12. Glenn Wallis. For Education


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For Education

Explication is the annihilation of one mind by another…whoever teaches without emancipating, stultifies. —Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster

Professors in the humanities view themselves as fostering crucial human capacities. These capacities, deemed necessary not merely for our flourishing, but for our very survival as a species, include: sound reasoning, critical thinking, engaged dialogue, creativity and innovation, analytical acumen, broad cultural knowledge, and empathic understanding of diverse worldviews. This statement from the Stanford University Humanities Center on ”Why the Humanities Matter” is indicative of the general spirit:

Today, humanistic knowledge continues to provide the ideal foundation for exploring and understanding the human experience. Investigating a branch of philosophy might get you thinking about ethical questions. Learning another language might help you gain an appreciation for the similarities in different cultures. Contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how an artist’s life affected her creative decisions. Reading a book from another region of the world, might help you think about the meaning of democracy. Listening to a history course might help you better understand the past, while at the same time offer you a clearer picture of the future.1

In this Item, I would like to explore that might. For, I believe that the very nature of humanistic pedagogy—its very success or failure— hinges on which side of that might an instructor operates. I will state at the outset that I believe that a “taking sides” metaphor is valuable because it evokes the political consequences that, I further hold, are at stake. Thus, in brief, on the right side of the might divide lies a liberal-conservative-right politics; on the left side lies a libertarian-socialist-left politics. By far the greatest issue at stake in negotiating this might, and in humanities education generally, however, is what results from manifesting these two (largely implicit) politicized orientations in the classroom: the cultivation of actual human subjects—students, people, citizens—in the real world. We must, of course, include the professor here, for that role is formed in the same institutional apparatus as that of “student.” So, to convey the sense of what I intend by this right-left divide, it will be useful to explore it briefly in terms of the kinds of implied subjects embedded therein.

On the right

To the right of the might is a subject who assumes the inevitability of the current institutional, and, by extension, social-economic, status quo. Below is a statement to that effect from a professor at a liberal arts college. (We’ll call this person “Professor X.”) It comes from a recent Facebook discussion on the limits of critique in teaching religious studies in relation to the ostensibly much more beneficial project of fostering “meaning-making” among the students. (Indeed, this critique/meaning-making divide is a contentious issue that has animated humanities pedagogy virtually from its inception.) The statement I wish to highlight is in response to this statement (slightly emended to eliminate extraneous references):

An instructor who engages in the “meaning-making” that seems to be called for in this thread (affirmative, unmolested by excess critique, spiritualized) is serving the perpetuation of the kinds of social formations that some of us are strenuously countering in the classroom: inequality, domination, paternalism, elitism, authoritarianism, and the tyranny of positivity.

I will return in a moment to the fact that that statement operates on the left side of the might. First, here is the (emended) response from Professor X on the right:

I probably don’t disagree with you on most of your critique of the university. However, the unspoken premises of my original post include: (a) that I want to keep my job, and learn to do it better; (b) that I don’t expect massive changes will suddenly be made to the university system in my lifetime; (c) that I am likely to continue to encounter the same general student demographic as I currently am, at least for the foreseeable future; and (d) that I will have to continue to meet, at least for the most part, assessment metrics and pedagogical expectations set by the institution. For better or worse, I’m looking for solutions and best practices within the context of this bounded field of contemporary academic [religious studies].

Why is that a response from the right? I imagine the reader thinking, all of that seems reasonable enough. I, however, contend that Professor X’s statement exemplifies the first condition of the ultimate failure of the humanities; namely, a professor and a student body operating firmly ensconced within the status-quo. Professor X’s statement is, in fact, an excellent illustration of how an Althusserian Ideological State Apparatus functions: Society is run through with alienating values and relations (inequality, authoritarianism, elitism, etc.); the university as institution absorbs those values and replicates those relations via, for instance, “assessment metrics,” “pedagogical expectations,” and a none-too-subtle compulsion for professors to remain within the “bounded field” of their discipline; professors, wishing to keep their jobs (i.e, who have been successfully “interpellated” by the economic “law”), obediently accept that this is just the way it is, and so reflexively embody the values and reinforce the alienating relations in the classroom vis à vis flesh and blood students; these students exit the university as properly inculcated citizens, ready to carry it all forward still further via their relations to one another and to society at large.

In the most basic sense, the statement augurs the defeat of the humanities in that it creates a subject as spectator. The institution is a kind of immutable theater of action wherein professor and students enact a drama of learning that has been prescripted, to a decisive extent, by “assessment metrics and pedagogical expectations set by the institution” and by the “bounded field” of our “disciplines” (an apt metaphor). It is an institution, we are further asked to believe, that will not be fundamentally changing any time soon. It is crucial to note that the construction of these metrics and fields themselves is driven by the demands of a social-economic system that is in turn driven, not by the personal interests of the professors or students per se,2 nor by “the public interest,” but by that of the primary “stakeholders” in that system: the wealthy ruling class.3  (Hence, the inexorable rise of STEM along with the pervasive hand-wringing about “the death of the humanities.”) Professor and student are not active agents in such an institution; they are quite literally its passive subjects, absorbing, reinforcing, and replicating the dominant ideology. The university is thus a static spectacle that demands of its subjects only that they adequately perform their duties as spectators. As this indicates, the spectacle is primarily a social relation, it is a machinic regulation of human power dynamics and hierarchies that are mediated by the already given image of the university.

This concept of spectacle originated with Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle. It is certainly not irrelevant to my argument that the student occupation at Paris University Nanterre on March 22, 1968, was directly inspired by this text and its warnings to the passive spectator. That occupation, driven by resistance to the issues mentioned in the quote above (inequality, paternalism, etc.), in turn, fueled the insurrection of May 1968. Debord’s Thesis 16 is one of many examples of how this idea of the spectacle is useful to my argument: “The spectacle subjugates living people to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself. It is the true reflection of the production of things, and the false objectification of the producers.”4 It is no coincidence that item a in the rationale for Professor X’s stance is “I want to keep my job.” Again, while this desire is understandable, it is not as self-evidently justifiable as it is apparently intended to be. It is only obviously justifiable if Professor X, as “producer” in the economy of the university, quite consciously determines to acquiesce to the capitalist logic at work therein. Otherwise, short of conscious allegiance to the economic system that arguably creates the very conditions of that which the humanities aims to countervene (authoritarianism, elitism, racism, etc.), item a, far from a self-evident justification, only reveals the extreme power of economic capture at work in the formation of the university professor subject. Professor X’s item a is a confession of the deep embodiment of that logic at work as a subjugating force in the life of the university. Taken in context with the additional items, furthermore, it reads as a confession to the “false objectification” of Professor X as an alienated producer in the machinery of the economic Golem that is modern day capitalism. Without belaboring the point, it should not be difficult to see that the student is equally such a “producer,” in that “student” indexes yet another location of “the economy developing for itself.” Indeed, the very language around studentship is run through with capitalist logic, placed unabashedly front and center for all to see.5

So, the first salvo from right of the might is acceptance—tacit or overt—of the current status quo. I consider this a move from the political right because such acceptance is a key feature of the liberal-conservative political-economic nexus known as neoliberalism. One of neoliberalism’s founding slogans, popularized by Conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s is TINA—There Is No Alternative! Since no better system of production and exchange than market capitalism exists, there will certainly be, as Professor X prophesizes, “no massive changes” to the institutions that circulate within that marketplace, including the university. Hence, the neoliberal logic continues, we must fashion for ourselves meaning-making narratives that enable us mere spectators to retain our ability to function, indeed, even come to thrive, within the inevitable state of the situation. To be truly effective, such narratives should be woven with the threads (and tell-tale signs) of neoliberal subjectivity: vulnerability, resilience, adaptivity, self-help, feigned positivity.

It will be useful to explore this link to neoliberalism more closely. The orthodox definition of neoliberalism sees it as “a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can be advanced by the development of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade.”6 If you are privileged and wealthy, all that probably sounds quite fine to you. If you are neither particularly privileged nor wealthy, you are more likely to agree with critics of neoliberalism, who argue that it is nothing less than “the ideology at the root of all our problems”7—massive financial inequality, poverty, entrenched patriarchy and misogyny, institutional racism and bigotry, authoritarianism, environmental degradation, international strife and warfare. Be all that as it may, for our purposes a more salient approach to the topic is to consider neoliberalism as “a theory and practice of subjectivity.” For:

we cannot understand how neoliberalism is able to function as a socioeconomic program…without addressing how it problematizes human subjectivity. It is the interpretive capacities through which human beings reflect upon the nature of their world, their relations with themselves, each other, and their environments that are seen as being of crucial issue for the legitimization of neoliberal practices of government.8

How, then does neoliberalism, and the acquiescence to it as the  status-quo, problematize human subjectivity? And, directly to our purpose, what role does the university play in perpetuating neoliberal ideology by aiding in the creation of its subject? In brief, the subject “inculcated through neoliberal discourses” and university participation is a “resilient, humble, and disempowered being that lives a life of permanent ignorance and insecurity.” This plight follows from embodied acceptance of the unchangeability of the institution and of the unknowability of the very conditions for that change. It should be clear that this position entails humility and powerlessness, or humility in the face of powerlessness. That being the case, our only recourse is to develop resilience, the ability to keep going, and, in doing so, to keep it going.

Estragon: I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir: That’s what you think…We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment [with the status quo]. How many people can boast as much?

Estragon: Billions.9

We are, furthermore, seeing here a subject who has come to denigrate the “hubris of ideals of autonomy.” This is perhaps the most damning disposition of status-quoist subjectivity. It is damning not because it belies what is perhaps the very defining tenet of the humanities—belief in the individual as an autonomous, eminently rational agent—but because it entails a defeatist cynicism bordering on a kind of gaslighting abusiveness toward arguments for real change. Such arguments are dismissed by the status-quoist as “unrealistic,” “too idealistic,” “too radical,” and, most common of all, “impossible!” (I will return to this feature of the argument later.) Finally, and perhaps most significantly, this is “not a subject that can conceive of changing the world, its structure and conditions of possibility.” Rather, it sees as its only hope the necessity of adapting as effectively as possible to the unchanging way things are.

In the following section, I will present an alternative approach—the one from the left—to that of the university professor who is “looking for solutions and best practices within the context” just described—a context embedded in a liberal-conservative-right politics. And in the final section, I will present a teaching model that aligns with that alternative. In this section, I have argued that we can never avoid the political in the classroom (or indeed in our scholarship). That is, how and what we teach, our negotiation of authority vis à vis our students, our relationship to the very institution of higher education, and so on, always extrapolates out into a politicized social formation. The formation outlined thus far is that of a spectacle arising spectre-like out the demands of a capitalist logic that insists on profit over people, and on its and its shareholders’ interests before that of “the public,” much less that of diverse individuals. The extrapolated consequences suggested here, I believe, point toward a dangerous complicity with the prevailing, profoundly dehumanizing, status quo.

On the left

To the left of the might is “a subject capable of conceiving the transformation of its world and the power relations it finds itself subject to.”10 As I hope to have shown, it is this very failure of the imagination to conceive of alternatives to the current state of the situation that marks the liberal-conservative-right side of our divide. A major hindrance is the seeming incapacity of the status-quoist subject to conceive of anything but macro transformation. If, like Professor X, you “don’t expect [that] massive changes will suddenly be made to the university system in [your] lifetime,” then what choice do you have but to “look for solutions and best practices within the context” of your currently “bounded field”? The left side of the divide extrapolates out into a libertarian-socialist-left formation precisely because it refuses to adhere to these boundaries, whether disciplinary, institutional, or indeed worldly. It, furthermore, adamantly rejects the status-quoist dogma that only once “massive changes” to the institution, or indeed to the world at large, have occurred can meaningful collective transformation take shape. As I will show in the following section, the key to such change lies in a practice called prefiguration, or the direct, viable, immediately lived micro realization of a classroom, university, and world envisioned by the humanities. First, it will be necessary to be more specific about what I assume the humanities necessarily to be.

Etymologists tell us that the word “education” stems from two Latin roots: educare, to train, to, mold; and educere, to draw out, to lead out.11 The former suggest a regime, whereby the learner is fashioned into a quite specific social subject, one predetermined by a given ideological formation. Pedagogically, this view suggests exercises like passive listening to lectures, memorization of data, and displays of successful inculcation via tests. Significantly, as we will see in the next section, it entails operating within a particular “bounded field” or scholarly discipline. The term educere suggests rather an inherently emancipatory practice, whereby the learner is being led out of, for instance, precisely such restrictive formations. Pedagogically, this practice entails fostering the development of critical and analytical skills. It also entails the eschewal of bounded fields. I imagine it goes without saying that I hold the latter version to describe what happens on the left side of our might, while the former version describes what counts as “education” on the right side (though I will suggest a better term for it in the final section). I will say more in the following section about actual pedagogy. Here, I want to briefly sketch a view of the humanities that would necessarily foster this practice of educere.  

