Today, a long time coming, two posts on Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Zizek, and the Return of the Subject. First, Sam’s, and then Doug’s.
Cultural Studies and Performance in the Classroom
What is at stake in cultural studies pedagogies? What are their goals and hopes, and how do they succeed or fail in these goals? To try to imagine some reasons, let’s imagine a typical cultural studies class: The teacher presents facts through sociological, historical or narrative studies that clue students in to the injustice and discrimination of various groups (such as housing segregation, genocide, etc.). In this presentation, there is an inherent goal to create civically responsible citizens. The teacher recognizes and unveils the unjust and immoral functioning of the socio-economic-political system with a hope that, through this exposition, students will change their actions and become a part of a revolutionary movement away from patriarchy, racism and sexism and towards what I imagine is a form of democratic socialism. It is this hope and the hope that our actions have a specific desired effect — that Rickert takes to task in his book Acts of Enjoyment.
The hope at stake might also be phrased as Enlightenment causality: that knowledge leads to action. The extension of this is that rational thought leads to rational action, or correct thought leads to right action. The argument has been around since the liberal thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries and is an ontological commitment to the primacy of human faculty to be moral. It is commonly rehashed in this aphorism: If they (conservatives, moderates, radicals, etc.) would just think in a clear, rational way, we would all come to the same (moral, liberal) conclusions. I believe that Rickert wants to take serious issues with this claim although he does not do so in such explicitly political terms. He resists that there need be such a junction, continuing in the lineage of political theorist E.H. Carr (40) who noted that “It may turn out to be untrue that if men reason rightly about international politics they will also act rightly, or that right reasoning about one’s own or one’s nation’s interests is the road to an international paradise.”
This shuts the blinds on a possible utopian escape. Teachers cannot and should not be satisfied with students reproducing knowledge or thinking properly. Rickert ends up coming to the conclusion that this is mostly “trying to impress the teacher.” Here we have a perfect definition of cynicism. When students can accurately critique contemporary culture but still completely buy into it. One can be aware of one fact and act as though it were not important. Such cynicism is incredibly common in cultural studies departments. We end up in Zizek’s pithy phrase: “They know what they are doing and yet they do it anyway.”
From here Rickert exposes the belatedness of knowledge (via Hegel and Nachtraglichkeit). For Hegel knowledge is structurally situated after the action, not something that determines action in advance. The more important question is: Why doesn’t knowledge work to change behavior? Answer: jouissance. Jouissance is a French word for excess pleasure which is also tied to sexual pleasure. To gloss Lacanian theory, jouissance is the excessive pleasure we receive from fitting into a specific social (or symbolic) identity. For example, Rickert talks about the jouissance he gets from teaching cultural studies – how he almost “gets off” on teaching things that are ethically responsible. It makes him feel like he is a “good” person doing the “right” thing. In going through this, he receives a sort of enjoyment “beyond the pleasure principle.” We can also see the jouissance of students in taking part in critique. They know that this is what the teacher wants – for them to be critical of social institutions and popular media. In the reproduction of critique, the student validates themselves in the teacher’s eyes and receives enjoyment from that.
For Rickert, there is something disturbing about the involvement of jouissance in critique. If students are deriving relational enjoyment from their criticism, how invested in it are they for themselves? For their lives? Answer: very little. The stakes for real life are much higher than the classroom. They would have to change lots of aspects of their social lives (friends, family, allegiances, commitments, etc.) in order to keep this new ethical self.
Rickert’s solution (while only backed up by a single example in the whole book) is that teachers must focus on those personal, affective investments that students have. Of course, teachers should not (cannot?) abandon the project of knowledge production and transfer, but Rickert argues that is it insufficient to properly change behavior. If a teacher wants to change their student’s lives, they should focus on the affective investments students have in social relationships. Objective facts about racial discrimination will do nothing in the long run but produce cynical citizens who are aware of this plight but unable to effect the personal change needed to resolve such issues. In such a classroom, we might imagine students writing autobiographical or narrative essays that expose their personal attachments to people, objects and practices. The class would read, listen and internally critique papers that did not judge the author for an immoral stance, for there is a general knowledge that we act based on deep personal commitments that we are rarely aware of.
