wake up

I gave this little paper at a conference in fall 2013 and don’t think I’ll do more with it right now, at least not in its present form. Though the ideas at its core remain some of the most vital I know for putting education on a profoundly different path than the one we’re on. The beauty part is that the change it implies isn’t institutional, but individual. Institutions are never good at something this radical, and this subtle. You need teachers.

The New Year always brings to mind a great 1988 Mecano song, in part:

Y aunque para las uvas hay algunos nuevos
a los que ya no están echaremos de menos
y a ver si espabilamos los que estamos vivos
y en el año que viene nos reímos.

Which I’ll give roughly as:

Even though there are some new folks here for the grapes this year,

And we miss those who have left us,

Let’s see if we can wake ourselves up, all of us who ARE here!

And in the next year, laugh a little more.

The Spanish eat grapes at midnight tonight, one for each bong of the clock, which makes for a full mouth and an appropriately silly way to get a new year underway. Worthy sentiments for a new beginning: fullness, silliness, a willingness to “espabilarse” however you can. I wish them to all of you. Happy New Year.

I’m helpless before the Arctic Monkeys’ tune “Fake Tales of San Francisco“: I can’t stop thinking about it, suspecting it has something urgent to teach me about pleasure in pedagogy, and the cultural moment I share with my students on their path to becoming teachers.

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Echo through the room
More point to a wedding disco
Without a bride or groom

There’s a super cool band yeah
With their trilbies and their glasses of white wine
And all the weekend rock stars in the toilets
Practicing their lines

I don’t want to hear you (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you
I don’t want to hear you

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Echo through the air
And there’s a few bored faces in the back
All wishing they weren’t there

And as the microphone squeaks
A young girl’s telephone beeps
Yeah she’s dashing for the exit
Oh, she’s running to the streets outside
“Oh you’ve saved me,” she screams down the line
“The band were fucking wank
And I’m not having a nice time”

I don’t want to hear you (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
Yeah but his bird thinks it’s amazing, though
So all that’s left
Is the proof that love’s not only blind but deaf

He talks of San Francisco, he’s from Hunter’s Bar
I don’t quite know the distance
But I’m sure that’s far
Yeah, I’m sure that’s pretty far

Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem
You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham
So get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

It’s certainly a more urgent text than several I have picked up and explored for a foothold in this issue. Happily, I am empowered by Greil Marcus and Dave Hickey to assert that sometimes a pop song is the clearest window you can look through; by Suzanne Langer and Elliot Eisner that there is irreducible meaning in aesthetic expression that cannot be accessed through other media (i.e., dry philosophy of ed conference papers); by my colleague Alecia Jackson, who affirms, after Rosi Braidotti, that “plugging” one text into another, however disparate their sources, invites a process of assemblage, a making and unmaking of a thing, a revealing of more to see.

So here I will plug this tasty pop song into my daily text of working with students as their paidagogos: their fellow traveler pointing out what to attend to and how, registering the interest and quality of engagement as I work my daily sleight-of-hand of trying to pass off the curriculum of what they should be interested in as something they are actually interested in. I’ll explore how the lens of “Fake Tales of San Francisco” shows me the role of pleasure in pedagogy – especially that unaccountable genus of pleasure that Lacan stylized as jouissance. And I’ll end with three specific aspects of pedagogy that we might foreground and valorize if we are intent upon bringing the power of pleasure to our work with students.

So: I characterized pedagogy as sleight-of-hand back there. Dissimulation, like my Mom sneaking zucchini into the spaghetti sauce because it was good for me and I wouldn’t eat it otherwise. That seems an uncharitable characterization of what we do, doesn’t it? Twisting Dewey, a little – his assertion that experience must pervade curriculum if relevance is to ensue. But for me, Dewey is in turn haunted by Marshall McLuhan, claiming that “anyone who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” A provocateur, was McLuhan, always – here daring us to admit the relation between what we want to do and what we have to, and how “good teachers” work in the seam between the two. Dewey says that if what we bring as curriculum is authentically connected to student experience, then the struggle for relevance in the eyes of our students will no long be a struggle. And McLuhan asks us, really? Are you ready to go there? To admit the necessity, then, of acknowledging student and our own pleasure in curriculum; admit – meaning “to let in” – the power of pleasure to the classroom, in all its possible unruliness and unpredictability?

