. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

A Teaching (I)

1.  So many scholars read anxiously, with a hope not to learn, not to be discomposed by learning. They fish in indexes looking for confirmation of not being trumped, they skim the surface hoping that no phrase catches them.  The aversion to an event to which one nonetheless comes–like the vague sadism that Adam Phillips describes as a quality of intellectuals who come to the world hoping once again to be disappointed–is a frustrating part of being in this world.  I am not invulnerable to this, but when I feel it I force myself to interrupt the desire to not have an encounter that is so often part of encountering’s activity. (See Lingis for a read of how this desire to protect an aversion to a potentially transformative encounter can be part of a rhythm of belonging.)

2.  I read for my classes for days, and then make intense notes to provide infrastructures for the session (that become destroyed invariably by an aside or an intervention that creates unexpected folds in thought).  But in the last hours of class prep, my teaching notes appear to me to be writing that came from the middle of a dream.  Toward the shifted explanation of what was I reaching? The work of reattaching to an elaborate pedagogical intention that I had yesterday turns out to be a lot like reentering a transferential relationship after a break.  A friend used to tell me that class prep was rote for him, a skimming over material. Sometimes reading feels like skimming, that Barthesian “abrasion” on the surface of the text.  I tell my students that it takes me decades, sometimes, to enable myself to let in a new thought, to let it reorganize fully the way I encounter a problem.  In the meanwhile, it’s managing being in the overpresence of a problem and yet at the kind of distance to which Primo Levi refers when he describes someone’s gaze at him as the deadly quiet staring of beings looking at each other through the wall of an aquarium.

3.  The rubric of this series, A Teaching, was not even an implicit intention when I started thinking about Detachment Theory.  I had thought to write another short book sometime containing my love essays plus a long piece on teaching, and maybe I will. But I had not thought of including teaching as one of the states one enters in which attachments to impairing objects (concepts or epistemologies) are dissolved.  I had thought of teaching as providing infrastructural models for being in the room with something hard, as making new backbones assembled piece by piece for producing new shapes for problems.  Yet I spend my teaching weeks hunched and tipped over and crease-eyed, somewhere within interest and the pressure to become clarifying and eloquent. If I knew the genre of a teaching better I could occupy this circuit with less emotional cost.  Also I could be a better teacher.

4. Meanwhile, my students are writing criticism that many of them would have no interest in reading had they not written it themselves. I was like that too, once: but my undergraduate thesis advisor (Larry Buell) said to me, “Don’t worry, some day someone will say that your work sucks, too.”  That completely life-changing exchange shocked me into developing a way of being in learning as critical solidarity and being in writing in a way that at least I could stand by. Otherwise it’s all like when you look for love and for the defense against its claim on your sovereignty at the same time. One must build defenses against the defense, at least.

5. In a previous post, I said that I wanted to make up new genres, and this scenario of the critic against criticism is one reason why.  The other is that the normative frames are not good for gathering up and disseminating what I am processing. But one just can’t invent a genre ex nihilo: my readers need to be able to ride the wave of whatever recursivity constitutes the affective rhythm and shaping plasticity that a genre provides. That is why I have to learn how to write/teach. This will be a multipart post.

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I haven’t been to your site in a while, L — not for disinterest; actually, you know, quite the opposite and in relation to time — and I came deliberately searching today after an especially crappy day of admin politics; and I don’t feel well. So, I say that to locate where I’m coming from but also b/c I think it’s somehow related to teaching — or an attitude toward teaching — or maybe I’m just eliding any difference between teaching and learning: I think it can be a confrontation with those “impairing concepts” that can motivate the desire (the urgent need) to discover remedies. Though I learn through such encounters, I’m not sure how to recover from (meaning, take from them and deploy whatever is learned) what I learn in those encounters and defend against the seduction of being resigned to it. I don’t know that that makes any kind of sense — I’m trying to say something about the experience of the kinds of encounters that produce impairment rather than dissolve them. That then can — through a deliberate act, today — make me look elsewhere, to find a different way of knowing, of feeling knowledge. There is, I think, this kind of differance to teaching — a sense that what can happen in the microcosm of the classroom is the possibility of experiencing the universal embedded in the radical particular. That’s genre, isn’t it? The form that is knowable in the moment of recognizing its excess?

