Flows of knowledge through Late Capitalism

31Jan08

/1/ - On education

Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster is a text that has been throughly dissected for its pedagogical uses. In the book Ranciere documents the intellectual adventures of Joseph Jacotot, a man who in the 18th and 19th centuries, struggled to further his views of intellectual emancipation.

Jacotot, who due to the dominating politics of the time, was forced to teach students who spoke a language he did not know. Using an interpreter Jacotot instructed the students to read a bilingual edition of a book and then, through their reading, he instructed them to write and think in the French language. Amazed at the results, Jacotot decided on three principles:

1 – All men have equal intelligence

2 – Every man has received from god the ability to instruct himself

3 – Everything is in everything

Jacotot singlehandedly waged war against the Old masters and, in particular, attacked the idea of explication. Jacotot questioned why one mind needed to explain a text to another mind – why couldn’t the mind of the student figure out the text, what did explication do? Jacotot went on to argue that parents could teach their children subjects they didn’t know – all that was needed was that these new instructors could verify not the details of the particular knowledge, but that the student is confident in their knowledge.

If there is one concern in Ranciere’s description of Jacotot’s intellectual adventures it is that the temptation towards home schooling is too great. Immediately the connection between Jacotot and the present arises in orbit of the sticky issue of ‘personal responsibility.’ Even a cursory glance at the innards of late capitalism makes it clear that governmental bodies have, in order to justify their disintegration of social programs, risen the stakes for personal responsibility when it comes to parenting. With the burden shifted more and more towards the parents, the governments operating within late capitalism can move more money into defense, war mongering and the like, despite their official stance of caring for American families and the ‘children of the future.’

Ranciere states that universal teaching, the form of education which emancipates the individual, cannot be systematized or set within the status quo in any way – universal teaching cannot be that which is utilized by the various orders of society. Can parents of children or any non-official orator successful take on the task of intellectual emancipation, how is it even possible that any sort of cerebral equality can be saved in the current moment?

/2/ – The desacrilization of everything

Jacotot’s first statement, that everyone is equally intelligent, appears as a pill harder and harder to swallow. The simple growth of population presents us with more and more opportunities to be in the discomforting position of being overwhelmed by stupidity. The vast media machines of late capitalism make this only more obvious via television and internet. While it may be more broadly further validation of Baudrillard’s paranoic warnings about ‘values last tango,’ the discursive treatment of love in the aforementioned media spaces is exceptionally troubling when it comes to knowledge.

VH1 may be the bastion of such worry – I Love New York, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love and so forth, expose the failure of individuals taking love seriously. Here Lacan’s early indictment of love as fundamentally narcissitic is apt – such non-subjects throw love in a piebald construction of sexual favors, games and contests. The sliver of truth here is the fact, that I have discussed on numerous occasions, that love cannot be approached directly. Such TV shows however attempt to provoke love accidentally.

The excessively pathetic competitions on such programs beg a stamp of simple stupidity on the majority of humanity and makes the audience question the Jacotot’s assertion regarding the equality of intelligence. All joking aside, how does one explain the behavoir of contestants who are willing to strip for a burned out rockstar who was in a one hit wonder band? The traditional response would be because ‘they don’t know any better,’ thereby invoking the standard Marxist argument – that they do not know what they do (to paraphrase christ). Zizek among others have pointed out the limitations of such an articulation of ideology and have suggested, in its place, a more fetishistic attitude as the core of ideology – that instead of ‘they are doing but they don’t know they are doing it’ it becomes ‘they know they are doing it but they do it anyways.’

This kind of distanced enjoyment is fairly obvious – we enjoy junk TV, tabloids, trashy magazines et cetera by maintaining a kind of superiority to the document – we assert that we are not the intended audience, that unlike the others who enjoy such garbage earnestly, we are enjoying it ironically.

So how are not simply in a cultural quagmire, a simple mess of decayed meaning? In Manifesto for Philosophy, one of his earlier texts, Badiou writes:

“for Marx, and for us, desacrilization is not in the least nihilistic, insofar as ‘nihilism’ must signify that which declares that the access to being and truth is impossible. On the contrary, desacrilization is a necessary condition for the disclosing of such an approach to thought. It is obviously the only thing we can and must welcome within Capital: it exposes the pure multiple as the foundation of presentation; it denounces every effect of One as a simple, precarious configuration; it dismisses the symbolic representations in which the bond found a semblance of being. That this destitution operates in the most complete barbarity must not conceal its properly ontological virtue” (p. 56-57).

/3/ – Everything is in everything and everything is ruined

To take Badiou’s statement alongside Jacotot’s, we may find new fuel to pursue cultural studies, but with the fact in mind that the dissection of difference the pop cultural gestalt, is meaningless. What is important, and what is arguably the point of this blog, is to attempt to find the bits of junk culture that speak to various dimensions of ontology. Yet it is not simply ineffectual post-modernists who are the challengers here but there is also a group of several lesser known philosophers working in France who are an interesting threat to ontology as meaning or meaning as ontology as an equation.

