from the Cartesian mind-body split). There is nothing to do, only to be. Nor is anything done—I do not foreclose the experience. I stay open to the reverberations, I notice how they feel in the context of Princeton. There is numinosity. I notice.
Though many of us have heard Kaasteen’s story, and though I can’t do it justice, I find I have to repeat it because to repeat it is to tell about what took place this week. And now, I leave you with the letter that Alice helped us write, the letter that we practiced and practiced, repeated over and over to ourselves and to Sgóonwáan, Shanik (how thankful we are for Shanik, one of our many Tlingit teachers!) Along with a collection of our favorite books, this is the letter we gave to Outer Coast with gratitude, from the bottom of our hearts. For the people that warmed our hearts.
* * *
[CB starts here]
I’m so grateful to get a hint at what the Sitka trip was like from these think pieces, and so sad not to have been able to make it! I can’t wait to hear more about what the trip was like in person.
Reading through these think pieces (and thinking back on our class session with Matthew) I’m struck by the differences between Outer Coast and Black Mountain College (BMC). When the students and faculty talk about Outer Coast, do they talk about the school as an intentional community? Is that idea useful in a place where it seems the actual project is to break down the barriers between the school and the community such that the two mutually constitute each other (community as school, school as community)? I remember Matthew pointing out that without the support and involvement of the community at Sitka, there would be no school. Black Mountain College was more or less continuously considering other sites for their school throughout their existence. If there was a stress on community at BMC, it was an entirely self-contained one.
If I understand these think pieces and what Matthew told us during his visit correctly, Outer Coast can’t exist with the town and gown division that the “freedom” of Black Mountain College was in some ways premised on. Can Outer Coast be thought of as a community in the same way that Black Mountain College can? That “community” qualifier proved again and again to be an ideological sticking point at Black Mountain College. In my understanding, Outer Coast’s method of pedagogy centers an indigenous epistemology that marks any division between the space of learning and the community as an artificial split. Learning in and through language, in and through Tlingit, seems to be a continuous, capacious action that necessarily demands the constant work of community. Centering language as the heart of the pedagogical method (noticeably absent at Black Mountain – language instruction, English or otherwise, only ever seems to be an afterthought to the ragtag European group gathered on faculty…) demands that learning always be outward facing – a learning through storytelling, a learning through collectivity.
(As an aside, I’m interested in what “art” education there is at Outer Coast – is there a sense of the capital “A?” Is the big A “Artist” premised on a separation between art and life that’s out of step with an otherwise integrated, communal way of living and knowing? I’m thinking about the fetish of the solitary genius here – it seems BMC was eternally circling this question)
Reading Duberman’s book, I’m struck by the glaring mismatch between a stated desire for BMC to create the “engaged democrat” and the lived and deeply felt separation between the school and the local community. Say what you will about the barriers to entry that different social and political attitudes might have posed (and the always-lurking fear of Black Mountain as some hotbed of social degeneracy), a more concerted effort to be involved in the community beyond business transaction and trips to the bar seems missing. Maybe I’m being uncharitable and the people of Asheville would have been less than amenable to the kind of individual freedoms being explored as part of the extracurricular (does this word exist in an intentional pedagogical community?) activities on campus, but by my reading the college’s conception of their community extended to those beyond campus only on rare occasion.
Black Mountain College, as much as it was an experimental pedagogical community, never seemed to have a unifying philosophy (in Duberman’s telling) so much as a series of centers of gravity premised on faculty members who possessed a certain combination of charisma, institutional clout, and ideological heft. Under Rice in the 30s, the centrality of the arts was a project aimed at making “democrats, people capable of choosing what it was they proposed to believe in, what was going to be their world” (39). Rather than stress the teaching of technique that would produce necessarily sufficient painters, sculptors, and poets, what Rice was after was a training in integrity.
Ok, so learning is a learning to world-make. Learning as “working at creating our own universes of meaning” as one of the BMC students of the 30s, Will Hamilin describes the project. I’m not really sure what that means in practice – this idea that each student is forging ahead working at their own systems of meaning making through some “worthwhile interior struggle.” There’s a privacy to that kind of work – an individuated striving as an end in itself. Originality was the driver of creative praise at the college, and this self-striving the motor of that work. I wonder if in some way that making original was actually a work of making separate – a distinguishing of oneself within the community through work that diverts from it. BMC seemed to be continually ping-ponging back and forth with this tension between Duberman breaks down the perceived dichotomy between the “issues” and the “self” that resulted in Wallen’s departure. It’s worth including this passage in full here – I think it’s a good gloss on one of the philosophical divisions that so often threatened the existence of the school.
Wallen also wrote that all learning is “self-learning,” and declared that the central goal of learning (and in turn BMC) is to make life meaningful, as excerpted on page 235 – “Living is an end in itself; all other activities are- to a greater or lesser degree- means to that end. The prime function of knowledge and education, then, is to make living meaningful- both in terms of personal values and of interpersonal relations (if there is any distinction.”)
This brings me to the work program – while the practice of actually building campus infrastructure and laying the groundwork for solvency and self-sufficiency was a matter of economic necessity, some on faculty, especially Wallen, felt that manual labor was absolutely vital to the educational work of the college. I wonder at the pedagogical underpinnings of that conviction – is the manual labor essential because it allows for the survival of a space for the Black Mountain community to continue to practice radical pedagogy, or is the manual labor a constituent part of the learning itself? There were certainly many on faculty, Josef Albers and Molly Gregory (herself very involved in the work program) especially, that had anxieties about the amount of time spent farming as time removed from actual class work. What’s the split between this kind of manual labor and the physical making that was taking place in Anni Albers or Buckminster Fuller’s classes? I rarely feel like I’m “making” or “doing” in a concrete sense at Princeton. Sure, ostensibly we’re analyzing and making knowledge of a sort, but there’s something really exciting (and necessary and vital) about locating knowledge and learning in the body and the world. Sometimes I feel the “life of the mind” can be relegated solely to the mind, which feels, scarily, to be exactly beside the point.
There was a suspicion throughout the history of the college, especially on the part of Albers, against the banking model of education. Instead, education’s chief mission, as the recently arrived Albers declared in his hesitant English, is “to open eyes.” Learning is perceiving is world-making. There’s an analogy to be made about Albers’s understanding of learning as a kind of reading, albeit one different than orthodox literary legibility (I’m thinking about his materials exercises here, referenced on page 56-57). It’s this learning to see, then, that makes and remakes the world. There’s nothing less at stake in learning than the meaning of the world. Where to start?
