Reading Sedgwick

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A more easily readable version of this text can be opened here: WallMarx

At the 20 May 2015 meeting of the HEAT Reading Group, Jenni Nowlan introduced the text “Pedagogy of Buddhism”, chapter 5 of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book, Touching feeling: affect, pedagogy, performativity. The session raised a number of themes related to contemporary pedagogical practices.

1. One issue concerned the relationship between the two terms ‘pedagogy’ and ‘Buddhism’. Was Sedgwick, and in what senses, engaging with ‘pedagogy of Buddhism’?; or, rather, was she addressing the attempted pedagogisation of Buddhism, and what this might mean? In relation to the latter point, the pedagogisation of Buddhism, Jarow (2002) notes that,

“The Teaching of Buddhist traditions may itself be inherently problematic in this regard: after all, the historical Buddha is said to have balked at the idea of teaching.”

Another potential disjunction emerges, between ‘teaching’, understood perhaps as a set of practices developed around ‘instruction’, and ‘pedagogy’, understood perhaps as a body of literature or theory concerning how best to teach; to put aside for the time being the question of whether and how ‘teaching’ may be more than ‘instruction’.

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Blogging as Pedagogy

Adam David Morton’s reflections on the Progress as Political Economy blog, collectively run by the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

For a long time, I have drawn inspiration from Antonio Gramsci who maintained that ‘the relationship between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher’. Elsewhere in his Prison Notebooks he maintains that ‘The student is not a gramophone record, a passive receptacle’. …In newly launching my unit on The Political Economy of Global Capitalism, I embarked on an explicit attempt to integrate blogging and social media at the core of the delivery of the teaching reflected in the classroom in terms of lectures and tutorials and outside the classroom to guide student pedagogy. How was this achieved?

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The Value of Face-to-Face Teaching?

Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thraldom save
Your country, save your wives, your children save,
The temples of your gods, the sacred tomb
Where rest your honour’d ancestors; this day
The common cause of all demands your valour.

…Ah, what a boundless sea of wo hath burst
On Persia, and the whole barbaric race!
– Aeschylus, The Persians (472 BCE)

In addition to the articles on ‘New French Thought’, Educational Philosophy and Theory has published Gert Biesta’s ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching: On robot vacuum cleaners, non-egological education and the limits of the hermeneutical world view‘ online. Biesta wants to,

reclaim a place for teaching in face of the contemporary critique of so-called traditional teaching. While I agree with this critique to the extent to which it is levelled at an authoritarian conception of teaching as control, a conception in which the student can only exist as an object of the interventions of the teacher and never as a subject in its own right, I argue that the popular alternative to traditional teaching, that is to make the teacher a facilitator of learning, is insufficient.

The article explores many of the issues that have continually resurfaced in our reading groups and, in particular, the discussion initiated by Michele Ledda’s presentation on teaching at the last Research Lab. Biesta argues that “we really should not underestimate our capacity to receive” and even in the traditional model of teaching,

where teachers speak and students sit quietly, a lot of things are actually happening on the side of the students—they may of course feel bored, alienated or ignored, but they may also feel challenged, fascinated and inspired; who knows? I also wonder whether anyone has actually ever suggested that education operates as a process of transmission and passive absorption, even if it is staged in this way.

As I noted in my own discussion of ‘Flipping Humanities‘, one of the interesting outcomes of more recent proposals about “flipping the classroom” is that the increasing use of technology and new media for content delivery in such proposals actually depends upon quite a traditional separation of the “lecture” from the “seminar”. Biesta argues that, ironically, this suggests there is still some positive value to “traditional teaching”.

