On being an ignorant schoolmaster

Inside Higher Ed has published an expanded version of my piece on teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. The most notable addition is an introductory bit on Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster.

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“Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.

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Memorization

I’m finally getting around to reading Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and I’m finding it really exciting and helpful. Of particular interest is his emphasis on memorization as a form of intellectual emancipation. Thinking ahead to my Heidegger class for next year, it occurs to me that if I could get every student to memorize one important paragraph from Being and Time, they could conceivably wind up being ahead of a student who passed an exam on the best-ever lecture course in terms of actually understanding how to read Heidegger.

My colleague Aron Dunlap has suggested incorporating a memorization component into our literature class next semester, and while I was open to the idea before, now I’m positively intrigued. Have any of you incorporated memorization into your teaching, specifically of poetry? What were your experiences?

The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics

I was reminded yesterday by a friend of Simone Weil’s classic essay “Human Personality,” and was struck by the notion that at some point (perhaps somebody already has) I might write a piece comparing the centrality of her question here, ‘Why am I being hurt,’ to Judith Butler’s more recent question in Precarious Life, ‘Who shall we mourn?’ Both questions attend to supremely significant issues. Indeed, one might argue that Weil & Butler approach the same issues but from different angles. This may be true, but one must be careful in too quickly affirming the sameness at the expense of the important differences.

I am deeply sympathetic–no, make that outright supportive–of Weil’s desire to speak for those who cannot speak–or, more properly, that which cannot be spoken. The impersonality of this unspoken truth is crucial to Weil, and is apprehended, if at all, in the solitariness of one’s humiliation. She offers no concession to consolation in her work, which is often unsettling. I don’t read Weil as a masochist. Suffering, rather, is an inevitability, of life & of life on the way to the truth. If pain must sometimes be handed out as punishment, this is only because the inevitable is often disproportionately distributed and/or dissimulated by the secular appeal to “rights.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself. Read the rest of this entry »

New Issue of Political Theology

The newest issue of Political Theology is now available. I bring this to your attention as it contains excellent articles by some of our own — see Brad Johnson’s “Doing Justice to Justice” and Anthony Paul Smith’s “The Judgment of God and the Immeasurable.” Check them out.

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Read the rest of this entry »

‘And so I tell myself to myself': A Dissertation!!

This [PDF warning], as it turns out, is an unpublishable book. Oh, I suppose I could keep shopping it around until something just short of a vanity press accepts it and churns out fifty hardcover editions to “sell” (in theory) at an ungodly price. Or, I could just keep sending it to more-or-less legitimate publishers, and probably drive myself batty in the process. I think most of us can agree that the end result of neither alternative is particularly attractive. Thankfully, there are are other options. (Thanks, Scribd!) Read the rest of this entry »

“Hope is not the precondition of action”

Jacques Rancière is talking about the role of the philosopher here, but I cannot help but think that his comments extend further than even he might otherwise imagine. Indeed, while even I concluded a recent essay by distinguishing the task of the theologian from that of the philosopher — i.e. where the former “names,” the latter is concerned with “the conditions of naming itself” — suffice it to say, I’m not convinced that the disciplinary/discursive identities borne from the differentiation need be iron-clad and definitive. With that in mind, I think that the theologian in particular might find a peculiar value in reflecting on this particular exchange. In fact, I think doing so may well have a penetrating and creative effect on the valuation and task of theology:

OLIVER: We’ve talked a lot thus far about temptation—the temptation of fusion, immediacy, collective soul, enfleshment. The word signals the necessity of distinguishing the essential and the extraneous, the real and the fake, the short term and the long term, and implies an optimal path, an expectation or hope; and, of course, in religious traditions, the word signals the idea of destiny if not fate, the presence of something like the prophetic mode. What is the role of the philosopher or the cultural critic?

RANCIÈRE: There are many ways of understanding the role of the philosopher—in general or in the current situation. Most people seem to identify it today with some kind of prophecy about the disaster threatening culture, civilization, the symbolic order, and so on. All the elements of social criticism and the critique of culture have been recycled in order to sustain those prophecies about the impending disaster produced by individualism, democracy, consumption, the spectacle, and so on. From my point of view, the true philosophical or critical task is to do away with that so-called critical trend, which has become nothing more than the discourse of a police order. It is to do away with the prophetic tone and with the plot of decadence that is only the reversal of the former trust in the sense of history and to focus on the existing forms of intellectual, artistic, and political invention. Hope is not the precondition of action. On the contrary, it is the product of the openings and expectations brought about by the dynamic of those inventions.

Politics & the Poor

Thomas’ post came about right as I was digging back into Jacques Rancière for a paper I’m writing about aesthetics and theology. Without preface or commentary, I thought I’d throw out a quote:

“The struggle between the rich and the poor is not social reality, which politics then has to deal with.  It is the actual institution of politics itself.  There is politics when there is a part of those who have no part, a part or party of the poor.  Politics does not happen just because the poor oppose the rich.  It is the other way around: politics (that is, the interruption of the simple effects of domination by the rich) causes the poor to exist as an entity.. . . Politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.  This institution is the whole of politics as a specific form of connection.  It defines the common of the commonality as a political community, in other words, as divided, as based on a wrong that escapes the arithmetic of exchange and reparation.  Beyond this set-up there is no politics.  There is only the order of domination or the disorder of revolt.”  (Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, 11-12)

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