[I saw these comments on the Sitka trip show up on this page this afternoon. I was at school and supposed to be doing something else. I’ve been hitting refresh on the discussion thread over the last few days as one would anxiously check their email… I really wanted to know about how the trip went, what was learned, experienced. And then your posts were there and I read them! And then I read them again! All I can say at the moment is thank you for sharing this. As I reflect on your reflections, I admire all of your bravery, spirit, commitment, and care to go and try and partake in the Outer Coast pedagogy so wholeheartedly. I think about TU’s river running dry and then about the things that fill us up. I couldn’t go to Sitka, but I stole a few hours in the garden, in the studio, in the city, in my thoughts, in some reading, in solidarity with what I hoped this might be for you all. In that, I keep thinking about discourse and I keep asking, especially after reading about your time in Sitka: whose discourse? I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s retelling and I’m sure I will keep thinking about your stories for a long time to come -LD]
I was unfortunately unable to make the time for this trip over spring break. I really appreciated everyone’s heartfelt accounts of their experience, they all seemed quite moving. I wanted to share this reading for anyone who is interested!
* * *
Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Experiment in Community (New York: Norton, 1993 )
Helen Molesworth, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
OPENING THINK PIECE
[MK starts here]
Faculty Meeting, September 28, 1936 (p. 102):
Albers: “One can start at many ends of the question. Perhaps we can consider what teaching is.”
Rice: “Why don’t you say what you think teaching is?”
Albers: “I don’t like to speak without thinking the thing over.”
I sympathize with Albers’ hesitation as I try to share my reflections. Let me begin by acknowledging the weirdness of the times that our class is moving to Zoom to share stories from the extraordinary Sitka trip and to parse the twisting narratives and strong willed characters that inhabit the Duberman reading on Black Mountain College. If there is a common ground, it is that both institutions stand resolutely against the value of virtual encounters, but here we are (and for good reason).
I should also note that my reflections are inflected by the time I spent at a “new school” (Deep Springs) as well as a participatory community (of sorts ) on the fringes of the “old school” in Cambridge, Mass.
While Duberman is more focused on exploring what is the proper relationship of individuals to community, he also captures a common vision shared by central figures who shift in and out of focus about what is education. This vision, I am going to categorize (with all the attendant dangers) is that education is a form of cultivation. This is explicitly in contrast to the “banking model” we discussed previously.
The educational model starts with the planting — at first, the college started from scratch every year once the Christian summer camp closes shop. (p. 65.) (At Deep Springs the first activity every year is to reconstitute the student body with the new first year students. In my years, we had a failing physical infrastructure as well that often literally involved rebuilding.) For Albers, the cultivation also operates at the level of the individual teacher and student: “Make the result of teaching a feeling of growing.” (p. 48.) Elsewhere, Eric Weinberger analogizes Black Mountain to a seedbed; not knowing if daisies or radishes will emerge. (p. 433.) And Rice is emphatic that Black Mountain is a college and not a community. He explains the distinction, “the job of a college is to provide a place into which people may come and get the kind of development which will enable them to leave it.” (p. 128.) By contrast, in a community, people come with the intention of staying. Fittingly, Duberman closes the book with Rice’s belief that Black Mountain did not cease to exist, but was dispersed to the winds. (p. 438.)
I find this cultivation model has many attractive properties, but there is also something about it that is deeply disturbing for how it casts the educator into the role of a farmer. Let’s start with the attractive part. At Black Mountain, “[t]he one idea most commonly agreed upon was that ‘living’ and ‘learning’ should intertwined.” (p. 25.) This resonates with me about what I found so compelling about Deep Springs; I “learned” just as much from my time serving as cowboy as I did in my seminars about Ottoman history and political theory. More importantly, this educational model taught me early to recognize that “while information, analytical skills and reason were prized, they were considered aspects rather than equivalents of personal development; they were not confused, in other words — as they are in most educational institutions — with the whole of life, the only elements of self worthy of development and praise.” (p. 27.)
[This notion of the connection between living and learning is one we’ve seen repeated throughout this class. It hasn’t always landed, though. For instance, we took this proclamation, when made by someone like Allen, to be a bit boring. Do we find it more exciting and engaging in this experimental context? – MG]
[[This is also the page I wanted to bring up in class! The notion of living and learning boundaries and hierarchies becoming intertwined can be so important for precedent and tone setting within academia. In my experience that can also be used against students. Ping pong tables, foosball, pizza night, all of these things were implemented with the tone of community building and destressing within my architecture studio. All of these were a response to students complaining about stressful work conditions and overworking students. So what’s the real intention behind a ping pong table in studio? Is it to address the concern of stress? Or keep students happy docile and plump in order to push out more high quality high stress work. A band aid on the actual problem. This may come across crude, but I truly find being clear about intent within this context is so important. the boundary of teacher and student is so important for community, it deserves the best of intentions. – CF]]
But the dangers of cultivation model is present in the 1936 discussion about what is teaching. In that discussion, the group eventually settles on a distinction between two components. The first is instruction (imparting methods and facts) and the second, education (development of character). While they wax eloquently about the value of character development and downplay the instructor, there is little attention on what authority a teacher has to claim domain over the education of character. And we can see the painful results of claiming that authority. “Negative judgment was more devastating that ordinarily, for presumably it was based on an assessment of the whole person rather than on some narrow aspect of performance like grade average. To be disapproved of at Black Mountain, in other words, was the equivalent of being labeled an unworthy human being—not merely a poor student.”
The ugliness of that view about who is worthy of cultivation and who is not also emerges in the decision to not take Black students in the 1940s for fear of antagonizing the Asheville community (which also served as a convenient foil to the conservative tendencies of the several of the faculty). The most instructive insight from that distasteful incident came from Rubeye Lipsey, a black female worker who literally kept the original community alive with her husband by serving as the cooks for the community. She explained in a letter when asked about her opinions on whether to take black students and faculty that “no one can do away with a thought in a day that has been growing in them all of their lives.” (p. 181.)
And yet, there is something very bleak about viewing individuals as incapable of learning or growth. Or the sense that all we can be as teachers are transmitters of methods and facts. I spent many years outside academia because I felt this deep ambivalence about not knowing what I had to teach. But then I found I felt most fulfilled when I was working with others in thinking through complex puzzles. So I wandered back to an educational institution through a side entrance, and am roaming around with more questions than answers as I try to build a program around public interest technology.
I can’t conclude without noting just how much I enjoyed this reading — I spent all day on Sunday sitting in one chair sipping tea and taking notes on the physical book; I haven’t done that in a while as most of my reading is done on a screen. Also, this reminds me of another book, Better to Have Gone, by Akash Kapur about the fascinating community of Auroville; Akash is also teaching at SPIA this year.
