Friday, February 15, 2013

Humanities Speaking: Cultivating Democracy in Education

Knowledge is ubiquitous. We can find it everywhere. We can carry mini-computers in our pockets that allow us, at any moment, to “google” a question to find an answer. We can sit down at a computer, while watching TV, and find the answers to Jeopardy questions or the filmography of a particular actor to “know” more stuff. The rise of MOOC’s illustrates that anyone with an internet connection can learn and learn from the pre-eminent scholars in any given field. Knowledge is everywhere. Scratch the surface and it is there. This is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing as NBC teaches us “the more you know”… Being informed is quite central to living in a democracy. Yet, if knowledge is everywhere are schools - once the place of learning - becoming obsolete? The obvious answer is no because there is something that keeps us going to school - namely the law. However, in going to school the question perhaps changes from thinking about “knowledge” to thinking about about “relating”. We go to school to meet others and this meeting is crucial, particularly for youth, in developing how one relates to the other. Relating is not devoid of knowledge - both relating and knowing are intertwined. Martha Nussbaum (2010) notes as much writing “when we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self & other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail” (6). Democracy (and public education is a significant piece of democracy) fails when people fail to meet, fail to see (and seeing requires knowing) the other as quite simply “human”. So, how do we not fail at democracy, but perhaps succeed at it…even if momentarily?

Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, is a manifesto - a manifesto for the necessity and importance of meeting the other. Such meetings are cultivated through a liberal arts education. Yet, looking at the current state of affairs - globally but with specific emphasis on the US and India - she draws our attention to the growing emphasis on placed on an education that provides  “skills for short term profit” centered on learning in the STEM subjects. To counter this trend, she puts forward an argument for the arts and humanities as necessary for creating not a society of technocrats, but citizens who experience an education that engages the soul. The soul for her is “the faculties of thought and imagination that makes us human and make our relationships, rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation” (6). The soul (along with the body that works) becomes the foundation for her vision of democratic education. Refusing to give up the critical, aesthetic, and ethical components of human life that are brought out by the arts, she argues drawing upon classical philosophy of Aristotle, the life and work of Dewey and Tagore, along with empirical work emerging from the social sciences that we cultivate critical thinking and reflection to re-assert the purpose of education as one that is not merely about “employment”, but also about citizenship and creating meaningful lives.

Now, of course, some will say such purposes are too costly in depressed economic times, but as Nussbaum shows, the capabilities that are cultivated through the arts and humanities (alongside the STEM subjects) are ever more important at times like these and worth the cost. Many in contemporary politics may scoff at her thoughts - particularly given President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address that argued for education, but only for education that created capable employees that can boost our economy (whether those employees are happy, healthy, or enjoy their work is of no concern for him). The task for us, if we follow Nussbaum, is to question such an approach to education - to, in fact, not do business as usual, but make the “art” argument. “Art” as she writes “is a great enemy of that obtuseness, and artists…are not the reliable servants of any ideology…they always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways” (23-24). While it would seem, drawing of President Obama’s SOTU address and his call for American’s to take seriously the “unfinished task” of American democracy, that the imagination would be fostered; the fact remains that educational policy has failed to cultivate crucial abilities to take part in democracy [see K. Bernstein’s piece in the Washington Post entitled “A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher”].

Nussbaum offers a list of abilities that she thinks should be cultivated in schools with such abilities allowing for a broad “liberal” education that simultaneously develops capable employees, but more importantly informed citizens and happy people that can think and engage in the complexities of the world (rather than merely listening to “authorities”). These include, but are not limited to, “the ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring neither to tradition nor authority”; “to have concern for the lives of others”; and “the ability to imagine well a variety of complex issues” (25-26). While these are all abilities that could be cultivated in various spaces, Nussbaum draws particular attention to schools (not because they can solve it alone) but because “schools…are at least one influential force in a child’s life, and one whose messages we are likely to be able to monitor more easily than others” (35). It is the school that has a “captive” audience for years as students navigate their way through grades, subjects, and school buildings figuring out how to make sense of the world, themselves, and the relationships with those around them (physically and virtually).

The current state of education - following Nussbaum’s argument - does not adequately cultivate the ability for students to engage the world democratically. It “teaches to the test”, it emphasizes “technical” training or “STEM subjects” while negating or neglecting the arts and humanities. There is, of course, nothing wrong with technical training or STEM subjects. The issue is when any one approach to education or subject matter becomes the dominant approach or subject. Students are able to become “smart” in a specialized way, but are not invited to develop broad based abilities outside of their specialization. They are allowed to develop immense stores of knowledge about “x”, but are not offered opportunities to develop emotional understanding, imaginative thoughts, and ethical relationships. Education - when conceived as an economic, and predominantly an economic situation, becomes obsessed with particular things (e.g. knowledge and skills) while negating or neglecting other things (e.g. enjoyment, ethics). This impacts not only what and how students learn, but also how and what teachers are allowed or able to do given the political situation.

So, what are we to do? Nussbaum offers a couple golden nuggets to help think about developing arguments for and the importance of the arts and humanities. “An adequate education for living in a pluralistic democracy must be multicultural” which Nussbaum means “acquaints students with some fundamentals about the histories and cultures of the many different groups with whom they share laws and institutions” (91). To live in democracy is not to agree with everyone, but it is to meet others and to do so without violence. And to meet others requires the ability to meet others (one of the reasons why segregation is problematic) and the opportunity to learn from (and with) the other (the need for a complex curriculum). “Good teaching” in such a way she contends “requires teaching children to see how history is put together from sources and evidence of many kinds, to learn to evaluate evidence, and to learn how to evaluate one historical narrative against another” (89). While Nussbaum uses history, the example is for illustrative purposes as “once students learn how to inquire, and what questions to ask, they can transfer their learning to another part of the world” (92). This again is not merely to acquire knowledge, but also to engage the emotion and imaginative capacities of living in a global world so that when one meets some other, one does not react in violence. Knowledge only gets us so far as we also have to deal with human vulnerability which is often negated (particularly for men) by trying to have complete control. The education that Nussbaum is advancing then is, perhaps simply, one that “involves the ability to see the world as a place in which one is not alone” (97).

