Capture the Tag: Education

I’m exploring education as a closed circuit by looking at all the posts tagged under “education.” The first post under the education tag is called “A giant rant about failure followed by the actual assignment.” This post wasn’t an actual blog assignment, but I think the rant in this post is relevant. While we are supposed to look at the arguments that exist in theoretical writing, I think it is equally important to hold theorists accountable for their use of form, just like all other writers. So even though I am not necessarily looking exclusively looking at the arguments Berlant is writing about, her form and use of language constructs an argument too. By looking at her language and form, I am still staying grounded in her argument and in the text.

This rant makes the point that though the author of the blog made it clear they aren’t afraid of complexity or difficulty, Berlant’s writing is indecipherable, but empty. I think this is important, because Berlant uses inflated language and drapes it over arguments about people’s lives,- this speaks to the insular nature of academia. Even though the ideas Berlant is exploring are complex, they could be dealt with with a certain level of precision and self-awareness, but instead are floundered in and bloated up with self-congratulatory language, not based in substantial argument. The writer of “Giant Rant” explores this idea well when talking about Berlant’s quote “We realize later that the image of children wandering around may emanate something the man identifies with or wants to be near, a wandering, purposeless fogginess, that privilege of of childhood confirmed by the beautiful, almost subdermal quietness of Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack.”

Another example is Berlant’s use of and discussion around the term “precariat.” While I appreciate it and find it kind of funny, it is an interesting choice that exemplifies the insular “closed system” of academia. Whether or not Berlant discusses the precarity of the worker and their queer occupation of space, the precarious worker will still keep queerly and precariously making copies and answering phones. Berlant, and academia, are closed systems that don’t change the state of the precarious worker and the precarious worker doesn’t change Berlant or Academia.

This ties into the blog post “Halberstam’s take on pedagogy,” the writer in paragraph two talks about the “members only” attitude of academia that Halberstam talks about. This argument is supported with Halberstam’s discussion of rigidity – intellectual pursuits are validated if they happen within the University in ways that are considered productive, but when the actual precariat flounders about in the real world, and isn’t productive, this doesn’t produce any of the cultural capital available to folks like Berlant because of their status as respected academics.

In the blog “On pedagogy and learning,” the writer talks about the idea of inflexibility in education as means of production. That’s where Berlant succeeds (or fails?) Instead of working towards a really coherent argument or two, she sort of flounders around, comes up with new terms, and plays around and explores ideas. In the blog post under education “Berlant,” the writer talks about how the beasts are not as important as the process, meaning it’s not neccisarily the points Berlant makes that are important, but the things learned as we stumble through the jungle seeking the beast.

However, “On pedagogy and learning” moves on to talk about learning as a two way street. This means talking about education and academia as coming both teacher and student. The ignorant schoolmaster doesn’t deposit knowledge into the empty student, but instead learns from the student too. The ignorant schoolmaster is sort of like post-psych ward Murphy – a failure, non productive, a closed circuit, but a closed circuit who can exit and enter other people’s closed circuits, whose closed circuit can be entered and exited by other closed circuits.

Right now, academia, education, and Berlant is Vincent – a closed circuit and a force of nature whose static fucks over everyone in its path. What if academia was post-psych ward Murphy? A failure, something that doesn’t produce and acknowledges that, that is one of its own but can learn through osmosis, a closed system that acknowledges that it is, indeed, not the burger flipping precariat, and has no right to hive five itself with their academic musings about them?

PS- (this isn’t part of the assignment, just a personal and, I think, important musing) Anyone else ever get tired of the theoretical use of the word queer? i’m like, Vincent is occupying a queer temporarlity or whatever? Cute, he wouldn’t have been able to pull this shit off without being the patriarch of a heteronormative nuclear family, much less without Muriel. Try housing and job insecurity, then call me back and I might be less frustrated by the co-opting such a politically powerful word. In other words, Vincent chooses to fail, and because of his privilege, stays pretty safe and secure within his failure. An queer person without a nuclear family tryin’ to pull this shit would not have the same security as Vincent. Any thoughts on how to navigate strangeness and non-normative-ness without the taking a word that really doesn’t belong to Vincent? Or why i’m being a delicate little flower? Or anything in between?


