Activist bookselling and the life of Karibu Books

I’ve been thinking about the essay,”My First Lesson in Activist History (page 45 at this link),”  about the rise and fall of an activist, African American bookstore chain in and around DC, for weeks.  The author, Brother Yao (Hoke Smith Glover III) was the founder of Karibu Books and is a professor at Bowie State. His essay  brings up questions for me about the liberal marketplace and its effects on the circulation of ideas, expression, and critique. Also I think the digital journal in which it is published, Tidal Basin Review,  is rich, beautiful, dense. That means navigating it (at least on my internet connection) is slow. I like that. Missing my former Schwartz colleagues, this essay made me want to ask those of you who think about free communication/information systems like digital commons, and those of you who think about veteran coffee shops, and other kinds of public spheres, what you make of this story of the wondrous, maybe too brief, life of Karibu Books.

The prize versus the wage

David Graeber’s phrase “the alienated right to do good,” captures for me the inequality of opportunity to choose meaningful, socially and ethically engaged work.[1] Two recent talks have made me think about this alienation in a new way. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communication at MLA  gave a talk at BLSCI on March 29 called “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy.” Given the change in academic publishing—companies accept fewer manuscripts these days, but academic jobs require more publications than before—Fitzpatrick suggests that scholars use the internet to circulate their ideas. Not only do blogging and other forms of web communication help connect a scholarly community, she argues, but they also draw attention to the scholar’s ideas, thus making a book more marketable.

This reminded me of a rueful little joke I told myself when I was on the job market this spring and odds were looking very long. I decided that if I did not find an academic job I’d tell my family that I had decided on a new career and was moving to LA to write screenplays. What I thought was funny about this, if it isn’t obvious, was that a teaching job was not something I expected to have as long odds, and require as many years of no-wage (research) and low-wage (adjunct) labor. And I didn’t think that choosing to work towards a career as a professor meant I had the same kind of ego and tenacity it takes to make it in Hollywood. Now I’m not so sure. Fitzpatrick’s outline of the new career path for academics predicts that this ratio will grow, and her prescription for academics is that we adapt and, I guess in turn, continue to support this work structure. In her speech on “Communicative Capitalism,” political scientist Jodi Dean claims that currently we’re working less for a wage and more for a prize—we work not to be paid but for the opportunity to compete, and the chance to win, pay. While I disagree with many of the points Dean makes in this talk, this particular point seemed to hit the mark.

In a recent conversation with a few colleagues, though, we all agreed to nix high salaries for full professors, decrease top salaries to 70 thousand or so, and pay graduate teachers about 30 grand to start. This would mean much less grad student debt. It has been remarked before that any incentive to change the university labor system dies once one reaches tenure. We’ve got our eyes on the prize. 

Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” seemed worn and wan when I first read it—it was a play that seemed very relevant to my father, though. But, with the current Broadway revival, and Dean’s speech, I saw a new resonance in the line “I am not a dime a dozen. I am Willy Loman!” Has my choice of career with such long odds, that demands unpaid work, been the result of a privileged sense of what my opportunities should be? Am I doing this because I think I’m special, and deserve a special, rare career? In this case, do I “pay” for the privilege of this special job through unpaid labor? Or, is my job choice situated in a context in which the wish to “do good,” to use my labor not only to provide for myself, but also to be part of a collaborative, ethically engaged project alienated?

To put it more simply, it is harder to find this kind of work, and I have come to take that fact as a given. But, I wonder if academics’ sense of the privilege of this kind of work is part of what allows this exploitation to happen. If so, are we right? Are we paying for a privilege? Do long odds come with the nature of the reward? Or are we being exploited?


[1] David Graeber, “An Army of Altruists: on the alienated right to do good,” Harpers Magazine (January 2007): 31-38.