Education often makes people feel alone (at all levels). Its focus on competition and success cultivates a skepticism of collaborating with the other. So, what is the task to disrupt this approach, to develop an education that is not so lonely? That cultivates collaboration? That refuses to neglect or ignore the emotional side of things? I am not sure. It is a project that is perhaps on-going and changing. But it is a challenge that must be taken up in order to create an education that is democratic, humane, and pleasurable.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading Thoreau: Democracy and Self-Fashioning

I want to begin thinking about the insights Henry David Thoreau provided in “Civil Disobedience” and what his thoughts provide in thinking through democracy. Democracy is, of course, a contested concept that has had much written about it since the ancient Greeks. Democracy can be conceived of as a form of  government that a nation-state develops through the creation of institutions, laws, rights - all often explicated in a constitution. For instance, the American Constitution, in light of its recent independence, sets forth the system of governance that will govern this new nation. The development of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) and the different powers each branch hold are written in ink and continue, for better or worse, to guide the experiment in democracy. For engagements with the constitution see Seidman’s (2013) On Constitutional Disobedience and Robert Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution (2003). However, I am not interested in the constitution and its framing of “democracy” as a form of government (let’s call it a legal framing) and more interested in Thoreau’s framing of democracy as a citizen of a government, governed by the constitution (let’s call it a citizen framing).

In Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” he begins by accepting the motto “that government is best which governs least”. This is not a call for anarchy and the dissolution of the government, but a challenge to remember, it would seem, “that the government itself, which is only the mode by which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it”. The government, as was done in Thoreau’s time and continues to be done in contemporary times, can be used as a “tool” for a few (e.g., elected officials) to do things that “the people would not have consented to”. What we have with Thoreau, to be perhaps cliche, is a call to arms for citizens to recognize that the government is not responsible for doing things, but it is “the character inherent in the American people” that “has done all that has been accomplished” even as the “government sometimes got in its [the people’s] way”. This is not, I would argue, an attempt to do away with the government and the institutions it has built - some of which Thoreau recognizes as important and useful in his own daily life. Rather, it is an argument to recognize democracy as an on-going process of, not only consensus but also dissensus.

Now, for those who are skeptical of “call to arms” or a theory of civil disobedience, Thoreau does offer a rather “practical” approach:

But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once, a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
The citizen cannot simply accept the government in existence, but must develop an understanding of government, the expectations and responsibilities of that government, and “make known” such ideas so that such ideas can be debated and discussed within the public forum. This entails a challenge to the idea of the majority as he writes “but a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” but must be ruled in “conscience”.

What is this conscience that he speaks of though? I would argue it is a challenge to develop autonomous citizens who “think for themselves” and do not have an “undue respect of the law” since that has led all kinds of citizens to do things “against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences”. Such a call for “thinking” is challenging of course as it opens us up to quite diverse and divergent possibilities, but as Morris Kaplan (1997) notes in Sexual Justice “Thoreau situates the struggle for justice within the individual’s negotiation of her own conflicting desires” (177). There is no clear-cut answer, there are conflicting desires and demands, but citizens must work through those, rather than simply be taken by the government’s thoughts on such matters. And, in neoliberal times, of which we already see in Thoreau’s day-and-age, this requires a trenchant challenge to the economic arguments, in favor of humanity. Thoreau writes regarding the existence of slavery (and the need to abolish it) that “the opponents to a reform are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture that they are in humanity”. While it may be easier to blame politicians for not doing something (like abolishing slavery), Thoreau’s challenge is to the everyday citizen who allows it to exist, asking “what is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?” with a response of “they hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have to regret”.

Thoreau finds such an approach problematic - hence why he theorizes democracy through the acts of civil disobedience. And with such a theory, one might be a bit overwhelmed. In this age of 24-hour news and a “machinery” that is much bigger and more complex that Thoreau could have imagined. Thoreau realized this writing

It is not man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
Such an approach is challenging. It requires vigilance and respect for others, and arguably it challenges the concept of competition, in favor of collaboration and compromise. How do we pursue our goals, our thoughts without doing so at the detriment of others? Is it possible even or a mere pipe dream?

For Thoreau it was a way of life - he himself being imprisoned for his refusal to pay taxes he did not feel were just. He faced the consequences of his decision, but he cultivated a democratic sensibility that allowed him to “do” democracy through contesting it. As Kaplan writes “Thoreau’s texts are ‘queer’ in this insistence on the centrality of nonconformity to democratic politics and on the idiosyncrsy, conflict, and recalcitrance of desire in the ethics of self-making” (177). Dissenting from democracy and cultivating the self through the “doing” of and “thinking through” issues was not the goal, though, for Thoreau writes:
I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make find distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.
He believes that through actions - through cultivating a democratic self - things may change and when they do, he will embrace and conform to them . . . with of course the understanding (the sensibility) that he will remain vigilant and continue to engage the democratic struggle for governing the self, relating to the other, and living humanely.

I end where Thoreau ends with both a recognition and the imagination. He writes
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even world not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who are fulfilled by all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
In this attempt to develop a theory of civil disobedience then Thoreau challenges his readers to take responsibility for the world they live in and see democracy not as a form of government, that through voting we participate in, but democracy as an opportunity to fashion a self under the assumption that humans are free and have intelligence to cultivate a way of life, a self, and relations with others that are complicated, challenging, but hopefully fulfilling, joyful, and dutiful.


