This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.
Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. I know that I’m certainly guilty of this. Though I’m very happy to be involved in a democratic, discussion-based pedagogical model, I do find something seductive about the idea of the great lecturer — or, even more, the European-style seminar where the great thinker holds forth on whatever he [sic] happens to be researching, and the students just try to keep up.
There’s something more aesthetically pleasing about coming up with just the right formulation of the most perspicuous idea and then directly transmitting it to an audience. Yet as beautiful as the idea is, it doesn’t really work that way. It seems that it’s been more or less conclusively demonstrated that the passive reception of information does not change the deeper habits of thought — for instance, students can get an A in a lecture-based physics class but go immediately back to “common sense” errors in other contexts. A discussion model is not a guarantee that those changes of habit will take place, but it at least lays the groundwork in forcing students to grapple actively with the text or idea at hand.
One could say the same thing on the political level. While it sounds great to have an informed elite come up with the right answer and then implement it come hell or high water, it doesn’t ever seem to actually work out that way. Authoritarian approaches do “get things done” more easily, but there seems to be a general pattern where the things that get done tend not to be very good. Democratic consensus-building is much less aesthetically pleasing and much less likely to produce decisive results — but the requirement that everyone be involved in decision-making at least provides some baseline protection against various forms of throat-ramming, etc.
This line of reflection brought me back to another conversation I had with Brad shortly after reading Infinite Jest. We came around to the conclusion that DFW was basically acknowledging that the 12-step program is the only viable way to deal with addiction — yet as an extremely smart and self-reflective guy, there was also something within him that rebelled against that. One detects an undertone of incredulity: “This is the answer? This hokey, cliche-ridden, tedious approach is really all we have to work with?” It’s more beautiful to think that a smart person can put the addiction aside through sheer force of will — but it doesn’t seem to actually work that way.
What seems to me to be at stake here is the gap between thought and life. An authoritarian approach proceeds on the assumption that bridging that gap should be relatively unproblematic — with sufficient application of force, life can be brought in line. Yet as Whitehead points out, it takes a long time for ideas to make their influence felt. Or shifting it to a less optimistic register, surely Foucault shows us that ideas are at their most powerful when they proceed via unexpected and insidious paths. When ideas are transmitted by force, it may be that the only idea that is really transmitted is that of force itself.