For I wish to suggest here that pedagogical pleasure is unruly by nature, and is best conceived thus. One of the insights Lacan offers in his distinction between plaisir and jouissance is that the former is the pleasure of satisfaction and meeting expectations, the latter that of excess, overflow, risk. We acknowledge and cultivate plaisir in pedagogy as a matter of course, I posit – certainly since Dewey, or Rousseau and Pestalozzi before him, all champions of a pedagogy that seeks to develop students who acknowledge the pleasures of their real lives and find a role for the energy of those pleasures to come to school. In well-tempered and regulated ways, we should note: pleasure always in service of curriculum. Remember it’s Dewey who writes a corrective book several years into the progressive revolution, asking teachers to cease the excesses of child-centered curriculum they were championing in his name, fearing the miseducative sequelae of too much enjoyment:

An experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude; this attitude then operates to modify the quality of subsequent experiences so as to prevent a person from getting out of them what they have to give…experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to each other. Energy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatter-brained. Each experience may be lively, vivid, and “interesting,” and yet their disconnectedness may generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits.

So there could be too much experience in education, apparently: so much that order is disrupted, with “disintegrated” results. Seriously “centrifugal” endeavors like Summerhill and other authentic efforts to follow the child are still taught in our teacher ed programs, but as oddities, “limit cases” of orthodox constructivism which prove the rule of the hybrid we tend to prefer.

But what might a pedagogy of jouissance look like? Peter Taubman gives us a few indications in his wonderful theorization of spontaneous, collective disobedience in early grades classrooms. He notes that jouissance is sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so much. This ambivalence – good fun or scary fun, or just plain scary – is at the core of the distinction.

Taubman works out no fewer than six definitions of Lacan’s formulation, with implications far beyond the psychological:

  1. It’s a kind of ecstasy tied to loss of control and rational consciousness, a sublime that stops language and desire;
  2. It’s the paradoxical satisfaction from pursuing an eternally unsatisfied desire, or a pleasure of repetition;
  3. It’s the pleasure that results from a transgressive act because of its transgressiveness, pleasure in proportion to the consequence one must suffer because of it;
  4. It’s a realm where the normal or reasonable calculations of pleasure and pain are disregarded, and unsatisfied desire is pursued without regard for one’s own safety (Antigone being the cardinal example);
  5. It’s an enjoyment immune to analysis, eternally resistant to rationality even when desired to be rationalized, because one is so pleased that she will subconsciously subvert attempts to trap and domesticate her pleasure objectively;
  6. Finally, it’s an experience that is intrinsically embodied – a facet that seems rooted in its imperviousness to analysis, its ultimate radical subjectivity and, therefore, unknowability.

This is a powerful stuff, this jouissance. For me it adumbrates the depth and intensity of experience we humans are capable of, in all its risk and vulnerability. It helps me see that, if I am to become open to the possibilities of bringing authentic pleasure into my classroom, I need to get comfortable with content and energies and ideas and reactions that are a lot farther afield than what we might consider teacherly. It means that sometimes things are going to blow up and spin out of control: we might transgress some of the analyzable, cognizable, boundaried experience that we have understood the classroom to represent.

But we cannot understand a respect for cultivation of jouissant experience as license to release ourselves and our students from the entire habitus of schooling, can we? Developmentally, we need structure: we need roles, however open to student experience we may be. Roles are how we know who we are, after all, as we discursively form each other through reflection to each other of our rightness of fit within our culture, a concept beautifully formulated by Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne as “hammering each other into shape with the well structured tools already available.” Inasmuch as classrooms must perform socialization roles, they can never be fully jouissant.