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS FOLLOW)
[NI starts here]
Before I forget, here’s the Chris Kraus essay “Kelly Lake Store” (2013) that I mentioned in class, which talks about “social practice”/“relational aesthetics”/“post-art” (such as Gramsci Monument) in relation to austerity. As a tl;dr summary, when Kraus was up for the Guggenheim Fellowship, her proposal was to use the Guggenheim money to rehabilitate a community store in Hibbing, Minnesota – the only one in town – under the pretense of “an art project.” The Guggenheim withdrew her consideration, since they saw this as “outside the scope of [the Guggenheim’s] activities.” Kraus uses that incident to build a polemic, exploring how she saw that redistributive, post-disciplinary approach toward art all over the place at that time. I’m noticing now that this PDF has some highlights (from me) which are to the point of why I brought it up. Here are a couple salient passages:
“Why would young people enter a studio art program to become teachers and translators, novelists, archivists, and shopkeepers? Clearly, it is because these activities have become so degraded and negligible within the culture that the only chance for them to appear is within contemporary art’s coded yet infinitely malleable discourse.”
“Is it any surprise that Camacho and Lien, without ordinary journalistic outlets for their research, would choose to transmute it into visual metaphors – photographs and installations that can be exhibited in real space? For Camacho and Lien, there is a tremendous desire to know the world…a desire that seems greater to me than any involvement with visual art’s intrinsically formalist questions. As Lien explained by email: ‘I feel like I really need this engagement with the Philippines in order to avoid total cynicism while living and working in New York.’ Market-driven though it might be, contemporary art offers a context for work that might once have been done within humanist disciplines that are now on the verge of becoming as extinct as ancient Akkadian.”
The essay is definitely of its time – it’s hard to imagine Chris Kraus favorably using Matt Taibbi as an epigraph in 2023, and Kraus herself gets dragged nowadays for her own activity as an absentee landlord (which maybe gets at the criticism often applied this type of practice as too cozy with ‘artwashing’). But this is part of what was in the air when Gramsci Monument was up, which was also the same year that Undercommons was published. This idea of “stealing” from the art world’s largess, and redistributing it toward otherwise unfunded activities, which have ever-lessening economic viability, seems to have something in common with Harney & Moten. It leaves us wanting for a structural fix – obviously, Gramsci Monument is a bandaid on the bulletwound of NYCHA policy – but it raises the question, if you have access to the resources of “the institution,” if you have the invitation, what are you going to do with it?
* * *
[LD starts here]
Yesterday we ran out of time, so I will briefly share what I wanted to add here: The passages I wanted to read were on/around page 269. Something I felt missing from this book was a sense of the students. I wanted to know more about classroom dynamics and a more intimate account of the actual teaching and learning. I felt that most of it comprised a circular story about ideological conflicts between the faculty, set against a backdrop of community living on a tight budget — interesting for sure, but the students seemed mostly invisible to me.
I did really like Duberman’s interjection towards the middle of the book with his reflections on his own teaching. It was especially poignant because he was talking about Princeton, and I imagined the very spaces where these seminars might have taken place — and all of the seminars that have occurred before and after, as well as those in the future, in those same spaces. His reflections are the type of information I’d like to know: what goes on behind the curtain of our and our teachers’ classroom performances? What do they really think? To quote NI in an earlier post, what do they mean when they say? Personally, I think a lot of my own learning happens when contemplating this.
My reading of his take on Wallen was a bit different from what we talked about in class — a dichotomy or leveraging between the self and the community. On the pages around 269, I read this to be between the self and the subject, which could maybe be extended to the more generally accepted idea of what we are concerned with here at school.
“I don’t think we should make ourselves the topic”
This reminds me of Womanhouse (and, well, a HUGE part of what I’ve grown to think of as art), where the subject begins at the self.
I think Duberman was referring to the subject as a shield from the self. You can retreat into the subject if you want. Or you can hide there completely.
In art, the self can become a type of inter-self by repeating others’ selves in yourself, either directly or by history, etc.
Duberman stresses a need to keep everything from becoming all about the self, turning into a therapy session. In a therapeutic age (probably especially so in the 70s), how do we do this? It can be done “with a ‘subject’ lying between us.”
Back on 269 he compares this ideological clash between Wallen and Albers:
“We are prepared to take the ground that there is not and never can be Individuality, so long as there is not Association. Without true union no part can be true” [Outward—> in]
“What we call union seems to me only a name for a phase of individual action. I live only for myself; and in proportion to my own growth, so I benefit others” [Inward—>out].
* * *
[JD starts here]
I love this book—in its hybridity, it seems determined to get at the hybrid situation of a school, and part of Duberman’s fascination with his object is surely the interior variety of its self-understandings. He shares with everybody he writes about the question of what Black Mountain is. They are an interdisciplinary collective, and so is he, as professional historian, playwright, amateur social scientist, and perpetual, polymethodical psychologist.
It is also more detailed in its description of the classroom than anything else we read. Duberman gives some real time to what it is like to study with Albers and with Wallen, especially, and also gives us a lot of insight into the moment-to-moment of his own classes at Princeton. This alongside detailed descriptions (and even minutes) of a great many faculty meetings and other official and quasi-official community gatherings.
At the same time, it is also a book besotted with personality—you can see in Diaz and Molesworth, too, how Black Mountain is wondered at and revered as an improbable collocation of so many artists who became individually prominent during or after their time at the college. Duberman sketches the Alberses and Rice and M. C. and Wallen, and always takes a vivid, higher-gossipy interest in how they are received by the community, and where they stand among the factions. In class both the Nicks landed on those questions that Duberman asks on pp. 238-39, and they seem like the heart of the matter to me too:
It is interesting to keep thinking about the role of art in education here. We have had Dewey’s account, in which aesthetic experience and democratic participation come close to being the same thing—aspects of a kind of open vitality; he is a eudaemonistic philosopher for sure. We also have Singerman’s account of the conceptualizing and discursivizing of art practice as a tactic of professionalization in art schools. (By the way, see also [Alix Rule & – DGB] David Levine on International Art English.) Diaz puts Dewey in Black Mountain’s lineage; he visited the college—lovely vignette of that on p. 94 of Duberman—but I think D. is right to downplay his influence, since in many ways Black Mountain seems to have thrived on political self-isolation, and its pedagogy was various and mostly laissez-faire. As for professionalism, the college could hardly be accused of prepping people for an art market. The idea of an artist here seems above all to be paradigmatic of the individual as—what, a character, in a literary sense? Or even, as a work of art? Duberman values those people and gives the impression that the college did too, and stories of success with students often take the form of their emerging out of bland conformity into vivid particularity. Becoming worth writing about, in the particular way D. writes. Black Mountain does talk about citizenship and self-governance, but seems to imagine their forms (in a strenuously liberal way?) not as unified, purposeful collectives but as communities sustaining individual difference. Not a solution to the contradictions that Duberman describes above—but those contradictions pushed to their limit, as a way to live a good life; not necessarily a happy one, but a vivid one, or (to use our favorite weak/strong word) an interesting one.