In line with Michele Ledda’s excellent presentation at the last Research Lab on the complications of drawing political distinctions about “left” and “right” in the context of “progressive” and “traditional” models of teaching, Biesta also rejects the correlation often drawn between “teaching” as “authoritarian” and “learning” as “progressive”:

The problem here, if I see it correctly, has to do with the binary construction of options, that is, with the idea that the only meaningful response to authoritarian forms of teaching lies in the abolition of teaching and a turn towards learning. It is just remarkable that the third option, namely that of reconstructing our understanding of teaching and the teacher along progressive lines, is hardly ever considered. Yet it in is this third option—an option which relies on the idea that freedom is not the opposite of authority or an escape from authority, but has to do with establishing a ‘grown up’ relationship with what may have authority in our lives; a process in which authority becomes authorised, as Meirieu (2007, p. 84) has put it—that we can see the beginnings of an entirely different response to authoritarian forms of teaching, be they traditional, be they progressive

Biesta proposes to do this by drawing on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s ideas about signification. As Biesta explains, Levinas rejects the idea that “all our meaning making, all our signification, occurs ‘inside’ culture and history”: a “situation of total immanence” that amounts to a “cultural and historical relativism.” He defines this position as anti-Platonic, since Plato believed in the existence of “a privileged culture (that) can understand the transitory and seemingly childish nature of historical cultures”. Against this, Levinas proposes an Ethics (situated before Culture and signification) orientated around the Other:

The Other ‘not only comes to us from a context but signifies itself, without that mediation’ (Levinas, 2006, p. 31)—and it is this unmediated presence coming to us to which Levinas refers as ‘face’ and it is to the epiphany of the face that Levinas refers as ‘visitation’ (see Levinas, 2006, p. 31). Face, so we might say, ‘breaks through’ its signification, that is, through its image …Ethics, then, ‘provides the model worthy of transcendence’ (Levinas, 1989, p. 207), one where ‘the Same—drowsy in his identity’ is awakened by the Other (Levinas, 1989, p. 207).10

For Biesta, this is used as the basis for constructing that alternative conception of non-authoritarian teaching that escapes the impasses of traditional and progressive approaches.

One of the problems with this utilization of Levinas’ work, as Andrew McGettigan – also author of The Great University Gamble – has pointed out in an article on ‘The philosopher’s fear of alterity: Levinas, Europe and humanities “without Sacred History”‘, is that this “problematic of the face”, and the conception of transcendence it is grounded in, is “at root mobilized in a valorization of the Judaeo-Christian legacy against those who come from outside ʻthe Westʼ”. While Biesta draws on Levinas’s 1977 essay ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, McGettigan draws attention to the 1961 essay ʻJewish Thought Todayʼ in which Levinas notes the contemporary,

arrival on the historical scene of those underdeveloped Afro-Asiatic masses who are strangers to the Sacred History that forms the heart of the Judaic-Christian world.

That for Levinas the historical claim that this ʻSacred History’ differentiates the West as a monotheistic formation from the rest of the world is, McGettigan argues, rooted in the neo-Kantian and phenomenological grounding of his philosophy and, in particular, attempts at the beginning of the twentieth century to base an idea of Geisteswissenschaft (the “humanities”) in a concept of the nation (Derrida noted the importance of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s discovery that “the social Self is a national Self” for this neo-Kantian project). 

Biesta’s own attempt to apply Levinas’s philosophy to teaching might therefore do well to reflect on the problems McGettigan raises in relation to the concept of “teaching” (and, we should add, especially the teaching of the humanities) in the essay ‘Jewish Thought Today’. As McGettigan points out, when Levinas talks about the Talmud as a “form of teaching” he is evoking the neo-Kantian concept of Lehre (“variously translated as ‘doctrine’, ‘teaching’, ‘study’ …a body of experience handed down”) as the philosophical distillation of monotheistic religious teaching for the desacralized modern world, and it is this philosophical idea that underpins the claims made about signification that Biesta draws on. One of the great errors of the theoretical reception of Levinas’s work, McGettigan claims, is to misunderstand the

idea of first philosophy lying in the ethical relation generated by the face-to-face encounter with the Other …in a familiar humanist, anti-bureaucratic sense: it is in a fundamental personal contact that I am struck by my commonality with the other. But this reading completely neglects Levinasʼs putative transcendence.

When Levinas’s account of signification objects to the “equivalence of cultures” within anti-Platonic immanence, it insists on the necessity of taking into account “an orientation which leads the Frenchman to take up learning Chinese instead of declaring it to be barbarian (that is, bereft of the real virtues of language), to prefer speech to war.” This – supposedly one-way – orientation to the Other, it concludes, is itself a result of the Judaeo-Christian legacy that forms the basis of Lehre in the Humanities.