A Giant Rant About Failure Followed by the Actual Assignment

Just to get this out of the way, in class we were asked what we hated about Berlant’s writing (for those of us that were bothered), and though I’m no enemy of complexity or difficulty per se, what does bother me is suspiciously full-sounding, but indecipherable and empty writing. While I do appreciate parts of the essay, I’m really bummed-out by moments like this: “We realize later that the image of children wandering around may emanate something the man identifies with or wants to be near, a wandering, purposeless fogginess, that privilege of of childhood confirmed by the beautiful, almost subdermal quietness of Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack” (emphasis mine, 214). Okay, so we are reading an essay deeply invested in an interpretation of the body and the way the body reflects and responds to the environment in which it operates. In such an essay, a soundtrack of “subdermal quietness” might be one thzt operates beneath the “grimace” of the neoliberal subject. Perhaps its quietness operates on the level of musculature, shaping and sustaining the grimace through its refusal of dynamism. It could really work for Berlant, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t for a number of reasons, the first is that the focus on the “visage” or the affect as seen has been central to the consideration of affect theory found in the essay. Secondly, “subdermal” in this sentence is modifying the quietness of the soundtrack, which makes very little sense to me because if the soundtrack is having a subdermal effect (one we can feel under our skin) I would tend to associate that phenomenon with loudness. Third, if subdermal quietness is a quietness that is connected to affect theory it could equally well be understood to mean an effect that fails to become rise to the affective because it remains hidden by the visage. Lastly (and this is simply the last of the ways I am going to mention of the sentences failures, not the last of its failures), writing that the music is “almost” subdermally quiet makes even less sense. From what angle does it almost reach subdermality? Does it not quite penetrate the skin? Does it not quite pass the muscle/fat/cartilage/bone underneath the skin, remaining trapped in a sub-subdermal zone? I mean honestly.

The biggest issue I take with this essay (and those similarly written), is that it passes the realm of clever metaphoric play and enters into a very real parody of itself. A parody that really does damage to introducing new and interesting ways of thinking about the body in a politically-viable or engaging way. Instead, to me at least, it appears as an attempt to drape a veil of defensive and perplexing faux-coherence (through the use of associated descriptors) over an already worthwhile argument. Perhaps this deflationary move fits neatly within our course’s concerns (an unavoidable self-sabotage perhaps?), but I find it off-putting in the extreme. There is no sin in difficult writing that is a by-product of the argument’s inherent complexity. However, needless interpretive roadblocks signal–again, to me–a unnecessary complicity in the upkeep of the “expert” class of academic professionalism that Halberstam so usefully identifies as suspect.


How I felt when looking back at Berlant’s excerpt may end up saying more about me than the work itself but I honestly came to feel that the work was inhospitable and in the end lacked effort. That isn’t the right way to say it and maybe a version better told would include the discussion we had in class about the Reebok scene in Time Out. Julien didn’t care if the shoe was authentic or inauthentic and Berlant’s writing style had the same effect on me. The words were more false and academic than they were resounding, the flow was dictated by its ends, and, in truth, I was indifferent.

There’s a remarkable moment in Time Out when Vincent, towards the end of the movie and its long stretched denouement, asks Julien, “Was I too absent?” I had forgotten about it until I searched through my notes to find something worth writing about and found it circled. It stood out like a problem and I realized that this is how I feel about Beast in the Jungle and about writing as a whole, that there is more truth and an amplified friction in entertainment when the cause or its meaning is separate. Someone sitting behind me in class brought up the idea that Vincent used lying as a commodity in both social and emotion capital. That thought then looped into the possibility that Vincent’s internal narrative made space a commodity as well. Working around the emptiness in his exchange value allowed him to amplify his own self-worth. Much of my point is to do with the way we manufacture suspense in conflict with a conclusion. My favorite quote of Berlant’s was on page 195 when she writes, “When a situation unfolds, people try to maintain themselves in it until they figure out how to adjust.”