Returning to the Stanford University Humanities Center, we find what can serve as a sine qua non definition of the humanities: “Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions.”12 This definition assumes the Enlightenment values that, in fact, gave rise to the modern university. That is, it assumes what, prior to the spread of the Enlightenment, were three radical—indeed, impossible!—ideas. First, people are capable of reasoning. This means that we are no longer dependent on priests, masters, kings—or professors—to determine what is best for us. Second, if we are capable of reasoned thought about what to do and how to live, then we are capable of action based on that thinking. This means that we are no longer dependent on priests, masters, kings—or professors—to determine how we should act. Third, if we are capable of sound reasoning and of action based on that reasoning, then we are capable of fashioning a better world (institution, situation, etc.) than the one we currently inhabit. We are no longer dependent on the prescript of the spectacle to dictate the terms of a state of affairs.13 This is the view of education promoted by actual libertarian-socialists, such as Noam Chomsky, who argues that “The highest goal in life is to inquire and create. The purpose of education from that point of view is just to help people to learn on their own.”14 It is not difficult to intuit the danger to the status quo lurking in such a view. For, if  critique and creativity are the lifeblood of the humanities, then an education in that vein creates a subject at odds with the indoctrinational impulse of educare. And if, as Chomsky says, the parameters of what constitutes an education is determined by the individual, then the very concept of a “bounded field” must be dispensed with. How, then, should we proceed? With this question, we can turn to a specific example of how the reader might realize such an emancipatory education, even within the neoliberal classroom. The example involves the libertarian-socialist, or specifically anarchist, idea of prefiguration. This idea in turn assumes deeply counter-intuitive images of the teacher or professor, the learner or student, the “field” or subject of study, and the very purpose of education. The general example that I will provide is that of “unlearning.” Specifically, in the final section, I will discuss Jacques Rancière’s concept of “intellectual emancipation,” first articulated in his 1987 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

The ethics of prefiguration

The first appearance of the concept of prefiguration that I intend here is found in André Gorz’s 1968 New Left Review article “The Way Forward.”15 Not insignificantly, Gorz’s piece was published just after the Situationist-inspired Paris insurrection referred to earlier. With visions of imminent revolution dancing in their heads, activists and intellectuals alike were asking how best to prepare for the looming new state of the situation. Gorz suggested a strategy in which the most committed revolutionary figures—the “vanguard party” in Leninist parlance—“prefigures the proletarian State, and reflects for the working class its capacity to be a ruling class.” Such “reflection” is precisely the educative strategy of prefiguration because it mirrors, at the immediate micro level of revolutionary association, the very forms and relations it desires to see manifested in society at large. This idea is in fact a central strategy of libertarian-socialist thought going back to the First International. Again, it figures in a manner that is not insignificant to my argument. I am referring to the famous falling out between the “authoritarian” wing comprised of the supporters of Karl Marx, and the “libertarian” wing of Mikhail Bakunin’s supporters at the London conference in 1871. We glimpse the nature of the divide from a comment by Bakunin:

[Society] can and should reorganize itself, not from the top down according to an ideal plan dressed up by wise men or scholars nor by decrees promulgated by some dictatorial power or even by a national assembly…[but] from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers.16

Like the professors on the right of our might divide, Marx and his followers reflexively assumed the necessity of a paternalistic approach to leadership, which further assumed that certain guru-like figures are best equipped to determine the way forward for all involved. Bakunin rightly predicted that Marx’s eventual “dictatorship of the proletariat,” if ever realized, would end with tyrannical new masters, the “red bourgeoisie,” merely replacing the tyrannical old masters. For Bakunin, this outcome was prefigured not only in Marx’s theory of revolution, but in his very demeanor: “the instinct of liberty is lacking in him; he remains, from head to foot, an authoritarian.”17 An obvious question that arises here is: on what grounds should we expect a free society to arise out of hierarchical process? Indeed, this was precisely the question posed in the circular written by the Bakunin camp in the aftermath of the split with the “authoritarian” socialists:

How could one expect an egalitarian and free society to emerge out of an authoritarian organisation! It is impossible. The International, embryo of the future human society, must be, from now on, the faithful image of our principles of liberty and federation, and must reject from within any principle tending toward authority, toward dictatorship.18

Risking what may seem like overreach to some readers, I use these examples from revolutionary politics for several reasons. The most basic reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that I hope to convince the reader that there are real, potentially large scale, social implications to what occurs in the seemingly inconsequential and ostensibly apolitical environment of the college classroom. Indeed, I can rephrase to my purpose this crucial statement from the 1871 circular: “The future society should be nothing else than the universalization of the organization that the classroom forms for itself. We must therefore strive to make this organization as close as possible to our ideal.”19 Do we desire a society that has realized equality, that rejects unjustified institutionalized power and authority, that is anti-racist, that is feminist, pro-LGBTQ, environmentally friendly, and more? If so, we must use the classroom as a mirror of this society. We must create “an ethically consistent relationship between the means and ends,” in Cindy Milstein’s words, wherein our values align to our practice and our practice to “the new society before it is fully in place.”20

As we learn from the division between the two leading figures of socialism at the First International, Marx and Bakunin, however, this prefigured ideal will meet resistance from actors who appear to be our logical allies. Paternalistic professors, even left-leaning ones, will insist that students simply are not yet capable of such an approach. Hence, the necessity of an intervention that is both radical and ethical. It is radical because it realizes “the new society” at its very root—in the unfolding interactions of lived human associations; in our case, in the university classroom. This approach is in distinction to one that uses the levers of university governance to achieve its aim. Again, a political correspondence suggests itself. One of the most definitive differences between leftist and liberal approaches to change is captured in Bakunin’s strategy calling for “direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation.”21 Presumably, Professor X says “I don’t expect massive changes will suddenly be made to the university system in my lifetime” because the professor is all-too-aware of the absurdly slow movement of the college’s manager-heavy bureaucratic machinery, as well as the “seemingly endemic cowardice and personally petty antipathies” operating therein.22 And yet, apart from leaving academia, there is no alternative for those on the liberal-conservative-right of the might than to work within the “parliamentary” system of the institution—its faculty senate, its committees, its strategic plan, its top-heavy leadership hierarchy, and so forth. This is, in fact, a defining feature of liberal-conservative-right politics, namely, the strategy of reform from within. Actors on the  libertarian-socialist-left adamantly reject this strategy as ineffectual, status-quoist, accommodationist, and hence ultimately futile. In its place it injects precisely an immediate, lived, prefigurative practice—direct educational struggle against the neoliberal university. This strategy, as Milstein tells us, is ethical, because we enact our classroom practice even if, I would hasten to add, “the new society” has no realistic chance of ever coming into place. That is, the driving imperative behind my prefigurative classroom is simply that I hold it to be right and just; hence, ethics demands that I enact it whether or not it ultimately “contains within it the forward surge of an achievement which can be anticipated” in society at large.23 This uncertainty of ultimate outcome tempers any claim to a necessarily “successful” or even affirmative prefiguration. It entails rather a cleared-eyed ethics that does not flinch from the undead ghoul that is the political-economic catastrophe haunting the university. It is an ethics rooted as deeply in anxiety, hopelessness, impossibility, and mourning as it is in justice, passion, insistence, and utopian yearning.


So, what might such a prefigurative classroom look like? In this final section, I would like to present what I believe is a realizable example of an “emancipated” classroom. The broad concept with which I am working, derived from radical education theory, is called “unlearning.” We can get a rough sense of the spirit of unlearning by returning to the statement with which I opened this essay: “Contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how an artist’s life affected her creative decisions;” but not if the terms of that contemplation have been predetermined by the fields of “Art,” “Aesthetics,” or “Art History.” “Listening to a history course might help you better understand the past;” but not if that history is bounded by “History.” And so on. The claim here is that what takes place on the right of the might is a regimen of learning. It will become clear as I proceed that “learning” is educare, something wholly distinct from “education,” which is educere. Learning occurs within what Professor X refers to as a “bounded field.” It has as its goal the replication and perpetuation of a predetermined program of “knowledge.” This bounded field is permeated by “disciplinary” procedures and judgements concerning, for example, standards, rigor, interpretation, skills, and, most crucially, explication. Explication is the very life blood of learning. It is the conduit of the life-giving cells of an aptly termed corpus, or “body of knowledge.” Explication is also, I contend, the pedagogical ally of a liberal-conservative-right worldview and politics. Not least of all, it is the death of education. Hence, the necessity of unlearning.

Jacques Rancière’s concept of “intellectual emancipation,” first articulated in his 1987 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, is an exemplary strategy for, negatively, countering learning, and for, positively, implementing education. Rancière expresses the issue at the heart of the matter when he writes: “Explication is the annihilation of one mind by another…whoever teaches without emancipating, stultifies.” This statement presents a starkly divided pathway, one  that will likely strike many readers as based on a ridiculous overstatement. It claims that if you, as teacher, employ the very tactic that constitutes our very notion of what it is to teach—explanation—then you are engaged in the destruction of your students’ intelligence. The statement claims that every time you open your mouth to explain the contents of your bounded field, you are expanding your students’ capacity for stupidity. In political terms, the statement suggests that explicative teaching supports the creation of a passive subject content to engage the spectacle, while emancipatory teaching encourages a courageous subject fit for resistance and creative innovation. All of this obviously suggests a practice that calls for a drastically, indeed radically, different vision of education from the one circulating in our current institutions of higher education. Because it assumes that the classroom must prefigure—must itself manifest, reveal, and actualize—a world devoid of neoliberal detritus (inequality, patriarchy, poverty, racism, etc.)—such a classroom obviously has no need for an instructor-who-is-supposed-to-know, that guru-like figure who possess the requisite wisdom for professing before the unschooled student body, and leading them to the “meaning” encoded within the guru’s “bounded field.” Indeed, the emancipatory instructor in a prefigurative classroom will be unrecognizable to anyone who is able to function contentedly as a “professor” (an explicator) in higher education.

What, then, is emancipatory teaching? First of all, this model contains within it what I imagine to be an insurmountably objectionable feature to many readers: elimination of the master explicator. Why such a drastic move? Because the explicator is constituted through the logic of two intelligences: inferior vs. superior, ignorant vs. knowing, professor vs. student. Readers may be asking themselves: And what’s wrong with that? Some people are more intelligent and better educated than others. Professors have doctorates after all! So, why shouldn’t they determine the shape of the bounded field?

I will now tell a wholly implausible—but true!—story. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancière relates the tale of one Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840). In 1818, Jacotot had been invited by the King of the Netherlands to lecture in French literature at Louvain. Thinking it would amount to a protracted vacation after the tumult surrounding the return of the Bourbons to power (Jacotot had been a minister under the Convention), he accepted. What he found instead of rest and relaxation, however, was an exhilarating intellectual adventure. For, Jacotot knew no Flemish and his students knew no French. Determined to engage the students nonetheless, Jacotot gave careful thought to the matter. He concluded that, in the first instance, “the minimal link of a thing in common had to be established between himself and them.”24 It just so happened that a French-Flemish bilingual edition of Fénelon’s Télémaque was coming out in nearby Belgium. This would do. He had the book delivered to his students, and, through an interpreter, asked them to refer to the Flemish text only as a means to understand the French. He had them work hard at it. He provided the environment for education, but they did all the work. Those students who had the self-motivation to persist to the end were then asked to write, in French, a detailed account of Télémaque. Given the counter-intuitive nature of the experiment, its seemingly obvious fate as abject failure, the results were nearly impossible to grasp. Rancière quotes an early commentator on the experiment:

[Jacotot] expected horrendous barbarisms, or maybe a complete inability to perform. How could these young people, deprived of explanation, understand and resolve the difficulties of a language entirely new to them? No matter! He had to find out where the route opened by chance had taken them, what had been the results of that desperate empiricism. And how surprised he was to discover that the students, left to themselves, managed this difficult step as well as many French could have done! Was wanting all that was necessary for doing? Were all people virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?25

Deprived of explanation. Left to themselves. These are keys to understanding what Jacotot would come to call his method of “universal education.” Specifically, Rancière identifies two  mechanisms of explicative teaching which, when removed, entail the emancipated intelligence that is an accompanying goal of the method. The two mechanisms are extensiveness and progressiveness. I will detail them in a moment. First, a few more words to highlight the professor-figure whom, I believe, represents the biggest obstacle to implementing this pedagogy. Am I, along with Rancière, justified in considering this figure an agent of stupidity, a stultifying explicator? Look at this account from The Ignorant Schoolmaster and see if you don’t recognize a familiar figure.

The stultifier is not an aged obtuse master who crams his students’ skulls full of poorly digested knowledge, or a malignant character mouthing half-truths in order to shore up his power and the social order. On the contrary, he is all the more efficacious because he is knowledgeable, enlightened, and of good faith. The more he knows, the more evident to him is the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the ignorant ones. The more he is enlightened, the more evident he finds the difference between groping blindly and searching methodically, the more he will insist on substituting the spirit of the letter, the clarity of explications for the authority of the book. Above all, he will say, the student must understand, and for that we must explain better. Such is the concern of the enlightened pedagogue: does the little one understand? He doesn’t understand. I will find new ways to explain it to him, ways more rigorous in principle, more attractive in form—and I will verify that he has understood.26

The master explicator operates by deploying the countless examples derived from the the “bounded field” of tradition, typically as recorded in authoritative books—historical texts, canonical works, scripture and commentary, contemporary textbooks and scholarly tomes—books from which the professor-explicator offers no escape. In any case, the crucial point is this: the explication, derived as it is from the master’s superior knowledge, wisdom, and experience, always prevails over the insights of the inferior intelligence: that of the student. For Rancière, something vile and pernicious is seething beneath this  stupid-making practice of prioritizing one intelligence over another: the perpetuation of social inequality. For inequality operates within, and thereby strengthens and perpetuates, “the very framework within which we get educated and acquire knowledge.” The explicative classroom is the very place where “our intellectual capacity comes into agreement with the inequality of the social order.”27

This framework can be dismantled through application of the following formula: Everything is in everything; learn something and relate it to all the rest.28 Here’s how that works. The ray of light that kills the intelligence-sucking vampire of explication is precisely that something. The logic of two intelligences lives and breathes in the shared delusion that the student cannot learn something.