My stress response to oppositional, religious language in the political interweb

The Slavoj Zizek, “Actual Politics” essay went around Facebook and several sites linked to it this past December. Zizek’s use of religious language got my attention right away, and as I continued to read, I was upset by the way its religious language exalted the Occupy Wall street movement (“we”) and condemned “them”: “We here are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street they are pagans worshipping false idols.” By upset, I mean I had the kind of stress reaction I’ve had when witnessing the sort of reductive us/them discourse practiced by Fox/MSNBC during the heyday of Keith Oberman and Bill O’Reilly. Or, more recently, the kind of broad, oppositional categorizations made by David Brooks and Maureen Dowd (for example, her description of Callista Gingrich as a “Transformational Wife” versus Michelle Obama as a “Let’s Get Real” wife).

Zizek’s “Actual Politics” was published in December, as part of a special, open access issue of the scholarly journal Theory & Event dedicated to the Occupy Wall Street movement. In general, the journal focuses on the use of political theory and political science towards the interpretation of the “surprise of current events” and “the politics of representation as it appears in protests, elections, commodities, and high and popular culture.” For example, they’ve published essays on how theories of sovereignty and the state of exception relate to anti-global capitalism movements, Thatcherism and the Bush war on terror. So, it wasn’t just Zizek’s use of religious language, but its appearance in the context of a footnote-y, peer-reviewed journal that baffled me.

So, I asked and Googled around, and found a few people who’ve spent more time than I have thinking about the use of religious language in the public sphere, and asked their opinion of Zizek’s essay.

I asked Elizabeth Sifton, a former editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, and author of The Serenity Prayer, a book about her father Reinhold Neibuhr, a theologian who wrote about democracy, liberalism, ethics, and politics. “I used to be quite taken with (Zizek’s) work,” Sifton wrote, saying that he is “arrestingly free of inhibitions and outmoded nonsense,” but also “contrarian,” and lacking substance—not the “politics of protest” that we need.

Fritz Stern, a professor emeritus of European history at Columbia, has written about the tendency to level the charge of fascism and to make Nazi comparisons for various political ends. (He wrote Five Germanys I Have Known and The Politics of Cultural Despair, both considered pretty major works). At first Stern didn’t find much to grab ahold of in Zizek’s essay. Then he wrote, “For serious people to talk that way about selves and opponents is abominable. It destroys argument which is essential to democracy.”

But John Merz, priest at the Greenpoint Church of the Ascension, saw it differently:

There is nothing in there that troubles me. The one line you mention gives me pause about the Holy Spirit and the pagans on Wall Street. However he is using the term Holy Spirit in a way ultimately that does not trouble me. His sense of the Spirit which accords with the orthodox sense is that it is that sustaining spirit that leads to new vital life (…)
I think the way he is portraying pagans on “wall street” is in the classic Christian way it was used in that the pagans were seen to be worshipping false Gods or simulated Gods or idols at so many altars. The Christian concept I think is that the worship or remembrance at the altar when people share the bread and the wine is a “real symbol” in that it actually reflects or accesses a truth about reality that cannot be enacted in another way. The truth being that we are connected to one in other and into God in a kind of interdependence best experienced or revealed in love, service, forgiveness etc….Therefore one could imagine an action whereby people could go to wall street in order to ”throw over the tables of the money changers” not because the stock exchange is in fact a house of prayer but because on the sacramental life of everything things, that market, that altar to the false God of hyper capital, has polluted our common space and metastasizes throughout the social and political body.

And I asked Kristin Dombek, who has written about performance, rhetoric, belief, and, as she puts it, “the secular aspects of evangelicalism and the religious aspects of secularism.” (I recommend her essay on the musical, The Book of Mormon in n+1). Kristin said the article moved her, and that she shared this reaction with other people who had heard Zizek’s speech in Zucotti Park. Dombek wrote:

(Zizek posits that) With the help of the Holy Spirit, Christianity could transcend national boundaries, as the Occupy movement was beginning to do. But he revoked the notion of a divine visitation, implying instead that pragmatic, collaborative action can create a sense of revolutionary international transcendence, that we make something better than god this way, together.  He was flirting with totalitarianism, as usual, with the erasure of difference.  But doesn’t any revolutionary rhetoric?

