Tag Archives: critique

Actually scary critique

Back in 2011 I facilitated a workshop at the University of Chicago on “actually scary critique.” The workshop didn’t really work out because it never really reached its object; it just ended up getting swallowed up by its own conceptual preliminaries.

Anyway, I just rediscovered a self-critical postscript that I had started writing afterwards about why that workshop didn’t really work out. Here it is, in the spirit of the thought that dwelling on our unsuccessful projects is a good idea.

The original workshop announcement:

This workshop aims to develop a mostly nonexistent genre that we could call the genre of the actually scary institutional critique. The premise: that many people have nestled away somewhere in their brains something about their institution (or department, discipline, campus, job, world, whatever) that to them is utterly intolerable, inexplicable, unjustifiable, ludicrous, unlivable, some little huddled kernel of lingering rage that can almost never be expressed, or at least that remains unresolved, because the genres in which we express institutional critique are generally either nonexistent, routinized by collegial etiquette, trivialized by being expressed only in private to friends, or else dismissed as activist hysteria or some other form of irrational excess feeling. The further premise: that it would be worth trying to develop a genre that would be equal to these non-normative moments of intense critical feelings. A genre that would break with the conventions of courtesy that make critique into an academic mode of social reproduction, that would exceed the routinized forms of mild annoyance that are normative for everyday differences of professional opinion.

Not that everyone does or ought to go around in a state of fury or other intense feeling, not at all. But it remains troubling that there are people who are really upset by various aspects of the academic world (I’m assuming we can all think of examples of this) who have no available genre with which to make their experience into something public that would actually threaten and change the people around them. Who have no genre equal to moments of real antagonism. Of course, universities have systems of unequal authority, mass complacency, self-interest, disinterest, etc, that make the inefficacy of critique far more than a question of genre. But the problem of making a critical genre that can actually scare (or touch, move, change) people in spite of all the defense mechanisms is one that seems to deserve our time.

Format: We’ll start with a discussion about critique and emotional intensity, and then move to a series of writing exercises in this possible genre. 

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Philosophizing in senior year?

I met an interesting professor in Aix earlier this spring, Joëlle Zask, who has worked on Dewey and early 20th century culture theory (she suggested the Sapir article I mentioned earlier this spring). Here I want to translate a short interview she did in 2007 with a monthly culture magazine in Marseille called Zibeline. Philosophy, as foreign readers may or may not know, is taught to all French high school (lycée) seniors, has a long political history in French education, and periodically causes controversy. Some of these stakes are apparent here.

Philosophizing in senior year???

1) The 2003 “official instructions” for the philosophy teaching program in senior year say: “Philosophy teaching in senior year… contributes to forming autonomous minds, warned of reality’s complexities and capable of putting to work a critical consciousness of the contemporary world.” What do you think of this?

These formulations pose two major problems.

First, it strikes me as shocking that a philosophy textbook should begin with a series of “official instructions.” An instruction, in the sense of a directive, is entirely contrary to the “autonomous minds” that we are told to “form.” Are we told to “force our students to be free”? Moreover, in the context of schools, “instruction” has a second dimension: we still talk about “public, obligatory, civic instruction” [in connection with public education]. But instructing is not educating. Instructing basically means shaping someone’s mind to fit the competences that the institution judges socially useful. Educating on the other hand means communicating a potential to a mind which, one day, will allow it to help define what is or isn’t valuable for its society. Yet according to the “official” declarations, we’re still on the model of instructing, in both senses of the term.

Second, the goal proclaimed for high school philosophy teaching is completely exorbitant. I know that many people subscribe to it. But we should be astonished by the excessive disproportion between the end and the means: they have groups of thirty pupils, a very limited range of practical exercises, lecture courses, etc. And above all, it’s impossible for philosophy teachers to “form autonomous and critical minds” if the pupils haven’t been invited to be autonomous or critical since the day they arrived in the schoolhouse. Not to mention that the art of thinking isn’t reserved for philosophy. Would one be exempted from “thinking for oneself” in history, literature or physics? It must be said that the goal [of our philosophy teaching] is, in our present circumstances, pretty disconnected from these realities; and we might therefore give up on grading students’ homework against an ideal that very few people can claim to have attained. We could, at least for starters, propose simpler exercises that would be better adapted to our students’ competences (the ones “formed” by our instruction) and to our own. At the university we do all this readily enough.

2) What should be at stake in philosophy teaching? What should be its goals?

Well, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing special to expect from philosophy teaching. To my eyes, philosophy is in essence a critique of our values and an effort to demonstrate, by one method or another, the legitimacy or pertinence of the values we hold. The philosophers who we’ve read and reread over the centuries have all undertaken an examination of the values of their times. That said, these philosophers don’t play the moral purity card [la carte de bonne conscience]. They direct their critical examination at themselves, working with their own keen perceptions of the possibilities and blockages of their epoch. Today, as in the past, many people, including our official instructors, defend some values without examination and try to impose them on others. Wondering where our values come from, going over them with a fine-toothed comb and sorting them out, creating new ones, scrutinizing the motives for our adherence to them and the mechanisms that inculcate them — that’s what a reading of the philosophers can invite us to do. And that’s a truly priceless service.

Like Zask, I’ve been struck by the official rhetoric in France about teaching people to have free and critical minds, which always seems to entail, as Zask points out, the contradictory project of “making” people free, and to presuppose the unlikely premise that educational institutions know what freedom or criticality are. But I’m most interested, here, in the part of the interview that proposes a definition of what’s essential about philosophy: a critique of values.

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A UMP student looks back on French protests

Time to get back to France and to my ambition to make French academic life more visible to anglophone audiences via this blog. I have a long list of stuff I want to post soon, but this will have to do for now — Le Monde here in France just published an article with a bunch of interviews entitled “What’s left of the movement against the Law on University Autonomy?” The most interesting statement, in my view, was by a center-right student who opposed the strikers and describes his sense of being threatened by the student opposition:

“It takes a strong stomach to oppose the strikers”

Aristote Toussaint, 21 years old, master’s degree in business law at Bordeaux IV.

In student movements, when like me you’re in the opposition, you have an interest in keeping your mouth shut. Or you need to have a strong stomach! At the Nantes fac, where I was last year, I was threatened for my comments in the General Assembly [AG]. I couldn’t go to class by myself. I didn’t hide that I was a member of the UMP [Sarkozy’s center-right party], and then? I’m proud of my convictions. The strikers [bloqueurs] are disrespectful people, they call themselves defenders of democracy but they’re anything but democrats. They’re utopians, allergic to work. I’d like to think that the leaders act in the name of some real ideology, but most people are just following the movement. The ones who criticize the autonomy of universities [recently imposed by the Education Ministry] are the same ones who complain about not getting jobs when they graduate… In the end their action accomplished nothing, aside from a few weeks of vacation. For the time being, it’s rather calm in Bordeaux, and I sincerely hope that there won’t be any strikes this year. We have to be optimistic and continue to reform [the universities], whatever it costs.

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