Kaplan, M. B. (1997). Sexual Justice: Democratic Citizenship and the Politics of Desire. New York: Routledge.

Thoreau, H. D. (1849). "Civil Disobedience". Accessed at:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thinking through Rancière and his Hatred of Democracy

Democracy, in the sense of the power of the people,
the power of those who have no special
entitlement to exercise power, is the very
basis of what makes politics thinkable.
Rancière, 2011 79

Alexis de Tocqueville in 1853 wrote “I accept the intellectual rationale for democratic institutions, but I am instinctively an aristocrat, in the sense that I contemn and fear the crowd. I dearly love liberty and respect for rights, but not democracy” (New York Daily Tribune, June 25th, 1853, as cited by Bensaid, 2011). While a prolific political thinker - most well-known for his two-volume set Democracy in America, we see in this comment a particular “hatred of democracy”. We might also recall Winston Churchill’s famed (and now cliched) statement that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others”. In contemporary times democracy is discussed incessantly as the reason why, in particular, the United States does what it does. It fights in the name of democracy. It spreads democracy (through military intervention). Yet, in doing so it ironically becomes rather undemocratic.

Jacques Rancière in Hatred of Democracy explores this hatred - looking at the ways in which justifications for democracy often come at the expense of democracy itself. In the final chapter of his book he returned to “the initial terms of our problem”:

We live in societies and States known as ‘democracies’, a term by which they are distinguished from societies governed by States without law or with religious law. How are we to understand that, at the heart of these ‘democracies’, a dominant intelligentsia, whose situation is not obviously desparate and who hardly aspire to live under different laws, day in day out blame all of humanity’s misfortunes on a single evil they call democracy?

As Rancière elucidated in his text the concept of democracy is rather complicated with the standard form taking the “form of a double bind” where “either democratic life signified a large amount of popular participation in discussing public affairs, and it was a bad thing; or it stood for a form of social life that turned energies toward individual satisfaction, and it was a bad thing” (8). This tension between popular rule and individual success becomes a paradox of democracy where “a social and political form of life, democracy is the reign of excess. This excess signifies the ruin of democratic government and must therefore be repressed by it” (8).

What does this mean? Well, it seem that as democracy emerged, there was an individual quest for happiness (if God is dead and “man” can rule the self, then the individual becomes thinkable in new ways) and a change in social relations (individuals relate to others differently because it becomes possible as the hierarchy of aristocracy is in decline) that has led to escalating demands (for rights) and expectations (for protections) that Rancière contends has a double effect - one where citizens as individuals become unconcerned with the public good (democracy tied with consumerism and the market; the ability to acquire things) the other where the governments ability to respond to demands has been undermined (the effects of neoliberalism and privatization; the decimation of the welfare state)

Governments - namely governments that claim to be ‘democracies’ such as the United States and France - that have sought to spread democracy while clamping down on democracy show the ungovernable state of democracy and the need for democracy to be governed. This is of course seen in the support “democratic states” provide countries seeking democracy while clamping down on popular protest at home (see the disdain for Occupy; Union Strikes). We see in this the desire to “spread democracy” through violence or interventions (supporting mass uprisings) while governing democracy at home (to suppress mass uprisings).

The representative government that is viewed as foundational to democracy is simply a process of choosing a different oligarch. This is quite visible within US politics where politicians make a career out of being politicians, starting in one position and moving “up” and “over” throughout different positions, knowing how to gain and seize power. Of course, there are ways in which such might be challenged.  As he wrote:

“We can specify the rules that lay down the minimal conditions under which a representative system can be declared democratic: short and non-renewable electoral mandates that cannot be held concurrently; a monopoly of people’s representatives over the formulation of laws; a ban on State functionaries becoming the representatives of the people; a bare minimum of campaigns and campaign costs and the monitoring of possible interferences by economic powers in the electoral process (72).

Of course, as Rancière wrote, to mention these would provoke hilarity because such ideas challenge the ways “democracy” works where there are

eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative schools; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; business people who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media (72-73).

Rancière, in all of this, wants to perhaps provide a third way to think about or through democracy - exposing the hatred while proposing something different. For him democracy “is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth” (96). And “it is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts” which “can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought” (97). As Rancière continues “But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy” (97).

Democracy must be thought of not as an “individual quest for happiness” nor as a form of governing the social body, but as a contingent, constant force or action that disrupts the oligarchy that persists. Democracy is, as he notes in an interview with Eric Hazan “irreducible to either a form of government or a mode of social life” (2011, 76). In this view of democracy as a force (not a form) that exists beneath and beyond “forms of government” cannot be lived in. Rather “we live in States of oligarchic law, in other words, in States where the power of the oligarchy is limited by a dual recognition of popular sovereignty and individual liberties” (73). The freedoms that are gained or achieved in the oligarchic states we live in “were not gifts of oligarchs. They were won through democratic action and are only ever guaranteed through such action. The ‘rights of man and of the citizen’ are the rights of those who make them reality” (74).

Perhaps there is an argument that democracy must be done away with, that its time has come and gone. Certainly if we see democracy as a form of government (a parlimentary system) or a mode of being (with constitutional liberties) this might be the case, particularly in the West. Yet, we can see all kinds of democratic uprisings and stirrings throughout the global world (beyond those instances of “spreading” democracy through military interventions seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) where democracy visibly serves a “critical function”, such that “it is the wrench of equality jammed (objectively and subjectively) into the gears of domination” and “it’s what keeps politics from simply turning into law enforcement” (2011, 79). However, this is not to see democracy as simply moments of uprising that then return to a status quo, “but also of the ongoing effort to create forms of the common different from the ones on offer from the state, democratic consensus, and so on” (80). Democracy becomes a critical tool that looks to the past (the archives), the present (the going-ons of current societies and States), to impact the future (unknown) ways in which people engage the world. This is, of course, not a tool that seeks to finally capture the ideal of equality for

Rancière already pre-supposes equality. His democracy and politics are not a “kicking of the can” to find equality there, in the future, but to see that “equality it not given, nor is it claimed” rather “it is practiced, it is verified” (1991, 137). Furthermore “one need only learn how to be equal in an unequal society” and this is “what being emancipated means” (133). How then is democracy - this critical tool - a means of practicing equality, an equality that already is, to create something different?