One question I have is, does revolutionary rhetoric have to flirt with totalitarianism, or instead does it often tend to? And, why? Stern’s work addresses this rigorously, and deeply. But, to be cursory, in order for a radical ethical claim to gain traction in a democracy, must it speak in oppositional tones? What would Gandhi, MLK, or Vaclav Havel say?

Ed Koren, from The New Yorker. Jan 31, 2011

I realized that one of the reasons Zizek’s religious language bothered me is because I personally associate these Christian concepts with a practice that can help undo the psychic loggerhead of us/them, and instead elicit a sense of the partialness of one’s own perspective. So to see these terms used to inscribe us/them more forcefully seemed as if one more possible escape from the dynamic of MSN/Fox, Dem/Rep, Red/Blue had been marshaled for the special occasion of a scholarly journal now calling the political moment too pressing for footnotes and peer review.

In contrast, though, McKenzie Wark’s essay in the same issue of Theory & Event describes a political identity of solidarity that isn’t based upon opposition.

Most people don’t really care all that much about what the 1% has. They are not concerned about someone else’s wealth, they are concerned about everyone else’s impoverishment. They are concerned about going hungry.

Maybe the mistake was mine in the first place, to separate “religious” from “secular” language. William E. Connolly writes of the oversimplification and misrecognitions involved in this opposition: “stark definitions on the outside contain the range and reach of diversity on the inside, and vice versa.” Both categories, religion and secularism, define themselves by the relative subtly, complexity, and inclusion of difference they include as opposed to the simplicity and rigidity of the other.[1] Secularism, then, becomes a kind of false category, built upon an opposition between liberalism as part of positivism, modernity, science and the rational, and the irrational and religious.

I will leave the last word to Craig Calhoun, author of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, (taken from a post on the blog “The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere”).

To say that religion has power in the public sphere is not to say that it can be easily absorbed or that it should be. It is a basis for radical challenges and radical questions; it brings enthusiasm, passion, indignation, outrage, and love. If enthusiasm is sometimes harnessed to unreflective conviction, passion is also vital to critical engagement with existing institutions and dangerous trends. The public sphere and the practice of public reason have power too. And they not only take from religion but also offer it opportunities to advance by reflection and critical argument.


[1]  William E. Connolly, “Introduction: The Pluralist Imagination,” in The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), xiv.

Outing collegiality

At a recent meeting at Schwartz, we talked about what sort of web platform would best serve the needs of teachers, helping us share materials, voice problems and elicit advice, and compare experiences, basically to share our practices as teachers. This Wednesday, Luke, Mikhail, Craig, and Erica launched a resource site/discussion space for the English Department. Last week, associate professor John Weir circulated an email to the English department at Queens College which made me think of what else is needed, besides a departmental forum, like web-based discussion space, to foster collegiality. Weir’s email has a kind of openness and immediacy that, in my experience, characterizes informal talk between friends and colleagues—the rant of exasperation or excitement—that I’ve shared in hallways, after a meeting or between classes. It is one thing for one adjunct to talk to another, or even to senior faculty, by the Xerox machine, and another to post online in a forum, where your thoughts are exposed to an entire department. Sharing pedagogical experiences and practices more publically requires perhaps a more expansive collegial spirit.

This fall, I taught a literature course for the first time, and at Queens College, where I’d never worked before. The class was scheduled at 3 in the afternoon on a Friday, and during this time the Queens campus seemed pretty deserted. I dragged my wheely bag around empty floors and stairwells, from my office, to tech services, to the building where I taught. One faculty member observed my class, and the meeting with her that followed was a bright, warm spot of collegiality, advice, and encouragement in an otherwise pretty isolated semester. Then, Weir’s email arrived, and I had that great moment that comes from sharing experiences in a particular profession: “That exact thing happened to me!” Weir mentions students’ tendency to open papers with broad general statements. I had just spent a day with student papers that began with some variation of “Since the dawn of time, humans have thought about the important topic of identity….” I had also spent the day writing in the margins of my students’ papers comments like, “Interesting claim, can you support and develop this with an example, or cite a source?” Weir addresses these issues in this informal email in a way I found very helpful.