And Duberman makes it clear that these questions are his life-questions: he often half-chastises himself for being passive in conversation or too ready to go along; not enough of a Rice or an Albers, maybe. (Too much of a Wallen? He identifies with W, but is ambivalent about the fundamental commitment to community that W expresses: W calls Black Mountain’s bluff, in some sense, and also perhaps Duberman’s, insofar as he resolves an animating contradiction, and hence is not finally tolerable to the school or to its historian.) Duberman’s account of his Princeton classes is shot through with his simultaneous desire to submerge himself in the discussion, and his unique responsibility for and identification with it.
Maybe this is what I am trying to get at: different kinds of schools propose themselves to different genres of description and/or explanation. In class, I was trying to say something about how certain schools aspire to attract an anthropological or sociological analysis, insofar as their customs and schedules are self-perpetuating, a kind of shelter from history, if history is a business of rupture and gross change. Not so much Black Mountain. Its rhythms are irregular, its pedagogy various; does it aspire, instead, to be a collection of stories? Or a novel? Various in its protagonists (perhaps anyone at the college is invited to be protagonist, signs up to teach or enrolls to study with that hope in mind, though only so many will get wide support in the role). Maybe it is the success of Duberman’s book to make me think so; a kind of identification of the values of his literary-historical project with the values of his subject. Certainly to read the place this way is to leave out a lot of the human experience there. (LD is right to say that students don’t get a whole lot of attention, compared to the teacher-protagonists.) But maybe the idea does capture something of its self-understanding. The school as novel—which schools are novels?—and as novel, if novel, requiring conflict for its very identity, and also coming, necessarily, to an end. (For contrast: Princeton has absolutely no conception of how or when it might end; a lot about the place follows from the fact that the idea is inadmissible, generically excluded.)
* * *
[DGB starts here]
We gathered on zoom this week — on account of a lingering covid-osity, which made a run at the Outer Coast cohort. As MK has flagged above, there was something a little uncanny about all the loops and looping in this seminar: here we were, convening in this strange decentering format (that is SO MUCH of our historical moment) to talk about the relationship between “schooling” and “community” by means of a discussion of a book (the Duberman) that is itself so self-conscious about this very problem — on several levels.
As his subtitle suggests, he is centrally interested in the very idea of community, and especially as it relates to the promise of education. But he just about equally interested in that problem as it opens the history of Black Mountain College (on the one hand), and as it frames/informs his own life as a teacher and utopian dreamer (on the other hand). We spent a few minutes on the way that his book represents a remarkable instance of historical inquiry as a project of “fusing of horizons” (in that Gadamerian sense): Duberman was going to the period 1933-1957 in order to understand some essential things unfolding in his own moment, 1967-1972. The rise of an aspirational culture of intentional communities emerged as a significant political program across that half-decade, of course — and it was exactly this complex nexus of historicity and contemporaneity that generated, at the very same moment, Laurence Veysey’s The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter-Cultures in America (1973).
Not only that, but Duberman actually taught at Princeton back in the 1960s (in Dickinson Hall, in my department, with specific colleagues, now dead, but personally known to me from my own student days here as an undergrad). More meta? Well, Duberman taught here when, as it happens, my own father was a midwestern scholarship kid on this campus (recruited to play the organ in the chapel; his own parents had high-school educations); he went to grad school in French literature (to avoid getting drafted) right about the time Duberman started writing this book. More meta? Well, Duberman intercalates his treatment of Black Mountain with excerpts from his own journal of trying to teach an “experimental” seminar back in those years (presumably in one of these classrooms on McCosh Courtyard) that itself tried to achieve a modicum of self-consciousness about the pedagogical situation and its possibilities.
Oh, and, after a decade or so of fighting the good fight in these parts… Duberman quit. He left Princeton for CUNY, basically because (as a gay man of relatively radical political leanings) he just couldn’t deal with the scene down here at Old Nassau in the mid 1960s. When, as I flagged, faculty wives were still expected to wear white gloves at departmental receptions (key etiquette question: do you take them off when being served shrimp cocktail by a liveried servant in Prospect? Not all of the ladies knew. In this way, in those days, departmental relations were stratified, hierarchies maintained, etc.). In this context, one can perhaps get a bit of a feel for how Duberman felt he had to hit the eject button, and parachute into Manhattan.
Ok, so far, so anecdotal.
But anecdotes matter. And Duberman’s book is a lovely instance, in my view, of the historical integration of archive, anecdote, and critical judgment.
We had some anecdotes ourselves, in getting started with class this week. Because, of course, about half the folks in the zoom had only recently returned from what was obviously a VERY special week out in Sitka. Many thanks for the beautiful write-ups, above. And also for the stories that got shared as went around the zoom-room on Wednesday. Those expressions (of appreciation, of generosity, of vulnerability, of presence, of commitment) immensely thickened the ethical/existential mood of our conversation. At least, speaking for myself, I had the strongest sense of the stakes of our questions — of our inquiry.
Because it just seems REAL that something adheres to our aspirations. Something adheres to the idea of “school.” Something adheres to the ideal of “study” — and thereby to the university, and its activities. The teaching. The learning. The relationships that emerge in these activities. The spaces in which all of this is convened.
Different language gets used. “Character” (eek!). “Personality” (Whitman used the word in an expansive sense, and some of that seems to have stuck around into the interwar period; now it feels rather dilapidated, even conceptually debased). “Bildung” (carries a ton of baggage, needless to say; though Gadamer’s defense of the human sciences as such is ultimately rooted in some version of such an idea — since, for him, historically-effected consciousness is inconceivable without some sense of “tradition,” and “being” itself makes no sense, for humans, absent a dialogic relationship to what is received). We might settle more comfortably on something like the “formation of identity” or “self-inquiry.” Both these formulas come off the tongue more easily in the early twenty-first century, and each has been smoothed across a period of special preoccupation with (political and economic) individualism and therapeutic secularism.
No problem! We can still work with these terms.
Whatever all of those awkward concepts ultimately invoke, they are usefully juxtaposed (in sum) with a contrasting semantic field: information, knowledge, expertise.
The production, transmission, and utilization of these happy fruits grown in that orchard called epistemology — this, too, is the work of school. Who could deny it?
But there seems no easy way to hold this program together with the other. On the one hand, there is existence itself, the inhabited activity of being, personhood. On the other, we have the basic business of depersonalization — the obviously essential activities that involve attaining to our best approximations of a shared world that is shared exactly because it has about it as little as possible of those marks that would suggest the presence of any one of us (or two of us, or three of us). Which is to say, “science.” Our highest and most elaborate (and most expensive) ascetic program. When we go to it, we must check our “selves” in the little lockers in the antechamber.
And so, is that antechamber configured at the gates of the university?
