. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


A Teaching (IV)

1.  Uncanny Hollows

Not at home in a discipline, I have my own, daily trading sleep for the hope that some time before the day starts might be spent on some thing besides immediate production. During the school year, though, class prep eats virtually all of that time, as even familiar material feels underprocessed in the scene of ongoing teaching.

This year the precarious time between sleep and performance has become an uncanny hollow.  My study is a study in clutter and windows. Usually, I ease into its quiet distributions like a coat thrown onto a chair. But now, the space is fraught. Cries start hurtling through the walls at around 6 and punch the day out randomly but regularly. The sadness hurts my heart–I want to say literally–and starts me hiving off into reveries, just so I can breathe. At first I assumed that the sounds were breakthrough dreaming, a thing I get when I am in sleep arrears.  But then I realized that the beats came from an external source–Lorraine, the woman living above me, unraveling from Alzheimer’s.

Isn’t dementia always precocious?

Her guardian tells me that Lorraine is like a baby now, but unteachable:  laughing and cooing when she isn’t howling or sleeping, with nothing but an emotional present to live in, no memory, no affect management, just variation between the high notes and the low according to impulse.  She hates transitions.  As the day is full of them, it’s not good.  She’s an exposed nerve registering the minor and ephemeral variations that, for people not in dementia, add up to nothing, or sometimes, a mood.  If I’m going to work at home there is no place to turn that is free from the noise of her personality shifting around. I could say the same thing for myself, though. My literal eavesdropping forces me to italicize as though there is no writing but a pushy kind to convey that pressure on my sternum.

This howling has provided the soundtrack for A Teaching all the way through, and its streaming right now makes me lose my focus and confuses me about what I should be listening to, my noise or hers. For example, I can’t access the affect that made me want to write about the two teaching films I have seen in the last month–Daniels’ Precious and Cantet’s Entre les Murs (The Class).  My notes tell me that these two neocolonial films seemed worth commenting on v. education as a desirous and antagonistic scene of multiple sovereignty-dissolving encounters. I wanted to think aloud about the breaking and remaking of schooled subjects into subjects who deserve to be precious.

2.  Uncanny Valleys

In the last episode, I described to you the slapstick pleasures of encountering myself as a bad student.  I loved my teacher not for anything she was experiencing or anything I learned but because she was teaching me. Along with all of the affective noise (anxiety, shame, ambition, confusion, interest, gratitude), simply I loved the as-suchness of the situation. I think this warming minimal satisfaction has something to do with the very low bar of survival marketed as relief and repair by Precious and the thin membrane against utter self-loathing erected by the teacher in The Class.

The loud, intensely revved up trailer for Precious took me by surprise, and I stiffened through it as though being waterboarded: That girl didn’t have a shot, I whispered, by which I meant at attachment–and who knows what else.  The trailer is brilliant, starting slow and kitschy and then leaping into an intensity of trauma and relief so fast and thick that my aesthetic and political defenses arose breathlessly to be drowned out by the overloaded atmosphere made by the fast cuts and soundtrack. Relentless is one of the film’s keywords, and its aesthetic looked to be that way.

The arc of the trailer signals one claim of the film:  that because mass cultural sentimental fantasy provides a place for developing skills at self-inflation and self-idealization, it develops in consumers an affective capacity that can become the foundation for future flourishing in real time. Someone who otherwise has nothing might sustain a skill at attachment to the world and to life through these fantasies of being loveable (attracting the gaze) without having to earn it (doing service); she might thereby endure, say, a mother’s abuse and remain whole enough to recognize genuine reciprocity when it’s offered.

The tacit message is that a training in modes of fantasy can be downloaded into a realist affective epistemology, and can induce a transformed intuition about how to be human through the exchange of idealizations. In Precious the less bad world is introduced by a series of people who are in the largest sense social workers–educators and welfare administrators who generate a kind of radiant presence that enables Precious/Clarice to begin to trust the world. That’s one version of the story, anyway. Education as attachment therapy.

