Ignorant teaching and emancipation

Some old Rancière but good Rancière: selections below from The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987, tr. 1991).

The book is from a period in Rancière’s theory focused on proletarian histories, one that predates his focus on politics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, one of the most striking passages in the book is the last reproduced here that does deal with aesthetics and does so in nearly utopian fashion.

In it, Rancière examines artists in particular as “ignorant schoolmasters,” those who seek to level out knowledge acquisition’s traditional hierarchy as they teach. It offers me a good working distinction between what art does/what artists do and what visual culture writ large does not.

Rancière writes that all work is a means of expression for artists. For them, experience alone is not enough–fulfillment comes in the sharing of an experience and the feelings it provokes. A society of emancipated teachers and students would be a society of artists, he concludes.

Rancière is unrelenting in the demands he makes on educators: they must do nothing short of liberating their students. However, he also gives lucid and pragmatic instructions about how this liberation might be brought about.

– Relate everything new to that which was learned previously.

– ABS, always be searching. Perhaps more importantly, make it your duty to keep your students searching, always.

– Emancipate yourself by knowing yourself and understanding the way your work contribute to or resists societal systems.

– Stumble without shame. Teach your students to do so, too.

Food for thought this October, a time when the novelty of learning has faded since the start of the school year and as the first obstacles–the ones that will eventually constitute the lesson that will endure–are encountered by students and instructors alike…

Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. 18

A book is that totality: a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one can understand each of these new things, find the ways to say what one sees in it, what one thinks about it, what one makes of it. This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it. 20

This is the way that the ignorant master can instruct the learned one as well as the ignorant one: by verifying that he is always searching. Whoever looks always finds. He doesn’t necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to the thing that he already knows. What is essential is the continuous vigilance, the attention that never subsides without irrationality setting in–something that the learned one, like the ignorant one, excels at. The master is he who keeps the researcher on his own route, the one that he alone is following and keeps following. Still, to verify this kind of research, one must know what seeking or researching means. And this is the heart of the method. To emancipate someone else, one must be emancipated oneself. One must know oneself to be a voyager of the mind, similar to all other voyagers: an intellectual subject participating in the power common to intellectual beings. How does one accede to this self-knowledge? “A peasant, an artisan (father of a family), will be intellectually emancipated if he thinks about what he is and what he does in the social order.” 33

“Know yourself” no longer means, in the Platonic manner, know where your good lies. It means come back to yourself, to what you know to be unmistakably in you. Your humility is nothing but the proud fear of stumbling in front of others. Stumbling is nothing; the wrong is in diverging from, leaving one’s path, no longer paying attention to what one says, forgetting what one is. So follow your path. 57

The artist’s emancipatory lesson, opposed on every count to the professor’s stultifying lesson, is this: each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others. The artist needs equality as the explicator needs inequality. And he therefore designs the model of a reasonable society where the very thing that is outside of reason–matter, linguistic signs–is traversed by reasonable will: that of telling the story and making others feel the ways in which we are similar to them. We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. 70-71


An island of language in an ocean of traces

Just finished Gayatri Spivak’s, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Of the essays in this compilation, I found particular inspiration in “Sign and Trace,” written on the artwork of Anish Kapoor.

MY RED HOMELAND, Anish Kapoor, 2003. Wax and oil-based paint, steel arm, motor. Installation view. Accessed at http://lipmag.com/arts/exhibition-review-anish-kapoor/

MY RED HOMELAND, Anish Kapoor, 2003. Wax and oil-based paint, steel arm, motor. Installation view. Accessed at http://lipmag.com/arts/exhibition-review-anish-kapoor/

Spivak writes:

Just after I had my first walk through Kapoor’s studio, I spoke to a group in Austria: “We will have to be able to think that for each one of us and groups of us, globalization is an island of languaging in a field of traces. Just descriptively, upstream from politics, globalization is an island of languaging in a field of traces.” 492

She goes on to explain that we shouldn’t think of the global in terms of exchange that “privileges host or target, ceaselessly and indefinitely” (493). Instead, globalization means that we humans are in the peculiar position of being bounded or restricted by the nature of our national, social, racial and gendered circumstances, yet we live constantly alert to the radically different circumstances of others beyond our boundaries that we can’t quite decipher, that we don’t totally understand. Spivak repeats,

