“Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster

I recently taught Waiting for Godot and was struck by Lucky’s speech in the first act, which is prompted by Pozzo’s imperious demand: “Think, pig!” The speech is of course a garbled series of academic throat-clearings. Previously I had found this merely amusing, but in the wake of reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster and Lacan’s Seminar XVII, it seemed different this time around. I joked on Twitter that we should exclaim, “Think, pig!” whenever there’s a lull in class discussion, but I started to wonder if that’s finally all we’re doing as educators.

Continue reading ““Think, pig!”: The University Discourse and the Ignorant Schoolmaster”


I’m finally getting around to reading Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and I’m finding it really exciting and helpful. Of particular interest is his emphasis on memorization as a form of intellectual emancipation. Thinking ahead to my Heidegger class for next year, it occurs to me that if I could get every student to memorize one important paragraph from Being and Time, they could conceivably wind up being ahead of a student who passed an exam on the best-ever lecture course in terms of actually understanding how to read Heidegger.

My colleague Aron Dunlap has suggested incorporating a memorization component into our literature class next semester, and while I was open to the idea before, now I’m positively intrigued. Have any of you incorporated memorization into your teaching, specifically of poetry? What were your experiences?

The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics

I was reminded yesterday by a friend of Simone Weil’s classic essay “Human Personality,” and was struck by the notion that at some point (perhaps somebody already has) I might write a piece comparing the centrality of her question here, ‘Why am I being hurt,’ to Judith Butler’s more recent question in Precarious Life, ‘Who shall we mourn?’ Both questions attend to supremely significant issues. Indeed, one might argue that Weil & Butler approach the same issues but from different angles. This may be true, but one must be careful in too quickly affirming the sameness at the expense of the important differences.

I am deeply sympathetic–no, make that outright supportive–of Weil’s desire to speak for those who cannot speak–or, more properly, that which cannot be spoken. The impersonality of this unspoken truth is crucial to Weil, and is apprehended, if at all, in the solitariness of one’s humiliation. She offers no concession to consolation in her work, which is often unsettling. I don’t read Weil as a masochist. Suffering, rather, is an inevitability, of life & of life on the way to the truth. If pain must sometimes be handed out as punishment, this is only because the inevitable is often disproportionately distributed and/or dissimulated by the secular appeal to “rights.”  Continue reading “The True Thinking of Artifice: On Simone Weil & Politics”

Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself. Continue reading “Non-speaking beings”

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Continue reading “Defending the right to mediocrity”

‘And so I tell myself to myself’: A Dissertation!!

This [PDF warning], as it turns out, is an unpublishable book. Oh, I suppose I could keep shopping it around until something just short of a vanity press accepts it and churns out fifty hardcover editions to “sell” (in theory) at an ungodly price. Or, I could just keep sending it to more-or-less legitimate publishers, and probably drive myself batty in the process. I think most of us can agree that the end result of neither alternative is particularly attractive. Thankfully, there are are other options. (Thanks, Scribd!) Continue reading “‘And so I tell myself to myself’: A Dissertation!!”

“Hope is not the precondition of action”

Jacques Rancière is talking about the role of the philosopher here, but I cannot help but think that his comments extend further than even he might otherwise imagine. Indeed, while even I concluded a recent essay by distinguishing the task of the theologian from that of the philosopher — i.e. where the former “names,” the latter is concerned with “the conditions of naming itself” — suffice it to say, I’m not convinced that the disciplinary/discursive identities borne from the differentiation need be iron-clad and definitive. With that in mind, I think that the theologian in particular might find a peculiar value in reflecting on this particular exchange. In fact, I think doing so may well have a penetrating and creative effect on the valuation and task of theology:

OLIVER: We’ve talked a lot thus far about temptation—the temptation of fusion, immediacy, collective soul, enfleshment. The word signals the necessity of distinguishing the essential and the extraneous, the real and the fake, the short term and the long term, and implies an optimal path, an expectation or hope; and, of course, in religious traditions, the word signals the idea of destiny if not fate, the presence of something like the prophetic mode. What is the role of the philosopher or the cultural critic?

RANCIÈRE: There are many ways of understanding the role of the philosopher—in general or in the current situation. Most people seem to identify it today with some kind of prophecy about the disaster threatening culture, civilization, the symbolic order, and so on. All the elements of social criticism and the critique of culture have been recycled in order to sustain those prophecies about the impending disaster produced by individualism, democracy, consumption, the spectacle, and so on. From my point of view, the true philosophical or critical task is to do away with that so-called critical trend, which has become nothing more than the discourse of a police order. It is to do away with the prophetic tone and with the plot of decadence that is only the reversal of the former trust in the sense of history and to focus on the existing forms of intellectual, artistic, and political invention. Hope is not the precondition of action. On the contrary, it is the product of the openings and expectations brought about by the dynamic of those inventions.