For McGettigan, Levinas’s ideas about transcendence, ethics, the Other and the face are based on the “fundamentally speculative” idea that the value of

the monotheism that informs Western culture …above other cultures and their particular ideas, lies in the ability to produce a politics directed to peace. […] it is not present in other traditions whose own ideas can be encompassed by the Greek dimension of Europe. For Levinas, these cultures cannot teach us, they bring nothing that we do not already contain.

While Biesta begins a useful debate about “the all too common and all too facile critique of traditional teaching—a critique that seems to have become the new dogma of contemporary educational thought,” McGettigan reminds us that a serious philosophy and historical reexamination of Levinas’s own work exposes the extent to which its account of teaching and the ideal of the Humanities may in turn fall prey to one of the oldest dogmas of educational thought.

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Educational Philosophy and ‘New French Thought’

A forthcoming issue of Educational Philosophy and Theory, parts of which are available online now, has a series of articles on the topic of educational philosophy and ‘New French Thought’. The editors David R. Cole and Joff P.N. Bradley take their cue from the theorists covered in Alexander R. Galloway’s 2010 lectures on ‘French Theory Today: An Introduction to Possible Futures’, which included Catherine Malabou, Bernard Stiegler, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Quentin Meillassoux and Francois Laruelle:

This special edition of Educational Philosophy and Theory takes the ideas and philosophical constructions of these thinkers and others and applies them to education.

The issue includes Cole on Laruelle and educational non-philosophy, two articles by Bradley and Anna Kouppanou on Stiegler, technology and education, two articles by Emile Bojesen and Jasmine B. Ulmer on Malabou, brain plasticity and education, and – of interest given our forthcoming reading group on Sedgwick’s ‘Pedagogy of Buddhism’ – Sevket Benhur Oral on Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative materialism and Zen Buddhism for educative purposes. If any of these authors, texts or ideas raised in the issue are of interest to the group, we might think about suggesting some of the works involved for future reading.

The Returned

Finally, Cole and Bradley’s introduction makes a significant claim about the importance of theory for research in education:

One could argue that the greatest challenge for the philosophy of education today is to stake its claim amidst the increasing prominence and competitive nature of evidence-based and profit-motivated theories of education. On one side of this point of contention are philosophies of education that owe their heritage to the analytical and empiricist mindset, on the other are those that may be derived from what can be broadly termed continental philosophy and the specific endeavour to develop theory. In the contemporary, globalised situation, where the philosophy of education needs to be appropriate for non-European and non-‘developed’ milieux, the demand to find alternative modes of enquiry is more palpable than ever. It is to ‘New French Thought’ that the editors of this special edition have turned in the hope that some of the tensions, dilemmas and complexities of the current sociopolitical situation may be understood, and a new philosophy of education may be fashioned from an array of contemporary French thinkers. It is anticipated that the new thought that one may derive from France will not allay the clamour for evidence-based claims in education, but it could open up novel avenues for thought, whereby the impasse to non-thought and the obsequy of the philosophy of education may be mitigated.

The introduction can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2015.1044300

Reading Group on Sedgwick’s ‘Pedagogy of Buddhism’

A reminder that our next HEAT reading group will be meeting this Wednesday 20th May, from 1-3pm in Room 158 on the first floor of the Regent Street building. 9780822330158

The text to read for Wednesday is the final chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 2003 collection Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, entitled ‘Pedagogy of Buddhism’. In this chapter, Sedgwick develops the idea of ‘near-miss pedagogy’ as a way of thinking through some of the common impasses of education, suggesting it is often too late when when we finally recognize the “resistance” of a student as a form of pedagogy aimed at us:

Perhaps their implication has been: Try it my way – if you’re going to teach me. Or even: I have something more important to teach you than you have to teach me.

An e-book of the text is available through the university’s library site: Read e-book. Jenni Nowlan, Senior Lecturer in Occupational and Organisational Psychology in the Westminster Business School, has kindly agreed to introduce the chapter.

This LRB review introduces some of the themes of Segwick’s work, including the influence of sculpture and Buddhism. HEAT members might also be interested in Sedgwick’s (slightly denser and more technical) essay on ‘Teaching/Depression’, freely available online here. Finally, this website has a detailed biography and archive of Sedgwick’s work.