Monday, June 30, 2008

Schoolmasters

Not long ago I finally read my first full book by Jacques Rancière (The Ignorant Schoolmaster). I admit I was a bit wary, not for what I'd already read by the philosopher himself, but from the way he's frequently discussed, his role as the sort of radical French thinker taken up by bobos and artists and impressed humanities grad students: post-Marxist and still "viable" now that we are post the peak of postmodern theory's power. (Or is that a grand narrative? Help!) I think the unfortunate thing about people like Rancière, Žižek, even the late great headscratcher Deleuze is that they don't really piss anyone off. Not really, and not the right people one should want to piss off. I don't use this to paint all of these contemporary philosophers with otherwise the same brush: Žižek is only very intermittently worth reading, whereas Rancière seems to be very worthwhile. (Deleuze has fantastic stuff too, but he's got his limits, as Luc Moullet's sly deflation shows with respect to the Cinema books.) It's more a matter of staying realistic about the alleged radical potential of these figures' works. People sometimes talk about continental theorists like they're talking about indie rock bands. (I admit I've done it myself.) It's a pointless game; it's a form of philosophizing taken from its unsexy envelopment in actual society.

Marx still creeps under a person's skin. His words, his ideas, can rub the right people the wrong way.

The basic argument of The Ignorant Schoolmaster is an echo, refashioned, of Jacotot, a radical egalitarian who tried to demolish pedagogy as such so as to reach the fundamental (equal) intelligence open to all humans. The constantly reinforced division between the learned instructor and the ignorant pupil is stultifying; the point of an emancipated education is not to help people along the continuum of progress but to assume equality as a premise, and to help the pupil realize not the gains that signify shed ignorance but the equal potential which is inborn. The ignorant schoolmaster need not know the subject, only how to act as interlocutor to the pupil who guides herself (more or less). It's an interesting polemic, and as translator Kristin Ross points out, the majority of the text is Rancière subtly mimicking, overlapping Jacotot. Who's ventriloquizing who here? It's a fairly well-written book, a breezy read but also a substantive one.

One of the most important lessons I took away from college about teaching, as a student, was for the instructor to regard the class with forthright, uncomplicated respect for its intelligence. In the context of the system, which is set up with hierarchies and thus hardly amenable to Jacotot's emancipation itself, there is no use downplaying or disguising one's own superior knowledge or even more sharply manifested intelligence. But to tacitly require that student use his intelligence to meet you in the same arena (by wordlessly acknowledging this very intelligence), the instructor takes a vital step in keeping the classroom alive.

(Still to read: Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That's been sitting on my shelf, beckoning, for slightly too long.)

12 comments:

Alex said...

Haven't read the book, but from your description (as well as Wikipedia) Jacotot was heavily influenced by Rousseau's Emile (as I would presume, Ranciere is as well).

Knowledge of philosopher's names is just another piece of social capital, not unlike, in another age, knowledge of Biarritz or Baden-Baden or Newport. A good test of whether someone is serious or trivial in this matter is to test whether they've followed up on the allusions and references in the works - it's easy and hip to name-check Zizek but hard to understand Heidegger.

Zach Campbell said...

Heidegger himself too, to a more limited extent. If someone's read Husserl attentively, that's an even better (likely) sign of serious searching, and if we're sticking to Germanic H's, what of Herder or Hamann? I read some stuff on Benjamin recently indicating that he didn't like to read fashionable books until well after they were fashionable. That's a man after my own heart (though if I followed it completely I wouldn't read Benjamin).

(Can't recall off the top if B wrote this in a letter, or if Adorno or Scholem passed on the info in something they wrote...)

Not that I've yet read much H. myself. Shamefully I am still "trivial in this manner," I must admit, tunneling & tunneling but moving slowly. I do have an amusing anecdote about when I was actually reading a bit of Being and Time in the park a couple weeks ago...

Your comment touches upon what forms the content for a (probable) upcoming post, of which I've already written a few words.