Bensaid, Daniel. (2011). Permanent Scandal. In Democracies in What State? (16-43).New York: Columbia University Press.
Rancière, Jacques. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons of Intellectual Emancipation. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
---. (2006). Hatred of Democracy. London: Verso.
---. (2011) Democracies against Democracy: An interview with Eric Hazan. In Democracies in What State? (76-81). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Jodie Foster's Anti-Climatic Speech

I have been asked by a number of people about my thoughts on Jodie Foster’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award. While I am not sure I have any particular expertise for commenting on the speech, its rhetorical moves...I am a lifelong fan of Jodie Foster’s work so I will, like so many others, throw in my two-cents.

Fortunately, I recently finished reading Nicholas de Villier’s new book Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol which is fitting for thinking about the concept of the “confessional” coming out speech. So, please stay with me a moment while I review his work before doing my work. de Villier’s goal, as he notes in the conclusion “has been to explain how and why the ‘mystique’ of Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol has continued into the new millenium, where the media’s desire for ‘full access and 360-degree disclosure’ is perhaps stronger than ever” (154). Proposing queer opacity as a particular “tactic”, he engages the interviews (the spoken, perhaps transcribed words) of Warhol, Barthes, and Foucault to think through this “multi-mediated object” and how these three particular queer authors disrupted then and it would seem now the “smooth functioning of ‘confessional discourse’, the image-system, and the celebrity interview” (154). 

To not be completely opaque myself, I begin thinking about opacity. What is opacity and how does that translate into a tactic or strategy that “intervenes”? According to Merriam Webster (I’m lazy so excuse me for not using the OED) opacity means “an obscurity of sense; unintelligibleness”, “the quality or state of being mentally obtuse; dullness”, and “the quality or state of a body that makes it impervious to the rays of light; broadly : the relative capacity of matter to obstruct the transmission of radiant energy”. While it would seem to be insulting to be called unintelligible, dull...opaque, it appears that there might be queer potential in such states. Plus, it is rather en vogue to re-appropriate the abject and take the place of shameful affects these days within particular realms of queer theory. “Queer opacity” as de Villiers argues “ is one way of locating and marking the weak points in the system known as the ‘epistemology of the closet,’ and finding an opening for the creation of a queer public persona that manages to resist confessional discourse” (163).

There are it would seem a plethora of queer figures that might be taken up in exploring such tactics. But the constellation of Foucault, Warhol, and Barthes seems fitting. de Villier notes common reference points that exist between them - Foucault and Barthes were colleagues at the College de France; Barthes and Foucault both wrote about Duane Michal’s, a photographer of Warhol, and all three write about issues of the surface and contest similar cultural modes of being while offering alternatives.Drawing from those contestations, de Villier maps out the tactics such authors utilized to, well, contest, disrupt, and arguably drive people nuts for not abiding by the limiting “epistemology of the closet”. Drawing upon the reparative impulse that currently captivates a realm of queer scholarship, he wants to see the tactics, the strategies of these authors “less for their reactive or protective abilities...but rather more for what they might enable, creatively and politically” (6). Returning to my earlier comment, what would it mean to not allow these authors refusal to be “clear” or “intelligible” or “out” drive us nuts, but to “go nuts” and see what their opaque tactics enable. How might dullness, unintelligibleness, or being “impervious to light” (which we might see as impervious to depth) offer unthought possibilities that offer ways out or around current cultural ruts regarding sexuality, out-ness, and queer place and time of homosexuality historically and presently. Drawing on Foucault, this is a project that contests the idea of sexuality as one’s truth to be confessed, but “to move toward an understanding of the writer’s life as work, the relation to oneself taken as a creative activity” (13).

What exactly does this mean, well de Villiers provides a rather compelling engagement with his three authors of choice (Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol) so I will leave you to read and contend with his arguments. Instead, I want to think through de Villiers in relationship to the recent acceptance speech given by Jodie Foster. Ms. Foster’s speech was anything but clear. At times it seemed to ramble, she feigned nervousness, she performed the ...ellipsis...asking for the audiences support so she can “put it out there, loud and proud”, announcing that she is...single. Like one of Warhol’s interviews in David Bailey’s documentary on Warhold - addressed by de Villiers - Foster, in that moment, illuminated “the art of the anticlimax” (153). Instead, she announces she is single. Yes, all the build up when she says Ends up anti-climatically with people on the edge of their seats (particularly the editors of Out magazine that inanely argue that Foster is in the “The Glass Closet” and after Foster's speech "The Glass Closet Revisited") falling off because she didn’t say what she was expected to say, instead saying something else while still saying what it is people expected. She said it “Loud and Proud” (a mantra of gay rights) and even mentioned that she came out “a thousand years ago, in the Stone Age”. Yet, she refused to abide by the lesson other celebrity-gays-and-lesbians have learned which is that they are “expected to honor the details of their private life”.  

Jodie Foster, I would argue, made an intervention - perhaps one that will inevitably fail - to contest the idea that one has to “confess”, that one must “tell it to the world”. Instead of abiding by the trope of the lonely lesbian trapped in the closet in need of a good, cathartic, televised coming out speech, Foster performs and regails a life lived creatively alongside for the last 20 years “my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life, my confessor, ski buddy,consigliere, most beloved BFF of 20 years, Cydney Bernard”. Jodie Foster came out of the closet years ago, but refused its logic. She created her life, her art, her films but did not see the need to or the point in confessing her sexuality as if it spoke her truth, her inner experience. 