Vincent in the line I quoted was finally hostile to himself. His sorrow with Muriel on the couch, as Bryan said, seemed artificial. His prognosis in his question to Julien is not the one I expected at the time. The typical I’m sorry didn’t matriculate into the cinematography with some background consisting of a framed family photo or a change in scenery, nothing vague was triumphantly fathomed. Instead it was only Vincent admitting what he felt all along. This is often the time we find ourselves in when witnessing the foreground and background to a “situation” unfolding that Berlant meanders about. The end of resolution is of little concern and lacks merit even in things as immediate as the results of sports and even of voting. What we are interested in is the imbalance and absence of result.

Calexrose in the take on intimacy in our blog postings wrote, “What the beasts actually are is less important than the process of John’s life” and that is an opinion I take to heart. I would extend it to prose, life, and experience in general. The process isn’t another place asking for words but instead is the flow and absence of experience it comes to determine. Some beast will probably in the end be rounded up at the end of our reasons or choices but it will never hold water in active experience. Words can even feel like that in general, as some in class have pointed out. The economy and exclusion of words might take more picking and effort and the destabilization of flow to meet an end. Berlant’s writing is style is elliptical like James, but doesn’t have the story to make up for it. The academia often has this flaw in general. I’ve read journals of people I greatly admire and find their words – when built to meet an exclusive, insular demographic – as mired in prolix and maintaining an incomprehensibility of, and possibly an accidentally artistic, tension in what they write. Larsen was betrothed with uplift, James with case study, and Vincent with expectation. I wonder what Berlant found herself dwelling over while she met her quota and her ends.

On Pedagogy and Learning

Education in the United States runs concurrent to the idea of a prescribed form of “success” in our capitalist society. The idea of a master of information in the form of a professor or teacher, or even the disciplines of the institutions themselves is one that inhibits the learning and sets up boundaries that lend themselves to a normative set of information. “Just as the standardized tests that the U.S. favors as a guide to intellectual advancement in high schools tend to identify people who are good at standardized exams (as opposed to, say, intellectual visionaries), so in university grades, exams, and knowledge of canons identify scholars with an aptitude for maintaining and conforming to the dictates of the discipline.” (7).

The motivation behind advancing in this inflexible mode of education is as Halberstam asserts, “The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production…Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy.” (6). It would seem apparent the stifling nature of this standardizing and conformation of knowledge would have on actual learning, yet it backs the established system and, “most important, they statically reproduce themselves and inhibit dissent.” (10).

The resistance to this homogeny gives way to the idea that as members of academic institutions we must “resist mastery” (11), in that mastery implies a limited reservoir of knowledge that prescribes to the discipline of the instructor. In countries like Finland, whose educational rank worldwide is among, if not, the highest, caters their educational curriculum to the needs and desires of the students to allow for a higher level of motivation, other than grades, and is expansive and flexible in its nature as opposed to the reductionist pedagogy of the U.S. educational system in which the knowledge trickles down. This trickling down of knowledge, or inference that something is “right” is opposed to Halberstam’s idea of resisting mastery in the form of “failure’ and “stupidity”, as she states, “resistance takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity; we might read failure, for example, as a refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit,” (12). Being that, if there is a goal in mind, with a “set of presumptions” (12), then the process of learning and accumulation of knowledge has already been retarded.

