Saturday, February 9, 2008

What of the professor that asks students to “write their own philosophy”

Some professors in philosophy will ask their students to write essays with questions like “pick five aphorisms from Nietzsche and explain why you found them interesting.” Will this produce anything but mediocre impressions where students repeat tired cliches about subjectivism or relativism or their various stereotypes? What of the professor that asks students to “write their own philosophy”. How is it possible for a student to do this if the student has had no encounters that call into question that students world?
No, as Deleuze points out, thought is not a natural activity or an ever-present human capacity, but only occurs as the result of an encounter that forces us to think. It is for this reason that I believe the aim of any pedagogy in the humanities should be alienation. Of course, I express myself in this way to produce a maximal rhetorical effect, perhaps a moment of outrage, with the hope that I might produce a little encounter. For in speaking of alienation, the aim is to alienate students from their habits, their order-words, their interpellations. In short, the aim is to produce a little crack in the world. For it is not until such a crack has been produced that we might begin to gain a little bit of freedom or autonomy with respect to our interpellations, that we might begin to critically evaluate these interpellations and become the agent of our encounters.
Thus, were I to respond to the question “why do you teach philosophy?” without speaking to my own unconscious, my own drives, my own obsessions, my own symptoms, I would say that I teach philosophy because I believe it is particularly well suited to producing encounters. On the one hand, what philosophy has ever come into being without a fundamental rupture in the world of the thinker where everything is turned upside down. The philosopher is the product of an encounter, whether as a result of social and political upheaval, scientific or mathematical discoveries that turn the commonplaces of the world upside down, or simply by existing in the interstices of the social world like Spinoza who was neither Christian nor Jew. In many instances, philosophy is the attempt to heal this wound, to suture it shut with stitches (the so-called State thinkers), returning the world once again to a familiar place. Yet the wound is a wound that perpetually returns, unsettling thought and sending it racing after new conceptual creations. It is a sort of a priori wound, yet in Foucault’s sense of a historical a priori. The philosopher is not the operator of the thought, but rather the effect of the thought and the wound that preceded him.
On the other hand, the distinctions of philosophy perpetually unsettle recognition or the mirror of the ego, leading us to undergo torsions that de-familiarize the world around us, dis-stantiating us from that world. Hume begins with an obvious “common sense” thesis about how we come to know– “all knowledge originates in sensations” –yet in holding fast to this thesis he unsettles all our common sense about knowledge and the world. Husserl begins with an obvious thesis– “look at the things themselves!” –yet in executing this project he unsettles our assumptions about what it is to experience the world and objects, opening a vast domain that continues to challenge central assumptions in cognitive science, psychology, the social sciences, etc.
Distinctions are like lenses. They carve out a world, bringing it into relief like the turning of a hologram, opening domains that were non-existent for us before. A simple concept such as that of feedback in sociology can completely transform how we view “one and the same phenomenon”. Where before we might have viewed the drug addict living in the inner city as an immoral lout who doesn’t have control over his passions, we now see how an entire educational, social, and economic milieu functions to reproduce certain social agents. We ask different questions. Most of our students lack distinction(s). Distinctions alienate by de-familiarizing us with respect to both ourselves and our world. Yet in this void produced in my sense of who I thought I was and my sense of what I thought the world was, in this gap, perhaps for the first time I have the possibility of thinking otherwise and more importantly doing otherwise. Philosophy, along with the other arts, has the capacity to produce such gaps, such agents embodying a void, by plunging students into texts, distinctions, and concepts that unsettle the familiar lifeworld. And perhaps, while also functioning as a part of the cogs that reproduce the conditions of production, the professor that engages in such a pedagogy of alienation also introduces a bit of noise into that machine that might allow for something other than that machine to come to be.