This, I think, is compelling because it refuses the clarity demanded by the “coming-out squad” while providing a rather humble, smart, and beautiful example of living creatively a rather queer life that does not use the confessional coming-out speech as a money-maker “with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show”. Not only does Foster eschew the confessional discourse, while playing with its logic, but she disrupts the consumerist logic that has developed around the coming-out story. She refuses to sell her story, to reveal what is already there, on the surface of her daily life for a quick couple of millions. 

So, while Out can argue she missed her opportunity for “meaningful visibility”, I think Foster’s opacity promises something else.  She exposes the ties between coming-out, consumerism, and the spectacle around the “open-secret”. She continues the challenge to the “closet-metaphor”, while illustrating a life lived “loud and proud” outside of the public eye and the demand for “clarity” and “outness” defined by the neoliberal gay machine (e.g., HRC, Out). She does this with grace and poise, performing nervousness amidst her colleagues and the watching audiences that speaks not to her inner depth, but to her creative way of doing what is wanted of her in her own terms to show other gays and lesbians the “confessional” as Foucault and others showed us in their work, has its own pitfalls. That one can opaquely do life and refuse to abide by other's logic. 

I will end (almost) with Daniel Defert’s lesson from Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS. Foucault, as Defert points out, was heavily criticized for not being more vocal about living with AIDS and such silence often read as “shame”. In Defert’s (Foucault’s partner-in-crime) retort to such claims he penned a piece entitled “the more ashamed one is, the more one admits/claims” (de Villiers, 48). Perhaps then, it is in opacity, in refusing the opportunity for “meaningful visibility” defined a priori as having to utter “gay and lesbian” (or for Foucault “AIDS”) that new opportunities emerge. Perhaps the suspicious gaze should be turned to those at Out, HRC, and others who lambast people for not being “out” in the ways they themselves see one needing to be out. Perhaps it is them, their demands for clarity, visibility, and outness (seemingly tied to consumerism) that needs to be challenged and not Ms. Foster’s smart, snarky, and humble “confessional”. Perhaps their insistent and consistent demands speaks more of them and less of the state of out-ness.

I conclude then with Ms. Foster's final hope, a hope that is perhaps her lesson to her listeners...a hope "to be seen, to be understood...deeply and to not be so very lonely" in this mad world.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On Doing Democracy: A Final Lecture 2012

Endings are always a time to look back. At the end of one’s life, one looks back on the life lived while those around one’s self do the same. At the end of a relationship, one looks back to see what went wrong along with what went right. And here, at the end of a course, we look back to see the journey - the intellectual journey - we have been on. So, as we end this class we might look back at our experiences and rehash what we read, thought about, discussed, and seen these past 15 weeks. We might literally RE-VIEW the class by going from week to week, reminding ourselves of what we “did” and perhaps should know upon leaving this class. Such an approach would begin with thinking about “democracy” through John Dewey, remembering the importance and limitations of educational policy, contemplating again the position of being an observer, a spectator, a viewer, the representations of gender at the American Girl store and Andi Zeisler...and so on and so forth.

Yet, such an approach seems rather outdated. It assumes, I think, that you as students need me as teacher to “explain” to you the readings and what is important from them...Rather than say allowing you to review and think about the readings on your own time as you see necessary since learning happens not in a linear fashion but in strange ways.

As such, I would rather start with the assumption that you don’t need me to explain this course to you because you are capable and intelligent individuals who can make sense of this course in any number of ways. Instead, I want to use this final lecture to “review” the course by viewing it differently, to demonstrate - rather than explain - the implications of this course as I see them myself.

There are many different ways to conceive of and think about the educational project. We can think of it as an act of transmission, an act of liberation, an act of oppression. We can think about and conceive of education as maintaining the status quo, as a mode of social reproduction, or as a push for social justice. What I think I have learned by thinking through the various materials of this course is that the way we frame the issues we talk about impacts the attitudes we take towards those very issues. And those issues are always inevitably connected to the bodies of our students, ourselves, and our community. I think perhaps Biesta illuminated this best when he asked us to leave open - quite radically - the question of the “human” and so here at the end, I want to use Biesta’s work as a frame to look back on our course and time together...

We might see that what we read, discussed, and experienced was not so much a quest for knowledge - although it was not devoid of knowledge I hope - but rather a quest, an adventure to think about and imagine the ways in which we might relate to the self and others. While we did not always read work that showed positive examples of how people relate to one another - think back to the film “Please Vote for Me” where we saw that even grade schoolers could be coercive and manipulative of one another. Or think about the various struggles for rights and recognition that undergird much of our reading - civil rights, women’s rights, and gay and lesbian rights. We see in all of these “movements” a struggle to relate to the self and others in less violent, less harmful ways. We see that Democracy is a struggle, a constantly evolving and perhaps at time de-volving political theory that plays out in everyday experience in complex and contradictory ways.

We see in all of this - the struggles and successes - the immense vulnerability that exists in being human. Humans are precarious beings. We can, at any given moment, be violated to the point of death. Yet, we can also, at any given moment, experience immense joy and happiness. Precarity shows us not only our vulnerability but also our excitability. Our readings this semester and our explorations of what it means to “do” democracy not only I think exposed the struggles of surviving in the world but also asked for, I hope, that we imagine and create ways to thrive in that very world. They have demonstrated ways in which people have related and might relate to one another.