Precious looks, though, like one of  those teacher-heroism films.  The not-precious-enough person meets a teacher who sees the beautiful sculpture in the stone, which in this case means providing training in writing autobiography. Autobiography in Precious is a genre for learning how to repair the relation between desiring and being deserving. It doesn’t have much to do with actual life history. The subject in need of repair is a huge absorbent archive of life stories held tenderly in the body that has been abandoned by love and the genre of aspirational autobiography is a scrapbook-cum-grandiosity archive. (I mean “grandiosity” in Kohut‘s positive sense.)

But, in addition to circulating the belief that being taught to convert fantasy into an autobiography of one’s own capacities is a precondition for survival and flourishing, Precious is a love letter to the welfare state whose administrators are its heroes. The film’s realism is not only in the penumbra of Precious/Clarice’s family but also in its story about the need to have personal connections in the grey economy of loyalty and obligation that lubricates the state and social services to rescue this person and not that one.

Ms. Rain, the heroic, loving, boundariless, selfless, lesbian teacher in the film–the woman who knows how to love women, unlike Precious/Clarice’s toxic carnivorous heterosexual heap of a mother–can save Precious/Clarice finally not just because the teacher is a virtue machine or a good teacher of skills. From the start, Ms. Rain is not valuable because she knows anything difficult, but because she is emotionally reliable to her students, who need to feel that there’s a cushion, a space of grace in the system from which they’re on the verge of being exiled. Also, as they have the knowledge that she elicits, she is the subject who is supposed to listen, not supposed to know. See Jessica Benjamin.

But Ms. Rain is finally heroic because she has a Rolodex, a telephone, and favors she is owed. She is networked, has personal relations in a social service nervous system that can get Precious and her kids away from toxic mothers and into institutional spaces where people dance not in fantasy but in rooms that can be seen (like the little matchgirl sees) through foggy windows when the snow is falling.  The hero is the personal networks that turn the welfare state into so many alternative temporary homes. Social democracy surmounts the  family and meritocratic fantasy. Love is fine, but networks and connections are the condition of surviving and thriving.

This is the real double-message of Precious: we need a social democracy in which women’s intimate public can be activated to save lives. You’re sick, I know a doctor.  You’re confused, I have a friend who told me a story that might clarify things. Your mother’s abusing you, I have some friends who have friends who make decisions. The sentimental realist tradition tracked by The Female Complaint returns, along with all the never-archaic-enough racism that shapes this tradition (The darker you are, the darker your life is. It makes me so angry). All of the women in this film agree that a grown woman literally sacrifices and is sacrificed en route to survival, but the takeaway point is that these are lessons that can be remobilized as teachings and people can be half-way saved.

I have been rereading Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, thinking about the ways he separates being pedagogically out of control from being non-sovereign. Rancière advocates there replacing the academic commitment to uplifting the ignorant through  modes of explanation and explication that affirm and always reproduce an inequality between who knows and can speak and who doesn’t and must absorb. He replaces this relation by a tableau of education based on everyone coming to the table that holds the book  they cannot yet read with a commitment to perform an equality of  explanatory capacity.  Rancière calls the ordinary inequality between teacher and student “stultification” (literally, the meeting of unsound or foolish minds): “A knowledge of this sort makes for a frightening solitude.”  What he offers instead is “emancipation,” where everyone moves from what they know to what they don’t yet know, in whatever kind of syncopation they can manage.

In Precious the teacher is a quite different thing, a lucky encounter.  After the first moment of the very dark-skinned Precious visiting the white liberal toughlove Principal’s office, the film’s consciousness of inequality peters out, and there is only familial harm and the grace of institutionally-mediated repair. Ms. Rain thinks she is healing by giving people their own stories about  themselves: but in the novel and the film Precious/Clarice is just incoherently drawn–often eloquent in her refusals to speak what the mother/state/school wants, eloquent in the sentences that she decides to say, already talented at math, yet at unpredictable times melodramatic in her insistence that she is a heap of pieces of a carcass (a heart, an egg, fried chicken) that add up to nothing.  The teacher gives her uplift opportunities:  believe in yourself, write your story, become positive and narratively eloquent, win prizes,and build the evidence that you deserve  self-esteem (you’re special, unlike dropouts).  Act well, then I will help you, and I will love you.