Zach Campbell said...

In retrospect: I was trying to be a little tongue-in-cheek with the first graf of my previous comment, but I don't think it's come off well. (Talking about philosophers like indie bands.) If it's not clear, of course, simply "knowing" and being able to drop the names of older, more obscure, less modish figures is on its own no cure against the imperatives of fashion. The search for 'newness' is ubiquitous and omnivorous ...

Alex said...

Isn't this the same question as we encounter in Hippias Greater and Minor? Who is really the wise man and who the sophist or faker?

Relating back to our discussion of Obama's rhetoric a while back - I was just reading Avempace's The Governance of the Solitary and found it wonderfully apropos to that topic, as well as charming in general.

Zach Campbell said...

Isn't this the same question as we encounter in Hippias Greater and Minor?

I wouldn't know--as you're aware I'm way behind you on the Greeks, not to mention probably everything else. (Signed, the Faker.)

Alex said...

"(Signed, the Faker.)"

The wise man is the one who knows that he does not know.

Andy Rector said...

I am told two things by a guy whose name I'm tired of dropping, but a guy I assure you knows his political philosophy and film criticism:

-Ranciere's books on worker-philosophers eg. Les nuits des prolétaires, and in general his early books of worker's history are the most invigorating and necessary. They're not yet part of the wave of Ranciere translations (let's ask why).

-Ranciere is one of the greatest living film critics. Again, this is something I was told by someone who is alive to all French and English film criticism. When I read one of Ranciere's film essays on LA CHINOISE in his book FILM FABLES, I thought, my god - the negotiation of thought between political theory, secular Marxisms of the time, Godard's forms, details of the film...- in France, I thought, the thought on film is advanced. No. Ranciere is exceptional; this person told me; the greatest living film critic.

Studying Pedro Costa's work steadily for over a year now I've read nearly everything that's been written on his films in english, french, and portuguese. I can say without a doubt that Ranciere's piece in TRAFIC on COLOSSAL YOUTH is best piece on this film. It manages to touch upon nearly every plane and character of the film; it proposes 3 or 4 ideas about each plane/character; and all in only about 1000 words.

I agree with what you say about Marx....Zizek is a comfort zone.

HarryTuttle said...

Hey Andy, I noticed you had a piece on Ventura in the latest issue of the French Vertigo too. Since you've read everything, could you let me know what articles are missing on this Costa link page? I try to keep it as comprehensive as possible... It would be greatly appreciated.

Andy Rector said...

Thanks for noticing Harry!
As soon as I get the chance
I'll email you a few things for your marvellous Costa resource page (I'll use the email address on your blogger profile; let me know if you have a different email address - been meaning to contact you...).
In the meantime: so, you must've read Ranciere's LA LETTRE DE VENTURA...do I exaggerate? Of course, one never wants to say something is "the best" but doesn't it tend to much more of COLOSSAL's garden than most? His piece in the forthcoming Ricardo Matos Cabo edited bi-lingual book is also admirably lacking mystification, lucid, beautiful, brief, charged, extremely minute in dealing with few moments (for example, from the wine bottles to the museum in COLOSSAL): "POLITIQUE DE PEDRO COSTA" -

yours
andy

HarryTuttle said...

Well I don't think I've read as much as you have on this film yet, but I remember this Rancière lettre was very good. And in general Costa's film has been overlooked by the critics who wrote on it...
Yes you can use my gmail address.

dave said...

Zach,
Heidegger is a great and worthy task. I love his "On the Origin of the Work of Art," which should be / is an essential text for those of us who approach the image as a subject. He's also a great entryway into certain Greeks (Parmenides, Anaximander, Heraclitus) if you're reading his post-Being and Time work, which I find especially powerful.

Husserl and Heidegger have a weird dynamic that I haven't quite sussed out yet, but the Germanic H I'd venture most worthy of serious philosophical attention via Heidegger is probably Hölderlin (but so much is lost in translation!)

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