Last year, Talia wrote an excellent post about how to get adjuncts (who are isolated from professionalization events because they are already “stretched thin” timewise), to participate in pedagogy workshops. She came up with three great tips for how to reach out and engage adjuncts. Below, I offer Weir’s email as an example of the sort of spirit of collegiality and engaged, attuned teaching that did not wait for a Wiki or a workshop, but just reached out—both to colleagues with whom I can assume he already has a rapport, and to strangers and fellow teachers like me.

Weir wrote:

“…..I wanted to share a “teaching moment,” if I may, and forgive me for jamming up your email at this point in the semester, when everyone has too much to read.So my undergrad students and I (ENG 395W) where talking about the first paragraph of the first drafts of their research papers -”research-,” “term-,” “analytical-,” whatever you call those papers.

And my students are of course in love with generality and with big sweeping introductory moments.  Not in a hostile way: They are convinced of the importance of big contextualizing opening remarks,and why not?  But it leads to first sentences like: “David Foster Wallace develops literature in an artistic way.”  They do think that a general introductory move is important and necessary and basically required.

And so we were trying to figure out how to write an opening sentence that was both specific and catchy, that hauled you into the essay, set a tone, and also got right down to business – just as one example of an opening-sentence-strategy.  And don’t ask me how we ended up talking about marijuana.  Um, I don’t remember?  But suddenly we were discussing all the ways in which folks get busted for carrying a tiny amount of pot on their persons; and one of my students said, “Cops like to make arrests right at the end of their shifts, because it forces them into overtime and extra pay”; and one of my students said, ”Drug busts for a small amount of marijuana are really popular because the NYPD can use those arrests to pump up statistics about how they’re
keeping down crime in NYC”; and there were like 5 students in the room who had information to add, and they mentioned various articles they had read on this topic in other classes and/or on their own.  They cited their sources, in other words.  And everyone in the room, all 17 students, were suddenly talking, with way more interest and excitement than they had shown in our discussion of, well, anything else all
semester.

And it so happens that I’ve been reading Judith Halberstam’s *The Queer Art of Failure* (Duke U Press, 2011), wherein, among other things, Halberstam has stuff to say about pedagogy and the academy, including her assertion – a propos of Jacques Ranciere’s *The Ignorant Schoolmaster* and Laurent Cantet’s 2008 documentary *The Class*(*Entre Les Murs*) – that “learning is a two-way street and you cannot teach without a dialogic relation to the learner.”

“Okay,” I thought, “here’s our dialogic relation,” and I drew my students’ attention to how instantly and fully they got engaged in a conversation in which each student entered into the argument with a specific example: Cops make drug arrests at 5 PM; the NYPD uses drug busts to brag about crime control; etc.  And I reminded them that they had cited their sources.  And I asked them if they imagined that they might begin a paper about David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon” by pointing immediately to a piece of evidence, a moment from the text, an event, a compelling linguistic turn, a critical intervention made by a scholar or critic or writer, etc. Rather than, you know, ”Western Literature has long struggled with the problem of language.”

And I think they got that.

All of which is to say that I have found that the only pedagogical tool I have is ignorance and unknowing, which I perform for my students whenever possible (usually out of necessity!), and that mostly this strategy fails, but sometimes it gives students room to veer away from the topic and demonstrate their expertise in some other area of discourse.  And once in a while, I am able to point out to them that they already know how to do what we are struggling to figure out how to do.”