…globalization makes us live on an island of language in an ocean of traces, with uncertain shores ever on the move. This “we” extends all the way from those who can view Anish Kapoor at Guggenheims to the unending circulation of labor export from the global South. Each member or collectivity belonging to this tremendously large group understands one or a few languages and is sure that the other organizations of noises are meaning-full but not for him or her. Language and trace are here in a gender-differentiated taxonomy rather than merely opposed. 493

For those of us working in visual studies, the end of this essay is especially thought-provoking. Spivak confirms that images are “islands of meaning” in a different way than language is. Images exist in an ocean of traces, sure, but they are traces, too, and in a less definitive way than words can be. Like all of the sand suspended in each watery wave, images make us aware that the distinction between our island of sense and the global around us isn’t as drastic or clear cut as we might think.

Poetry from the trenches

Going to MoMA’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925” was like a French New Year’s feast with a boggled mind afterward instead of a groaning belly: there was fois gras. There were oysters. Champagne, white wine, red wine, digestif. Lobster, roast, and quail. And of course, the moelleux.

Discoveries for me were:

Josef Albers’ Gitterbild (1921), a droll and clever teaching tool that transformed wire and industrial glass samples into a modernist study of color resonance and texture,

a whole wall of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions–abstract portraits, landscapes and still lifes,

a 1979 reconstructed model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), which sat ambitiously and quite uneasily in the gallery, surrounded by other Constructivist masterworks


Suzanne Duchamp’s Solitude entonnoir (1921), which entered into melancholy conversation with all of the grinders and rotaries and mills in the work of brother Marcel (dutifully represented in painting, sculpture and cinema).

The most extraordinary, however, was an extremely rare copy of Guillame Apollinaire’s Case d’Armons (1915). Apollinaire published the (I believe) hand-bound booklet of 21 poems on graph paper with the help of two sergeant friends from the trenches during the First World War. The booklet sat in a vitrine, covered by a velvet powder blue cloth. Visitors approached and lifted the cloth, perhaps expecting to see something illicit, and were met with the incredible fragility and power of aesthetics amidst war.

Ta punition, c’est d’être toi

“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.

A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.

It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.

“The [story of cinema] starts with the human body, or an action,” Carax tells Interview magazine.

“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”

The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?

Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.

Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.


Programmer extraordinaire and dear friend Peter Taylor writes with terrible news: WORM, the beloved “Institute for Avant-Garde Recreation” that made the year that I lived in Rotterdam so wonderful, has been shuttered, at least in its original form (scroll down for English).

Says Peter,

Just before the move to our new building in Rotterdam’s city centre last September, the national fund on which WORM depended for around 50% of her subsidy was scrapped. A fund with a wider remit was established as a replacement, but WORM’s application here was unsuccessful.

In June, WORM’s board and directors decided that the best response to this intensely difficult situation was to implement a plan to restructure, ending the work contracts of its programmers, and ceasing as a programme-creating organisation, beginning again in the New Year as a network and facilitating venue.

My work contract will end over the next few weeks and unfortunately, even with increased support from Rotterdam’s city council; WORM did not have the plan to reinstate this or any other programming positions.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? Lives are dulled worldwide. Good art and those who advocate for it create a kind of butterfly effect in the art, hearts and minds of others:

Thanks to Peter’s risk-taking as a film programmer, I saw VALIE EXPORT’s Invisible Adversaries (1976) on a bitterly cold February (March?) night at their old Achterhaven space.


The WORM as I knew it, in its Achterhaven space. Photo with kind permission from the Flickr stream of Terekhova

I loved the film, and began to study it. I traveled to Vienna to interview VALIE EXPORT, gave a talk on her film at 2012’s College Art Association Conference, and taught her to my students in the course, Art Since 1960. One ARTS major who wasn’t actually in my course heard me talk about EXPORT, and decided to write his final research paper on her. I’m now finishing an article on the film. The gift of a 6-euro screening had a ripple effect from Rotterdam to upstate New York to Vienna to Los Angeles.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? I hope what happens is that Rotterdammers and their friends demand that art back. I don’t know the complexities involved in the city council’s decision to slash arts funding, but I do know that if they would honor the promise they originally made WORM when it moved venues, I would donate generously to its survival.

Peter puts it best:

Please keep on telling me, telling my colleagues, telling each other and telling strangers that you find this quest to confront audiences – week in, week out – with the boring, the thought-provoking, the absurd, the subversive, and the sublime, absolutely essential. Hopefully then, we can still get somewhere together!