This is a somewhat extravagant figuring of the question that runs, I think, through the Duberman. Does he have to “check himself at the door” before he enters the classroom? Before he writes the monograph?
And do we?
In some sense, obviously, yes.
When we took a moment to ask the hard question (“How much of the spirit that was so special at Outer Coast can be brought back to Princeton?”) it was difficult, for me anyway, to feel overly optimistic. Isn’t the answer “not that much.” And isn’t the reason for that simply that we are, within the framework of graduate education in an elite research university, effectively committed to a very specific paradigm: the production (and transmission) of knowledge, where knowledge is understood to be generated through the social technology of peer-review, an epistemic practice central to the modern sciences. And that means the kind of thing we are being professionally trained to achieve is explicitly divorced from human “being” in any recognizable, inhabited, phenomenologically rich sense. The project is continuous incremental progressive accumulation of verifiable information and testable claims whose value is exactly proportional to their context-independence and functional indifference to human particularity.
Good luck feeling “seen” in that project. Or feeling that some of your deepest questions (“How to live? What to do?”) are going to be addressed in any real way. They will definitely be discussed! But they will be present in the conversation in something of the way that whales are present in IWC meetings.
(That is a cetology-historian joke…)
Ok. Blah blah blah. Ignore all that. Reading it back over. Looks like ravings. I’ll leave it. But feel free to skip!
We went around and a number of you brought us specific pages in the Duberman from which to think. I won’t try to reconstruct them all, or the conversations that orbited these powerful moments in a powerful text. But perhaps we recall one or two here.
There was this section from the bottom of 237 across to the first half of 238:
Which let us take a turn through the somewhat ostentatious methodological “move” of the book: to insist that the historian must be the “instrument” of the history, and hence that the rhetorical and conventional norms that depersonalize the inquiry and “take the first person perspective out” are not just goofy, they are an actual falsification of the work. Hence his “weaving” of his journal entries into the finished publication (as here). And likewise his inserting the long meditation on his own seminar on “American Radicalism” from 1970 (268-274, accompanied by his acid comments on the basic failure of his efforts, with a colleague, to conduct a faculty seminar on the relationship between emotional life and intellectual inquiry [“on the whole it was a pathetic demonstration of the desiccation of the Rational Life”]). And likewise his still more “experimental” insertion of himself as a “speaking character” into the reprinted transcripts of faculty meetings at BMC in the 1930s (102-113). Do NOT try that at home. At least not in my department. We are full fifty years on, but that methodological experiment would, I am pretty sure, be universally rejected as a proposed gesture within a PhD dissertation in History at Princeton at this time. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.
(Aside: some of you will know that I run a series on “historiographical experimentation” called CONJECTURES for the UK-based non-profit publishing platform called Public Domain Review; an exercise like Duberman’s intercalation of himself into his primary source would be exactly the kind of thing I would run to this day…)
We spent some time on how “fresh” these aspects of Duberman’s book actually felt to you all, as younger readers. And I got the sense there was a loose consensus: relatively fresh; nobody really seemed keen to take a hard position (that the stuff was, say, annoying, self-regarding, a little dated). I think arguments can be made along all those lines (and I am sure all of you could make them). But at any rate nobody seemed especially keen to try to shut down Duberman’s gropings toward something other than the dessications of fetishized objectivism. Then again, the book does a LOT of due diligence in the archives. And that may have made all of us relatively forgiving when confronting its earnest gestures toward reflexivity (I completely agree. For better or for worse, our discipline mandates that, if someone is going to try this at home [to riff on your previous comment], one must “earn” such attempts at resisting methodological normativity through archival rigor––or, put differently, such rigor liberates one from having to conform too strictly to what Ethan Kleinberg has called the “ontological realism” structuring the disciplinary unconscious of history, at least as it is practiced in the Anglo-American academy (when these scholarly maneuvers fail or egregiously miss the mark, 9 times out of 10, the first critique you will read in a book review or hear in a workshop discussion is some variation of “this isn’t rigorous”). I have nothing smart or prescriptive to say about this dynamic other than Martin Duberman is awesome and this book is a model for the kind of scholarship I hope to produce one day –NB) In the last fifty years reflexivity may not have made many inroads into disciplinary “History” per se, but in adjacent departments it has been worked very hard. Hard enough to have produced plenty of pushback — not all of it “conservative” in any sense.
After acknowledging that the long list of difficult questions there on 238 were inspiring, and were, in a way, questions we were ourselves all asking (particularly in the wake of the Outer Coast visit), we moved on — and spent some time on these two pages:
Which were a wonderful opportunity to take a turn into a central preoccupation of historians of science: the so-called “naturalization of the cultural,” which perennially returns as a theme in critical inquiries into the human sciences. One can feel Duberman wrestling with this angel on these pages. For those of you interested in following up on this general theme, two books came up in our conversation: Daston and Vidal’s 2004 edited volume, The Moral Authority of Nature; and, where “violence” and community energies are concerned, the recent study by my colleague and friend in HOS at Princeton, Erika Milam, Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America. Oh, and I put in a pitch for Fourier’s Théorie des quatre mouvemens (1808). One of the very greatest books of all times. Fourier straight-up “solved” all the problems Duberman listed on p. 238. Which is pretty cool.
Because they are hard problems.
Last thought: did anyone ever graduate from Black Mountain College? I found only one reference to this rarest of achievements in our reading. Page 401. Michael Rumaker. Nice. He deserves an extra shout out. I love that they had to hand draw the diploma…
Last last thought: So I go to dinner on Wednesday night, after our seminar, with three colleagues. It is the hosting dinner for a job candidate. And I chatted a bit about our seminar. And then the historian to my immediate right (a junior professor in our own department) piped up that she herself is a descendant, in a basic way, of that special place: her grandmother was been a student there, and ended up marrying a young Viennese émigré photographer who came down one summer to document the campus. The tendrils of a special place wound their way from western North Carolina in the interwar period to a table at “Roots Prime” (in the refurbished Dinkey station here on campus) in 2023…
* * *
Eva Diaz, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Helen Molesworth, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). On reserve, C Floor in Marquand; may be under DGB’s name.
Also: bring us a primary text (or object, piece of music, etc.) that was taught at Black Mountain or made by someone who taught at Black Mountain while they were teaching there. Prepare to teach it to us in ten minutes—drawing your pedagogical inspiration from some moment in Duberman; inspiration, but not necessarily strict imitation. What does teach mean in this context? Well, what does it mean? Whatever it is, give some careful thought to what you can do in ten minutes that will feel vital, generous, and unhurried.
