Friday, 2 November 2007

My Back Pages: From Cogitandum to Learning, Becoming, and Revolution, or ‘How to Teach Subversively’

This was drawn up from notes made during and in response to Infinite Thought's lecture this Wednesday titled 'The Confidence to be No One: Class, Culture and Education (with some help from Rancière and Badiou)'; and the two pieces discussed therein, particularly Ranciere's ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster'.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.'
-Buddhist proverb

“Some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell ‘em.”
-Louis Armstrong (with reference, I am told, to what jazz music is…)

note 1: from the production of knowledge to the (internal) process of learning; taking Ranciere by way of Deleuze

The two aphorisms above (the first of which I once used in a university admission application) illustrate precisely the insight that I think follows from Ranciere's anecdote about the Flemish students whom he ‘educated…without having taught them anything'. The teacher is not a transmitter and does not transmit or impart learning and knowledge to the learning mind; all that is imparted is language, words, numbers, raw data. But the real process of learning, of thinking and grasping, is internal to the student – the ignorant schoolmaster is a figure who stimulates the formulation of an internal difference within the learning mind, the difference between ignorance and knowledge as the mind's own difference from itself, a difference internal to the student; thus instigating an act of becoming in the individual, a becoming-itself. The teacher is an instigator, a co-formulator of this difference, a figure who causes us to know but without any necessary relation (of equality or inequality) between the knowledge of the teacher and the student. What we are caused to know, in other words, the content generated in the learning process, does not necessarily come from the teacher. In this sense the ‘teacher' fills the pre-existing role (which does not have to be a ‘person') of what Deleuze calls a cogitandum – something in the world which ‘forces us to think', a kind of violent disruptor of established patterns and givens, something that sets us on a certain path to knowledge. In this sense learning in itself has nothing to do with any external equality or inequality, or equality becomes as Jacotot puts it, something that exists ‘in the act' and for individuals, rather than something that can be imagined collectively.

There is a Socratic undertone in this, but if so, it is the true Socrates, not the master and impostor who feigns ignorance to lead the student to an already determined and legislated truth, but rather the figure whose gesture (voluntarily or not) authentically embraces ignorance and knowledge - his/her own as well as the student's – as two poles of becoming, in which nothing or little is fully determined or legislated in advance. This is not to say that all possible knowledge is somehow mystically ‘inscribed' in our minds as Socrates perhaps suggests. Rather, the true teacher is someone who, willingly or unwillingly, relates us to our own difference from ourselves and thus inspires learning, inspires an act (or acts) of thinking and grasping, a real movement of becoming. This means to restore to the process of teaching/learning its original function, before the ‘radical point of departure' as Ranciere puts it, before it becomes a matter of explaining and comprehension and mere transmission of information – the original form of learning by which we learn ‘everything in life' before we are inducted into the formalities of institutions and institutionalized learning. The teacher only ‘appears' when the student is ready – that is, when the student, having fully internalized the ‘teacher', the cogitandum , the thing which ‘forces us to think', has formulated his/her own internal differential relation of knowledge/ignorance. What follows from this ‘exercise of the faculties' in Deleuze's account is the ‘apprenticeship or process of learning.' ... “learning always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind… We never know in advance how someone will learn: by means of what loves someone becomes good at Latin, what encounters make them a philosopher, or in what dictionaries they learn to think…There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasures, but a violent training…” ( Difference and Repetition , p 205)…

By means of what loves... – or as Bob Dylan puts it in ‘My Back Pages': “Girls' faces formed the forward path/From phony jealousy/To memorizing politics/Of ancient history…' The real problem is not to find a method for teaching ‘no one in particular' while remaining aware of class and other differences, nor to find a method for teaching everyone individually or according to ‘class', in the sense of finding in the case of each ‘student' the way he or she best ‘receives information' – but rather to establish precisely the connection between nature and mind, to open a gateway; not to impart any particular information but merely to instigate a process of learning, to inspire learning – to set the wheel in motion. This inevitably and necessarily requires an awareness of social background, class, as well as other differences – but not on the level of method or content , for these are things the learning mind discovers (and re-discovers continually) on its own; but rather on the level of building a learning relationship, a learning-instigating relation which, from the moment it is set in motion, operates according to its own internal method. This is, I believe, the lesson to be drawn from the anecdote about the ‘ignorant schoolmaster' that Ranciere draws from Jacotot. Any notion of method, if we can call it that, must be internal to the student or ‘apprentice', to the learning mind which finds its own way, both of learning and of expressing learning. Another (very Gramscian) Dylan-ism: “You don't have to write anything down to be a poet. Some work at gas stations, some shine shoes…”

But this learning, according to Deleuze must be conceived of as a process, and one which is not subordinated to the result , to the production of knowledge: “It is from ‘learning', not from knowledge that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn…knowledge…is nothing more than an empirical figure, a simple result which continually falls back into experience; whereas learning is the true transcendental structure which unifies difference to difference, dissimilarity to dissimilarity, without mediating between them…” ( D & R, p 206) We may recall Odysseus, who upon his descent into the underworld to consult the blind seer, Tiresias, is told off by the old man precisely for focussing excessively on the goal (of returning home), and forgetting that it is the journey itself that makes up his life... But is this not also that revolutionary theme again? One could rephrase it in these terms – the true revolution must be thought of as a process , whose value is in and of itself, in the doing, and which is not subordinated to the final goal , but rather vice versa: it is the goal that must be subordinated in order to serve the perpetuation and constant re-generation of the process, the real revolution rather than the result 'on display'...