Politics & the Poor

Thomas’ post came about right as I was digging back into Jacques Rancière for a paper I’m writing about aesthetics and theology. Without preface or commentary, I thought I’d throw out a quote:

“The struggle between the rich and the poor is not social reality, which politics then has to deal with.  It is the actual institution of politics itself.  There is politics when there is a part of those who have no part, a part or party of the poor.  Politics does not happen just because the poor oppose the rich.  It is the other way around: politics (that is, the interruption of the simple effects of domination by the rich) causes the poor to exist as an entity.. . . Politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.  This institution is the whole of politics as a specific form of connection.  It defines the common of the commonality as a political community, in other words, as divided, as based on a wrong that escapes the arithmetic of exchange and reparation.  Beyond this set-up there is no politics.  There is only the order of domination or the disorder of revolt.”  (Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, 11-12)

A Prospectus

The foundation of my argument throughout this volume is that in the quintessential sailor cum novelist, Herman Melville, we can identify an aesthetic conception of a productive political dissent at its most theologically dynamic. In his life and fiction we find embodied a radical aesthetic engagement with the theological bases of subjectivity and sovereignty. By reading the evolution of Melville’s conception of duplicity and identity through the transcendental self-reflectivity of early German Romanticism, the dialectical materialism of Friedrich Schelling, and the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière, we identify a shocking new frame for an aesthetically conceived political theology. In so doing, we locate a creative intensity at the heart of subjectivity, that is, in the duplicitous poetics of subjective self-characterization. By recasting theology through the materialistic and political contours of aesthetics, we thus argue that the subject of theology, the beginning and the end of subjectivity as such, is not on the far side of theological reflection and/or discourse, as a transcendent object; nor is it fully a vitalistic and immanent presence or process. Rather, we conclude that the subject of theology, the subject par excellence, that which secures the twin matrices of power, subjectivity and sovereignty, is that of one playing a character. In this most characteristic theology, the subject of theology is that element of creativity that is itself most self-creative. The theological significance of theology, as such, is precisely in the materiality of this self-creativity; that is, its self-characterization in and as a Melvillean masquerade, the duplicitous posing in and as self-creative subject and sovereign.

To achieve this I begin in section one by presenting a biographical portrait of a young Herman Melville consumed by the questions of and the doubts about his own authorial self-becoming. Fresh from the sea at an early age, Melville was a natural storyteller, but perhaps not so natural a novelist. Indeed, as is especially clear in his first novel, Typee, his writing has never been without a sustained structure of duplicity and self-doubt or the attendant desire for self-destruction. We find in his desperate autobiographical groping an echo of the opening paragraph of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, “— and so I tell my life to myself,” and a participation in the dilemma of self-creativity heralded in the eighteenth-century by Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, meditated on by W. G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and popularised at the turn of the twenty-first century by Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

I then argue in the following two sections that Melville’s ambivalence regarding self-destruction and self-assertion can only be adequately understood when held in relief to the 18th-/19th-century political and philosophical climate the gave birth to the modern novel. While it may initially seem a departure from the narrative begun in the preceding section, Melville’s presentation of subjectivity throughout his novels is so closely aligned to the convergence of aesthetics and subjectivity found in Kant and in the theory of the romantic novel developed by early German Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, that he in many ways is their American counterpart. In them I locate and explicate a patently modern subjectivity; that is, subjectivity as a self-presentation, that is itself an aesthetic self-creation or self-calling.

In recent years Giorgo Agamben has described the provocative philosophical and political implications of this self-presentation in terms of a sovereignty and the “state of exception.” Per his reading of Carl Schmitt’s classic (and resurgently popular) treatise on the subject, Political Theology, Agamben recasts the state of exception as essentially a theory of sovereignty. In short, this is because the sovereign subject is that which (a) decides on the state of exception, whilst (b) also guaranteeing its relation to the juridical order that has been suspended. That is to say, because its decision is that of annulling the norm, the sovereign is beyond the normative order of things; and yet, inasmuch as it is ultimately responsible for deciding whether it is even possible for the normative order to be completely annulled or suspended, the sovereign also necessarily emerges from that order which is being annulled/suspended. What is being described here is nothing short of a miracle, whereby the sovereign subject is that which “calls” itself into being.

I extend this analysis further and call this the speculative function of the Romantic/Idealistic self-calling; the calling of that which is called to become-itself, the self-called sovereign subject. There are, as we see in subsequent sections, profound theological points to be made here about the production of the Absolute as “fictionalized” exception, in which the self-presentation of the one who is called is possible only through the dialectical act of its self-characterisation as the one who is called. In this case, the sovereign power of the call, the one who decides on the state of exception and the status of exceptionality, is not, strictly speaking, God; rather, it is the God that is instantiated/embodied in and as that which is called

It is with this in mind that, the formal similarity between Melville and Romanticism notwithstanding, I locate his enduring significance in the agonistic resistance to the appropriation of Romantic ideals by several of his American contemporaries, particularly what he regarded as the dehumanised ethics and spiritual esotericism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As such, in section three I trace the transition of Melville’s ambivalent though philosophically complex embrace of Romantic political and aesthetic ideals. Beginning with his definitive self-assertion and declaration of authorial independence in “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” and culminating in the complex “apocalypse of the self” in Moby-Dick and Pierre, I argue at length that Melville’s intellectual-artistic journey is profoundly symptomatic of Friedrich Schelling’s aborted philosophical aim of articulating the materialistic melancholy of subjective self-creativity. For indeed, in Schelling’s Ages of the World and Melville’s Pierre, we no longer have aspirations of self-creative wholeness and unity, but a tempestuous tension and excess at the very foundation of subjectivity that threatens to consume it.