* * *
OPENING THINK PIECE
[JEHS had to pull out on this, last minute — so I will sub in a few thoughts – DGB]
We have plenty to discuss this week, and plenty to do, as well — given our commitment to some in-class pedagogical exercises. And I don’t want to get out ahead of the conversation I hope we will have about Eva Diaz’s book (which is of particular interest, I think, to historians of science, given the thematic focus on the shifting meanings of “Experiment” across the period in question). Perhaps best, then, just to add a few references here, in case folks want to follow up on any of this. First, with respect to the “scientific” discourse that pervades any thinking about experimentation: there is a good essay by Eugen Blume entitled “Science and Its Double” in the book I briefly waved around in our Zoom session last week: Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 1933-1957 (Berlin: Staatliche Museen / Spectator Books, 2015), the catalog of an exhibition in the same year in Germany. Blume underscores that Natasha Goldowski, who taught physics at Black Mountain 1947-1953 (including a seminar on cybernetics apparently significant for Charles Olson) had been one of a small number of elite female scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, where she did essential metallurgical work. While emphasizing an important thread of American “Romanticism” running through the BMC experiment (citing Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, & Parkman), Blume wants to suggest that the dynamic/collaborative/productive vision of the “liberal arts” achieved in Western North Carolina in those years amounted to a kind of “poetic ‘science theater'” that was, as he puts it, “propaedeutic and performative.” He takes the argument one step further, too, claiming: “They [the teachers and students of BMC] formed the first definitively provocative community, which saw its propositions arising out of a synergy of art and science as future-oriented action.”
I cannot assess the validity of this claim in any deep way, but I am sympathetic to it. And I see no obvious reason to discount it.
Relatedly, in another of the essays in the same volume (“Pedagogical Practices and Models of Creativity at Black Mountain College,” by Annette Jael Lehmann), it is striking to see BMC read into the genealogy of the contested contemporary (as in, “present-day”) category of “Artistic Research.” This also rings true, and would be worth pushing: what is “artistic research”? Can the suite of activities subsumed therein be defended (in the current academic landscape)?
And, for that matter, is there any relationship between the idea of “artistic research” and the kind of “exercises” we are going to do tomorrow?
* * *
(POST-SEMINAR REFLECTIONS FOLLOW)
[Just wanted voice a quick note of appreciation for the Molesworth volume – we didn’t get to talk about it, but I found it both moving and an important intervention in the Black Mountain literature that the actual artwork of students was included (and not just work by the subsequently famous ones). It’s comparatively easy to tell a story of a school through the biggest names associated with it (as I’d say Diaz does), and it’s one thing to include former students by interviewing them, but it’s another thing entirely for a curator to go out on a limb to seek out student work and display it on equal footing with that of the “masters” in such high-profile museums, where regimes of taste and credentialization still loom so large. It certainly helps that the student work is very good, but I’m sure this entailed some tenacity and finesse on the curators’ part. Respect! -NI]
* * *
[DGB starts here]
This was a memorable session, so thanks to you all for putting in so much though, time, and imagination. Each of these ten-minute mini-lessons (in the “key” of Black Mountain) had real verve — each trailed, in its wake, a distinctive “mood.” In each case, however, there was a sense of history, and a sense of the “activation” of a historico-pedagogical nexus: we were doing things, but we were also thinking about the way things had been done. And, because each of us is (or aspires to be) a teacher, it was impossible not to be thinking forward, along the lines of “how could I make use of this in my future classes.” It was also a lot of fun.
We basically jumped right in, although before turning things over to you all, JD and I spent a few minutes setting up our undertaking within the analytic of Eva Diaz’s The Experimenters. After all, what we were about to undertake was itself an “experiment,” in at least two ways: on the one hand, we were actually experimenting with teaching techniques, with “lesson plans”; on the other hand, the very idea of using some form of historical “reenactment” as a kind of investigation (in a graduate seminar, no less) amounts, itself, to an “experiment,” since this is not the standard mode by which these forms of inquiry generally proceed.
So we briefly reviewed Diaz’s three core “modes” of experimentalism, as she read the archive of BMC: Josef Albers’ iterative and “controlled” mode of incremental specification and discovery; John Cage’s iconoclastic program of “thrown-ness” and disruptive deconstruction; Buckminster Fuller’s engineering-design model of evolutionary optimization (I think it was AK who put it so nicely, referencing Fuller’s interest in “apotropaic failure that authorized his own prophetic nature”). I think it is interesting to reflect on how different ideas of “failure” undergird each of these experimental sensibilities. Fuller’s is indeed “confirmatory.” Each failure shows that he really is working at the threshold of genius (as I mentioned, for me, here, the odor is that of the rich American tradition of confidence men and carnie barkers). Cage’s is, unsurprisingly, “koanic” — failure presents an invitation to take a step closer to the voided equilibrium of true beginner’s mind (“see, it does not hold together…it does not ‘work’…it amounted to nothing…”). For Albers, I would say that failure functions to winnow. It operates as a mechanism of discrimination (in the best possible sense). Failures permit us to keep clearing the deck, the desk, the wall, the way.
I also took a little time, as we launched, to discuss the importance, in the history of science, of the theme of “experimental method.” There are only a handful of subjects more essential to the formation of the field itself. Which is to say, the history of science took shape, across the first half of the twentieth century, as a scholarly project that had as one of its central aims characterizing and explaining the rise of the “experimental philosophy” across the long seventeenth century. The epistemic implications of this development were understood to be enormous, since the particular marriage of empiricism and rationalism that has propelled “modern science” to immense cultural, economic, practical, and philosophical importance seems to hinge on new ways of “testing” and “manifesting” knowledge claims — activities closely associated with the Royal Society, and the work of Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and, of course, Isaac Newton.
There is an immense literature on this stuff, and it is only tangentially related to our themes. (Trivia fact! Both CA and I studied, about thirty years apart, with the same major contributor in this field, the brilliant Simon Schaffer, co-author of one of the field-defining books on this very topic, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.) But I did express an interest in the way that Diaz misses, in my view, an opportunity to tease out an important conceptual element of “experimentalism”: the idea of the “at risk-ness” that is etymologically conveyed in the “peri/peril” part of the term. Experiments puts something on the line. They stand in relation to the wager. There are stakes. It can be valuable to analyze experimental philosophies in terms of what they put at risk. And that is something we can keep in mind as we circle back through the exercises we did this week (since I think we hope to carry some of this stuff forward in the weeks ahead…)
Oh, and one last thing on experiments: I mentioned that I originally got interested in the history of science as a field reading about early experimentation with Anthony Grafton back in the early 1990s; if you want to go fully Old School, here is the publication that came out of that research. It is about experimental methodologies among alchemical/esoteric thinkers in the late Renaissance, folks who were arguably on the wrong side of history (in the sense that they missed the boat for the “New Philosophy” of what would come to be called “The Scientific Revolution”). But they still thought “experiments” were cool.
OK! So we started doing stuff!