As long as you are before “something,” you are before an opaque particularity which has its reason outside itself. You are before an opaque fragment of an unknown totality. You cannot learn anything unless you understand its connection to the whole of which it is a fragment.29

The logic of two intelligences holds that any given conceptual something is only a minute fragment of a greater “totality.” This totality is nothing other than what Professor X calls “the bounded field.” The bounded field represents a hermeneutic circle, the whole of which is known only to the professor-as-explicator. It is within this circle that the professor derives power, for there is virtually no end to the totality of a bounded field. The student cannot understand something without knowing how it connects to the whole of the bounded field. Only the professor knows how to link the part to the whole. A crucial element in this logic is the fact that the whole of the bounded field is itself “unpresentable,” and therefore “must be presupposed as inherent to the power of making the links, to the capacity of those who know how to know.”30 It is here that inequality, in both its pedagogical and social forms, shows its distorted face. For, the capacity to know the whole can only be demonstrated before an unequal intelligence. The professor’s intelligence ranges exultant over the transparent space of the bounded field. The student’s intelligence shrivals cramped, “enclosed in the relation of a private—idiotic—mind to particular things.”31 This is the principle of extensiveness.

Contained within the principle of extensiveness is another feature that many readers, I imagine, will recognize as a self-evident necessity for learning to occur: progressiveness. The principle of extensiveness holds that the professor’s knowledge will always range far distant from the student’s. Might it be possible for the student to close this distance? Yes. But it takes time. The time it takes is bound to a quite particular progression, the specific steps of which only the professor-explicator has knowledge. The logic of the principle of progressiveness is this: learn this something, then this something, then this something. The bounded field may be knowledgeably traversed only in a definite progression, a progression determined ad aeterno by the bounded field and divined exclusively by its professor-explicator agent. Where extensiveness operates spatially, progressiveness operates temporally: the bounded field may be finally circumnavigated only once the proper time has unfolded. Thus, the professor not only has command over the full range of proper connections to be made within the hermeneutic circle of the bounded field, but also “knowledge of the progression according to which the ignoramus is able to make this or that step in his travels,” extending over a protracted period of “learning.”32  

So the logic of explication calls for the principle of a regression ad infinitum: there is no reason for the redoubling of reasonings ever to stop. What brings an end to the regression and gives the system its foundation is simply that the explicator is the sole judge of the point when the explication is itself explicated. He is the sole judge of that, in itself, dizzying question: has the student understood the reasonings that teach him to understand the reasonings?…The master’s secret is to know how to recognize the distance between the taught material and the person being instructed, the distance also between learning and understanding. The explicator sets up and abolishes this distance—deploys it and reabsorbs it in the fullness of his speech.33

I said that the framework of inequality can be dismantled through application of the emancipatory formula Everything is in everything; learn something and relate it to all the rest. I am also arguing that the exercise of this formula in the classroom enables a prefiguration of a just world. Entailed in these claims are the additional ones that the formula disables the hypnotic seduction of the spectacle and, in so doing, strikes a blow against the capture of education by the prevailing system of dehumanizing neoliberal values. Most importantly, all of this allows to emerge the lineaments of a subject creative enough to imagine, and courageous enough to act toward, a just society. So, now we must ask: what is the right way forward that is revealed by the non-explicative professor?

Immediately, Jacotot retorts, there is no right way forward! Proclamations of a right method merely replicate the logic of two intelligences at work in the pedagogy of explication within a bounded field. All attempts at formulating a right way “boast of knowing how to know.”34 Since there is no right way of knowing, there can be neither accredited explicator nor stultified student. Everything is in everything; learn something and relate it to all the rest. Each “bounded field” is an illusion. It is an hallucination conjured up by medieval scholastics to defend their precious religious dogma against the rising tide of secular pluralism, and perpetuated by the petty departmental politics of the modern managerial university. Against the “bounded field” the emancipatory classroom facilitator assumes that everything is in everything, the whole is everywhere. This very essay before your eyes or in your hands is:

a whole from which you can discover your own capacity of making an infinite number of connections, hence your capacity of making links and wholes in general. The only condition of those operations is an “opinion:” the opinion of the equality of intelligence: the opinion that there is only one intelligence and that the master and the student are only two speaking beings, two travellers weaving their path in the forest of things and signs.35

Can not every one of us gather ample evidence that no explicator, no professor, no writer or speaker, can control the connections and links made in the process of another’s hearing or reading or thinking? Why, then, the charade of order, of correctness and control? Why, then, the insistence on the proper negotiation of extensiveness and progressiveness within a bounded field? Why, then—even with all of the current celebration of interdisciplinarity—the perpetuation of the pedagogical fetish fantasizing the value, meaning, and wisdom of departmentalized humanities fields? In short, why the epistemological discipline on the right of our might, that of liberal-conservative-right learning, rather than the epistemological anarchism of libertarian-socialist-left education? A greater question presents itself: why would an educator even desire such control, entailing as it does the shrivelling of imagination and the proscription of potentially idiosyncratic insight? And finally the looming question: why would an educator choose to function as an agent of the dehumanizing, debilitating yet seemingly unchallenged opinion known as inequality?  

Un-explaining in general means undoing the opinion of inequality. Undoing it means undoing the links that it has tightened everywhere between the perceptible and the thinkable. On the one hand, the un-explanatory method unties the stitches of the veil that the explanatory system has spread on everything; it restores the things that this system caught in its nets to their singularity and makes them available to the perception and the intelligence of anybody. On the other hand it returns their opacity, their lack of evidence, to the modes of presentation and argumentation which were supposed to cast light on them. By so doing it substitutes a community of equal speaking beings for the distribution of the positions opposing the learned to the ignoramuses.36


1 http://shc.stanford.edu/why-do-humanities-matter.

2 Katerina Kolozova writing about Marx’s notion of workers’ interest, notes that interest “is not an idea in the sense of ‘causa finalis.’ It is not a purpose. It does not have a ‘meaning’ per se. It does not require ‘wisdom,’ ‘superior knowledge,’ or education to know what one’s interest is.” See Katerina Kolozova, Toward a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism: Marx and Laruelle (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2015), 3.

3 See, for instance, Salon, “The Interests of the Wealthy: How the rich control politicians—even more than you think.” Political scientist Michael Jay Barber, discussing his research into the issue, says: “What we found, when we looked senator-by-senator, was that the opinions of donors and the behavior of senators are very closely aligned, whereas the opinions of the typical voter in a senator’s state were not nearly as closely connected.” https://tinyurl.com/y8cyw7s3.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Emphases added for clarity. https://tinyurl.com/pv4k9nq.

The most basic function of capitalist logic is of course the creation of a commodity out of either concrete or abstract entities. “Education” is a human abstraction that can only be packaged and sold for a massive profit when materialized as, for instance, a college or university. Within this context, we can see many other functions of capitalist logic at work (terms in quote actual commerce- and finance-oriented higher ed verbiage): the student as “customer” whose “business” must be earned through the college’s “delivering” of a stylized “student experience” and “retained” (tuition paid,) until completion of the “credential” (degree); “business plans” and “strategic plans” compiled by the college’s various “stakeholders;” celebration of perpetual “expansion,” as in the construction of new buildings, parking lots, student housing, gyms, stadiums, bookstores, cafes, etc; constant innovation, such as the creation of new programs, certificates, courses, and of mostly unnecessary changes in learning management systems, email providers, and the interminable and mostly unnecessary updates of computers, phones, and other technology; the selling of “credits” tied to time “employed” in the classroom (the “credit hour,” “extra credit,” “points earned” and “points deducted”); the system of rewards and punishments known as “grading” (ranking, classifying, distinguishing) ensuing from “competition” with other students; the presence of a factory-like taskmaster (the professor) setting the “terms” of the course via a “contract” (the prospectus-like “agreement” called a syllabus), and incessantly inspecting, probing, assessing, and evaluating student “performance” through “tests;” college rankings, viewed by “buyers” (potential students and their parents) as indicative of an institution’s “stock value.” I am just skimming the surface here, and could continue. But let’s finally mention the most blatant form of economic subjugation bearing on the student: debt. As Noam Chomsky says: “Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt . they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a ‘disciplinary technique,’ and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the ‘disciplinarian culture.’ This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.” See also “Noam Chomsky on Student Debt and Education,” https://chomsky.info/20130227. For more on the concept of capitalist logic, see, Ronald Edsforth, “On the Definition of Capitalism and Its Implications for the Current Global Political-Economic Crisis,” https://tinyurl.com/yagcctvd.

David Chandler and Julian Reid, The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation and Vulnerability (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 2. There is ample literature on how the university fits into this theory. See, for instance, Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades, “The Neo-Liberal University,” New Labor Forum, no. 6 (Spring-Summer, 2000): 73-79.

George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems,” The Guardian, https://tinyurl.com/hkbom5x.

The Neoliberal Subject, 2.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot. https://tinyurl.com/ybb9wxsw.

10 The Neoliberal Subject, 4.

11 See, for instance, Randall V. Bass and J. W.  Good, “Educare and Educere: Is a Balance Possible in the Educational System?” The Educational Forum, Volume 68, Number 2, Winter 2004: 161-168.

12 http://shc.stanford.edu/why-do-humanities-matter.

13 See Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and its Aspiration (Oakland: AK Press, 2010), 17-18.

14 https://tinyurl.com/ydex2vzd.

15 Uri Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics between Ethical Practice and Empty Promise,”  Political Studies 2018, Vol. 66(2), 526.

16 Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics,” 529.

17 Mikhail Bakunin, “Reflections on Marx and Engels.” https://tinyurl.com/y9q2ette.

18 Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics,” 529.

19 Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics,” 528-529. The original reads: “The future society should be nothing else than the universalization of the organisation that the International has formed for itself. We must therefore strive to make this organisation as close as possible to our ideal.”

20 Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and its Aspirations (Oakland: AK Press, 2003), 68.

21 Peter Kropotkin in his seminal article, “Anarchism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/kropotkin-peter/1910/britannica.htm.

22 L.O. Aranye Fradenburg and Eileen A. Joy, “Unlearning: A Duologue,” in Aiden Seary and Éamonn Dunne, The Pedagogics of Unlearning (Brooklyn: punctum books, 2016), 172. The quote is from Joy’s section of the “duologue.”

23 This is Ernst Bloch discussing his quite relevant concept of “concrete utopia;” in Gordon, “Prefigurative Politics,” 533.

24 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford University Press, 1991 [1987]), 2.

25 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 2.

26 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 7-8.

27 Rancière, “Un-What?” 26.

28 Rancière, “Un-What?” 27.

29 Rancière, “Un-What?” 27.

30 Rancière, “Un-What?” 27.

31 Rancière, “Un-What?” 27. Rancière is playing on the ancient Greek sense of the word idiōtēs, which simply denoted “’a private person.” Later Latin usage extends the meaning to “ignorant, uneducated.”

32 Rancière, “Un-What?” 28.

33 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 4-5.

34 Rancière, “Un-What?” 29.

35 Rancière, “Un-What?” 29.

36 On “epistemological anarchism,” see Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London: Verso, 1993 [1975]).

37 Rancière, “Un-What?” 35.

11. Kaitlin Smith. Calling All Inspired Intellectuals

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Calling All Inspired Intellectuals 

Kaitlin Smith is the founder of Wild Mind Collective. The collective consists of several formats, including a podcast, website, blog, and Facebook page. Its mission is to counter the toxic effects of the neoliberal-consumerist-industrial complex that counts as today’s academia, a state of affairs that “poses significant problems in both the lives of individuals and in broader communities hungry for the contributions of visionary thinkers rendered meek and self-doubting through academic socialization.” The following piece first appeared on the Wild Mind Collective  blog.

As conditions within colleges and universities around the U.S. grow ever more dire for many knowledge workers, it is no longer terribly controversial to regard academia as a space of chronic disempowerment and emotional abuse for nearly everyone who enters its professional socialization process. This is particularly so for those inspired to amplify marginalized perspectives, deliver biting social critique, or resurface traditions of contemplation that contrast with the logic of mechanistic scholarly production.

This blog entry chronicles my experience walking without a map in response to these warnings as an inspired intellectual—someone with an unquenchable love of ideas and an unwavering commitment to personal authenticity in pursuing them. Though I have hesitated to launch this project with an extended discussion of my own experience, I believe that things will not change for this community until we find the courage to marry intellection with vulnerability in open dialogue and await no one’s authorization.

It all started for me after watching Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent documentary in high school. After giving some of his writing a cursory read and feeling inspired by his courage and intelligence, I concluded that I, too, wanted to become a professor-radical public intellectual. Perhaps needless to say, I did not understand that those things overlap only very infrequently. Despite that, this goal was reinforced at the picturesque Swarthmore College where I was groomed to continue along this trajectory and did so until a fortuitous trip to New York City brought my journey to a grinding halt. During a research trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, I began to perceive the dehumanizing levels of abstraction inherent in the research process as an engine of personal estrangement and the whole experience as a precursor to the isolation that awaited me as a professional academic woman. I had previously read plenty of harrowing stories about the particular experiences of many scholars of color, the unique challenges faced by academic women of childbearing age, and the consequences of the hiring freeze that had been occurring at the time. There was something about riding the New York subway every day amid droves of strangers that amplified my manufactured estrangement and revealed that inertia would continue to push me along that path unless and until I forcibly stopped it. Suddenly, the prospect of launching into a highly consuming career in which I would not be able to speak candidly, would be undermined in pursuing partnership and motherhood, and made perpetually precarious felt like a choice that would quickly be made for me if I did not decide to hit the brakes. Though I did put on the brakes, I would soon learn that forging my own path—without clear models or support—was not at all easy.