Capitalism, critique and catastrophe

Shoting star and other dollar origami by Corey Comenitz http://www.corigami.com/Gallery_3.html

I’m following John and David’s posts, both of which I think responded insightfully and eloquently to aspects of Grant McCraken’s presentation that I was too flustered by to take on myself. My immediate thought, following McCraken’s argument that anthropology should be a tool for companies, analyzing culture in order to help companies capture potential consumers, was that the motives of academics and business people are different. The task of academics is to question social structures—like the relationship between culture and the marketplace—in terms of how they affect human flourishing. And, the task of business people is to grow business. Either their job is not to care how their business affects human flourishing (writ large, not just the shareholders and consumers), or to assume that the growth of business is an inherent and general good.

But, is this a fair assumption or a prejudice? As soon as I had articulated this thought to myself, as a possible response to McCraken, I realized it sounded like a prejudice. This led me to think about the tropes that commonly circulate among academics, and to think of the generalizations made on both sides of the business/academic divide.

RSA videos have been circulating recently among my friends (and fellow academics). The first one that circulated among my (academic) friends was Slavoj Zizek’s “First tragedy, then farce.” The next was the David Harvey’s “Crises of Capitalism,” also posted on cac.ophony. One thing that struck me about them both is the catastrophic view of capitalism. Harvey ends his argument by saying that capitalism will only continue to become more extreme, that it is a phenomenon that far exceeds the range of our current political discourse, even our current political framework. Zizek suggests (with tiny caveats, it’s just a suggestion!) that charity merely mitigates the “zero point” of the increase in human suffering inherent to capitalism.

This is an old idea, made glamorous by a celebrity and by technology. Yet Zizek acts, though he cites Oscar Wilde, as if this were an original insight. I do think Marx’s ideas are still very relevant and useful today, but I’m frustrated that Marx still seems like a daring and challenging reference, and an endpoint. When his ideas are re-voiced outside of academic context, they seem to me to be more invoked and applied than built upon.

What I’d like to see turned into an RSA is perhaps Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, in which he studies the oppressions of several different political and economic forms, in different historical periods, and measures them against revolutions and the forms of governance and economics that replaced the old. No clear winners. I’d like to see some of George Yúdice’s ideas in an RSA. For example, he argues in The Expediency of Culture, that capitalism in its current phase is capturing more of human life, turning more and more of culture into a commodity. At the same time, he says, commodification has been cultured. The marketplace is more and more in the hands of more and more people. This takes us to last year’s keynote speaker, Clay Shirkey, who described Amazon as a kind of partial democratization of the marketplace. Or is it the commodification of democracy? Yúdice sees the capacity for the distribution of political agency, for more inclusive and effective solidarities, in this phase of the relationship between capital and culture.

In order to actually be able to turn speeches like McCraken’s into opportunities for mutually constructive criticism and dialogue, I think we might need to agree that we come to the table with a different set of prejudices about terms like the marketplace, capitalism, business, and academia. And would it be possible to have a conversation about who and how business and academia see themselves as serving to advance human flourishing?

The irritating voice of reason

A student recently described English professors to me: “You know, they speak perfectly, and slowly but not too slowly, louder than regular but not too loud.” I began to think about teachers’ presentation and what this says about the way we view our roles and establish (or don’t establish) authority. In “Elements of the Academic Essay,” Gordon Harvey (a director of Harvard’s writing programs), defines stance as “the implied position of you the writer to the readers and subject” of your essay. I use Harvey’s list of thirteen concisely described elements when I teach writing, and this week I’ve went back to his definition of stance as I grappled with my annoyance at David Brooks—someone who has been give a lot of authority and space in national dialogue. I’ve looked to “stance” for a way to analyze a speaker’s presentation style—vocal cadence and gestures—as well as their written style. In this so-called, self-called moderate’s style, you can witness the performance of rationality.