It’s a paradoxical task, then, inviting and nurturing jouissant experience within – or even despite – school structures.

How to do that? Three possibilities emerge from my engagement with my chosen text today.

The first has to do with authenticity. The Arctic Monkeys’ song “Fake Tales of San Francisco” names the adolescent desire for someone to be what they are, and a bottomless contempt for those who are not. From James Dean on, the social construction of adolescence has included a desire for real-ness. Even notions of “cool,” etymologically, seem to stem from a stated desire to be contrary to the fray of dissimulation and posing, connected to something more genuine. The song is a sneer at an English band that pretends to cosmopolitan influences – to know more than it knows, to be something other than it is – and nothing here is more deserving of scorn. “Put down the handbook,” it implores: Stop pretending to be what a cool band is supposed to be. Be what you are.

A pedagogy that courts jouissant experience, then, acknowledges and invites sincerity, calls us all out when we are either asking for or rendering only that which the institution of school demands of us. So many contemporary thinkers are bringing our focus to the outmoded nature of our educational institutions. Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Jal Mehta, John Taylor Gatto, Seth Godin – all begin their critiques with the factory-based model of schooling we inherited from a time when socialization of the sprawling urban slums and Americanization of the hordes of immigrants paired with nascent psychometric hubris to form the primary organizing principles of school. How ill-fit these values are to our current needs – not just for economic viability in the global economy, but also for an expanded sense of self that could, if we really followed its implications with integrity, finally make good on the hollow promises of meritocracy we have mouthed for decades. Parker Palmer states that the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structures that house it. Commitment to jouissance means willingness to defy those traditions of our institutions that limit our conceptualizations of what school can be.

The second calls us to a new openness to other texts. My texts must admit my students’, and I must find connections between the texts that authentically speak their lives back to them and the texts of my curriculum, which do the same for me. I have opened my pedagogy this year, asking my students to prepare “Signs of Life” for sharing and assessment. These are responses to our shared texts that might include traditional papers, but might also include mix tapes, student-recorded songs, collage, painting, poetry. So many students bring me examples of what they really listen to, inscriptions of what they really think, as sound and word and color. The authenticity overwhelms, sometimes. Such connection and relevance is only possible if I open my conception of text worthy of shared regard to include their real stuff. The record I am writing about here didn’t come into my life from a student – but the Arctic Monkeys’ next album did, as did The Roots collection of protest songs, and The Roots in general, and the Beastie Boys game-changing Paul’s Boutique back in 1994. I demurred when my high school student presented me with the bootleg cassette after class. “No, really,” he said – “it’s not what you think it is.” And he was right.

And the third requires of us a vulnerability to aesthetic experience. By now we must see that jouissance finds us through myriad forms of representation, as Eisner has declaimed during his forty-year career. Meaning is inseparable from the medium that conveys it. When the bottom drops out of this song in the second bridge – when the buzz saw guitars kick in, and the entire band lays back luxuriating in the great slab of sound that only a wide-open rock band can provide – I am always overwhelmed, “blissed out” (the original media-coined term, incidentally, for what came to be called “grunge,” named for the visceral response perhaps we all can have to such gorgeous sonic overwhelm). I must open my pedagogy to the aesthetic. Only by doing so have my students this semester been empowered to bring their real texts into our shared space, thereby inviting peripheral glimpses of jouissant experience with all its vigor and potential.

In closing: Martha Graham offers this:

There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.

To sit with the implications of this observation – to square it with arguments that our economic engine is driven by innovation, not rule-following; by exceeding expectations, not meeting them – is to conclude that we must open our conceptualization of pedagogy to admit pleasure of an unbounded, even frightening sort. Only thereby will we incorporate the real forces that drive us into our work with our students – and really bring their true energies to pedagogy. And that’s our challenge – jouissant in itself in its unpredictability, its lived-ness, and its ultimate unmanageability.

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