My realizations prompted me to halt the process of applying to doctoral programs and, instead, begin work in healing arts— psychotherapy and modalities that nurture the mind-body-spirit. Like the tender places within some humanistic disciplines, this is a domain where narratives can be rewritten at the level of the self and the community against all apparent odds. Through a combination of primarily self-directed study in healing arts and master’s-level training and practice in psychodynamic psychotherapy, I gained rich experience working one-on-one with clients. Unsurprisingly, however, it was not long before my “intellectual DNA” resurfaced to call me back to neglected parts of myself. Throughout graduate study and clinical training, I remained the person who had many more questions than could be answered, who was unsatisfied with the mainstream paradigm of treatment, and perpetually frustrated by the politics of academic and medical knowledge production more generally. Rather than feeling at peace during client sessions, I desired a platform from which to share my ideas and engage others in dialogue. I also wanted the freedom to speak openly about my own experiences in the first person (not only a no-no within scholarly writing but also in the psychoanalytic / psychodynamic tradition in which I was trained).

What truly prompted me to re-evaluate this new direction, however, was work with supervisory figures who diagnosed my intellectualism and lack of apparent anger as pathological for a black woman. They asserted that I was “too cerebral” for the clinical profession and communicated that, in general, critical thinking beyond a certain threshold is simply not valued within the field. Though I did not know this at the outset, the anti-intellectualism present within the field is a known problem amongst many of its defectors and, hence, a particularly poor destination for someone with my innate proclivities. Scenarios like these seem to be among the worst nightmares of many academics I have known. The threat of such experiences beyond the ivory tower seems to be the glue that keep a great many people in line amid severe cognitive dissonance. Though I certainly wouldn’t wish these particular experiences upon anyone, I know firsthand how difficult it is for socially marginalized people who think critically and speak courageously to work under people who are simultaneously intimidated by us and empowered to reinforce their dominant position. The opportunity to, at least seemingly, not have a boss and engage primarily with colleagues who demonstrate some measure of sociopolitical awareness seem to be among the major selling points of the academic career for people who meet this profile. When your self-expression disturbs stereotypical renderings of your community, finding a career where you can gain genuine respect for being yourself can feel like an impossible task. As it turns out, this seeming impossibility led me back into the lion’s den.

Despite my longstanding misgivings, it was this experience of feeling deeply pathologized, coerced, and misappropriated that led me to take my next career steps within academia after all. Wasting away in a field in which some of my greatest assets were being received as liabilities seemed like an unconscionable, unsustainable waste of time, health, and spirit. As I examined the examples and role models around me, I struggled to imagine conducting the work that felt like mine without the organizing framework of a doctoral program. I knew that I wanted to write, speak, and conduct events related to the ritual of education, academic knowledge production, and the bankruptcy of symbolic culture alone for driving social transformation. I was also inspired by existing lines of inquiry within Africana philosophy, indigenous thought, and ecophilosophy as I reflected upon these issues. Though the social vision behind my ideas seemed to run counter to the purpose of most traditional departments within the U.S., my private thinking was that I wouldn’t necessarily become a professor for all of the reasons that had given me pause years prior. In my imagination, I would become some sort of hybrid of public intellectual and entrepreneur once I emerged sufficiently prepared and adorned with the PhD.

As you might imagine, however, things within my doctoral program at UChicago hardly went according to plan. One of the primary faculty I had intended to work with ended up taking a role at another institution without informing me and the advisor who was ultimately assigned to me was chronically unresponsive. I was irritated that I was wasting days, weeks, and months arguing with colleagues and professors about the merits of a project that was subsequently published in a similar form by someone else roughly a year later with positive critical reception. Though I may have found a more congenial home within an interdisciplinary department or one with a more overt activist stance, the basic qualms that stopped me from taking this path earlier resurfaced with much greater clarity. Beyond the obvious challenges that afflict almost everyone on the job market in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, I found that my abstract misgivings became more concrete as I learned more about my professors’ real lives. From the constant relocations, lack of significant relationships, and lack of agency to speak their truths on campus and off, I simply could not imagine committing to that life-long marathon. In addition, I also began to experience some significant health challenges that were difficult to address on my meager fellowship stipend and that was severely aggravated by conditions of chronic stress. It became clear that choosing myself and choosing to live out my interior academic fantasy were mutually exclusive paths. After a summer of tough deliberation, I chose the former and have never looked back.

Though I had not been sure how I would weather the unique challenges of the academic socialization process before I started, I failed to understand how the process fundamentally changes people and would urge me to change, too. While some people may consider this a character flaw, I believe that my unrelenting stubbornness and inability to tolerate conditions of servitude saved me from what may have become many years and decades of suffering in service to an idealized career vision that is increasingly askew from reality. The notion that one will simply get the degree and get out promptly, unchanged and unscathed, is an irrelevant pipe dream for so very many people. The fanciful equation in which the existing me + PhD will invariably = a better version of myself just doesn’t balance out. The self who endures the process of domestication may very well be markedly different in mind, body, and spirit than its predecessor (and not necessarily in a manner that the person would elect to repeat). What would happen if we could begin claiming that latter state of completion and self-authorization in the here and now?

Despite my early exposure to the horror stories of too many committed and impassioned people within this industry, my and others’ willingness to thrust ourselves into this toxic system suggests the need for a new space that helps inspired intellectuals build meaningful bodies of work and care for themselves irrespective of academic affiliation. Regardless of the slew of digital opinion pieces warning us of impending danger and abject precarity, it is extremely difficult to act upon such knowledge without a clear sense of viable alternatives and a supportive community to bear witness.

I have launched the Wild Mind Collective website because I believe that this void poses significant problems in both the lives of individuals and in broader communities hungry for the contributions of visionary thinkers rendered meek and self-doubting through academic socialization. Whether someone makes their professional home in academia, beyond it, or somewhere in-between, I want to live in a world in which all inspired intellectuals feel empowered to deliver authentic bodies of work within their chosen domains. I believe that our world desperately needs this sea change and we do, too.

If this issue has touched you or someone you know and you would like to be part of this conversation, I hope that you will tell me about your experience in the comments, share this post with a friend, and join my mailing list.

10. Camelia Elias. Against Dullness

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Camelia Elias is a renowned Tarot card reader and author of numerous books on cartomancy, hermeticism, mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism. Born is Romania, she has spent her career (until recently: see below) in Danish universities as a professor of American Studies. As an academic, she authored numerous works on literary theory, poetry criticism, cultural studies, and postcolonial cinema. You can begin your journey into her rich world at: http://www.cameliaelias.com, where the follow piece first appeared.

Against Dullness

I held my last exam at Roskilde University on January 27, 2017. Thus ended my 10 years of tenured professorship.

I quit the academia. When I walked into the union man’s office (the union is still strong in Denmark), and asked about the rules around quitting – just like that – he looked at me as if I fell from Pluto: ‘Nobody ever quits,’ he said, ‘I’ve no idea about the rules. I have to check.’ He did, and I consequently walked.

The long and short story is that the university and I are no longer speaking the same language. Whereas I insist on maintaining some integrity regarding the ‘higher’ in higher learning, the university insists on false images, ranking, evaluations, and interminable bullshit.

That’s just so dull. Academic administrative rhetoric bores me to death. It’s dull. And it contaminates. First caliber researchers are not immune. They may think they are, but they are not. I go to conferences and I hear the dullness.

What is astonishing is that the university administrators and moronic reformers purposefully forget that they are talking to educated people; people into the business of deconstructing language, seeing through cliché and dullness. They keep at it though. Why? Because we let them.

Everyone is afraid. Of what, exactly? Of losing money? And with losing money, losing your religion, the religion of yourself and image? Is this a joke? Do we educate ourselves in the university for this joke? Oh, the dullness…

We have a saying in Romanian: ‘Beware what you fear. What you fear you can’t escape.’ Tenured professors, who thought they were going to stay on the job until they croaked, got fired during the summer. This instilled great fear among the ones hoping that their turn will never come. Oh, the tragedy, and the ensuing dull competition for who is to be master…

My own English department closed. While the staff was ‘saved’, and no one got fired, we were encouraged to live with the vague promise that if we get a new profile – ‘language is good, like grammar and phonetics’ – ‘then we can integrate with the communication department, or something else.’ Such bullshit. What is this ‘something else’? No one has a clue. Oh, the dull irony…

I walk the corridors of the academic tower. I read the names of the illuminatis on their doors. There is no light coming in from anywhere. Everyone is hiding in their den, devising strategies of individual survival: ‘Who are we going to bullshit next? Will Carlsberg give me a sack of money for my intellectual begging? Come on Carlsberg, be a sport, if you give me this money you get to be associated with my illustrious name, and together we will create headlines.’ Oh, so awfully dull…

I’m done with dullness. As I sit here and contemplate, I praise my luck. My own strategy of going against dullness – as I’m not interested in coping with it – is to say ‘no’ to it.


Following my big NO is a new beginning.

ARADIA ACADEMY – That’s my new school. It will open its doors in spring 2017. You can get a preview below, as the first to see it, though I’m not done yet with fiddling with website code and content. Enjoy the masterful gift posters by my long-time student, illustrator and card maker, Ryan Edward.

My one-on-one waiting list will get shorter. The ones who have been waiting for more than 8 months to study with me – my Trio Con Brio – Marseille, Lenormand, Playing Cards – can rejoice. A new schedule will soon be available.

Yes. I can do better than dull. I can teach others to read artfully and brilliantly, be that visual text, cards and oracles, or their own nature. Have you heard of how valuable your emptiness is?

I have students in my Nonreading program who would swear by this value. Nothing is more liberating than knowing that you have no substance, no self-existence. Let us now laugh and take a bow. We are very privileged to have access to this information.

I take my last exam at Roskilde University as a good omen. The student scored the highest grade. Of course he did. I supervised him. There are some things I’m goddamn good at. Teaching.

My last exam at an institution that has no honor frees me from having to honor ‘no honor’.

Now I can plunge into my own radiance. Spread it around.

How is your approach to dullness?

How do you radiate against its background?

If you are clueless, ask your cards this very question:

How can I go against dullness?

Keep going.


09. Max Finkel. Tragic Perception: Meditation, Ethics, and the Human Condition

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Max Finkel holds an M.A. in Philosophy & Religion from the California Institute of Integral Studies. He can be reached at: max.finkel.f15@woninstitute.edu.

The following essay concerns Finkel’s time as a student in the Applied Meditation Studies program at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. This essay is the basis of Finkel’s final presentation for his degree.

I. This essay…

This essay is a summing up in five movements. It begins by resituating the recent closing of the Applied Meditation Studies (AMS) program into a larger context in an attempt to better understand the difficulty of offering a graduate program committed to a creative engagement, as opposed to a steward-like engagement, with the practice of meditation. This essay attempts to name the AMS curricular wager in effect which, in my opinion, revolved around widening the spectrum of assigned texts to include human thinking flaring forth from the soil of pessimism. David Benatar, in a book entitled The Human Predicament, defines optimism and pessimism in the following way. “Any view of the facts or any evaluation thereof that depicts some element of the human condition in positive terms I shall call an optimistic view. By contrast, I shall describe as pessimistic any view that depicts some element of the human condition in negative terms.” The common variable which shows up in both definitions is a reference to the human condition. The human condition is the common problem, predicament, or situation that both pessimists and optimists are attempting to evaluate. Encountering material which interprets the human condition in a predominantly pessimistic light was a first for me in higher education and I wonder if this is the case due to a larger educational phenomena in which naming the potential terror or horror of our shared human predicament is better left unnamed. I had been exposed to material engaging dark nights but most always a gesture of progress slipped in and the dark night was followed by a new and better day. A part of me is still very committed to the intimate connection between dark nights and the freshening of days, but I find it of great value to also let those whose perspective refuses the speculation about the new and better day a chance to share their view.

This essay is a testament to an unusual educational experience. This essay is a thank you to all of the students, faculty, and administration that I encountered. This essay is a eulogy to the usual fate of attempts to institutionalize a visionary vision. The aim is to not land blame, locate a scapegoat or point fingers. Instead, the aim is to become ever more clearer about the paradoxes, contradictions, struggles, and seeming impossibilities of offering higher education degrees that revolve around potent contemplative practices delivered in a mood of sincerity. By sincerity I mean an openness to uncertainty. “Sincere,” from Latin “sincerus, of things, “unmixed.” Unmixed of what? Unmixed in the sense that questions and answers were not delivered in a mixture. Rather, timeless questions had the chance to be engaged with afresh, time-bound. This essay seeks to tease out a connection between tragic perception, an underlying theme of the AMS curriculum, and the potential moral ramifications of engaging in meditative practice through this gaze. This essay is an attempt to theorize a conception of a timeless good in and for our time. This essay is fraught with generalizations, oversimplifications, speculations and groundless claims. Yet, despite these flaws, I still hold out for the possibility that it may speak to one or two humans attempting to tarry with the elusiveness of that which is of ultimate concern.