Though reasonableness or rationality has long been considered the sine qua non of ethical and political communication by scholars who write on republicanism and democracy, Iris Marion Young and Martha Minow claim that the criteria by which the reasonableness of speech is judged is not based on any culture-transcending ethical objectivity, but is actually tied to dominant culture of white, upper class, male, Western identity. This may explain why public speaking guides tell you to avoid distracting mannerisms, such as playing with your hair, but not adjusting your glasses.

David Brooks has been ably mocked by bloggers for the way he frames national debate. He has an entry in the dickipedia, McSweeny’s published a nice parody of Brooks’ favorite rhetorical tactic of broadly categorizing all of the U.S. population into two groups, and then nicknaming them with a homespun stereotype (for example, some people are Applebee’s people.)  But lately I’ve watched him with the sound off, and this allowed me to focus on his gestures and his facial expressions, and to see how his stance in terms of presentation style more clearly. In videos, you can see Brooks gesture right, gesture left, then wave both his hands at his sides. In this interpretive dance of David Brooks, you can see him valiantly keeping himself straight and centered while the remarkable strong winds of the straw men of his own making batter him from both sides. This stance claims a lot of authority, while also projecting humbleness: this is what I find so annoying. It is a rhetorical power move, claiming the central, rational position, and it is part of what allows Brooks to write on everything from Socrates to the health care plan to what motivates people.

"Figure 4: The Ass Kissing Strategy"

Mark Gaipa created cartoon depictions of various ways authors position themselves in relation to the authors they cite (in “Breaking Into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority in their Writing.”) In one cartoon, a tiny “David” stick figure goes up against an imposing author “Goliath.” Making your own drawings, as we did in Sean O’Toole’s WAC workshop last year, are helpful way of getting perspective on one’s stance. I’d like to see a series of cartoons of the different ways teachers position themselves in relation to their students, their subject, and the rest of the world, and how we construct and lever authority.

Anonymous art in the halls

Ciny Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1978

I had been waiting a very long time for the elevator on the seventh floor of the vertical campus, leaning against the wall, listlessly refusing to take the stairs when I noticed that right next to my shoulder was a Cindy Sherman print. Sherman, one of the few living artists whose work I could recognize is maybe most known for photographing herself in “Untitled Film Stills,” in which she appears as an actress in her own imagining of a 1970s movie. I associate Sherman with expensive art books and magazines, Vogue magazine, and museums and galleries.

After noticing this print under the florescent lights by the elevator and those grey and white signs on each floor of Baruch that list departments and room numbers, I began to wonder about what other works of art might be hiding in plain sight, and found the Mishkin Gallery website listing an Alexander Calder (Mishkin collection) and a Joan Miro (alumni collection). Dr. Sandra Kraskin, curator of the collection, told me that much of it was sent to auction in 2009. The Miro “was in the president’s private office.”

I looked closer at some colorful prints on the sixth floor hallway outside classrooms, but I couldn’t find out the name of the artist because there was no label. Kraskin told me that there was no money available for them. Which kind of offsets the argument that public art educates and enriches us all, or maybe just reflects a general ambivalent nature of art as part the state budget, and as a donation from wealthy alumni. The “Percent for Art” program, administered by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and begun by Edward Koch in 1982, “requires that one percent of certain city funded construction projects be used for art commissions and acquisitions. Over the past twenty-five years, more than 26 million has been spent for art.” This is not a very significant amount in relation to the 2011-2012 state budget. The rest has been donated, much of it by alumni: both a gift and a tax deduction.

Dr. Kraskin said, “Most great universities have art collections, we feel our university should have same benefits that Harvard has.” There are works by Elizabeth Murray and Lynda Benglis in the vc campus: Kraskin explained Murray’s exceptional recognition (she had a show at both Moma and the Whitney), and also described Benglis’s metal wall relief sculpture as significant.