This makes me think that, at some level, Rickert’s pedagogy is at odds with a strict Marxism or Hegelianism. Such a classroom could have no specific teleology. If the teacher wanted students to end the class with a certain knowledge or perspective, then they would have to impose it in some external way to the stories and narratives of the class. Change would be imperceptibly defined and vague and would have to be abandoned as a teleological concept. The irony of such change lies in the fact that if a teacher wants to change students, they must impose the specifics of what they would like changed. Though this imposition, students can figure out what it is that the teacher wants and provide it. In becoming what the teacher wants, the student actually avoids changing personally, for the teacher is satisfied in the performance of the critical identity. Thus, if teachers were to abandon the desire to change their students, they may actually yield some change. This opens up a new possibility to loosen symbolic knots and commitments, not in order to consciously change them, but to be able to clearly view how strong they are and how they hold and create us as subjects.
The Silken Tent
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
Questions of Postpedagogy and Empowerment
Pedagogy does not so much instill productive agency as reshape, redirect, and redistribute what is already there. This further means that learning should be completely sundered from concepts like empowerment. As Vitanza has argued, this is little less than the perpetuation of a hoax on students (“Three” 157). Empowerment is not for the teacher to give, even if this were possible. The learning that occurs in the classroom, if it does occur, arises from the intersecting continuums of creation and delimitation, production and subjectivization. Learning is a way of being molded and disciplined, and the productive agency it can open up is nevertheless far from anything resembling empowerment. The flip side is that we cannot evade our own responsibility as teachers, how our desire is always caught up in pedagogy. What is ethical here, then, is precisely the declination to fall into the trap of believing we have formed critical, autonomous agents out of our students. – Rickert, Acts of Enjoyment, 119.
To my mind, the above really gets to the heart of Rickert’s entire project with this book. In his prospective (he doesn’t believe in prefaces), he says that he was spurred to write when began to observe that his composition students rarely put his pedagogy to use in their own lives. And a liberal arts education that neither gives students hard skills nor teaches them to be better people does indeed seem to be a real failure, worthy of book-length rumination. Here, then, about halfway through all that thought, is Rickert’s conclusion: teaching is not an act of empowerment. It is not a process of addition, but one of productive rearrangement. (Perhaps he would say that this productivity is why we mistake it for addition.) And therefore, teachers should not take credit for the empowerment that they do not instill. (Though I’m not entirely sure why this should be an ethical directive.)
This leaves me wondering: What is empowerment, to Rickert? And under what circumstances can it arise or be transferred or sewn? I’m not sure I can answer these questions here, but for now, here’s another passage, appearing a few pages later, that I think may be helpful to consider in tandem with my first selection:
This is not to make an argument for political quietism—far from it. Change is not just possible, it is inevitable, but such an assertion has little connection with teaching students about injustice, combining that with a phantasmatic notion of activism, and then expecting their new “knowledge” to lead them down the critical road to social justice. (Rickert, 124).
Rickert does not believe that political activism is necessarily pointless or futile. Why, then, does he seem to regard the classroom as a sort of non-site for change and the inculcation of agency? Or is it rather that he’s trying to push back against the idea advanced by cultural studies that the classroom is a crucial site (perhaps the crucial site) for these activities? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I think Rickert must believe that the classroom is much too complex an environment — too full of misunderstandings, subtly coercive power dynamics, and conflicting affective investments/agendas — for things to reliably function in as straightforward a manner as cultural studies hopes they might. That is, empowerment may occur in the classroom, but not because it is the teacher’s explicit objective. That empowerment is a result of rupture.
Because Rickert believes that educators can only set the stage for change, not direct it, he advocates for “postpedagogy” — a “pedagogy of the act”. What Rickert outlines doesn’t much resemble pedagogy as we know it, and beyond that, it’s difficult to grasp what postpedagogy is at all in terms of methods or structures. He cites an infamous paper full by a student named Quentin Pierce — which, in its outbursts and anger, more closely resembles Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” than any conventional composition assignment. Pierce “negates himself, his writing, his composition course, and his world in general,” in the paper, which Rickert appraises as the product of a genuine Act in its steadfast “[refusal] to believe in a fantasy of writing for the university as being somehow liberating, empowering, or even meaningful.” (191-4) What’s more, even if we agree that this student paper is an Act, does this product of profound cynicism benefit anyone?
Rickert does indicate how educators might facilitate similar Acts, or even what those might be. But perhaps he refrains from recommending clear postpedagogical methods for the same reason he avoids narrowly defining empowerment — in an effort to steer clear of aligning these processes with ideology. Rickert is a keen diagnostician. If his prescriptions for education are vague and fall short of practicality, at least they avoid preserving and re-entrenching some of the very problems he sees there.