But love is not what saves Precious–what saves her is her development of a willingness to become available to be the kind of a case that the empaths in the social service nervous system can circulate so that she might become one of the ones who has a realistic shot, after all, at happiness. (Her mother is also willing to be a case, but–until she meets Mariah Carey–she assumes a wig, a soft voice, and the right cadence of call and response to the queries of social workers,  who then do not notice that she is producing case-study subjectivity for the state to recognize and file away. Watching the mother fragment when the truth becomes one of her social service personas is a high point of the film’s mess of realisms.)

The Class tells some of the same story:  I’ll just focus on one thread at the moment. It takes place in a French literature class taught in a a French school by François Marin, a maybe-gay white man, to diverse middle school students (transnationally, racially, gender-diverse). This is clearly an end-of-empire movie where the end isn’t coming quickly enough, and the empire is hanging on by its fingertips to the idea of a national monoculture imprinted through education. The maybe gay part matters, because a lot of the institutional, racial, and nationalist power tensions in the classroom are played out as sexual politics; among the men tensions about masculinity are played out also in the global politics of soccer/football.

Marin teaches to them a lesson in Enlightenment subjectivity: he gives them Anne Frank’s Autobiography and forces them to reenact the sensibility of it, to read it aloud. It’s alien to them, that genre of extended reflective entextualized being in the world. Then he assigns the students to write their own autobiography. One student (Souleymane) shows that he can tell a story with images and captions but not as an aspirational narrative reflecting on likes, dislikes, and desires to add up to something. He associates his refusal with his Islamic beliefs, registered in a tattoo that translates, “Unless you speak the truth, be quiet.”  His problems lining up with white/French pedagogical authority get him expelled and probably exiled from France back to his Mali “village.” Meanwhile, the teacher’s other feisty students become sweeter and sweeter as the year progresses and that’s supposed to be seen as maturing. The French educational context is too complex for me to get into here at the end of a too long post, but it’s a great, depressing film about teaching as productive destruction and the disciplinary marks of becoming mature, like having an autobiography. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the uncanny valley is a controversial descriptor of the aversion readers/viewers feel when an artwork has too much realism.


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I had been reading Michael Thomas’ “Man Gone Down” (2007) in tandem with this post and was struck by the ways both Thomas’ text and “Precious” dramatize the ambivalent relation of identity to autobiography and autobiography as self-healing, what you call, “a genre for learning how to repair the relation between desiring and being deserving” which “doesn’t have much to do with actual life history” (Berlant). Specifically, I am wondering about the way that language as a means for self-coherence is at once employed and problematized in both texts. I have in mind the scene toward the movie’s end when Precious/Clarice breaks down in the classroom wondering why no one loves her and Ms.Rain reassures her. I found that scene, and a few others that similarly explored conventional declarations of loss, exhaustion, need and desire, out of sync with the voice of Precious herself, even as I’m not sure what her voice is except as a presence or rhythm that seemed absent or tone-deaf during these dramatic exclamations. It seemed, in what I hope is not a misreading, that in such moments Precious is dutifully arriving at the recitation of predetermined sentiments as if being trained in the vocabulary of traumatized victimhood rather than speaking from somewhere incoherent but more in tune with a voice her own? (What would an individual voice even sound like? and is the problematics of conceptualizing the emergence of anything like an individual voice linked with what you write on about subjectivity vis a vis non-sovereign ideation?)

I think that you are saying here that Precious’ “willingness to become available to be the kind of a case that the empaths in the social service nervous system can circulate so that she might become one of the ones who has a realistic shot” is problematic precisely for the ways it depends, at least in part, upon the development of an autobiography and that makes me wonder whether there are moments of something that being a good student doesn’t account for or subsume, her moments of silence, the illegibility of her expressions that haunts the film and that seems constantly to return us, against the pull of linguistic sense-making, to the materiality of her sensations and experience.