My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.  —Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Lecture on Ethics”

Please join me in this next absolutely hopeless attempt say something about the absolute good or ultimate value from an ordinary view, not a view from nowhere.

II. AMS is apolis

The discontinuation of the Applied Meditation Studies (AMS) program is a symptom of a much larger cultural phenomenon—a societal tendency to turn our eyes away from tragedy in tandem with the tendency for educational institutions to evade and resist pessimistic theories of the human condition. In this essay, I will offer the perspective that our cultures incapacity to harbor educational spaces for humans who live into (to live into) a tragic perception of the human’s ontological lot is the site of desperately needed further discussion in contemporary debates on moral self cultivation. There is a shortage of educational spaces which allow for the full gamut of human thought to be expressed. My intimation is this: there is a subtle yet profound relation between tragic perception, a pessimistic view of the enduring predicament of the human organism, and activity in accordance with that which is humble and just. In my estimation, the relationship in question between tragic perception, pessimism and morality is occluded due to a cultural milieu in which happiness is the prime addiction, pleasure is the prime motive and efficiency is the prime mover.

What I am naming as tragic perception is a term to capture what I saw as an underlying motif of the AMS experience and the AMS approach to meditation. One facet of tragic perception is that no ultimate cures for the pains of existence are recommended. In the words of Joshua Foa Dienstag, within the tragic mode of engaging existence, “there are no cures offered but only a public recognition of their (i.e., the pains of existence) depth and power.” I like this idea of creating spaces where humans can make their plights public. This can be very therapeutic and reduce the shame we may feel for our seeming imperfections. Through the gaze of tragic perception, human pain is durative despite its complex and multitudinous mutations. Countless discussions in our AMS education engaged the idea of a curative fantasy. Walter Stone states that: “The concept of a curative fantasy includes a patient’s conscious and unconscious hopes and expectations of what is necessary for their relief of suffering.” The AMS curriculum was committed to placing the proposition that human suffering can achieve cessation in suspension and sought to engage Buddhist and non-Buddhist material from this starting point (in other words, calling into question the possibility that a curative fantasy can be realized). New fields of possibilities emerge when already given answers are bracketed. Bracketing dogmatic answers tills the psychic soil for questions of a different kind to emerge. In Gille Deleuze’s description of Henri Bergson’s intuitive method, he states that the first rule is to: “apply the test of true and false to problems themselves. Condemn false problems and reconcile truth and creation at the level of problems.” Might the problem of ceasing human suffering be an example of a false problem? Refusing the way problems are automatically presented and reconciling fresh ways of engaging timeless yet timely dilemmas is more than an intellectual exercise. It is the pinnacle of applying the meditative act to everyday life. To meditate is to call the totality of self and world into question. To pose a sincere question, one’s attachment to any certain answer must be revoked. Including the answer that human suffering will cease due to this practice, this knowledge, or this way of life. In a recent The Quietus interview, Eugene Thacker was asked the following question in relation to his recent release of Infinite Resignation:

At one point in the book you ask “how can everything be so loud and yet so  insignificant?” which seems a very apposite predicament for our times. If all life is futile and suffering, and if we have an awareness of this, how is one to live in the world, how can we get to a place of quiet significance?

Thacker’s response provides a valuable re-evaluation of the common notion that an unanswered question is a problem, and speaks to the lush spirit of the practice of asking sincere questions.

If I had the answer to that I wouldn’t be a writer, I’d be a guru instead! I don’t think there’s really an answer, but I do think there’s something in these writings about being okay with the space of uncertainty, bewilderment, and confusion. Our kneejerk response is to think in terms of problems and solutions, questions and answers, and the culture we live in reinforces that. Maybe the practice of going back and realising that there are questions that don’t have answers—and that in itself is not a problem—is a good one.

We can see the economic predicament that emerges for a program within a higher educational setting willing to offer a space to sincerely ask a question. To pose a genuine question, one must refrain from posing its attendant answer. A curriculum committed to this mode of education would contradict itself if a guarantee is latent (ie. a guarantee to limit stress, to minimize pain, to awaken, etc.) The skilled consumer is hesitant to make an investment in anything in which a guarantee is absent. Meditation and contemplation from the spirit of asking a sincere question leaves open to fate exactly what the student will gain from the pedagogic experience. But this element of the unknown is important when it comes to contemplative exercise because it is this ingredient which allows for the exercise to harbor initiatory potency to facilitate a genuine transformation in perception. With the increasing vocationalization of higher education in the name of practicality, the activity of education is often captured by the logic of profit, not by the logic of existential renewal. But when the transformational potential of an education environment is on the line, a serious choice is encountered, ask sincere questions or barter guarantees, guarantees that often have the quality of being perpetually deferred. To invite students to live into questions, while refraining from offering the questions’ complementary answers, is to create an educational space allowing for the possibility that something other than the societal status quo will emerge. There are so many ways to name the problem with things as they are. I’ll use the language from a document released by the Parliament of World’s Religions in 1993 entitled Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. Although written 25 years ago, I would say the words still seem accurate.

The world is in agony. The agony is so pervasive and urgent that we are compelled to name its manifestations so that the depth of this pain may be made clear. Peace eludes usthe planet is being destroyedneighbors live in fearwomen and men are estranged from each otherchildren die! This is abhorrent. We condemn the abuses of Earth’s ecosystems. We condemn the poverty that stifles life’s potential; the hunger that weakens the human body, the economic disparities that threaten so many families with ruin. We condemn the social disarray of the nations; the disregard for justice which pushes citizens to the margin; the anarchy overtaking our communities; and the insane death of children from violence. In particular we condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion.

The AMS educational experience began from the standpoint that the world is in agony, and that no one has the absolute answers to the aforementioned conundrums. This kind of pedagogical event challenges the primal human instinct for security (i.e., to fit neatly into this agonizing world’s unjust and unsustainable flows). This is where the element of radicality that the AMS curriculum embodied comes into play. Radical visions often speak from the space after the addiction to survival is quelled. Radical imaginings speak to possibilities that seem utopian at present but only seem this way because of the vision’s dissonance with the current state of affairs. This dissonance is the terrain of hope. and failing to follow these visions through may be considered a malfunction of faith in the field of the possible.

Concerning the quandary of application and the question of what it may mean for a contemplative practice to be applied to this, local, everyday life, AMS confronted the student in a rigorous, vigorous, and true buddhistic fashion. Naming the spirit of the intellectual that I encountered in the faculty, François Zourabichvili writes, “The intellectual ceases to function as a guide or a conscience: she proposes nothing, and is ahead of no one. Her capacities and attention are directed toward the involuntary, or the emergence of new fields of the possible.” (François Zourabichvili, Deleuze and the Possible: on Involuntarism in Politics) The teachers offered their expertise and then stepped aside for the students to come to a resolution themselves. This method allows for a dynamism in the educational setting and carries within itself a certain respect for the contingent events that fashioned the individual student in the past and challenge them in the present. The infamous words in the Buddha’s Farewell speak to this kind of intellectual setting:

Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not for assistance to anyone besides yourselves…Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in the truth alone, and shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they, Ananda, among my bhikkhus, who shall reach the very topmost height! But they must be anxious to learn. Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha

The key phrase here is the final sentence spoken in the tone of a prophetic command: but they must be anxious to learn. Anxiety breeds necessity, and, channeled properly, becomes a limitless fount of curiosity. In the AMS program, we learned to not wage war against anxiety but instead to try to come to a creative relationship with this potential force of novelty and this potential motivator to realize new possibilities. On the topic of anxiety, sadness, and American culture, Eric Wilson, in a text entitled Against Happiness  writes:

What is behind this desire to purge sadness from our lives, especially in America, the land of splendid dreams and wild success? Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, for the innocuous smile? What fosters this desperate contentment?

A central question here is whether the American obsession with a banal happiness (if Wilson’s diagnosis is accurate), an attempt to access a steady state of happiness purged of sadness, is repelling certain experiences or insights which may lead to a different kind of person and in turn a different kind of society. Perhaps a different society that is not diagnosed by the Parliament of the World’s Religions as in agony? As practitioners attempting to follow the Buddha’s advice to become a lamp unto oneself, we may  encounter an anxiety in daring to live from this terrain of tragic in-betweenness. George Steiner, in an essay entitled Tragedy Reconsidered, names this tragic in-betweenness in terms of a sense of “ontological homelessness.” Leaving the comfort of clichés, conditioned responses, pre-formulated answers, and familiar beliefs may usher one into the sense of finding no stable ground beneath. “The sickness of clichés leaves us in an agonizing in-between: we no longer believe in another world, but nor do we yet believe in this world…” (François Zourabichvili’s, Deleuze and the Possible: on Involuntarism in Politics) This is a real predicament that the AMS curriculum attempted to creatively engage. In my opinion, part of the tragedy of our current educational situation, especially for those committed to an educational environment aiming towards sincere inward transformation, is that there are not many spaces committed to tolerating the unbearability of coming to see the world more clearly and in that seeing losing a sense of hope. AMS provided a room for such an outlet, for this unbearability to not be shunned, repressed, suppressed, doubted or told otherwise. The AMS curriculum was laced with honesty, realism, and a strange aspiration-without-expectation.

The existential anxiety that contemplative practice may bring about may not be due to a faulty approach but to a clarity into the tragic predicament of the human organism who dares to understand the objective and subjective dimensions of their plights. AMS is  apolis, Greek for unhoused, and bearing the unsupportable fate of the tragic subject. Human hearts in a state of confusion laced with curiosity due to a clarity into the human predicament will have one less room to come to terms with their sense of alienation. But the offering in this essay is that there is more than a psychotherapeutic dimension of minimizing alienation and sadness on the line. I suspect a relationship between coming to see the human predicament as tragic and a moral disposition. Collaboratively working through challenging phases can be a gauntlet for deep realizations of care; and we need communal education spaces to make this transition. Meditation heightens one’s capacity to be affected, and along with this comes the capacity to feel the intolerable more clearly as well as the moments of joy. Yes, we need to feel both, the intolerable and the joy. There is a special relationship between intolerability and possibility. In other words, a crucial relationship between tragic perception, the capacity and willingness to direct one’s attention toward that which is intolerable in one’s current predicament, and living into a caring response. Building off this connection, I would like to introduce a distinction between two basic kinds of intolerability: objective and subjective.

III. Two Worlds, Two Sufferings, Two Cures

Let’s unpack further this concept of tragic perception and the ethical possibilities for a human being who trains to see the world in this light. This notion that ethics is a training regimen makes it clear that choice is present throughout the entire process as we can choose to train our perception to see different aspects of the world. In my opinion, it is in accordance with the good to attempt to understand what we are training our perception to pick up and what we are training our perception to leave out. If we turn our focus onto the human situation, we will inevitably encounter the first noble truth of dukkha. In the glossary of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Mindfulness With Breathing, he defines dukkha in the following way:

Stress, suffering, misery, unsatisfactoriness, pain: literally, “hard to endure, difficult to bear.”…dukkha is the quality of experience that results when the mind is conditioned by avijja into craving, attachment, egoism, and selfishness. This feeling takes on forms such as disappointment, dissatisfaction, frustration, agitation, anguish, dis-ease, despair…In its universal sense, dukkha is the inherent condition of unsatisfactoriness, ugliness, and misery in all impermanent, conditioned things. This second fundamental characteristic is the result of anicca: impermanent things cannot satisfy our wants and desires no matter how hard we try (and cry). The inherent decay and dissolution of things is misery.

I read the first noble truth as an ontological claim about the very structure of human existence itself. Ontological in the sense of a feature of human life that is independent of the specific social, political, economic world that is contingent to each individual. The term ontological is derived from the Greek term ontos which translates to “being” or “that which is.” In essence, an ontological claim wrestles with that which is universal, timeless, unaffected by subjective conditions. In resonant spirit to the first noble truth of dukkha, thinkers in the tradition of pessimism put on display resonant themes about the fundamental truths of suffering. In an essay entitled “Tragedy, Pessimism, Nietzsche,” Joshua Foa Dienstag writes that a pessimistic vision of the world includes “the consistent finding…that the world is fundamentally disordered, untamable, unfair, and destructive.” The ethical injunction in this paper, which is very much an ongoing practice that I believe meditation can enhance, is the following: To be ethical is to seek to know the ontological predicament of the human condition and to choose to partake in practices that bring one’s heart closer and one’s mind in attunement with this objective structure of human life.

To arrive at a notion of the objective good in our time, it is helpful to first admit that there are two worlds that are simultaneously present, co-emergent, different, yet ultimately inseparable. The human body is the site of the collision of these two worlds. World one is what I will refer to as the Social-Political-Economic (S-P-E) world. S-P-E is wholly contingent to time, place, and individual. Thinking in terms of the S-P-E world we each inhabit makes it possible to formulate a localized conception of ethical action but impossible to name any generic conception of what a universal good may mean to all humans, of all times, in all places. There have been numerous failed and oppressive attempts to try to generate a universal ethic from the S-P-E dimension of existence. An example of this would be the way in which prophets of capitalism spread their economic/political gospel through negotiation and brutal force believing that the formation of privatized ownership of industry and trade is the structure that should be spread across planet earth, universally, ad infinitum. Ethical action in the S-P-E terrain manifests itself as social justice movements geared toward specific causes, political movements geared toward particular communities, and other societal impulses seeking to minimize suffering and brutality via social, political, or economic reorganization. The second world that each human inhabits is what I will call the Ontological (ONT) world. This world alludes to the generic situation which confronts the human animal, in all times, in all places. To set the tone for what I have in mind, I will quote Jean Paul Sartre at length. This passage is from an essay entitled Existentialism is a Humanism.