I am not going to try to résumé every pedagogical exercise through which you all walked us, in all that richness. But I will tip in some documentary images below, together with a few reflections, where relevant…
We launched with NB, who dropped us right in at the deep end, with this compilation of citations from Lukács. We did not know exactly why we were being asked to read these, or to reflect on them from our own reading experience. But then, as we tried to discuss books that exemplified this or that aspect of the analysis, NB repeatedly followed up with a set of questions that I found immensely interesting and odd: “And do you remember how old you were when you read that book?” or (did I make this up?) “Where were you when you first encountered that book?”
The whole thing was, for me, deliciously destabilizing — and I loved the vertigo of pivoting from an inward churn on DeLillo’s capacity for “cultural physiognomy” to a sudden effort to recall where I was in 1998 or whatever, when I plunged into the book (answer: a loft on the 3rd floor of 81 Greene). Only later did we learn that we had been walked through a version of a pedagogical strategy used by M. C. Richards, who had a strong sense of the need continuously to reconnect intellectual inquiry to the “lifelines” of students. This was really brilliant, and something to hang on to for classroom use. (I did walk us on a little circle through the way that such a “personalization” could feel emancipatory and progressive in 1957, and feel as if it has a very different valence now, when the personal has indeed proven, if you like, victorious. Has it not defeated — or, rather, been entirely coopted by — the desiccating institutionalisms/abstractions from which someone like Richards believed liberation was necessary? I take the pop-punk bard of this development to be Adam Curtis).
Oh, and then the wonderfulness of collaging some “secrets” (after Susan Weil). Thank you, EH!
And CA cleverly entailed us to a reprise of “Happening #1.” I was tempted to start spontaneously singing, in an effort to up-tick the carnivalesque. But I sat on that. Gotta rein in my congenital tendency to grandstand…
I thought this exercise had a lot of reenactment-energy. Good stuff!
Then AK took us into the classic Albers mirror-writing activity. And this, too, was very pleasing.
Next was CB, who took yet another tack. Rather than teaching “as” one of the BMC folk, or reproducing one of their modalities, he elected to teach “through” Olson, and to do so using Olson himself. We were given a fragment of an Olson poem, stripped of lineation, punctuation, and all other “markers” of poetic form. And, after reading to us from Olson’s notable manifesto on “Projective Verse,” CB turned us loose. The assignment? To make Olson’s words “sing” in the way that he seemed to celebrate. To find the “breath” in the lines. This was genuinely fascinating, and worked well at the scale of these ultra-fast pedagogical “speed dates.”
RS permitted himself a calligraphic/runic instantiation (very beautiful, I thought; the whole exercise was haunted, for me, by the question of calligraphy…):
Mine was way more literal:
Next was RS himself, who drew us to the board for a shared program of writing/drawing/talking. The result stands as the head-image for this week’s class (see above). JD and I, talking afterwards, agreed that this felt like an exquisitely simple exercise, and one that could easily have been extended across the whole session. [Indeed!—that felt true of many of these exercises. They were really expertly managed within the ten-minute constraint; I never felt rushed, and I easily could have. But with almost all of them one sensed a durational potential that we left for some future, extended moment. How would we have learned as a group to manage the relation between writing and speaking in RS’s exercise, for example? Where would MG’s Wallen-conversation have gone, if we had let time test our capsule accounts? What would we have learned about possibilities of ensemble improvisation from keeping at our radios for an hour, or two, or three…? – JD]
MG decided to go straight at the core problem of “community,” and gave us the task of identifying, for ourselves, a moment in our own lives/experiences where the needs (or preferences) of an individual came into conflict with a group. Then, pairing us up, we were invited simply to talk this out, discussing what steps were taken to address the challenge, and how the matter resolved (if it did).
The beauty of this, of course, as she spelled out in our debrief, lay in the “democratic decentering” of the actual lesson (we talked in our groups), which was itself meant to be as “instructive” as the explicit content of the exercise itself, which of course circled the key problem of democratic conflict resolution. John Wallen was smiling down on us during this one, for sure.
Then LD did the TOTAL MIC DROP, in the form of a full-on collective performance of a (slightly modified) version of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2). Special thanks to Professor Michael Littman (in Engineering) for helping out from his media archive — loaning us a set of transistor radios…
This was simply amazing. Thank you!
Finally, in conclusion, NI took us back to Albers, and gave us a chance to experiment ourselves with the paradigmatic color-contrast experiments that lay both at the heart of the master’s BMC teaching and at the heart of his best-known series.
We got to tinker with simultaneous contrastive effects:
And also work the materiality of the paper itself (as Albers also had his students do).
A chance to think the “crease” as both seam and scar.
Much to think on in all of this, and in the closing conversation we circled back through the question of the “experiment” (via Diaz), and let ourselves wonder in which “key” to conceive what we had been doing. Were these different “experiments” essentially Albersian? Maybe some of them. (NB’s, for instance, which is close enough to what we already do in a seminar that one might think of his intervention as an incremental adjustment.) Or were then more Cage-like, and essentially disruptive? (Perhaps RS’s, or, yes, CA’s.) And then was there a way in which all of them could be taken to have had, in context, a fair bit of Fuller-energy? In the sense that, at 10 minutes, what is not going to “fail” as pedagogy? So we sorta had to know that going into all this. But our eyes are on what is coming! Where we are going to have forty minutes, and a chance to set up a dome that will genuinely support some weight…
[Since I missed this session, EH generously recounted each lesson for me in detail, and reading these accounts was just as delightful. In case people are feeling inspired to see the world of materials around them more acutely, here is the mini-lesson I would have offered the space… –PH]
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[JD starts here]
The wonderful, generous sense of possibility and surprise in the room on Wednesday leaves me feeling free to meditate a bit on the relationship between experiment and failure, questions I am always circling as a teacher (and also as an on-again, off-again administrator).
Did I, in our first class, share a remark by the analyst Adam Philips? I can’t now recall—it was reported to me by my friend Katie, who hosts Philips in a series of seminars he leads at Oxford, and I think of it often. After one session, she asked him how, as a therapist most accustomed to conversations one-on-one, he approaches the classroom, and he said, “Well, the first thing is not to humiliate anyone.” What Philips acknowledges—and what generally (and for some reasonable reasons) we work so hard not to acknowledge—is that the most ordinary routines and arrangements of the classroom are haunted both by potentials and long histories of shame. True, perhaps, of many spaces, but true of the classroom in some special and ancient ways, for anyone who grew up in a culture that sends its children to school. The more true if that culture of school is opposed to the culture of home or family.
(I know I did talk about that moment in my Spenser class—“You should be ashamed of yourself!” So you see I think about these things.)
