The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.

Yet presumably Kugelmass is not asking after desire in his question “why do you teach x”. Rather, the focus is not on the Befragtes, but the Erfragte. That is, perhaps the real question here is, what is the telos or the goal of teaching? I have the greatest hesitation in responding to this particular question for reasons I’ll try to outline (no doubt poorly) in a moment.

Cynical Answers

I think the answer as to why one teaches in the humanities differs depending on what sort of teaching on is doing. The answer differs depending on whether one is teaching at the highschool level, the community college level, liberal arts institutions, or research institutions. My intuition is that the vast majority of those who pursue advanced degrees do not do so in order to teach. Proof of this, I think, can be found in the fact that the more successful one is as an academic, the less teaching one is required to do. For many, at least starting out in their academic career, the aim is to land a research position at a prestigious institution where the teaching load is two classes a semester. At least this would be the case in the United States.

If this is the case– and it is a generalization, not a universal –then the answer to the question “why do you teach x?” would be “because I have to”. Here teaching is not the telos of ones academic activity, but is rather a requirement that one has to meet in order to pursue the real telos of their activity or research. If this is true, then the real question should not be “why do you teach?”, but rather “why do you research x?” “What desire animates your engagement with x?” Here I do not know that there are good answers to these questions. We, of course, give ourselves grand narratives as to why we are so enthralled by what we study, but I wonder if these explanations do not often have the status of an alibi to justify what is a genuine drive without a telos beyond itself. Here I’m reminded of Kinsey’s early research into gal wasps. Kinsey knew that only a few people in the world would actually read his research and that the Erfragte of this research, what is to be found through it, would not shake the earth or transform the world. Yet he nonetheless seemed– as depicted in the film anyway –thoroughly absorbed in his research without wondering why he does it. How true is this for most of us? Is it perhaps the case that the humanistic narratives so often heard in the context of liberal arts education, or the grand social and political narratives we so often hear in defense of philosophy, literature, the social science, etc., are in fact 1) advertising slogans produced by academics to justify their work to administrative bureaucrats, and 2) phantasmatic formations on the part of academics themselves mobilized to explain a form of jouissance that is traumatic by virtue of being so enigmatic (i.e., we ourselves do not know why we’re in the grip of such drives or “what it’s all for”). This latter explanation would be similar to the sort of trauma when we become obsessed with something like the Rubik’s Cube, unable to understand why we can think of nothing but the puzzle.

At any rate, what I desired above all was time. I wanted, as Lyotard puts it, to gain time, to own my own time. I wanted to submerse myself in my own activities rather than living as I witnessed my father living, perpetually beset by ten hour days coming home to enjoy a glass of Jim Beam before falling asleep watching Headline News. Such is corporate America. Of course, I soon discovered that in academia your time never belongs to yourself again, for you are in a constant state of research, thought, and writing that knows no temporal boundaries nor any space of the sacred in the form of the “carnival”. No, you are always working even when you are not. This is only compounded by teaching five courses a semester and two each summer.

Let me be clear. In suggesting that for many academics the telos is not teaching, I am not suggesting that many academics dislike teaching or are against teaching. I have myself found great satisfaction in teaching (with the exception of grading). I find that I am deeply depressed when I am not teaching as I need this form of engagement to make my machine work. Yet I confess that I pursued teaching 1) because I could not bear the thought of working in corporate America, and 2) because it would provide a paycheck to do what I really wanted to do: Write and study philosophy, the social sciences, history, etc.

The Space of Institutional Fantasy

I am deeply suspicious of questions about why we teach. I, of course, have aims I would like to accomplish with respect to my students. However, I often wonder about these aims. It was Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx who taught us that the subject is split or barred, and that our relationship to ourselves is characterized by a fundamental meconaissance. In the Freudo-Nietzschean constellation, this split is between the conscious ego that takes itself to be the one calling the shots, and those acephalous unconscious desires or that unconscious will of which we are but an effect. It is this unconscious desire or will that is calling the shots, not the sovereign ego. In the case of Marx, this split nature of the subject is located in the way we are caught up in social relations that exceed our conscious intentionality, functioning as determinants of our action. I wonder how much this is the case with discourses about the aims of education.

Back in 2002 when I was still a graduate student, I won a teaching fellowship that provided a healthy stipend and gave me additional teaching experience. Among the requirements of this fellowship, I had to attend a weekly seminar with other recipients where we discussed issues pertaining to pedagogy and the aims of teaching. We had endless discussions about the humanist tradition, the liberal arts tradition, and the aim of cultivating the person intellectually, civically, ethically, artistically, and spiritually.

Among the things I found most frustrating about these discussions was the way they seemed to disavow the institutional structure of contemporary universities, failing to acknowledge the place of the university in the contemporary capitalist world. It seemed to me that these discussions functioned as a sort of alibi, a certain willful blindness, a certain disavowal of the role universities serve vis a vis capitalism. And in being willfully blind this way, in telling ourselves nice, narcissistic stories about our aims, we perhaps end up reinforcing these very structures.