Oh — despite knowing these are sketchy comments, I am out of the funky rut! thanks for this space; your teaching.

Comment by Kandice

I am about to go to class, having just spent another round of hours grading essays. The class is a seminar for philosophy majors who have been admitted to something called “the intensive track.” I am trying to help them understand the ways of a discipline that calls itself “analytic philosophy,” but isn’t quite that. What it shares with the kind of philosophical work that traces to Frege (back through Carnap and Russell) is a focus on concepts, where concepts can be formally represented as functions from a term to a domain of application. That is not the way concepts work in traditions influenced by Saussurean linguistics. The need to map to a domain is today’s project. The papers encountered whole worlds of trouble for the difficulty of moving from abstract argument to examples. In philosophy, I tend to think that it does more harm than good to let undergraduates study Wittgenstein (this, too, was evident in the papers). What I wish they took from him was a technique of thinking that operated by way of asking what would count as an example of a theoretical technique or model or claim. Is there anything that this conceptual apparatus illuminates? If so, what is it, and what does the apparatus make possible for us? And, most crucially in my field, what is either obscured, or left entirely opaque, or distorted by the conceptual apparatus–what are the limits of its domain of application?

That is what I am going to try to help them with today. I *wish* that teaching in my field invited reflection on different genres. I have been trying to think about how it might. It feels like: there are arguments; there are stakes (primarily, stakes for thought); there are objections, replies, shifts in the burden of argument; there are different ways of representing claims and their purported scope; and every once in a while there is a sentence that shifts the frame for argument. Through it all, I am in a field where people understand themselves as operating in a field where some statements are true and some are false, even though there are contextual accounts of truth and falsehood and where, ultimately, there is always a question about what follows from what, and all kinds of reasons to think that there is no single answer to that question that exhausts and codifies the field.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying ‘Thank you’ for the meditation on teaching. It is making me try to imagine a different way of coping with teaching philosophy.

Comment by Candace

I am the middle of trying to think about the way that psychoanalytic theories of transference and working-through might offer a potentially helpful narrative (and possible strategy) for attending to the kind of defensive criticism you describe in this post. In a class I’m now taking on theory & its relation to the death drive, we talk mostly about the inevitable undoing of comprehension that language effectuates and theory exposes. I have spent the semester wondering about the psychoanalytic version of this story: is the theorizing tendency as impulse to unbind strictly destructive or also a rehabilitative strategy for managing the excessive tension of inhabiting the world, a method of reestablishing constancy where/when it is threatened by the anxiety (in this case, of new information/experience)?
I am wondering whether a description of a particular kind of transference might help us think through this. It comes from Jessica Benjamin’s, “What Angel Would Hear Me?” Having described the “erotics of transference” wherein the search for an all-knowing/comprehending analyst produces an erotics of idealization and containment, Benjamin concludes with an idea about how such a a transference might be resolved. Keeping in mind the ways in which we potentially come to literature/classroom with similarly tremendous transferential stakes, we might think about what transference to an analyst and the defense against learning might share, structurally if not affectively.
Benjamin writes:
“In the heady altitude of high transferential love, the smallest gesture can portend the fall. Both analyst and analysand may experience a magnified volatility of transitional space, which not becomes an unbearable lightness, permitting a frightening susceptibility to metaphors that carry the magnetic charge of the Ideal.
This susceptibility, the idealization of the analyst as Angel, is not only tempered by falling and disillusion, by awareness of destructiveness or humiliation, not only disappointed and dispelled. Rather, the lightness is countered by what feels substantial and grounded, the shared (re)experiencing of pain and loss – the mourning for what was lost as well as for that which can never be. In that experience of pain lies a different kind of aliveness, a different sense of being at one with ourselves. The dissolution of the idealization in these transference erotics may parallel what Winnicott said about the transitional space: it is not internalized as structure but rather becomes distributed in creative and cultural activity. I suggest that the resolution of this erotic transference to the analyst who engenders that space is neither through internalization as ego ideal (although that may still pertain to other aspects of the analyst) nor only through giving up the Ideal (although that, too, is vital). In being given up as “the real thing, out there” the Ideal must be preserved as an inner capacity for certain states of concentrated being” (173).
Benjamin’s idea of resolution through “an inner capacity for certain states of concentrated being” is linked, in my mind, with something you mention in your last post about a resistance to the concept of “working-through.” Berlant: “I have always resisted the deliberateness of the concept of “working through” and think of it with greater derision than it deserves. The concept of working through is too attached to a formal notion of event. So, no doubt my resistance to “working through” is an attachment to an event that I am protecting from being important. But…”
This sentence has been haunting me since I read it because I think that more than just a protective gesture, the dismissal of the conventional concept of “working-through” is also a way of insisting on reparative methods that do *not* revolve around the encrustation of the event but that keep its power potent and maybe unresolved. Perhaps what Benjamin is urging us to think more carefully about is what form we imagine “working-through” to take. That is, perhaps being able to sustain within ourselves the space for desire and disappointment as opened up by the transferential leap is what “working-through” can aim to necessitate. What would this look like in the context of learning/reading? –
I hope the term paper I am trying to think about on this topic is something I can bring back to this blog (and hopefully as something other than evidence of the “critic against criticism”).

