. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

A Teaching (II)

1.  I have been teaching this term two courses that I meant to be identical but at different levels of intensity and abstraction, but my intentions (I typed intensions, which is more correct, since my intentions have stretched) (and I told my students that there are no asides in the classroom) (which is the same thing as saying there is no no in the unconscious) have little to do with what has happened, absolute divergence. As I described in the last post, teaching classes is for me like writing: if, in advance, I overprepare, then become blank and excited before I set out the prospective shape of things, and if, during the time of extension, I find it all absorbing and difficult, and if, afterwards, I can’t exactly remember what happened, not even the affect, and if I have to excavate the encounter as though it involves material from a therapeutic hour, that’s when I know that something has happened.

2.  John Forrester claims that the analysand can only lie, as all the story she has is noise that fills the space of what she knows but cannot know yet, or bear to know. That is true about teaching, too. It is impossible to know who one is as a teacher. The relation between what one intended and what one did–even if one’s own sense of things were to govern the evaluation of efficacy–can’t be determined solipsistically, not only because we teach other people as singularities and as groups, not only because teaching them is so very different than reaching them, not only because the feedback loops are so varied and out of synch (when they’re not out of commission altogether), but also because the relation between information transmission and all of the other activities within the scene of teaching is mostly unconscious, seat of the pants, in the normative ether, and atmospheric, rather than eventilized. I cannot imagine myself as a student encountering myself as a teacher.

But, in contrast to the analysand, I do not lie when I am teaching:I know when things are being described well and I know when we are going somewhere uncharted. I’m explicit about this, too: I say that I don’t know what I don’t know, that I made a mistake, that I fear that things are not happening when discussions are weird, that the quality of the feedback loop is unsatisfying if I sense that people are not learning. I try to keep things ratcheted up. I know when what they came for is available to them and when it’s still inadequately gathered up in clarifying narrative, reference, and context-building. But knowing that it’s available does not mean that teaching has happened.

That’s really the main difference between the classroom and the analytic scene, but it’s a big one.  Not knowing is the inevitable experience of therapy. There, language and bodies carry what is known into domains that cut through what is said. In class, though, I have a mission to model relations of clarity to unclarity, to talk about the ways we might be able to know the contours of something difficult more fully if we had different skills to encounter it. I then show them the beginnings of an encounter with the problem and map out what skills the people in the conversation might need to build, including me, and students add to that pile, when it works. In any given 90 minute session we can only begin to open up an approach to the material that is being mediated by the material material that is on the syllabus. In the next class we try again, aiming toward a new opening that’s different from the other one.  There is never enough time.  Only time for a first (half-averted, distorted) encounter, then another.

3.  This term I am speechless in front of the material I am teaching, and not because it’s about trauma and suffering.  I have been struggling also with my muteness in front of the material with which I am writing as well,  maybe it’s related. Also, it’s a lot of new material, and it takes a process for me to let things in. In another part of this series I will tell a story about an encounter I had in my car a few Sundays ago with Sarah Schulman, who tried to teach me how to write, and the difference was hilarious. For the time being, though, my life is defined by this: I have constructed two out of joint courses that are similar topically but mainly in the way they stuff a fist in my throat.

4. I take that image from Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life and Other Stories, which I am inexplicably bringing to my graduate class on trauma, for which I have named this genre, a teaching.

5.  Gloeckner’s book is a heap of remnants, attempts to tell a story whose plot is about her being fucked and out of luck but never out of desire.  Lucky for her, slapstick is in her arsenal to help her see her way through life: slapstick, with its big, violent, hyperbole lodged in the ordinary and shaped by startling rhythms of sequencing that always peter out into an ellipsis or faux finality. Slapstick is the “WTF?” and the “FML!” as best (imaginary) friends.

Gloeckner’s drawing always involves new economies of rawness (exposure) and defense (close-up, distance, clutter, word/image intensity, child-cartoonish distortion).  Her stories are straightforward comic sentimentality:  tragedy with exclamation points. (!!! !!!)  I tried to lead my students through the rhythm of her recirculation of defense and exposure, of surrealism and the detail, of her upending of the inside and outside of the body, of the tragicomic situation as seriality without end or narrative satisfaction. They were not so interested in what I have to say–this class does not find my mind interesting. They were compelled by something else, Scott McCloud’s concept of cartoon realism.  But the communication of something is more than the pressing of a subjectivity’s face onto paper.