Furthermore, although it is impossible to find in each and every man a universal essence that can be called human nature, there is nevertheless a human universality of condition…But what never vary are the necessities of being in the world, of having to labor and to die there. These limitations are neither subjective nor objective, or rather there is both a subjective and an objective aspect of them. Objective, because we meet with them everywhere and they are everywhere recognisable: and subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man does not live themif, that is to say, he does not freely determine himself and his existence in relation to them. And, diverse though man’s purpose may be, at least none of them is wholly foreign to me, since every human purpose presents itself as an attempt either to surpass these limitations, or to widen them, or else to deny or to accommodate oneself to them. Consequently every purpose, however individual it may be, is of universal value.

Admitting the universality of the ONT world is not a claim about a human essence or a human nature but a claim that on the level of ontology, humans encounter a shared situation which some may call the human condition. The first noble truth of dukkha mentioned earlier captures this shared predicament very nicely. To reiterate Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on dukkha: In its universal sense, dukkha is the inherent condition of unsatisfactoriness, ugliness, and misery in all impermanent, conditioned things.

The gnawing sense of existential alienation is an example of a version of suffering that issues forth from being part of the ONT world and it is meditative practice which can address this kind of angst through some sort of identity transmutation. In the Buddhist path, this identity transmutation may come about through a realization of anatta. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu defines anatta as:

Not-self, selflessness, non-selfhood: the fact that all things without exception…are not-self and lack any essence or substance that could properly be called a “self.” This truth does not deny the existence of “things” but denies that they can be owned or controlled or be an owner or controller in any but a relative, conventional sense…anatta is more or less a synonym of sunnata.

What I want to stay clear from is what I see as a common tendency for many socially engaged spiritual practitioners to fall prey to, namely to conflate these two worlds. Or better yet, to conflate the two kinds of ethics that emerge from these two different but overlapping worlds. S-P-E and ONT each have different ways of naming suffering and different methods for its cessation. There is a human condition that is inescapable, ever-present, imperturbable, universal, and objective. There is no human nature but there is a shared human condition. That which we refer to as human nature is actually the most common responses to this fundamental human condition. Spiritual systems and religious regimes often speak to an inherent quality or capacity in human beings that lies latent, ready to be re-awakened. This essay, influenced by the AMS experience, aims to transition meditative discourse and contemplative inquiry to a realization of common conditions, as opposed to an awakening to common essences. This shift is similar to what Sartre is exploring in the quote above. The universal is located not in the essence of a thing but in the common existential structures that precedes, informs, and outlives a very thing’s coming into existence.

If the existential features of human life are common to all, then herein lies the possibility of a universal ethic grounded in something other than a universal human nature. This transition, from universal nature or universal essence to universal structures of existence, makes peace between the religious and the non-believers, and it is, in my estimation, meditative inquiry that provides a strong foundation for this kind of investigation into the human condition. To reiterate: We humans reside in two worlds, we meditation practitioners sit in two worlds, radically separate yet both ever-present. These two worlds, governed by radically different logics and values, create a situation that makes the human condition appear contradictory to the core. Each world has its own understanding of what suffering is and what the cures of suffering are. This is a tragic scenario because the cures are often both true yet incompatible with the ONT and S-P-E methods of ceasing suffering often in tension. My hunch here is that a porous dualism can help us understand the underlying unity woven between homo sapiens. Affirming the idea that humans inhabit two different worlds at once may help us understand the background for countless misunderstandings between those who attempt the change the world from within-out and those who attempt to transform the world from without-in.

The two worlds are separate and interact in unequal ways. The S-P-E world has zero bearing on the ONT world and the fundamental human condition that presents and represents itself. No S-P-E revolution can ever have any effect on our ONT predicament. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his discussion of the Dionysian man in The Birth of Tragedy, captures the ONT situation for a human who sees clearly into the human condition. Nietzsche writes:

The Dionysian man bears a similarity to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They find it ridiculous or humiliating that they might be expected to order again a world which is out of joint. Knowledge kills action, for action requires our being covered with the veil of illusion—that is what Hamlet has to teach…Now any consolation no longer has an effect. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, towards death. Existence, along with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife, is denied. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being…

The idea here is that there is feature of human life—an underlying structure to our experience—which is at once active and impossible to act against. Suffering in the ONT world pertains to a nameless, objectless, causeless suffering. Contemplative theory and practice offer ways of working with this deep sense of estrangement or phobia of finitude with the possible elimination of the so called “I” that hangs in the balance between experience and world. The danger, which the AMS program was committed to keep a close eye on, is the way in which the ONT world and its version of suffering, and in turn its version of cure, can be conflated with the kinds of suffering and necessary cures needed in the reality of S-P-E. Conflating these two worlds causes one world to claim supremacy and envelope the other world. In effect, social justice advocates can easily relegate ONT suffering as wholly a byproduct of socio-economic-political conditions and vice versa—the sage of the ONT realm can mistakenly posit a spiritual cure for material ills. In a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, religious scholar Elaine Pagels spoke honestly and movingly about her experience of receiving the news that her young child was diagnosed with a terminal illness. In her juxtaposition of helplessness and guilt, she brings flesh to the horror and absurdity mentioned by Nietzsche above. She states:

And yet there was nothing we could do. That sense of helplessness was almost intolerable. And I realized that I felt guilty about it. And yet at a certain critical point in my son’s treatment, I realized that the guilt was only masking something much deeper and much more painful than guilt. And what it was masking was the fact that we were helpless, that there was nothing we could do. We had no input. As long as I felt guilty, I felt, well, at least it’s my fault or I have some agency in something that matters more to me than my own life. But if I have no agency, I mean, that’s almost intolerable. And I realized that I’d rather feel guilty than helpless. It’s a choice I made unconsciously. And I think many people do, because the feeling that we can’t do anything and we have no input is more than we can bear.

IV. The Vision of Pessimism

Humankind cannot bear very much reality.   

—T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets

To enter a pessimistic vision of the world, core beliefs that function as mental methods of mitigating pain, sadness, and alienation must be called into question and effectively placed in suspension. The activity of placing cherished ideas and unfounded ideals in suspension has a long history. One strand of this history leads back to Edmund Husserl and the phenomenological movement in western philosophy. To reclaim contact with things in themselves, the phenomenologist entered the epoché, a mode of engagement characterized by non-judgmentalism and an absence of assumptions. The “phenomenological reduction,” or the process of entering into the epoché, resembles the practice of certain forms of meditation, primarily in intention. The common aim of both of these practices is to usher the practitioner into a novel view of the world and to interrupt habits of thinking that can close off the individual to gaining new perspectives. Let’s revisit this idea of tragic perception and its relationship to meditative inquiry. To enter a worldview in which that which one views is fundamentally disordered requires all notions of cosmic order (i.e., rta, will of god, tao, the natural way, etc.) to be placed in suspension. This process is not about neglecting or dismissing but transmuting a body of thought and recognizing the multifaceted applications a given body of knowledge may have on the worlds we inhabit. The aim is not to deny the possible validity of a cosmic order: the aim is application. Sincere application, especially application to the S-P-E terrain, may require a suspension of all transcendent causal schema to provide a fresh glimpse into the immanent causal network at play. Hence, to apply meditation, one must be willing to engage the social-political-economic dynamic within which the performance of just sitting is occurring. Admitting that the world is fundamentally untamable opens up the possibility of investigating the nature of the inner controller who truly believes it can manage the chaos. Furthermore, there is the consistent finding of the pessimist: the presence of a fundamental destructiveness. To acknowledge this hard fact, the bright-sided tendency to resituate destruction within a larger narrative of redemptive suffering must be placed in suspension. Destruction, death, dissonance must be engaged with not as a mere means to some better state of existence. In this vein of thinking, there is no inevitable new synthesis nor an upward progressive movement nor historical unfolding towards a drastically better situation.

In the AMS classroom, we were encouraged to place “compensating” beliefs that placate pain and anxiety into suspension. There was not a dismissal of the third and fourth noble truths but a deep feeling that the first is the noble truth par excellence and the one that comes closest to a universal claim. I’d wager that more humans can relate to a sense of dis-ease as opposed to a sense of liberation. A transition in my thinking on ethics occured due to the AMS program. Prior to AMS, I believed that moral cultivation and respect for difference was elicited through an ever-deepening taste of the wonder of being a part of the fundamental mystery of being and of being a unique and irreplaceable part of planet earth. Post-AMS, my thinking has shifted. It now seems that an undiluted and undeluded encounter with the tragic, as opposed to the sacred, is a much more cautious way to introduce a human to oneness. Not a oneness through a non-dual apprehension of one’s affinity with cosmic mystery, but a oneness in the sense of an earthly comradery through an encounter with what Thomas Ligotti names the “brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.” Or in the words of George Steiner, there is “an irremediable rupture between Being and Existence.” Our chance for something of a universal ethical practice will have to situate itself vis-à-vis—face to face with—this ontological gap referenced by Steiner. Furthermore, it is the ongoing attempt to further one’s understanding about this metaphysical breach that is, in my opinion, a universal, trans-cultural, trans-historical ethical activity. Meditation, when applied properly and performed with the right motive, serves as an intensifying instrument to better understand this fundamental rupture that is the cornerstone feature of the human condition. There is no universal human essence, but there is a universal human condition and it is a universal ethical practice to attempt to know and discover this. We should transition from know thy-self to know thy-condition.

Admitting axiomatically that each human inhabits two worlds at once, we may come to better understand the one world we all share. Inhabiting this one world, we may come to an understanding of oneness that expresses itself as the deep insight into “the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.” Note the difference between the fellowship of suffering versus the fellowship of joy and how the former sounds like much less of a violent claim. Telling someone they should be joyful when they are not is a lot less violent than reminding the joyous of the inevitable which is to come. In Nietzsche’s lexicon, the mystery doctrine of tragedy initiates an individual into “the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent.” In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes:

This view of things already provides us with all the elements of a profound and pessimistic view of the world, together with the mystery doctrine of tragedy: the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the primary cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness.

This oneness, this brotherhood of suffering between all and all, can be known through meditation, self inquiry, and contemplation of our shared condition. In contrast to the S-P-E realm, which is divided into few winners and many losers, the ONT predicament flattens the S-P-E pushes and pulls and sets the stage for something like a legitimate realization of an equality that includes all. If there is a cultural phobia against a pessimistic outlook at work in our culture (see, for instance, Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), than this phobia may be preventing humans from living into a tragic perception of the human predicament and in turn stultifying an awakening to oneness through a revival of the recognition of our common condition for which a shared sense of responsibility can come forth.

V. For No Reason

Our situation is out-of-joint with the universe to begin with. We cannot hope to set it right—we can only await the release from this predicament provided by death. In the meantime, we merely manage our condition—such management is, to Schopenhauer, the purpose of philosophy; for Freud, it is psychotherapy that serves this end. But the aim, in both cases, is not to create happiness or virtue but to minimize unhappiness by bringing us to greater knowledge of the gap between time-bound consciousness and the timeless reality consciousness defies. —Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism

Tragic perception nullifies our addiction to fix it—be it ourselves or the other—and ushers the practitioner into a terrain of ambiguity and uncertainty. This is all part of that tragic scenario, the presence of a love and a willingness to act in tandem with a sense that meaningful action is impossible. My intimation is that this recognition of ambiguity and groundlessness is fertile soil from which an ethical earthling may spawn. Ontologically homeless yet sweating profusely with a sense of care, for no reason, yes, that is the key. As soon as there is a reason for our willingness to care we have lost touch with motivation coming from unconditional care and subsumed ethics into the space of a business negotiation. For no reason is a synonym for the unconditional. It opens up the proper posture to take present action for a future of which will not return any favors or provide any rewards. Building on this connection between the ethical potential of recognizing a fundamental sense of not at homeness that is structurally present in the human condition, Susan Neiman, in Evil in Modern Thought, writes the following: “What remains is the moral imperative not to deceive ourselves about the magnitude of the modern catastrophe. Decency demands that we refuse to feel at home in any particular structure the world provides to domesticate us. It also requires that we refuse to feel at home in our own skins.”

So what becomes of the meditation hall in this light? The hall is valuable and the practice of meditation is valuable. The practice may become an ongoing activity where human’s collaboratively testify and bear witness to the ontological situation of homo sapiens. The hall is the place where humans pay homage to the interminable rupture between “Being and Existence.” And through this testament, a human may come to feel deeper into the tragic oneness in which what we all share is that we are split. Ruptured in infinite variations but ruptured all the same trying our best to endure the burdens of time and the foreknowledge that all we love and cherish will pass away. Tragic perception, pessimism, this is a training to maintain fidelity to the first noble truth. Bringing the spirit of tragic perception to the practice of meditation is exactly what the AMS experiment was all about for me. Despite glimpses of cessation, always remember dukkha.