The academy has changed tremendously since its inception in Plato, yet we continue to tell Platonic stories about the aims of education. In the case of Plato, the Academy was closer to what we think of as a monastery than a university. People went to the schools not to get an education or a degree, but to take up a particular way of life devoted to eudaimonia or sophia, or whatever else the reigning philosophical doctrine of the school advocated. It was closer to a religious form of life and certainly did not have a utilitarian aim. Simply put, it was an end in itself. However today it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the universities are, for the vast majority of the population, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The vast majority of students to not pursue education out of a desire for knowledge. Indeed, many do not pursue knowledge at all. Rather, what is pursued is a degree. And if the degree is pursued, then this is because the degree creates opportunity in the world of capitalism. This is not, of course, true of all students, but certainly the majority. As Bourdieu has shown, the universities function as a sort of morphogenetic machine, creating bodies, forms of consciousness, and systems of affect appropriate to different positions within the social field. The universities and schools thus function as a cog in the machine of capital. They are one of the ways in which the contemporary sense of capital reproduces itself by reproducing its own conditions of production. We, who teach, are complicit in this and it is incumbent on us not to tell ourselves fairytales that make it more difficult to recognize the functional role that the universities play in creating workers. I suppose this is why I see such profound humanist and political narratives as being so suspicious and corrosive. They make it more difficult to see the relations of capital and how they function, covering over the antagonisms and mechanisms that govern society. They hegemonize the university apparatus, covering over differences and homogenizing machines, and how our own classroom practices, even in their most radical practice, contribute to this reproduction of the conditions of production. Perhaps this is why so many of us encounter such apathy among our students. While we speak about the most profound ethical, spiritual, humanistic, and political issues surrounding what it is we do, our students know that all this talk is propoganda, that they are lambs to the slaughter, that their true destination is the workforce and labor. Or perhaps at some level they know this.

The Pedagogy of Alienation

Of course, while I am cynical of grand narratives about education, I too have my phantasies. That is, I too have my fantasies about the aims of a pedagogy that would challenge this autopoietic machine while nonetheless being situated and mired within it. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

‘…some reports of our perceptions do not provoke thought to reconsideration because the judgment of them by sensation seems adequate, while others always invite the intellect to reflection because the sensation yields nothing that can be trusted.– You obviously mean distant appearances, or things drawn in perspective. –You have quite missed my meaning…” (Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 523b). This text distinguishes two kinds of things: those which do not disturb thought and (as Plato will later say) those which force us to think. The first are objects of recognition: thought and all its faculties may be fully employed therein, thought may busy itself thereby, but such employment and such activity have nothing to do with thinking. Thought is thereby filled with no more than an image of itself, one in which it recognizes itself the more it recognizes things: this is a finger, this is a table, Good morning Theatetus. Whence the question of Socrates’ interlocutor: is it when we do not recognize, when we have difficulty in recognising, that we truly think?… In fact, concepts only ever designate possibilities. They lack the claws of absolute necessity– in other words, of an original violence inflicted upon thought; the claws of a strangeness or an enmity which alone would awaken thought from its natural stupor or eternal possibility: there is only involuntary thought, aroused by constrained within thought, and all the more absolutely necessary for being born, illegitimately, of fortuitousness in the world. Thought is primarily trespass and violence, the enemy, and nothing presupposes philosophy: everything begins with misosophy. Do not count upon thought to ensure the relative necessity of what it thinks. Rather, count upon the contingency of an encounter with that which forces thought to raise up and educate the absolute necessity of an act of thought or a passion to think. (138-9)

“Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter” (139). One of the most insidious things about interpellation is the manner in which it always occurs under erasure, effacing itself, making itself seem natural as if our beliefs, ways of thinking, desires, wills, ambitions, were purely our own and were the most natural things in the world. We do not see how even the most intimate is a product of the signifier, the collective, the inherited, nor how our desires are made to fit with the social field in which we are enmeshed. These beliefs, these desires, these ambitions, these ways of thinking come to seem obvious, like “common sense”. Here we are in the domain of what Heidegger referred to as das Man.

Many of us who teach humanities with a strong writing component sense this in our students. In the vast majority of cases questions are answered in a puerile fashion. “What is Euthyphro’s first definition of piety inadequate?” Student: “Because other people have different opinions as to what piety is?” “Because there are different religions?” “Because it’s subjective?” The monotonous regularity of these sorts of answers and other cliches would make Levi-Strauss gleeful, for it suggests that there’s something on the order of a transpersonal structural social system underlying what counts as “thought”. Again and again we encounter the cliche, the recognized, the obvious, or as Deleuze quips “…thought is filled with no more than an image of itself.” However, this is not quite accurate. Thought is not filled with an image of itself (the person doing a thinker), but thought simply repeats the dominant refrains it inherits from the social world in which it emerges. It does nothing but repeat– and not in the virtuous form of repetition –its interpellation. As Deleuze and Guattari argue in “Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus, language does not communicate, but rather discourse is the repetition of order-words commanding us to obey. The cliche is just a glaring example of this.

Just as there are puerile responses to assignments among students, there are often puerile forms of pedagogy among many professors in the humanities. In the world of Rhet Comp, we have the entire universe of “expressivism”, where the professor encourages students to “express themselves” in their writing. Yet how can such a pedagogy ever produce anything but cliched images of oneself, and more fundamentally how can it lead to the production of anything other than inherited order words? 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.