Yesterday we began reading Mill’s Utilitarianism in my Ethics course. Do not worry, I am not a utilitarian. Rather, the course is a survey of ethical thought throughout the history of philosophy where we read selections from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Epicurus, Epictetus, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. As many of you, I’m sure, know, Mill draws a distinction between the quality of pleasure and the quantity of pleausre involved in making ethical deliberations. In other words, we must not simply evaluate the quantity of pleasure an action is likely to produce for those involved in making a decision as to whether something is right or wrong, but must also evaluate the quality of that pleasure and whether it is befitting of a flourishing human life. As Mill famously says, “It is better to be Socrates dissatisified, than a pig satisfied.”
Mill thought about ethical questions in their social context, and recognized that human beings must undergo a process of cultivation or development so that they might become capable of enjoying those things (literature, philosophy, art, science, mathematics, etc) that are open to human beings. As such, he recognized that it was not enough to simply transform oneself, but that social institutions must be transformed as well. Mill was a passionate advocate for reform in education, labor structures, economic structures, gender relations, etc. What seems implicit in Mill’s thought is the idea that humans always individuate, actualize, or develop themselves in a social environment such that we must think about their capacity (and limits) of happiness within such contexts.
This discussion led to a discussion of education in the United States, and I found myself horrified by what my students told me about their highschool education. These students related how all of their education had been organized around taking standardized tests, referred to here in Texas as “TAKS” tests. The entire curriculum during the school year was devoted to teaching what would be covered on these texts and developing strategies for effectively taking these tests. I found myself particularly bothered by what they said about their English classes. On the one hand, students were trained to write short, one page, five paragraph essays that summarized whatever material they were being asked to “analyze” (no critical interpretation). On the other hand, their literature courses focused on plot summary and they were told that this is the one interpretation of say Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Even where there was disagreement over interpretation or possibilities of alternative readings, the students were told that this is what the test graders would be looking for so this is what the students need to be able to repeat or replicate. Somehow this filled me with a sense of dread, sensing this was what Benjamin worried over in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” taken to its extreme. Some of my colleagues complain that students are today lazy, that they don’t know how to read, that they cannot write, etc. However, I think these judgments fail to take into account the ways in which students have been trained by the public education system and the way that they’re developing in our contemporary technological environment. We need to find ways to work with these challenges, not to blame students and teachers.
When I took English courses in highschool we would sit in a large circle and read whatever work we were studying line by line. We would have lively discussions about the texts, analyzing themes, metaphors, symbolism, etc., and how the text might resonate with contemporary issues. In engaging in these activities we learned how to read and learned that reading is not simply the ability to read the words on the page, but consists of actively engaging with texts, animating them, extrapolating from them, and drawing them out of themselves. Reading here became an occasion for theory building, where the students built sociological, anthropological, psychological, metaphysical, and ethical theories regarding the world. When we read Orwell’s 1984 we built a theory of ideology and attachment to power. When we read Sophocles’ Antigone we developed theories pertaining to why humans explain the world in terms of the concept of “curse” and other similar themes. Literature was a way of knowing the world.
However, literature also functioned as a way of shifting from immediacy, to tautological ground, to real ground. In immediacy objects, persons, and events are simply taken as they are, in their abstract immediacy without need of further explanation. The world is simply taken as it is. Tautological ground encounters objects, persons, and events as mediated or differing from themselves, requiring a ground of explanation. For instance, one says “objects fall because of gravity.” “Gravity” is a tautologous explanation in that it is identical to objects falling. It adds nothing more to our understanding of the object but merely repeats what it does. Or put more precisely, it changes nothing in our cognition of the content of the object. However, it does change the form of how we relate to the object in that we now recognize that the being must be grounded in something else, that it requires an explanation. Real ground then would add something to the content through giving an explanation. Literature took us through these stages of cognition, transforming the abstract immediacy of the world around us into something requiring explanation. The novel, the poem, the essay presented itself as an enigma to be explained and was thus a laboratory for “real world” thought.
Somehow the cynicism and cocerns of my students seem to resonate with a number of concerns haunting contemporary theory today. I am heartened that they could express cynicism towards this form of “education”, almost as if they instinctively sense that something is wrong here. Even though they have developed in such an environment, they still seem to recognize that alternatives are possible. The world of theory has taught us many dark truths in the last 100 years. Foucault has shown us how our relationship to ourselves and our relationship to others is pervaded by relations of power that give us form and identity. The structuralists have shown us how thought is governed by linguistic structures that organize how we think and relate to the world. Sociologists such as Bourdieu have shown us how or sense of self and interpersonal relations is organized by social habitus and power. Figures like Barthes, Baudrillard, and Lyotard have shown how signs and narratives organize our self understanding and world. Lacan and Freud have shown how the autonomous ego is a fiction in thrall of the unconscious.
In each case, the subject has become a sort of void or placeholder within a field of differential relations that contributes nothing of its own and which is buffeted like a small boat at sea by social forces beyond its control and comprehension. In this connection, I wonder what it could possibly be for a subject to be autonomous today. What can autonomy possibly be given what we know now about the nature of subject formation? How can we be self-directing humans when we are formed and actualized in this way? Perhaps the most astonishing moment in Kant’s ethical theory comes when he argues that we ourselves are the legislators of the moral law. For Kant the moral law does not come from God, nor from parents or authorities, but we both create the moral law and bind ourselves with this law. This is necessitated by the formulation of the moral law that says “always treat rational beings as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.” Were the moral law to come from elsewhere, we would become mere tools of the moral law. This suggests that there’s a perverse masochistic fantasy at work in the common religious belief that we’re a part of some unfolding divine plan, as we here see ourselves as tools or implements of Gods jouissance. Judge Schreber saw this clearly in his psychosis. That aside, given what we know about the nature of the subject today, is it possible any longer to think of ourselves as legislators or self-directing beings? Moreover, how can a pedagogy focused on rubrics and learning outcomes in this way possible promote the cultivation of autonomous, self-directing human beings? At the very least, a pedagogy that does not promote the division of the object from itself, its mediation and split nature, nor the division of the subject from herself– her lack of immediacy and identity with herself –fails to implement that void that would be necessary for acts of freedom and self-creation incalculable by social structure.