In conclusion, this phrase for no reason really speaks to me. To quote Joshua Foa Dienstag one last time from an essay of his in a compilation entitled Rethinking Tragedy. He writes, “If we can understand why an artist like Dostoyevsky, who knows that art is devoid of metaphysical value, would still want to write, then we can understand why Nietzsche thinks pessimism can result in a creative pathos.” What I get from Dienstag’s statement is that an activity is set free when any attribution of metaphysical value is eliminated. Might the meditative practice remain in chains as long as we are doing it for a certain reason or to get a certain result? When an activity is redefined as a means instead of an end, its unconditional potentiality, its for no reason power, is co-opted and its truly revolutionary potential to disrupt, interrupt, and create new beginnings is lost. In effect, meditation becomes a labor or a work as opposed to an action which harbors the potency of nascency akin to the newborness of a child, wholly unpredictable.


08. Glenn Wallis. Inciting Change Through Courageous Thought + Action


Podcast interview at Wild Mind Collective

In this episode, Kaitlin Smith, creator of Wild Mind Collective, interviews Glenn Wallis, a scholar of Buddhist Studies and Founder and Director of Incite Seminars—a series of animated humanities seminars that agitate personal awareness and incite social engagement amongst the general public in Philadelphia.
Here, we discuss:


(1) His journeys within and beyond educational institutions
(2) Intrinsic barriers to the creation of new kinds of subjects (people) within academic training

(3) How political concerns have reshaped his scholarly work
(4) How the unexamined assumptions of Buddhism, mindfulness, and psychology undermine the liberation they claim to promote
(5) How he is creating space for inciting, public dialogues beyond the ivory tower

To listen, click image below.

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07. Clelia O. Rodríguez. Assistant Professor in the #Humanities


Click image for pdf file.


I, as a woman of color, am seeking for the opportunity to teach under the umbrella of the Humanities, broadly speaking. I am a promiscuous individual so preferably non-tenure track solicitors will be considered first. The idea of “for life” commitment is bad for my emotional health without having the chance to see what else is out there.

I seek a #community of humans who foster humility, encourage patience, don’t impose their insecurities onto their students, and who are not interested in performing pleasantries all the time even when micro and macro aggressions are in full effect.

I teach through an intersectional lens for real. If I am addressing anti-blackness, for instance, white supremacy will be brought up left, centre, and right without the fear of censorship. I teach without the rubrics of measuring who is best or worse in my class. I need to do my work in a space where I don’t have to be pushing students to compete against one another but moving forward in their path collectively.

I welcome applications from schools committed to #justice in practical terms and not just theory. If you have invested resources to include black people, indigenous peoples, and people of color (particularly #women) as protagonists rather than passive observers, then I want to hang out with you. I also welcome applications from schools whose administration is committed to addressing, in their official documents, that the ancestral land they’re sitting on is stolen and occupied.

If you send students to the Global South in exchange programs without considering why students from the Global South are not coming to the North, then you don’t need to inquire about soliciting my #knowledge. I take reciprocity to heart. This is not just a term to be thrown around in the name of solidarity.

I require honesty and transparency in this process. I will not utilize your documents to get ideas for future projects or to include them in my own classes. I seek applications showing strong commitments to eradicating tokenism. I want to teach in a place where I am not going to be treated as if I was Frida Kahlo on campus. If you have taken steps to work on a diversity plan for your institution, I need to see evidence. Stats and all. I need to be in a place that will enrich and tickle my mind and not send me regularly to a therapist.

I have training in literary and cultural studies because I grew up in Macondo. My analyses are critical and based on lived experiences across four continents in gender, women’s issues, race, class, ethnicity, diaspora, exile, borders, refugee rights, colonialism, the infamous post-colonialism, and #decolonizing actions (not just studies).

In order to ensure that I consider your application fully, interested parties are invited to submit a letter detailing your plans to challenge inequalities, a summary of how people in your department are actively looking for ways to disrupt racist ways of learning, a statement of working philosophy, and a list of people in the community who can testify that you are not just extracting their pain for your own research plans. All materials should be sent to decolonizingisnotametaphor@gmail.com.

Please apply by El Día de los Muertos.

Applications that forward me data and actual numbers reflecting how Affirmative Action is legitimately used for hiring will be given more consideration. I will consider institutions who are more interested in giving positions to indigenous peoples, blacks, and people of color. And if your Human Resources officers are still holding on to language like “illegal alien” then please don’t apply.


Clelia O. Rodríguez is an educator, born and raised in El Salvador. She graduated from York University with a Specialized Honours BA in Hispanic Literature. She earned her MA and PhD from the University of Toronto. Professor Rodríguez has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Spanish language, literature and culture at the University of Toronto, Washington College, the University of Ghana, the University of Michigan, and Western University, most recently. She was a Human Rights Professor in the United States, Nepal, Jordan, and Chile as part of the International Honors Program (IHP) for the School of International Training (SIT) where she taught Comparative Issues in Human Rights and Fieldwork Ethics and Comparative Research Methods. She is committed to critical pedagogical approaches in learning utilizing an intersectional framework grounded in decolonizing methodologies. She has published in RaceBaitR, Postcolonial Studies, Revista Iberoamericana, Women & Environments. Her book Decolonizing Academia: Poverty, Oppression and Pain was recently published by Fernwood Publishing in December, 2018.

Republished from http://www.latinorebels.com.

06. Colman McCarthy. Anarchism, Education, and the Road to Peace


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First published in Amster, et. al. (eds.), Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An introductory anthology of anarchy in the academy (London: Routledge, 2009). Reprinted here with permission of the author. May not be reprinted without similar permission.

Colman McCarthy is a former Washington Post columnist. He has taught courses in peace studies for over twenty years at numerous colleges and high schools. He is also the founder and director of the Center for Teaching Peace. His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Readers Digest, and the Catholic Worker. He was awarded the El-Hibri Peace Education Prize (2010), the Olender Peacemaker Award (1996), and the Pax Christi Peace Teacher Award (1993).

Anarchism, Education, and the Road to Peace

One of the major draws on the US lecture circuit some one hundred years ago was Prince Peter Kropotkin. In October 1897, the revered “father” of modern anarchism, who was born to nobility in Moscow in 1842, addressed the National Geographic Society in Washington. In New York City he lectured to audiences of 2,000 people. In Boston, large crowds at Harvard and other sites heard him speak on the ideas found in his classic works, Mutual Aid; Fields, Factories and Workshops; Law and Authority; The Spirit of Revolt; and The Conquest of Bread.

Admission was 15 cents, sometimes a quarter, or else free so that (as Kropotkin desired) “ordinary workers” would be able to attend. Kropotkin came back to America for another tour in 1901. In Chicago, Jane Addams, the director of Hull who would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, was his host. Emma Goldman (who believed that “organized violence” from the “top” creates “individual violence” at the “bottom”) and Clarence Darrow praised him then, as would Lewis Mumford, Ashley Montague, and I.F. Stone years later. The prince, a serene and kindly activist-philosopher and the antithesis of the wild-eyed bomb throwers who commonly come to mind when anarchism is mentioned in polite or impolite company, enjoyed packed houses when the military muscles of American interventionism were being flexed with great fervor. In 1896, Marines were dispatched to Corinto, Nicaragua under the guise of protecting US lives and property during a revolt. In 1898 Marines were stationed at Tientsin and Peking, China to ensure the safety of Americans caught in the conflict between the dowager empress and her son. The following year, Marines were sent to Bluefields, Nicaragua to keep their version of the peace. Then it was back to China, ordered there by the McKinley administration to protect American interests during the Boxer rebellion.

Political Washington couldn’t fail to notice that Kropotkin was on the loose, going from one podium to another denouncing the favored form of governmental coercion, the military:

Wars for the possession of the East, wars for the empire of the sea, wars to impose duties on imports and to dictate conditions to neighboring states, wars against those “blacks” who revolt! The roar of the cannon never ceases in the world, whole races are massacred, the states of Europe spend a third of their budget on armaments; and we know how heavily these taxes fall on the workers.

Unfortunately, we don’t know, or choose not to know. If it were the opposite, the lives and thoughts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century anarchists would be as discussed and studied in schools as those of the politicians who raise the funds for wars and the militarists who are paid to do the killing. After Kropotkin’s second lecture tour, with the crowds growing larger and the prince’s message growing bolder, Congress took action. It passed a law in 1903 forbidding anarchists to enter the country. In a letter to Emma Goldman, Kropotkin described an addled and anxious America that “throws its hypocritical liberties overboard, tears them to pieces—as soon as people use those liberties for fighting that cursed society.”

In the courses on pacifism and nonviolence that I’ve been teaching in law school, university, and high school classes since 1982, students get full exposure to Kropotkin. In the first minutes of the semester, I cite the Russian’s counsel to students: “Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that.” Hidebound as they are to take required three-credit courses that current curricula impose on students, and a bit unsteady on exactly how to pursue the art of demanding, only a few are up to acting on Kropotkin’s call. For me, it’s a victory if students make demands on themselves and dive into Kropotkin on their own, inching a bit closer to a theoretical understanding of anarchy.

To get their minds in motion, I ask students what word they first think of when anarchy is mentioned. “Chaos,” they answer, “anarchy is chaos.” I am consistently surprised by their responses linking anarchy with chaos. However, when I conceptualize chaos, these types of questions come to mind: What about the 40-odd wars or conflicts currently raging on the world’s known and unknown battlefields? Isn’t it chaotic that between 35,000 and 40,000 people die every day of hunger or preventable diseases? Doesn’t economic chaos prevail when large numbers of the world’s poor earn less than $1 dollar a day? Isn’t environmental chaos looming as the climate warms? Aren’t America’s prisons, which house mentally ill or drug addicted inmates who need to be treated more than stashed, scenes of chaos? All of these questions address the real chaos that is occurring in the world today. Anarchists aren’t causing all that, but rather (it might be said) are trying to prevent it. Instead, it falls on those lawmaking legislatures instructing the citizens, raised to be faithful law-abiders, on what is the public good: Laws. Laws. Laws. They make us more “civilized,” say our law-making betters. The problem is, laws are made by people and people are often wrong, so why place your faith in wrong-headedness?

The root word of anarchy is arch, Greek for rule. A half-dozen archs are in play. Monarchy: the royals rule. Patriarchy: the fathers rule. Oligarchy: the rich few rule. Gynarchy: women rule. Stretching it a bit, there is Noah’s-archy: the animals rule. (Pardon the pun. No, wait. Don’t pardon it. A certain strain of anarchists, I fear, tends to brood, so a laugh now and again can be useful.) And then we arrive at anarchy, where no one rules. Fright and fear creep into students’ minds, especially those who suspect that anarchists are high-energy people with chronic wild streaks. With no rules, no laws, and no governments, what will happen? The question is speculative, but instead of fantasizing about pending calamities that might happen, think about the calamities that are happening now: war, poverty, and the degradations of violence sanctioned by political power and laws. Indeed, as Kropotkin himself once warned:

We are so perverted by an education which from infancy seeks to kill in us the spirit of revolt, and to develop that of submission to authority; we are so perverted by this existence under the ferrule of a law, which regulates every event in life—our birth, our education, our development, our love, our friendship—that, if this state of things continues, we shall lose all initiative, all habit of thinking for ourselves. Our society seems no longer able to understand that it is possible to exist otherwise than under the reign of law, elaborated by a representative government and administered by a handful of rulers. And even when it has gone so far as to emancipate itself from the thralldom, its first care has been to reconstitute it immediately.

Extending these points, on November 17, 1921, Mohandas Gandhi wrote in his journal:

Political power means the capacity to regulate national life through national representatives. If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation becomes necessary. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a state everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbor. In the ideal state, therefore, there is no political power because there is no state.

The solution to the dilemma, at least in the anarchism to which I subscribe, is to remember that either we legislate to fear or educate to goodness. Law abiding citizens are fear abiding citizens, who fear being caught when a law is broken or disobeyed. Fined. Shamed. Punished. When a child is educated to goodness, beginning in a family where the adults have a talent or two in solving their conflicts without physical or emotional violence, he or she is exposed to lessons of kindness, cooperation, and empathy that leads to what might be called “the good life.”

Anarchists, especially when they dress in all-black and mass-migrate to protests at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund conclaves, don’t do much to persuade the public to sign on when they shout epithets at the hapless bureaucrats and papercrats crawling into work. The verbal violence serves mostly to reinforce the perception that anarchists are more generally violent, conjuring the age-old image of the bomb-thrower. It’s true enough that anarchists have thrown bombs in isolated demonstrations, although we know that the greater threat are the bomb-droppers (beginning with the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese people, and the 35 more tested in the Marshall Islands during the late 1940s and early 1950s – not to mention US bombings in the last 60 years of China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Peru, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and Yemen, to name a few, constituting what Martin Luther King, Jr. once called “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence”). To me, and to counter the violence of the state, anarchism needs to be twinned with pacifism. Violent anarchism is self-defeating, and bangs its head into the truth once stated by Hannah Arendt in her essential work On Violence: “Violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

And yet, if any creed is less understood than anarchism, it is pacifism. The uneducated equate it with passivity. The really uneducated pair it with appeasement. Among the latter is the late Michael Kelly, whose column “Pacifist Claptrap” ran on the Washington Post op-ed page on September 26, 2001:

Organized terrorist groups have attacked Americans. These groups wish the Americans not to fight. The American pacifists wish the Americans not to fight. If the Americans do not fight, the terrorists will attack America again…The American pacifists, therefore are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.

A week later he was back with more, in a column arguing that pacifists are liars, frauds, and hypocrites whose position is “evil.” Kelly, whose shrillness matched his self-importance, was regrettably killed in Iraq in April 2003, reporting on a US invasion that he avidly and slavishly promoted.