For instance, while Eve Sedgwick showed the violence inflicted on non-gender conforming boys in the late 80’s and early 90’s - calling it open season on gay kids - we can see simultaneously the ways in which gay kids can have technicolor lives in the 21st Century. The stories we tell about, in this instance, gay kids cannot be centered entirely on the “gay kid as victim” but also the ways in which gay kids lead lives that are exciting, pleasurable, and perhaps most importantly worth living...There is, to return to Chimamanda Adichie, a danger in the single story asking us to constantly be vigilant in the representations, the stories we hear, read, and create. To, as Foucault asks, that we remain in a state of perpetual critique.

There are of course other ways to think through Sedgwick or any of the other readings and films we “read” this semester - perhaps the implications in The Weather Underground look different now at the end of this class. But, I think for me I see that “doing democracy” and the ways in which we think about “doing democracy” impact how we can relate to one another and ourselves. I would argue that we are at a strange juncture in American Democracy where the ways in which we relate to one another are narrowing ever so slowly...where public spaces are becoming privatized, where people interact less and less, where poverty increases at the same time immense wealth increases, where politicians are more concerned about being elected than doing anything productive for the ever growing list of problems we face as a nation and a globe, where intellectualism is in decline and being “smart” seen as a liability.

Yet, such challenges are opportunities to “do democracy” - to be a part of the process. And, it is my belief that how we frame and engage these issues is the challenge we all face leaving this classroom. Do we frame these issues as ethical? As political? As aesthetic? As a combination? And how does that framing impact what lives we can and cannot see?

While such a challenge might seem overwhelming and impossible, it is what we have before us. I hope that we can, in our own ways, rise to the challenge and imagine, create, and struggle for a more just, more humane, and a more livable world for all of us. This is not some utopic hope, but it is a call to “do democracy” in a way that allows people to see their power and their responsibility to one another and to, with that power, do less harm next time.

I conclude then by thanking you for this opportunity to learn from and with you...for your patience and kindness as kinks were worked out and I myself learned through democracy. While I am sure it was not the smoothest of rides and that I had my own share of failings...I do hope it was rather enjoyable and intellectual ride.

Teaching is, I believe, an incredibly humbling act and being with you all for this term  has been incredibly humbling. So, thank you for this journey.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A History of a Course

A History of a Course

And so we come to our final moments together as a class. Over the past 15ish weeks we have covered a rather large amount of content, philosophical arguments, and well “time”. Since this is part history class, time is of the essence since it is time that we travel through in looking at the spaces and practices in which “art” and “education” have occurred.

Efland while not the most exhilarating read does I think when juxtaposed with much of the other texts we read show us a particular way of doing history. He, we might say, provides a rather “straight” telling of the history of art education and in doing so covers over the untidy, unruly, failures of time gone by. Yet, I think there is benefit to such a straight reading because it does provide us one vantage point of thinking about art, art education, and education. From the Greeks and their gymnasium where the mind and body were “one” to the Middle Ages and the concept of the “apprentice” to the “child-art” movement we see the successful attempts at doing art education. And success if one aspect of living.

Yet, we might here at the end realize that success is not all it is cracked up to be. We might realize that our “time” together has been bookended by two drastically different approaches to ‘art’, ‘education’, art education, and history. Halberstam in her Queer Art Of Failure that we worked through today asks us to look at queer histories that “must contend with a less tidy past”. Failure becomes the name of the game for it is failure that disrupts the colonial, neoliberal, capitalist, normalized worlds of what it means to “be” or “do” living. We might, on our own time, think about the PBS documentary we watched on the history of American education (narrated by the most darlin’ Meryl Streep) how the failures of education’s past might expose some rather strange lessons that the conservative and liberal historians failed to grasp with their desire for American Education to be a “success”. But I won’t “go there now”...instead leaving that for you to do in your own time.

Instead I want us to think about “philosophy” since that has been the “other” part of class.  Perhaps philosophy is the failed discipline these days that “takes” time and seems rather out-dated in these days where “time is money” and “practicality” is the ideal form of doing things. Philosophy is after all, particularly in education, the discipline that seems out of touch and unrelated to the daily lives and practices of teachers. Unlike most other courses, the philosophy of education is the course most often put on the ‘cutting block’ and disdained by students for its irrelevance or difficulty. Yet, I am not totally convinced of I will wax on for a bit on this thing called philosophy that we have engaged together because I didn’t succeed at anything else...I couldn’t “do” so therefore “I teach” and I teach “philosophy”.

Let’s begin with a definition of “philosophy” and let’s do so with Matthew Lipman whose work on children and philosophy opened up ways of de-professionalizing philosophy and opening it up to the lives of children. Lipman writes:

philosophy is concerned to clarify meanings, uncover assumptions and presuppositions, analyze concepts, consider the validity of reasoning processes, and investigate the implications of ideas and the consequences in human life of holding certain ideas rather than others (224)

And so from reading philosophers from various perspectives - be that progressive, pragmatic, postmodern, poststructural, or feminist - we see an attempt to engage meaning and concepts in order to think through the consequences of such meaning and concepts. Lipman, we might be able to see now from his definition of philosophy is a pragmatist...for philosophy is not about “Truth” but about how words or ideas impact the ways we live and the consequences of doing so. The assumptions we make impact how we “do” things.

Jacques Ranciere as discussed by Halberstam uncovers the assumption of inequality that pervades how education is thought proposing instead to “presuppose” equality of intelligence. Perhaps the most challenging ideas in contemporary education and educational philosophy...Ranciere asks that we start with the assumption that teachers and students have an equality of intelligence...meaning neither is more capable than the other in terms of intelligence. The student does not need to be filled with knowledge...a knowledge that is never complete and sets the student up to constantly look for a knowledgeable other to “explain” the world. What does education without explanation look like and what does it mean to say to you, as Ranciere did “I must teach you I have nothing to teach you”? What does it mean to ask of ourselves that we taught ourselves amidst conversations with opposed to having been “taught” by me, a teacher? Can you now, at the end of our time out the implications of such a philosophical idea?

