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

Sight and Site II: Home

This is the second in a series of reflections that evolve from the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Home (2009) is a film that didn’t get anywhere near the attention and critical acclaim it deserved when it was in theaters several years ago. It is a film that ingeniously explores an environment as allegory. My students and I were in awe (admittedly, sometimes agonized awe) of the radical associative openness that director Ursula Meier constructs and sustains for the entire hour and a half of her fictional story.

Set nowhere in particular in France (but actually filmed in Bulgaria), Home takes place within a family that dwells at the edge of an abandoned highway. Abruptly, the highway is reopened. The reasons for its reopening remain as mysterious as its closure– and the family’s move to the house beside it ten years earlier, for that matter.

Is the highway a metaphor for the “information highway” of images and data that saturates 21st century life? Is it rather a psychoanalytical symptom of the traumatic passage to adulthood, the transformations that this nuclear family is on the verge of experiencing in their interrelationships? Can we interpret it as the repressed past of the family’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), surging back to threaten the present? Is the highway just a highway, a wound cut through the paradisiacal landscape surrounding the family?

Home nurtures all of these associations, and more. It is a fascinating, funny and discomforting mediation on the seductive Gezelligheid but also the sure stagnation encompassed in the notion of home, hearth and belonging.

To catalyze our discussion of the film, our seminar read three diverse texts.

We began with selections from Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space. We weighed Bachelard’s thesis that we create in our lived spaces physical extensions of our various psychologies.

We then contrasted spatial poetics to the spatial dystopia inherent in Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992). We had a great debate on the continuing merits of Augé’s paradigm in a quotidian so throughly pockmarked with experiences of non-place.

In every seminar session, I include a reading that represents a clear counterpoint to the meanings evoked in the film we have studied. This represents a challenge to students to argue dialectically between two diverse narratives of place and the practices of looking that they do or do not solicit.

In contrast to Home, we discussed the phenomenon of smart homes. Smart homes represent a domestic application of technological advances in entertainment, building automation, controlled sensory environments and data analytics. We read Lynn Spigel’s “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” which wisely examines the gender implications of technological homes as threat and promise. We discussed Google’s corporate interests in diversifying their stronghold over informational products to include smart home technologies, and what the implications of that prospective market lockdown might be.

Our session ended with Home‘s ambivalent ending, scored sublimely to Nina Simone’s cover of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington, 1957). I’ll leave you with that wonderful song and the encouragement to view this film sometime soon.

Sight and Site I: Oblivion, apocalypse, film and media

This is the first in a series of reflections I’ll post that are related to the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Transatlantic travel is always my chance to catch up on all of the films with talking animals, explosions and successful romantic pairings that I tend to miss out on during the school year.

This December in the air, I treated myself to a marathon viewing of interplanetary disaster:  Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), World War Z (Marc Forster 2013) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). The plane binge was in large part inspired by Ed Halter’s smart and troubling op-ed in December’s Artforum about the recent bumper crop of catastrophe movies. Ed writes,

…[T]he boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times“Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction authorKim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.

To these, I’ll add a couple more that Ed’s piece brought to mind:

Fredric Jameson’s Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana Press, 1992).  If, as Jameson claims, late 20th century conspiracy films are “allegories of each other, and of the impossible representation of the social totality itself,” (5), we might conclude from Ed’s observations that 21st century disaster films represent the total impossibility of the social.

– Mark Fisher’s ultra-noir “Its Easier to Imagine the End of the World than the End of Capitalism,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 307-312. In it, Fisher also points to turn-of-the-21st century films that disseminate “‘capitalist realism,’ the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (307)

– Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent two-part series in the New Yorker, “Annals of Extinction: The Lost World.” Kolbert ends her reportage with the bittersweet, Proustian pleasure of scattering fossils from the Palaeozoic era or earlier amongst fast food debris of the Anthropocene.

Ed’s piece in Artforum concludes,

In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of ElysiumAfter Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.

I’m planning to make this proposal of militarization disturbing to my students with some of the films in the spring senior seminar I’m teaching: Sight and Site in Film and Media. (Disturbing…but rewarding!)

The class will watch a range of films–experimental and commercial, short and long, documentary and fiction–from 1926 to 2013. We’ll be thinking together about two different aspects of mapping and place: 1.) the different ways that diagrammatic or illustrative site is employed in film narrative and 2.) the different ways that digital media narrativizes our sight of actual places and maps. Over the next months I’ll probably write a number of posts inspired by the class.

I’ll teach Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) together with La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), selections from Marc Augé’s Oblivion, the Mark Fisher excerpt mentioned above, and Mark Andrejevic’s “The Work of Being Watched: Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure.” I want students to consider how Oblivion and La Jetée are both social panegyrics, but I also want them to use the screening and texts together as an unexpected springboard for considering their everyday experiences with surveillance, interactive screens, and memory.

In lieu of an ending: an “inspiration board” for Sight and Site in Film and Media that I sent to my class to whet their appetite (click to enlarge):

FMST 400