note 2: class and the carceral in the role of social reproduction

It is also important to emphasize that the public education system is not the form by which the social order reproduces itself, but rather the form by which it masks its true reproduction by segmentation; and to draw out the real implications of the claim that the ‘logic of inequality is reproduced by the very effort to reduce it'. The school does not by itself reproduce the model of society, for at least two reasons: one, that the truly wealthy, those who truly rule society, have their own schools – private boarding schools or elite colleges, Eton, Oxbridge, etc. And they make no secret of this division. In France, for instance, all the top state officials, whichever side of the political spectrum they come from, are trained in the same schools - Paris(Sciences-Po, or Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris) and the École nationale d'administration ; and even before university, in elite private schools. This testifies both to the existence of a class of ruling elites quite apart from the public mainstream and to an exhibited, however tacit sincerity about its genesis. Nothing is truly hidden here. And what is more, within this particular class – the elite – the goal of equality within the class may well be genuine – the very purpose of establishing a separate system of education for the elite testifies at least to the sincerity, if not the realistic possibility, of this intention – to generate in all crucial ways identical members of a class-species, copies of a single prototype exemplary of a political ruler. Genuine equality – but within a (separated, squared off) social class.

But there is another reason why the progressive public education system is not the form by which the social order reproduces itself: educational ability or intelligence does not correspond to social class. In their bare form, wealth and capital reproduce themselves regardless of intellectual ability. The best example may be the current president of the United States – who certainly went to the best schools, but not on account of educational ability – he went to Yale, for instance, on account of the legacy principle – his daddy went there – and this after being rejected by a number of ‘less' respectable schools, including the University of Texas at Austin law school. What this should tell us is that the social and political power of the capital-owning elite – the real elite, the real top - manages to reproduce itself on its own terms, due simply to its power and wealth, regardless of ability and regardless of how the educational system propagates itself. Inversely, intellectual ability guarantees nothing – most often, those who come from the elite manage to reach the top in spite of lacking it, and those who are not of the elite remain below. This is the real problem, the deeper problem we should be addressing as a subset of the general problem of class…Of course, referring again to Dylan's comment above, some poets may be perfectly happy shining shoes or working at gas stations; it becomes a problem at the point when (conceptually, not chronologically) ‘lifestyle choice' becomes class proper, that is, not a lifestyle choice but an imposed order, social class , and when the not-necessarily-bright elites start to legislate (through capital investment or law/politics) ways of living and being for the gas-station attendants and shoeshine poets…

It is here that I think Foucault is more valuable – more stark, but also perhaps more empowering. His account of the school system (in Discipline and Punish ) includes it in the ‘carceral archipelago' which, along with other institutions of ‘normalization' serves to ‘transport the penitentiary technique from the prison to the entire social body.' Whether the school system reproduces society and its class differences openly or covertly, and whether or not there is a way to implement an awareness of this in teaching, the real target of ‘subversive teaching' to put it that way, should be (more directly and more simply, or to the bone) to unsettle this ‘normalizing' function, to subvert the project of ‘disciplining bodies'; one could even contend that an attempt to ‘teach to' social class (in the sense of deploying a ‘method') would be a mistake and would risk falling back into this normalization function by merely reinforcing the class element, reinforcing this ‘soul' (as Foucault puts it) instilled in the taught subject as the “correlative of a certain technology of power over the body.” ( Discipline and Punish, p 29) The goal of ‘subversive teaching', in other words, should be to build bridges – human relationships – in order to destabilize, de-construct authority, including one's own; to bring the learning mind to confidently ask questions and pose problems, to probe without fear of authority or mistake. To make learning desirable to the ‘apprentice' - to de-structure, motivate, instigate, deterritorialize…

*(on that last point, one thing my dad used to do when teaching Marxism to high school students was relate it to their personal concerns and interests – taking, say a superhero comic book someone is reading – Spider Man, for instance – and relate it to the bigger questions implicit in the storyline, the dialectical struggles, syntheses, etc…)

note 3: a powm

…one from Leonard Cohen:

'The Teachers'

I met a woman long ago
her hair the black that black can go,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Soft she answered no.

I met a girl across the sea,
her hair the gold that gold can be,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Yes, but not for thee.

I met a man who lost his mind
in some lost place I had to find,
follow me the wise man said,
but he walked behind.

I walked into a hospital
where none was sick and none was well,
when at night the nurses left
I could not walk at all.

Morning came and then came noon,
dinner time a scalpel blade
lay beside my silver spoon.

Some girls wander by mistake
into the mess that scalpels make.
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to break.

One morning I woke up alone,
the hospital and the nurses gone.
Have I carved enough my Lord?
Child, you are a bone.

I ate and ate and ate,
no I did not miss a plate, well
How much do these suppers cost?
We'll take it out in hate.

I spent my hatred everyplace,
on every work on every face,
someone gave me wishes
and I wished for an embrace.

Several girls embraced me, then
I was embraced by men,
Is my passion perfect?
No, do it once again.

I was handsome I was strong,
I knew the words of every song.
Did my singing please you?
No, the words you sang were wrong.

Who is it whom I address,
who takes down what I confess?
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to rest.

Oh teachers are my lessons done?
I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed and said, Well child,
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?

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