Perhaps this brings us to thinking about “giving a lesson” and the problems with such an idea in these postmodern times. Can we really “give” a lesson when such thought is often built upon the idea that something must be given in return? If I give you a lesson are you obligated to give something in return - papers? discussion? Or can I simply give and move on - not expecting something in return? If I do I neglect my “responsibility” as a teacher? If so, what is my responsibility? What is yours? I am not sure...have I given you your lessons? And have you given me what students are supposed to give in return? Have we all been responsible?

Enough of such questions...let’s be pragmatic. Pragmatism seems an apt place to be pragmatic since “pragmatism” is for education quite useful. It is not concerned with transcendental meaning or truth. It recognizes the slipperyness of language and how language can come to signify many different things, but does not get caught up in language games. The challenge for pragmatists is to think through the consequences of holding such beliefs or “truths” on how individuals can or cannot relate to one another. From Cleo Cherryholmes showing the ways to do “different” types of readings - itself a “pragmatic” approach - to Cornel West asking us to think about “prophetic thought” and “tragedy” we see pragmatism orienting us toward seeing philosophy as rather ‘practical’ and concerned with consequences.

Pragmatism has its own drawbacks though and so there are other ways we have been asked to orient our gaze. But before getting to other ways...let’s ponder “orientation” since I find it an interesting term. If we think about the various philosophical realms we explored...we might see how they “orient” us (position our gaze) in different ways. In doing so, such orientation simultaneously opens up ways of seeing while framing other things out. This is easily seen with the concept of “sexual orientation” where one’s orientation makes one look at particular bodies while framing out other bodies. Our “sexual orientation” orients us in particular ways toward particular bodies and pleasures and I would argue sensibilities.

So, the feminists orient us to frame the world by thinking particularly about gender. Nel Noddings, Angela Davis and Maria Tamboukou all asked us to look at gender and philosophize how “gender” implicates how teachers are seen, how teaching has been constructed in the modern era, and want ways thinking like a feminist opens up particular questions or ideas for doing education. Additionally, how do feminists themselves “disagree” and complicate one another by wanting to think more particularly about the position of raced female bodies? Classed? Able-bodied? It’s challenging and particular...but I think important.

Lynn Fendler - a poststructural feminist we might say - moves us away from thinking explicitly about “gender” and toward thinking about language. The radical question asked by poststructural feminists - namely Judith Butler - is “what is woman”? Such a question - damning to some feminist projects that rest on the assumption that “woman” is a stable category - points to the ineffable. If we accept language as figural - as opposed to holding onto the idea that language is “representative” - what are we allowed to do? We saw in our own class discussions brought in by you yourselves...that poetry and art can by being figural open up the imagination to break out of the status quo (and quite possibly maintain the status quo). How, Fendler asks, can we think about “figural education”? And is “art” a rather privileged domain to do so?

Before my concluding paragraph...I want to do my duty as a philosopher and point out that much of what we have engaged in throughout this semester while focused on issues of knowledge and knowing...was often more about ethics and relationality. If as I have noted many times, “knowledge is ubiquitous” and we still think schools are important despite such ubiquity of knowledge...we realize that schools are a “place” where people meet. So, how do we relate to one another? How do the knowledges we have engaged and the knowledges that we fail to see limit and open up the challenges of relating to the self and other? How does education shift if we focus less on “knowledge” and more on that ineffable thing of relationality and the feelings, emotions, and affects of being in a classroom? I am not sure...

I am, as you well know, not an artist so I am perhaps not qualified to engage in such an artistic question. I am somewhat of an outsider to this thing called “art education”...yet, my hope in engaging this adventure in insight with you all over this short period of time that perhaps we were able to see that education does not have to be dull...that as Foucault being dull is quite an achievement BUT one with a purpose...for if education was “pleasurable” like sex he says, then people would be knocking down the doors to get in. While none of you tried to knock down the doors to my class...perhaps illuminating my own failure to make education pleasurable OR my success as maintaining the dull, sad, history of education founded on inaccessibility...I might hope here at the end...that our time together allowed something to happen or opened up the possibility that somewhere, there in the future that will then be present these lessons we have engaged will come to life and the consequences will be beautiful.

I thank you for giving me your time and attention...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Final Lecture - Social Theory 2012

The Time of Social Theory

It seems apropos to begin the end of a class with Madonna. In her fabulous portrayal of Eva Peron in Evita she sings...”Where do we go from here? This isn’t where we intended to be. We had it all. You believed in me. I believed in you. Certainties disappear. What do we do for our dream to survive? How do we keep all our passions alive?”

Of course, the context of the song is rather different than ours has been these last 15 weeks, but the sentiment I think perhaps gets at one way to think about not only the pedagogical scene we’ve been in but also what it means to “do” social theory or theorize the social.

So, here at the end of a class we are left asking “where do we go from here”? And before you do, in fact, go from here and our time in this space has ended, I want to take time to re-view our time together as I see it. So, I ask for you to give me your time, for one last time.

We began what seems to be rather long ago when the temperature was warm and all of us unsure what was intended to occur in this space and time of a class on social theory. Charles LeMert started us off asking us to think of social theory as, in many ways, an attempt to put language to our social experiences and learn how to survive and I would add thrive in this perhaps beautifully cruel world we live in. John Berger also helped us frame one way to think about social theory via art history by reminding us or perhaps teaching us that seeing matters and how we see is related to and impacted by what languages, images, and stories we have access to. So, as I mentioned last week...we might think about this course as an adventure in different languages that might allow us to “do” social let’s review...