Reflecting on the difficulty of writing about what the narrator of “Man Gone Down,” repeatedly refers to as the experience of being a society’s “test-case,” a passage in Thomas attends, I think, to some of what surfaces in these questions of survival and identity in “Precious.”
Thomas writes:
“I don’t remember all of my desperations: desperate to publish before this author died; desperate to record before that singer passed – either to have them validate me or for me to tell them that they were wrong. i don’t know when everything got so turned around. I once was desperate to have writing do things, to contain transformative powers, but writing has never done anything for me. It has never been cathartic or therapeutic. It names things, locates them, or at least when I’m writing, I can pretend to be involved in some kind of management of my netherworlds. I start with a feeling, perhaps even more substantial – an image attached to that feeling. I write something, even finish. Sometimes I think it is good. But the feeling is still there, unchanged, but now with a name and a reason for being, legitimized and calling for a permanent place in me. I can’t do this. I am desperate because I know rage is still rage, sorrow still sorrow, and the only actions that can give them voice each demands is to destroy and to wail. I am desperate because I write to the minivan and all that lies between it and me. I push a pen across a page, gesturing at symbol, metaphor – pasting a collage of willfully mute and deaf images beside each other within some self-conscious vehicle for masquerades as story. But I get sidetracked in the production, ambushed in my own head. I trick myself for a moment, believe the words arranged just so will metamorphose into a balm. Part of me doesn’t believe. It tries to conceive the minds as knowing agents, faceless editors, and book review consumers. But part of me goes with it, chasing the words that follow the image as it moves up like braiding smoke offerings of ritualistic purification. It will never sell. I scribble a line across the page beneath the last jumble of words to signal I am done” (277-8).

What are here the twin preoccupations with professional success/consumerism and the ameliorative potency of language is related, in the logic of this comment at least, with the relation, in “Precious,” of becoming a social case/autobiographer and creating a voice for selfhood that reflects something real but can also crack (itself, others). If writing/survival depends upon a certain renunciation of the search for precisely the sensations for which there can be no “balm,” then what is the alternative to “teaching as productive destruction and the disciplinary marks of becoming mature, like having an autobiography” (Berlant)? Is Thomas’ gesture, “I scribble a line across the page beneath the last jumble of words” an annihilating response that refuses the template that “sells” or something else?

And lastly, I am interested in the way metaphors of musicality have appeared throughout my response and what, if anything, this has to do with the acoustics of your post. If writing is a kind of choice of which noise to track and trauma is a cacophony that needs the relief of linguistic interruption, then is one version of your question about writing how to survive (as storyteller) making music (sense, autobiography) that also makes sounds (discordant strains, gestures, jumbles, silence)?

Comment by ashtor

Overheard and transcribed in Ex Libris, Thursday, January 14

Four undergraduate men, history and philosophy majors, juniors and seniors. One doesn’t speak.

A: When Vogler is lecturing, Lauren Berlant is like one of us; she puts herself in the place of a student.

B: Well, it’s not her field; she doesn’t know about philosophical ethics.

A: Have you read the last four posts on Lauren Berlant’s teaching blog?

B: Yes, she’s just being Lauren Berlant about it.

C: What?

A: She has a way of obsessing about working that is characteristic of her.

B: Caught up in a dense tangle of words.

C: I get the impression that she’s like doven in head first just completely and is unsure if it’s tolerable.

A: What freaks us out is that it’s a performance of some kind.

B: She’s separated herself from what she’s doing and it’s disingenuous. She’s still a professor. She’s got all the power.

A: I don’t think it’s in bad faith.

C: You can overcome the power dynamic, and it feels like she’s trying.

Comment by Robin

Lauren’s many gifts as an interlocutor include the ability to assess on the fly her own motivations in asking the questions she does. I love that these students have noticed this but do not quite know what to do with this information except engage in hero worship disguised as critique.

Comment by Robin




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