6. I inserted the book in the course at the last minute when my dearly beloved Was turned out to be out of print.  But I cannot yet see why I thought A Child’s Life was a substitute, since Was is the most tender book I’ve ever read, which is to say the least comic, even though technically it is a comedy: it’s like putting your finger on the forehead of a friend and then taking away your hand to watch the imprint fade. I had known that Was was out of print because Geoff Ryman had told me so, but I refused to believe it: a week before school started the bookstore confirmed what I had refused to take in and in a panic I inserted this book, this child’s garden of trauma.

7. A teaching exists when you read a text for the conceptual opening it can make in the rhythm of ignorance that you have called your knowledge (Rancière). A teaching exists when you gather up different ways of conceiving the same problem and try to move things by putting them in relation. This is the point about Gloeckner’s use of serial form: it’s not just a representation of being broken (reduced to a cartoon) but a rhythm of astonished ongoingness–breaks, distortions, repetitions, fadings without dying. Authority is not the point and application is impossible. The point is to use the spiky cluster of episodes that are variations in a field of affect to construct a live analytic happening whose governing infinitive does not yet exist (so you ask: what potential action is shifted by these scenes? what is it a transformative case of?). I always need one more class than I have to make effective this process of shifting the shape of any object/scene.  Recomposing  an encounter with a problem forces one to hear the noise, the penumbra of the problem, in a new way.   On the other hand, it all takes place in my head, my desire, I fear.  I bring it to the room, and each day the students look at me as though they were never inside it.  Remember?  Oh, that was four days ago. Maybe they weren’t.  In any case, I am not them inside of it, only me.  All we have to hold onto is the common problem, and I am the keeper of the problem.  And remembering that is hard enough.

8.  Suddenly the room in which I am typing smells like candle wax, and the woman with Alzheimer’s who lives above me is howling for dear life. I hope these things are not related–yet they are.

2 Comments so far
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I am trying to think about the differences between the psychoanalytic mise en scene and the pedagogic, as you are suggesting. I don’t think I am succeeding. And in my resistance I have come across a passage about Lacan and teaching in Shoshana Felman’s “Jacques Lacan: Adventures in Insight.” Felman talks about how wherever there is a subject-supposed-to-know there is necessarily transference. She writes about how all that can be modeled therefore is a “style” of non-teaching which is “itself the position of the one who learns, of the one who teaches nothing other than the way he learns” (86). I think this is much like what you are saying about teaching as modeling a method for accessing a question. Felman then writes:
“The question, first and foremost, for each subject is how to situate ‘the place from which he himself addresses the subject supposed to know?’ Insofar as knowledge is itself a structure of address, cognition is always both motivated and obscured by love; theory, both guided and misguided by an implicit transferential structure” (86).
I am wondering what this would look like, pedagogically? What would it mean to reach, as a student, a moment of recognizing the “place from which he addresses?”
Also, I have been thinking, for a class paper, about critical reading as a scene of “textual transference” that might require its own version of working-through. I am trying to imagine a process that would enable the reader to forego demands for familiar knowledge and enable a different kind of reading practice that produced the equivalent to, what emerges clinically, the Third of the analysand’s unconscious. But since reading is not intersubjective I’m not sure. There is an essay by David Kurnick that talks about desire as a vehicle for critical detachment, but, I think, the detachment there is linked to cosmopolitanism rather than impersonality, where they are different. (“An Erotics of Detachment: Middlemarch and Novel-Reading as Critical Practice”). Could the resonances and differences between teaching and reading offer another way of accessing these questions?

Comment by ashtor

1. To your final question):any object/scene onto which we project a potential flourishing/continuity in knowing or being known is a transferential one. This means that scenes of teaching/reading could be scenes for the production of a transferential relation and that, transitively, they could become scenes of the transference itself if the object of desire/magic is teaching/reading (rather than knowledge, say). That’s an empirical question (of the case).
2.Felman writes: “The question, first and foremost, for each subject is how to situate ‘the place from which he himself addresses the subject supposed to know?’ Insofar as knowledge is itself a structure of address, cognition is always both motivated and obscured by love; theory, both guided and misguided by an implicit transferential structure” (86).
*What concerns me in Felman’s conception here anyway is that she always puts the subject who’s supposed to know in the scene of love; but people also attribute “knowing” to things/scenes/situations not organized around a dynamic with another subjectivity. The object of desire doesn’t have to be a subject, does it? This relates to the question of reading/teaching that you raise v. transference with a book. If onto the book is projected optimism/a structure for being known or becoming x in relation, why isn’t it transference? Or can the concept be stretched too far?

Comment by supervalentthought

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