Jacques Ranciere started us down what might have felt like a confusing rabbit hole proposing that we ponder what happens if we presume an equality of intelligences. What happens if we “frame” the world in a way that actually presumes equality and how does this alter how we look at children who are often seen as “unformed” “immature” and “innocent”? In proposing we presume equality, his most compelling lesson is “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you” and that is I hope what you have realized here at the end...that I have nothing to teach you...I can only take part in this adventure and create opportunities where you and I can muck around in knowledge, play with words, and try to make sense of our worlds and our contexts together. At times this was frustrating. At times it was confusing. At times it was hilarious. At times is was boring...but no matter the affective state hopefully we might be able to salvage the failures, the boredom to realize that even those states allow us to “do” something.

Along with Ranciere LeMert wrote:

One must never assume that those without a public voice are inarticulate. The arrogance of intellectuals lies in the assumption that they alone know and speak the truth (11).

As a professor I am rather concerned that I might come off as arrogant and knowing the truth and if that sincerest apologies. What LeMert reminds us, however, is that part of the task is to think about who can Speak. Gayatri Spivak in one of those “oft” cited sayings once asked “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and we learned in our engagement with Spivak, Fanon, and Anzaldua different ways in which the “subaltern” has been able to speak and the challenges that exist when trying to speak from the “outside”. And, of course, last week Grosz explicitly engaged what it means to be on the outside and how outsider status while often seen as “negative” can offer insight and a space/time to ask different questions. The “outside” is not always positive though as it has its own pitfalls. Wendy Brown in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty proposed that we think about the emergence of “walls” - walls that create an inside and outside - and the curious emergence of such walls at a time of “waning sovereignty”.

Walls and Sovereignty merge if we allow them with Grosz ideas about architecture from the outside. How does architecture ask questions about the body - not simply about the structures it puts in place but the ways such structures impact the different bodies. What does it mean to be on the “outside” of the wall between states and by definition on the “inside” of a different state? What are the powers that impact what it means to be either “inside” or “outside” such walls - what might be called architectural scars dividing space?

We might also go a different direction and think about the outside - as Grosz allowed us - and the reality that fashion is about the outside...and if we buy Svendsen’s argument, that fashion is, in a sense, what allows us to develop our identity or the “inside” of how we see ourselves. While Roland Barthes book on The Language of Fashion might have been a challenge...what Barthes here at the end might allow us to think about is the outside and how the emergence of fashion over time has allowed us to adorn the outside, the body in different ways. How does the detail of the dandy relate now to things weeks ago we might not have thought about? What is the time of education and how does the “process” of working through texts over time allow us as “outsiders” to different fields begin to ask questions?

Going back to the issue of “speaking”, we might also think about how the Southern Hemisphere has been left outside of Social Theory which caused Connell to ask and for us to explore

“Can we have a social theory that does not claim universality for a metropolitan point of view, does not read from only one direction, does not exclude the experience and social thought of most of humanity and is not constructed on ‘terra nullis’ [land belonging to nobody]” (47)

Perhaps it is Connell that illuminates the adventure we have been on...which is an adventure in disrupting social theory to think about the particular, the contextual, the space and time of difference to counter the dominance within the history of social theory (or academic thought broadly) as universalizing. This could be, following Spivak, an attempt in “education in the humanities” that “attempts to be an uncoercive rearrangement of desires” (17). And this type of education is one that Spivak argues “teaches us to learn from the singular and the unverifiable” because that is what a human is - a singular subject that by being singular is not “verifiable” (228).
Spivak brings us back to Foucault whose entire body of work was an exploration in subjugated knowledges. In his History of Sexuality paired with Christopher Reed’s art history of Art and Homosexuality, we were able to begin thinking about how we might read the social through sexuality - similar to how Anzaldua allowed us to think about the social through the mestiza or Fanon through the colonized. Foucault, however, allowed us to think about history in a different way - a way that is not linear and determined but one that is well, quite messy and complex. Reed illustrates this idea in how he read art history by looking at the different ways in which “sex”, “sexuality”, “eroticism” and “intimacy” are represented and taken up in different time periods - providing if you return to these two texts a rather nice “illustrated” way to read Foucault’s own history.

But, I feel like this review is getting rather I must wrap up. I will do so with Latour whom the vast majority of us were not quite able to engage. This makes sense because Latour is challenging and in the oft-cited binary between “art” and “science” we here at an “art school” might feel some animosity to “science” since it gets all the money these days. But, it might also be because as Latour argues Science has become something we cannot question or that “science has been used to silence”. If Science has silenced, then those of us who are not experts in “science” might feel rather shy or inhibited with talking about science...because we feel like Outsiders.

What I think is perhaps most compelling about Latour in relation to our time together is that in challenging the “epistemology police” and its emphasis on “matters of fact” he wants us to think about I would argue ethics and “matters of concern” and in doing so shifting us from seeking “certainty” to engaging “uncertainty. He re-frames the questions to ask
1 - How many are there of us?
2 - Can we live together?  
In asking these questions he does not allow us to get out of reality. Rather, he re-looks at reality to do something else....namely to radically argue for democracy and the necessity to not allow “knowledge” or “facts” to trump how humans relate and live together. He does not negate knowledge - he asks that people “knock at the door” - those who are “aptly outside” to seek entry and provide an argument that might or might not compel for changes.

And perhaps this is where I leave you and end our time together...pondering about the relationship between knowledge and relating to the other. How knowledge can oppress and emancipate? How different languages, different disciplines, might allow us to “do” different things...hopefully they allow us as educators and journalists to think through the ethics of living in the world and to end with Ranciere “one need only to learn how to be equal in an unequal society. This is what being emancipated mean” (133). So, I hope you learn how to be equal, how to “do” things in the world and that “such emancipation will begin when the student [you] decide it will begin” (24). 
My many thanks to you for this adventure in insight.