Pi3_(1)_1050_591_81_s_c1With horror I didn’t realize what had come out of my mouth until after I said it.  Yesterday a student came up to me after class, breathlessly talking about how they just couldn’t understand how Miller’s experimental metaphysics and method could work.  “Professor Bryant, I just don’t understand and I don’t know what my problem is?”  What sections should I be focusing on to figure this out?  Why am I having this problem understanding this?”

And then it happened.  I said it before I realized what I was saying.  “I think your problem is that you need more confidence!”  This student has been with me for three semesters and they’re brilliant.  Their eyes widened and fluttered with surprise.  I continued.  “Maybe the problem isn’t with you.  Maybe it’s not that you’re failing to understand.  Maybe you understand perfectly well what is in the book.  Maybe the problem is with the book.  Rather than this being a failure of your understanding, a deficiency on your part, maybe you’re doing philosophy now.  Maybe you’re recognizing something that’s inadequate in the text, that isn’t satisfactory, that just doesn’t work and that something else is needed.”  The student responded, “no, I just don’t think I understand.”

universityI don’t think there are enough moments like this in the classroom.  There is a way of teaching that can be described as paranoid.  There is an impulse in many of us to always be advocates of the texts we are teaching (and that’s not a bad thing!).  When a student raises a question about a thinker or a text, when they express confusion, our impulse is to explain and show how the text and thinker has an answer.  Often that’s the appropriate move as the student, after all, is just learning these texts and is only being exposed to a limited selection of the thinker’s work.  This pedagogical approach can be paranoid in that it fills in the gaps and presents the author and text as if they are invincible.  We teach as if, to quote Lacan, “the big Other exists”.  The problem with proceeding in this way is that we are creating a certain subjectivity in our students.  After years of this sort of training in philosophy, literature, and cultural studies courses the student becomes convinced that their questions are the result of a failure to understand, their own insufficiency, rather than an insufficiency of the text.  We Oedipalize our subjects.  In Lacan’s dialectic of alienation and separation, they remain at the level of alienation in the big Other, believing that the big Other is without antagonisms, lack, incompleteness, and insufficiency– Deleuze and Lacan can never be wrong, and certainly not Hegel! –and they are therefore never able to move on to separation so that they might become subjects themselves.  Such is the lesson of Lacan’s university discourse.   The product of that discourse is an alienated subject, a subject trapped in the web of “knowledge” and a master-signifier, whether it be a figure (Lacan, Hegel, Deleuze, Spinoza, Kant, etc.) that is treated as the repository of complete knowledge such that they can never be wrong.  A non-paranoid pedagogy would refuse the move of treating the text and figure as if it is always right, as if any question posed to the text is the result of a failure to understand.