Drawing from and commenting extensively on the recent work of Jacques Rancière, I argue in the remaining fourth and fifth sections of the book that Melville does not offer us a fully viable political theology until after the nihilistic apocalypticism of Moby-Dick and Pierre (or even the short story “Bartleby”) so often celebrated by late-20th century philosophy and theology. This does not happen until the full manifestation of self-creative duplicity in his final novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Here, no character is as though he or she seems, but only because there is always an excess of characterization in each. The con man is potentially the conned, and innocence never far removed from potential guilt. Interestingly, the excess of identity in Melville’s Masquerade does not issue merely in nihilistic indeterminacy, but in the inescapably creative capacity of a subject always to be more than itself, and for such an excess to come from within and not to be imposed from without.

In Rancière, we find the political significance of the masquerade is most pronounced in terms of Aristotle’s ideal commuity. Here, the soul of the master is identified as one of deliberation and discernment, which gives to him the natural right of sovereignty, rule and law. The slave, however, has no such capacity, and indeed has no soul or essence at all; as such, while the slave can understand the reason and law of the master (thus allowing the slave to obey the master’s orders), she lacks the capacity or essence to participate in the sensibility of reason or law, or . These are, rather, effected upon the slave. Indeed, the slave only has a proper place in the aesthetico-political community insofar as she obeys her master. Hers is a natural/essential place of non-creative, non-sensible subservience, “doomed to the anonymity of work and reproduction” (Disagreement, 7).

Politics, Rancière argues, is the rare event that occurs when slaves cease to be subservient. That is, when they forcibly partake in the aesthetic field that both constitutes and represses the occurrence of politics, and thus in the distribution of the sensible; when, in rejecting their essential place in the political commuity, that of the no-place with no voice, they make a claim on sensibility and freedom.* Importantly, this claim to freedom is fundamentally different than that of a claim to wealth and/or nobility, and to their attendant administrative status. These assert particular qualities as proper and/or essential to those who lay the claim. In terms of Aristotle’s ideal community, such claims are just insofar as the wealthy and noble live up to the roles they are naturally and essentially capable of fulfilling in the community. A slave’s claim to freedom, however, is an immediate claim, devoid of any justification by way of their proportional, contributing quality. In such a claim, the slave insists that the correlation between social position/role and natural capacity is purely theatrical, and thus artificial to the core.

By exposing the duplicity at the heart of the political community, however, we should not mistake the slave’s egalitarian claim to freedom as any more an unmasking of truth than what takes place in Melville’s Masquerade. Indeed, for both, the claim to self-creativity exposes the masquerade as such in order that it might become a masquerade par excellence. That is to say, not the truth behind the masquerade, but the truth of the masquerade, i.e., its singularly and necessarily arbitrary nature. Inasmuch as they speak forth themselves as free, they do so only by knowingly speaking forth a lie. This is, in short, an appeal to the radical creativity ordinarily suppressed by the communal masquerade and role-play, but in no way put an end to the masquerade as such.

By reading Rancière through Melville’s Masquerade, I conclude that our political theologies can identify the emergence of subjective sovereignty and power as a kind of duplicity, where masks do not obscure or defer the revelation of a transcendent truth or ultimate kernel of self-identity, be it that of divine revelation, mystical silence, pantheistic All, or nihilistic void. By reading Melville’s Masquerade through Rancière, the masquerade becomes the political materialisation, or characterization, of truth, of justice, and of the self—such is the denial of essence for the sake of identity. When read together, we identify a re-attuned aesthetic awareness and begin our approach toward a political theology that thinks through the paradoxical, though essential and characteristic, freedom and bondage of self-characterization. Such a thinking is concerned less with the necessity of what is or must be than it is with the immanent possibilities our conceptual categories keep dormant (or worse, repress), and is thus marked by the attention paid to the unthought intensity and excess of self-characterization. In this we become aware of the infinite capacity for new, finite beginnings, and a materialistic/anthropological theology of “a new creation” takes shape.

* It is not merely an anecdotal convenience for one writing about Melville that on several occasions Rancière identifies those denied aesthetic sensibility–what he terms “the demos” (of democracy)–not as slaves but as sailors, and freedom as smelling of salt. Indeed, Rancière asserts that the political project of the classical philosopher, beginning with Plato, has been “an anti-maritime polemic,” in which only the mountains that surrounded Athens protected the city and its politics from the drunken disorder of democracy coming in from the sea: “The sea smells bad. This is not because of the mud, however. The sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy” (On the Shores of Politics, 1-2).