9 Responses to “Teaching, ISA’s, and the Pedagogy of Alienation”
Joseph Kugelmass Says: February 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm
This astonishing essay so far exceeds the rather undefined telos of my tag that, first and foremost, I want to thank you for writing it. I’ve been working on a dissertation prospectus, and am about to be away from the keyboard for the weekend, but when I have the leisure to take up these issues again next week the first thing I’ll do is link this like crazy.
The dissertation is about how, in certain works of modernist literature, alienation is a form of social hope. In part, this is because of the kinds of displacements and provocations, very much in the Socratic mode, that you are describing here. At the same time, it’s probably worth stressing the dialectical element to these experiences of alienation. They are also new sources of identification and comfort; for example, the students who reads Deleuze or Sartre for the first time has an encounter that, if she is in sympathy with the texts, becomes an alienated bond. Of course, the teacher or author is always capable of disavowing this, the text may protest against it — the sort of nervous distancing one finds everywhere in Nietzsche. But from my point of view this is not always necessary, nor did it exist in Nietzsche except alongside a great capacity for friendship, albeit one that remained mostly abstract (with the exceptions of Burckhardt, Reé, Wagner of course, and a few others).
In my own experience, the most aggravating thing about extended discussions of pedagogy is not so much the grand narrative of Jeffersonian education, but rather the petty narratives about student attention, student memory, “relevance,” and so forth. One takes the approach of a marketer or advertiser in considering how to present information to students, and the approach of middle management when it comes to putting them to work, often on the basis of what we might call “theories of the human” that have hardly been put to the test. Nonetheless, whenever I myself am producing grand narratives, I have a simultaneous sense of their truth and their contemptibility, mostly because they consistently under-privilege curiosity and imagination.
I was very sorry to read about your friend’s illness, and hope there has been good news.
larvalsubjects Says: February 3, 2008 at 12:36 am
Thanks Joseph. I look forward to seeing the dissertation develop. Your point about friendship is an exceptionally important one, and probably overshadowed by my dramatic language of “alienation”. I don’t think a critical pedagogy can function or be effective if there isn’t simultaneously an element of collaboration or friendship at work in the classroom as well. This would be the element of transference in the classroom– almost never discussed in mainstream discussions of pedagogy –which establishes the grounds under which something can be learned. If there’s no transferential bond at work in the classroom (or elsewhere), then we do not hear the other who is addressing us. It’s as if they were invisible. On the other hand, transference need not be positive to be effective. Some of my most productive theoretical moments have emerged in moments of extreme hostility, such as those times when Anthony, Adam and I were going at it. I can’t imagine what such an agon would look like in the classroom there.
I wonder about the degree to which the negative discussions about students aren’t reflective about an educator’s own transference. That is, these complaints strike me as symptoms worthy of analysis. They speak to something other than “poor students”. Therapists occasionally make similar complaints about “bad patients”.
Thanks for the kind words about my mother. Things aren’t looking good, though it’s difficult to determine whether the things going on are immediately life-threatening or will be drawn out over many years. Her body is basically attacking itself and slowly devouring itself from the inside. This has been going on for many years, but has accelerated recently and is leading to more life threatening conditions. It’s difficult to see a person who is so wonderful, so good to other people, so interesting, and so beautiful (she looks like Audrey Hepburn but is as frail as a dried flower) suffer so absurdly.
J Martin Says: February 3, 2008 at 1:27 am
Hi Sinthome,
Now I begin to see the appeal of your pedagogy. I think your classroom politics are exemplary, if very intricate. Such a carefully considered approach to teaching is laudable. I also want to offer my sympathy for your mother’s illness. I’m so sorry for her suffering and for yours. There aren’t many consoling expressions I can come up with, but I am, from this moment on, your admirer for what that’s worth.
larvalsubjects Says: February 3, 2008 at 2:23 am
I appreciate that J Martin, however I also find discussions of pedagogy extremely productive in making my own implicit practices explicit through encounters with otherness, so by all means share your own practices or views. In my own view, those of us in the humanities are practicing a sort of “alchemy”, where the aims of our teaching and the nature of our practice are very much up in the air. I’m thankful to Joe for promoting a cross-blog discussion on these matters– in keeping with his New Years discontents about the absence of such discussions in the last year –and certainly welcome spirited and conceptually creative discussions about these matters. So have at it. Let’s hear your practice!
larvalsubjects Says: February 3, 2008 at 2:24 am
And I should add… Increasingly the place of our practice is a central issue. I assume this is especially poignant for Joseph whose discipline is increasingly under assault.

1 comment:

  1. A very thought-provoking piece, and a very interesting slant on Alienation. Thank you,

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