The pacifist position on countering terrorism was more astutely articulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a lecture on February 24, 2002, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston: “The war against terrorism will not be won as long as there are people desperate with disease and living in poverty and squalor. Sharing our prosperity is the best weapon against terrorism.” Instead of sharing its wealth, however, the United States’ government hoards it. Among the top 25 industrial nations, it ranks 24th in the percentage of its GNP devoted to foreign aid.

Furthermore, pacifists are routinely told that nonviolent conflict resolution is a noble theory, but asked where has it worked? Had questioners paid only slight attention these past years, the answer would be obvious: in plenty of places, as the following list of recent examples nicely illustrates.

  • On February 26, 1986, a frightened Ferdinand Marcos, once a ruthless dictator and a US-supported thug hailed by Jimmy Carter as a champion of human rights, fled from the Philippines to exile in Hawaii. As staged by nuns, students, and workers who were trained by Gene Sharp of the Einstein Institute in Boston, a three-year nonviolent revolt brought Marcos down.
  • On October 5, 1988, Chile’s despot and another US favorite, General Augusto Pinochet, was driven from office after five years of strikes, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent resistance. A Chilean organizer who led the demand for free elections said: “We didn’t protest with arms. That gave us more power.”
  • On August 24, 1989, in Poland, the Soviet Union puppet regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski fell. On that day it peacefully ceded power to a coalition government created by the Solidarity labor union that, for a decade, used nonviolent strategies to overthrow the communist dictator. Few resisters were killed in the nine-year struggle. The example of Poland’s nonviolence spread, with the Soviet Union’s collapse soon coming. It was the daring deeds of Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the nonviolent Poles on the barricades with him that were instrumental in bringing about this change.
  • On May 10, 1994, former political prisoner Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa. It was not armed combat that ended white supremacy. It was the moral force of organized nonviolent resistance that made it impossible for the racist government to control the justice-demanding population.
  • On April 1, 2001, in Yugoslavia, Serbian police arrested Slobodan Milosevic for his crimes while in office. In the two years that a student-led protest rallied citizens to defy the dictator, not one resister was killed by the government. The tyrant died during his trial in The Hague.
  • On November 23, 2003 the bloodless “revolution of the roses” toppled

Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze. Unlike the civil war that marked the power struggles in the 1990s, no deaths or injuries occurred when tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tblisi in the final surge to oust the government.

Twenty-five years ago who would have thought that any of these examples would be possible? Yet they happened. Ruthless regimes, backed by torture chambers and death squads, were driven from power by citizens who had no guns, tanks, bombs, or armies. They had an arsenal far superior to weapons of steel: weapons of the spirit. These were on display in the early 1940s when Hitler’s Nazi army invaded Denmark. Led by a defiant King Christian X, the Danes organized strikes, boycotts, and work stoppages, and either hid Jews in their homes or helped them flee to Sweden or Norway. Of this resistance, an historian quoted in the landmark 2000 film A Force More Powerful observed that

Denmark had not won the war but neither had it been defeated or destroyed. Most Danes had not been brutalized, by the Germans or each other. Non-violent resistance saved the country and contributed more to the Allied victory than Danish arms ever could have done.

Only one member of Congress voted no against US entry into the Second World War: Jeannette Rankin, a pacifist from Montana who came to the House of Representatives in 1916, four years before the 19th amendment gave women the vote. “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake,” she famously said before casting her vote. The public reaction reached so strong a virulence that Rankin had to be given 24-hour police protection. One of her few allies that year was Helen Keller, the deaf and sightless Socialist who spoke in Carnegie Hall in New York:

Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.

Students leaning toward anarchism and pacifism often ask how the principles of both can be personalized. I suggest that one start by examining where you spend your money. Deny it to any company that despoils the earth. Deny it to any seller of death, whether Lockheed Martin (the country’s largest weapons maker) or to sub-contractors scattered in small towns in all regions of the land. Deny it to the establishment media that asks few meaningful questions and questions few meaningless answers. In short, “live simply so others may simply live,” which is perhaps the purest form of anarchy.

In my own life, I’ve tried to do it by means of a cruelty-free vegan diet, consuming no alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine, and getting around Washington mostly by a trusty Raleigh three-speed bicycle. Is any machine more philosophically suited to anarchism than a bicycle? Is there an easier way to practice anarchism than joyriding on two wheels? Being street smart, which means being totally considerate of other travelers and pedaling safely, I think of all the useless laws the anarchist-cyclist can break: riding through red lights, stop signs, one way signs—all the while getting a feel for outdoor life and its weathers, those balms cut off by windshields.

Speaking experientially—meaning 35 years and more than 70,000 miles of motion by leg-power—I’ve become an autophobe. In the clog of traffic, when car owners are penned like cattle on a factory farm and torture themselves in massive tie-ups, I remember some lines by Daniel Behrman in his minor 1973 classic from Harper’s Magazine, “The Man Who Loved Bicycles:”

The bicycle is a vehicle for revolution. It can destroy the tyranny of the automobile as effectively as the printing press brought down despots of flesh and blood. The revolution will be spontaneous, the sum total of individual revolts like my own. It may already have begun.

William Saroyan likewise wrote in his introduction to 1981’s edited volume The Noiseless Tenor, that “the bicycle is the noblest invention of [hu]mankind.” Amen to that, but only if you add that anarchism is a close second.


05. Judith Suissa. What is Anarchist Education?

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Judith Suissa is Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. She is the author and editor of numerous publications, including Anarchist Education: A Philosophical Perspective (scroll down for reviews) and Education, Philosophy, and Well-being. Judith writes of her research interests:

I am interested in the intersection between political ideas and educational practice. I am particularly concerned to challenge the narrow focus on state schooling characteristic of so much educational philosophy, theory and research, and to explore the underlying political and moral assumptions of pedagogical relationships outside the arena of institutional forms of education. These include parent-child relationships, educational experiments that challenge the state system, and informal education. My research draws on political and moral philosophy, with a particular focus on anarchist theory, questions of social justice, the control of education, utopian theory, social change, and the role of the state.

For a succinct take, start here: “Anarchy in the classroom”New Humanist. Volume 120. Issue 5 September/October 2005.

You can read more about Judith Suissa’s important and increasingly urgent work here.


04. E.D. Why RED, Why Now?

By E.D.


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First published at RED—Radical Education Department: An autonomous collective training cultural warriors for a radical internationalist Left. http://www.radicaleducationdepartment.com.

Incite Items ISSN # pending.


Why RED, Why Now?

The Radical Education Department organically grew out of our orchestrated direct action campaign, as Nova Resistance, against the over-funded and over-securitized lecture by racist eugenicist Charles Murray at Villanova University in the spring of 2017 (click here to read a recent post about this action). However, its roots, for some of us, stretch back further to our activities at Occupy Philly, as well as our collective publishing of Occupy Philly: Machete. In what follows, I reflect on why we decided to launch RED in the summer of 2017.

I have always strongly believed in the importance of collective organizing and institution-building in order to maximize our agency by working with others to construct platforms for the future. In my various experiences organizing and founding alternative institutions, however, I have also come to learn that many projects never get off of the ground because they are all too quickly ensnared in the bramble of petty debate. This can include such things as individuals being more invested in their subjective preoccupations than in collective action or—particularly in intellectual circles—the sophistication Olympics, in which pedantic posturing and problematization exercise their domineering, disheartening and imperial rule over anything practical, tactical or productive. When a group of us came together so seamlessly to contest the promotion of white supremacist misogyny and top-down class warfare on a conservative college campus, it struck me that we had the baseline of shared convictions that would allow us to move ahead productively with other projects.

Indeed, once we started sharing ideas, I became convinced that our modus operandi of diagonal or transversal organization was a powerful practical solution to other models I had encountered. In my experience, if the verticalism of a top-down chain of command can smother important ideas from below, the horizontalism à la Occupy can sometimes foster an endless plethora of ideas with little or no direction. Our decision to organize diagonally—by which I refer to our conviction, for instance, that a RED endeavor be defined as anything that at least two members agree on—meant that we could do away with a single leader without bottoming out in obligatory consensus. This form of organizing, which overlaps with some of what I had been trying to thematize in my writings and interviews on the Nuit Debout movement in France, has meant that we can work very efficiently and autonomously without needing to constantly meet to debate our next steps. It is an enormous boon, in this regard, that we are all on the same wavelength and trust one another due to our years of intermittently organizing together.

Since we are all currently involved with institutions of higher education, it made sense for us to do everything that we can where we are. The focus on education, however, I think we all understand in the broadest possible sense of the term (like the ancient Greek notion of paideia): it is the collective process of forging a collectivity, by mutually fashioning its thoughts, feelings, representations, values and worldviews. Moreover, since we are the bearers of myriad university credentials, I was very drawn to the idea that we could mobilize them in the name of radical social transformation. Instead of the anti-capitalist Left being affiliated by the propaganda machine with destitute, dirty and drug-induced dropouts, RED—whose most powerful symbol to date is a radical “dressed to teach” à la JPS confronting Murray—can send a very strong message about why we should all be on the hard Left. For if we spend years seriously studying the history of the modern world while cultivating intellectual autonomy from the ideological incarceration within capitalist thought factories, we will reach the same conclusion: another world is necessary!

This focus on education goes hand-in-hand with community building and the development of an autonomous pedagogical platform. In fact, in many ways, I understand RED as a collective process of self-education. In sharing our views with one another and a broader community, providing feedback on one another’s projects, creatively brainstorming together, and so forth, we are collectively teaching one another through the direct action of productive theoretical and practical exchange. Rather than trying to make RED into an advertising campaign that simply garners as many votes as possible like a political party, I take it that we have founded an organization in the best sense of the term: an autonomous collective invested in self-education in order to foster a process of group social transformation. An organization, we might say, “takes the long way around” in the sense that it is invested in a deep and long process of autonomous pedagogical metamorphosis rather than in the “quick return” of a political party that multiplies its followers as hastily as possible through thoughtless banner-waving and public relations campaigns.

There are also important conjunctural elements that contributed to the founding of RED. One of these is the paltry response of liberals—who exercise an unmerited monopoly over the term “the Left” in the United States—to the election of a white supremacist trust fund baby to the White House. One of the ways in which the system of pseudo-democracy works is by corralling the administered masses into camps and determining their struggles for them. In the U.S., this tussle is defined as one between liberals and conservatives, and there is very little inquiry into why these are purportedly the only two options. This is particularly important because both of these camps are defenders of imperial capitalism, and the major difference is in their public relations campaigns. If liberals want to keep the gloves on and conservatives take them off, they both agree that the world should continue to be unremittingly pummeled by top-down global class warfare.

In blindly accepting a marketing campaign intent on defining “resistance” as “opposition to Trump,” liberals swallow—hook, line and sinker—the bait tendered to them by pseudo-democratic administered reality. They thereby contribute to the perpetuation of the very system that produced this trust fund baby and so many others that are intent on advancing the same basic project (the imperial record of the Clintonites, which includes Obama, has been well documented for anyone interested in examining it).

Meanwhile, any position to the left of liberalism is violently subjected to the reductio ad Stalinum, as if opposing an economic and political system that is fast destroying the conditions of possibility of life on planet Earth was a form of bloodthirsty terrorism. This “blackmail of the Gulag” also eradicates—or, at least, attempts to—the memory of any radical leftism irreducible to Stalinism, like the anarchist international, egalitarian Soviet social projects, the varieties of anti-colonial struggle, autonomous indigenous movements, radical ecological politics, and so forth. Unfortunately, however, the inter-generational assault on the academy, marked by the red and black purges of the McCarthy era (that have never really ended), has assured that the university serves its function of ideological social reproduction by being dominated by conservatives and liberals with little or no awareness of these histories.

In this setting, it has been particularly important for RED to launch a frontal assault on the ideological pillars of liberalism, insofar as they usually function in perfect harmony with the conservative perpetuation or intensification of global structures of oppression. Along with the sword of direct action, then, we have taken up the pen of intellectual guerilla warfare to systematically dismantle the pervasive but misguided practico-theoretical framework surrounding issues like free speech, direct action, violence and antifascism.

We are fully aware of the fact that pro-capitalist—and usually jingoist—liberalism has much broader support in the university and the mass media, which inevitably restricts our audience. Politics, however, is not a popularity contest or an advertising campaign, despite what we are taught to believe. It is most fundamentally about how a collectivity forges its own reality. And we, at RED, are invested in qualitative transformation, not simply in a numbers game that is another one of the baiting mechanisms of administered pseudo-democracy. Rather than reducing politics to pandering to the ideological masses, in order to guarantee that they get what the system tells them that they want, it should be about qualitative collective education and social transformation.

I think that I can safely speak for all of us at RED when I say that we are not simply opposed to the latest trust fund baby in the white house. What we reject is the system that produced him, and so many others, and will continue to produce them if it is not dismantled. As the etymology of the adjective “radical” suggests, the Radical Education Department seeks to go to the root of the current crises and take power into our own hands, rather than remaining within the comforting illusion that we just need to elect different members of the ruling class to administer reality to us.




03. Para-Academic Handbook

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NOTES ON THE PREFIX Alexandra M. Kokoli
A LESSON FROM WARWICK The Provisional University
HIGHER DEGREE (UN)CONSCIOUSNESS  Emma Durden, Eliza Govender, Sertanya Reddy
NO MORE STITCH-UPS! ⋅  Charlotte Cooper