Well—that is all to say that Philips begins his teaching with a sense that there is something fundamental reparative about the work that he has before him. It’s interesting to range back over our pedagogies and consider how the theorists and practitioners we have read orient themselves toward the idea that education is repair, that it is a project of reform not just of prior pedagogies, but of the damage done to students by there schooling they have already received, or by life. There are some (like Locke and Rousseau) that vest their hopes in getting things right from the start, so that the bad things culture does never happen. Emile is the radical, nearly ridiculous case of this project, the boy whose life is so managed that he confronts only nature as his limit. (And nature will never make you ashamed, will it?—though it may awe, humble, etc.) Socrates freely uses shaming to scourge the false consciousness of his interlocutors; it is a therapy for adults, and it’s not clear that the dialogues ever represent a successful cure. What about Dewey? Maybe he is an exception—he does not seem to be afraid of the past (he warns against overesteeming it). For bell hooks, however, the histories of racism and colonialization are what a good school is most structured to overcome. And with that word “histories” we can recognize how some of these pasts are psychological, and some are historical, as we saw right at the start with Leanne Simpson and her account of land as pedagogy, a remedy to the government boarding schools. Freire is another obvious case: education is structured to expose for the villager the ideological contradictions of colonial subjugation. Of course, the historical and the psychological are braided in every case, though the emphasis varies.
(Is it possible that Dewey is the only one of these theorists/reformers who does not have a primary concern with undoing the damage of the past? Maybe Locke, too? Liberals both!)
So let me see if I can bring this around to thinking about experiment and failure vis a vis Black Mountain. Experiment—it is a concept at some distance both from therapy and historical repair, isn’t it? Maybe because its structure flattens the past into experimental conditions, which must be held constant, made reproducible, etc. Also because it manages bad outcomes in advance. It is not unlike a game in its bracketing (even, like a Deweyan experience, with beginning, middle, end). Diaz is really wonderful in articulating the ways the concept gets pushed and pulled at Black Mountain. Albers is closest to experimental method (on which recall Cowles on Dewey). He establishes rigorous controls over incremental variants, countless small, disciplined tests, with cumulatively useful findings. (Precisely the structure of the little paper-practicum that NI got us going on.) Is there damage being repaired?—if so it is the cumulative life-damage of habit, and it is repaired by building up our practices of vision from their fundamentals. A political program, too, on the Deweyan assumption that bad politics depends on narrowed or canalized perception. Diaz’s emphasis on competition in Albers’ classroom was surprising and interesting. How much shame is implied there? But in his commitment to improving concrete skills, Albers seems to use an experimental structure to manage if not to preclude shame. Everybody can get better, goes the claim.
Cage is quite different. Diaz describes the precise structures that shaped his stochastic occasions. What is most missing, in contrast with the Albersian experiment, is a testable hypothesis: Cage’s proto-happenings invite everybody to try, and to see what it feels like, see what they can feel. There really isn’t any way for the experiment to fail. Failure, instead, is displaced onto the audience—the way to fail, as a spectator/participant, is not to be game, not to try, to be too embarrassed by the proceedings to open yourself to the experience. Cage insulates himself from responsibility by the rigorous flatness of his affect, a subdued, infra-ludic deadpan that refutes in advance the accusation that anything is going wrong. Refusal to acknowledge failure is a powerful strategy for not failing. It is worth saying that lots of people even at Black Mountain were discomfited by finding themselves in the midst of Theater Piece No. 1—experimental work can make the people it marks out as squares feel embarrassed, resentful, righteously indignant etc. But for Cage, this is not a failure of the experiment itself. And what about Fuller? He seems unembarrassable in a different way: his experiment is enthusiastically without controls, trying a big thing all at once, confident that you will learn something from the ways it fails. Trial-and-error is still the basic structure, but the trial is a lunge, the error a spectacle, a spectacle not least of Fuller’s unabashed happy resilience, standing in his wilderness of bent blinds. There is nothing to be embarrassed about!—or maybe, more like Cage, the only thing to be embarrassed about is letting your uptight habits of special expertise hold you back from thinking big (from thinking the possibility of total design solutions, dynamic, maximal, tense).
I suppose my general point is that the category of experiment is an invitation to bracket the past, in its personal and its historical aspects. [I must confess to feeling a bit thunderstruck by this proposition, which is of the greatest depth. It is, in fact, the point that is at the heart of Gadamer’s re-staging/recovery of the category of “experience” in defiance of what he diagnoses as the seventeenth-century’s circumscription: he contends that across the rise of the new sciences in that period, “experience,” newly fashioned as experiment, was made to draw water in a narrowly empirical/epistemic project. I have placed a key passage from Truth and Method here, so you can all read Gadamer’s reflection on the non-historicity of “experimentation,” and what he sees as the implications for the “human sciences” (he is here discussing Johann Gustav Droysen, an important nineteenth-century German historian and philosopher of history); for the full working out of the seed idea here, one should turn to Part II of the Second Part of Gadamer’s volume, the section entitled “Foundations of a Theory of Hermeneutical Experience.” None of this means we cannot use experiment in our humanistic explorations, but it DOES point to a significant fact, I think: such endeavors must, effectively, push back against a concept of “experiment” that has been pre-stressed for fundamentally anti-humanistic inquiry (by which I mean forms of inquiry that wish to secure kinds of knowledge that are indifferent to us, independent of us, without us — i.e., “scientific” knowledge). -DGB] All of its varieties have at least some account of the utility of failure (in Cage’s case, the impossibility of failure—whatever happens is the optimal result). These combined characteristics offer the student a certain safety from histories of shame. But only if the student (or audience member etc.) plays along. This makes the varieties of cultural experiment quite different from the anti-subjective protocols of scientific experiment. A cultural experiment may be testing you, and you can be found wanting, not so much by failing on its terms but by failing to accept its terms.
What does all this have to do with our various wagers on Wednesday? Well—to start with, I thought everybody played along, in the best sense; it felt like a very open space, inspiringly so. The potential horror of mirror-writing (O the disaster of my penmanship!), of missing your cues in the radio symphony, of writing on the board in front of everybody, all seemed to melt away in a general sense of curious permission. Still it was interesting that EH’s exercise (which produced some beautiful artifacts) attracted so much comment afterward. Write down a secret, shred the text, and collage the fragments. Some people may have written secrets that entailed no shame. Such secrets do exist. But I suspect that many of us wrote things we would be embarrassed to share, at least with a general audience. Did the meaningfulness for everyone of that exercise have anything to do with Philips’ reminder—so, a kind of apotropaic writing/unwriting, or even exorcism, of secret experiences of the classroom? I want to salute the success of the occasion, and also think about how its various instances oriented us toward the past (repair, reform, forgetting) and toward the future (what new schools were implicit, what they could do for us); and the challenges of making wider communities that will find comfortable shelter in such experiments.
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This part of our Discussion Thread for the course is now closed!
For a continuation, as we move to the student-led “CASES” head over here.