The concept of the “ignorant schoolmaster” that, “must actually allow them to get lost in order for them to experience confusion and then find their own way out or back or around.” (14). Joseph Jacotot states his form of pedagogy as, “’I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you” ‘In this way he allows others to teach themselves and to learn without learning and internalizing a system of superior and inferior knowledges, superior and inferior intelligences.” (14). In other words, this lends itself to the age-old adage of “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

The seemingly disorganized concept of failure as form of success, depending on who is proclaiming judgment on this, is aligned with the idea of mutation in Darwinian evolution. When mutations are no longer encouraged and are in fact, eradicated or looked down upon, it limits and weakens the breadth of knowledge to be gained by such opposed approaches to learning. When the approach of James C. Scott is applied (which emphasizes, “mutuality, collectivity, plasticity, diversity and adaptability”) [10], an environment is created in which getting lost is an exercise in learning in itself and leads to the possibility of new ways of accumulating and applying knowledge.


Halberstam’s Take on Pedagogy

In the introduction to the The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam challenges pedagogy, when it comes to the intention, method and the result of how students are educated. The options students are left with are limited to either success which is finding “the land of milk and honey” or failure, or being delegated to “gift shops” which is the only other option.  Halberstam’s use of the SpongeBob SquarePants dialogue lay the groundwork for how he defines failure and pedagogy. His use of SpongeBob SquarePants quotes and examples from other popular cartoons and comedic movies is his way of interpreting and challenging academia. (1)

In school, both primary and secondary, failure is not an acceptable option and doesn’t offer any positive reward or praise from the outside, yet Halberstam points out that not only “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (3), but he emphasizes out that failing can be rewarding, unlike what pedagogy implies. In academia there is a “members only” attitude.  Exemplary of this is when Halberstam’s use of terms “serious” and “rigorous”. Additional evidence of this attitude is found in work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. They emphasized the words: “rigor,” “excellence,” and “productivity. These words seemed to strongly support the notion of “members only” attitude.  .

These words are often found in pedagogy. And, can found function as “code words…for disciplinary correctness” (6).  This not only limits the membership pool, but it doesn’t “allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy” (6). Flexibility is not allowed and because of this, many members, especially in the sciences, have vacated the field.

In pedagogy according to Halberstam, university students are assessed based standardized exams results and “knowledge of cannons” over intellectual vision to keep the “dictates of the discipline” unchallenged, even in the fields that have been proven unstable in recent years. “[Q]uirky and original thought” (7) or thinking that takes place outside the box is being squashed by primary school education and universities and Halberstam further explain how this is being done. How he explains the “university structure” in the introduction reads more like a description of a watchtower from another time than an educational institution by his use of terms such as “jealously guards” and “boundaries”. (7)

One of the ways Halberstam challenges the pedagogy is by quoting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an American academic scholar. She “once said, ignorance is “as potent and multiple a thing as knowledge” and that learning often takes place completely independently of teaching” (12). In Halberstam’s personal experience as a student he lightly questions, probably in jest, his ability to be taught. He states:

As someone who never aced an exam, who has tried and tried without much    success to become fluent in another language, and who can read a book without retaining much at all, I realize that I can learn only what I can teach myself. (12)

His personal experience affirms his previous statements. Not only is he speaking for many in academia, he is speaking for himself, and his fellow “queers”.  His personal example is followed by an example that is also familiar to many students and teachers around the world and that is the conundrum of “cultural and racial and class differences between the teacher and [their] students”. While summarizing the French documentary, The Class, Halberstam further explains the issues that arise when instructors insist on using a cookie cutter method for teaching their class, especially a racially and ethnically diverse class. “[L]earning is a two-way street” goes against the standard pedagogy of the teacher simply pouring knowledge into the head of the obedient and thoughtlessly compliant student.  (13)

Halberstam’s challenge of the pedagogy emphasizes more on how students, ideally, should be instructed. Using the experience of a French instructor, Jacques Ranciére, Halberstam explains that “teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots.” Ranciére’s noticed that his Belgian “students were learning to read and speak French and understand the text Télémaque without his assistance”.  Ranciére observed, listened and leaned from that experience. (14)

Halberstam’s claim about the standard way of retaining knowledge in an academic setting sets students up for failure, and failure in our society is unsatisfactory.

Halberstam, Judith. “Introduction.” The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. 1-25. Print.