Comment by ashtor

Hi all! A few things:
1. Gila: Your first pgh. describes the project of *detachment theory* too, as you must have been implying–pursuing the relations among various states of non-sovereignty (of subjectivity unbound from repetition in relation to an object), some of which produce happily emancipated affects, others of which induce an immiserating destruction of defenses, including kinds of psychosis in the face of a loss of the genres of being as such. (See Cruel Optimism’s 3 cases.) I’ve always loved the Benjamin article, especially with its completely pedagogical and affectively rich sense that a good has happened when people can bear intensified internal states without (any longer) having to use up psychic energy defending against them. But I think there are limits to analogizing the analyst’s and the teacher’s transferential mise en scene and aim. The analyst is providing a world for the patient so that the patient can shift in relation to an impairing object without psychosis (the enduring reliable analytic transaction providing a holding environment amidst the loss of sustaining/defeating defenses).

In contrast the teacher is, as Kandace points out, modeling transference with the scene of a *problem* and hoping that the students will *want also to become unbound* through engagement with the problem, building skills for thought. As Sedgwick argues in Pedagogy of Buddhism, though, the cat often looks at the finger pointing at the moon, instead of the moon: some students look at the teacher instead of the problem but (as you know) this teacher keeps saying, look at/listen to the problem, not me! My classroom introduces mediation/aesthetics as a vacation from the drama of selves, and if the drama of selves can become a different one that’s good, but that’s not my project. (By the way an engineer friend of mine read this entry and told me that our ordinary teaching in the humanities, modelling listening and taking in and being changed by concepts in a way that shifts instincts for thought as such, is only what happens, in engineering, in the one on one tutorial structure of working with advanced graduate students.)

Anyway, I am always seeing the resonance of the psychoanalytic scene in relation to teaching but the consequences of becoming undone are quite different, because of the different place of impersonality in the two settings. I am thinking aloud here.

2. Kandace, I love what you say about the ways frustrations in teaching can induce a creative agency for finding other tethers to the world so as not to become resigned to another failed communication. As for whether “what can happen in the microcosm of the classroom is the possibility of experiencing the universal embedded in the radical particular,” that, I don’t know. I wanted to say yes, but then I am very interested in a classroom that forces us to see the object as an enigma, a question, a throwing of language (media) at a hard problem and shifting that problem somewhere. I am interested in the way a work/problem finds genres of exemplarity and how they establish that (as the universal, the general, the normative, the intimately shared, the taken for granted, the utopian or tragic exception,etc). So I don’t see the classroom as microcosmic of the big world, but as a laboratory for experimenting with making a new event out of old ones. My architecture, in other words, is horizontal and spiky, whereas yours is vertical, a mobius strip standing on its end.

3. Candace, I think what’s interesting about your rendition of philosophy is that *writing* drops out of it. It’s all about argument and concepts. Does that help crystallize the question of genre (for knowledge, and for teaching, and for discipline)?

Comment by supervalentthought

Great blogpost, didn’t thought reading it was going to be so stunning when I read the link.

Comment by oneglette

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