Francois Laruelle’s work is proudly called non-philosophy, a philosophy that proudly ignores and rejects classic weighty philosophical issues such as ethics, aesthetics, being et cetera. Laruelle states that he is attempting to develop a science of philosophy, a transcendental approach to philosophy itself. Ray Brassier’s short introductory piece on Laruelle, “Axiomatic Heresy: The non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle,” categories Laruelle’s work as the zenith of formal invention, of being the best example of how a thinker is revolutionary because of how they same something and not what they talk about. Brassier ends his text with the following:

“Consequently, if non-philosophy can be contrasted to the postmodern pragmatist’s ‘supermarket trolley’ approach to philosophy, where the philosophical consumer’s personal predilections provide the sole criterion for choosing between competing philosophies, and where the academy now figures as a sort of intellectual superstore, it is not as yet another theoretical novelty – the latest fad, the next big thing – but as a means of turning the practice of philosophy itself into an exercise in perpetual invention.”

In an interview, though really more a debate, with Derrida, Laruelle voids the distinction, made by several philosophers, most notably in recent times by Badiou, of classical philosophy from critical philosophy. The split is usually placed at the time of Kant’s self proclaimed Copernican revolution, his attack on both the rationalist and empiricist traditions which led him to create a more mind centered model of the universe.

Brassier himself is involved in an all together different philosophical movement – speculative realism which is similarly hostile to Kant’s critical philosophy and his belief that human thought is embedded in and determines the world around us. Quentin Meillassoux, another speculative realist, argues that Kant’s move allows philosophers to avoid determining the pre-human world, the ancestral world as he terms it.

/4/ – Swamp of Correlations

Both the approach of non-philosophy and the speculative realists, see too much connection, or perhaps too much unity, among various current philosophies. There does seem to be some currency in Brassier’s derogatory comment surrounding the academy – that it has become an intellectual super store, where students pick and choose based on their own ‘personal predilections.’ Yet, at the same time, Brassier seems to be stupefying the students participating in the academic machine. Taking Jacotot’s second and third axioms, doesn’t the cross pollination of various theoretical endeavors allow for some sort of infant novelty, doesn’t it open space for a thinker, in utero, to take a stab at the greats?

Furthermore, Brassier does not mention how the status of various modes of thought require a more or less indirect approach depending upon the academic institution. In the American higher education milieu, it can be quite difficult to study continental theory directly – often the only option is to approach it through another discipline such as literature, geography, social studies and the like.

It must be accepted that everyone is able, if not always willing, to instruct themselves, to learn. If, as Zizek quips in Astra Taylor’s documentary about him, ‘we all accept that global capitalism is here to stay,’ it is difficult to imagine a way in which the desire to self teach can be creatively galvanized. While capitalism, as Badiou says, makes the pure multiple clear, it also allows for the allusion of various non-events, in the case of random popularity and celebrity.

Ultimately there must be some radical division between personal responsibility and a feverish desire to self fashion. If there is any kernel of hope, or any seed of destruction in late capitalism, it is the capacity to increase the amount of one’s free time, as strange as that may seem given the connected state of business, and work towards something that doesn’t guarantee personal glory. At the closing of his interesting text Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinksi has an interesting example of this: the open software movement. To paraphrase him – there needs to be a search for ‘serious wasteful activity.

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2 Responses to “Flows of knowledge through Late Capitalism”

  1. I’m puzzled as to why you think “Jacotot’s first first statement, that everyone is equally intelligent, appears as a pill harder and harder to swallow.” You seem to connect intelligence immediately to knowledge in the paragraph following, but on first reading, that seems almost obvious. Human beings are those creatures who uniquely know how to be themselves. In that sense, it seems that it is an easier and easier pill to swallow – we know more and more about neurological differences, which seem to uniquely imprint brains so that no two are alike. Education that is addressed to one’s existence, and not to one’s roles – which require various capacities for knowledge that can vary – respects this fact about the self.

    I find it curious that this would even be controversial. I surely don’t have the intelligence to be you – in fact, nobody does. And yet, as a social animal sharing a language with you, in a society in which education is directed less towards your existence than towards fitting you into a role in that society, I can easily be overcome with the illusion that, in fact, I do have the intelligence to be you. The difference between role-knowledge and existential-intelligence is stark, and one of the ways to describe it is that intelligence is radically equal.

  2. ps – oops, I’m sorry. My first sentences got garbled. I meant to say: “I’m puzzled as to why you think “Jacotot’s first first statement, that everyone is equally intelligent, appears as a pill harder and harder to swallow.” You seem to connect intelligence immediately to knowledge in the paragraph following, but on first reading, it seems almost obvious that Jacotot is referring to intelligence as a property of the self, not knowledge as a property of roles.”


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