I grew up near the Brown University campus, and the sight of undergrads lounging in the sun on a Henry Moore sculpture in the spring was emblematic of the college experience for me: your job as a college student is to place yourself in the midst of great works and get comfortable there. I like the idea of this message conveyed to students through what surrounds them in their daily trek to and from class. The shows at the Mishkin gallery are targeted to students, and teachers build them into their curriculum. But I wonder how much the “Percent for Art,” and individual donations entail this goal, relative to investment or tax break, how much of the art chosen for significance has significance within the art world versus to the people who pass by it. Artists Komar and Melamid’s research on art and popular taste showed that if left to polls, most countries would surround themselves with landscapes that include trees and water. I’m curious about how other people who pass these works of art as part of their work are or aren’t affected by it. When I don’t like a piece of art, I measure it against a working escalator, laptops for students, my own salary. When I do, I find I don’t draw these kinds of equivalencies. The current exhibition at Mishkin, of paintings of mountains by Hai Tao, creates its own few rooms of quiet delicacy, mystery and solace, which maybe somehow does respond to broken escalators, students who try to write papers without MSWord because they can’t yet afford the 300 dollar subsidized price from Baruch, and other daily stresses.

Love, marriage equality, and an 8 1/2 hour hearing in RI

Last week, a hearing was held on the Marriage Equality Act at the Rhode Island State House. Judiciary chair, Edith Ajello (my mom!) presided over testimony that lasted 8 ½ hours. She was told to keep it short, but decided to go long. People had waited for hours to speak, and she felt it would be unfair to send them home.

In watching the brief video above from the RI newspaper The Providence Journal’s website, I’m struck by one exchange. One man, holding a sign that reads “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman” talks to the camera and explains that allowing marriage without reproduction is bad for humanity. A man to his left, with a pro-equality sign, says that he and his wife don’t have any children—should they not be married? A woman on his right says, “I already had my children, should I get divorced?” The three people are in the middle of a cheering, sign-holding crowd on the capitol steps, and none of them seem angry. While it is a confrontational exchange, the tone seems like one of almost neighborly disagreement: a disagreement they are eager to have.

J.S. Mill argued for free democratic expression by claiming that citizens benefit even from hearing the ideas of a madman, because this would both sharpen and widen collective judgment. And I think the decision to hold an 8 ½ hour hearing speaks to this democratic ideal. But I also think it framed the marriage equality debate in emotionally as well as intellectually democratic terms of neighborly love: the value of respecting and listening to people. In his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Es (“God is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI writes:

Let us first of all bring to mind the vast semantic range of the word “love”: we speak of love of country, love of one’s profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbour and love of God. Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison.

While he writes that “one in particular stands out” (man+woman), the whole Encyclical seems to dispute the primacy of romantic, sexual, “imposed” love by exploring the multivalent existences of love. He describes love between Saint Paul and God, Jesus and men, and as an ethical disposition one should have towards others. He seems, in my interpretation, to argue that it is a big mistake to focus on 1 man+ 1 woman as pivotal to our understanding of love. Pope Benedict instead continues Saint Augustine’s description of caritas, which binds community and also supports plurality.

“To the question “Who is my neighbor” [...] Augustine always replies “Every man” (Omnis homo). The answer is equivocal. It can literally mean everyone is next to me; I have no right to choose; I have no right to judge; all men are brothers.” (See Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott’s introduction to Arendt’s Love and Saint Augustine, 43).

In her exploration of a philosophical and ethical orientation towards others, particularly others who disagree with you, Hannah Arendt turned to Saint Augustine’s concept of caritas: basically, love of your neighbor as a person to whom you are bound to care for even when you disagree—even when you don’t like them.

This week, I worked with two teams of students in a Management and Society class who were assigned to debate the merits of corporate social responsibility. As students debated the issue, sometimes stretching to articulate a position they don’t actually hold, I thought the class had a kind of engagement that’s very different from what we usually see in political debate: actual interest in comprehending different sides of an issue. A student told me by having to debate, she felt like she really knew the issue from all the angles. In some moments of this work I’ve done with students, there’s been a sense of reward in this multidimensional understanding– a reward besides just the grade.

Brotherhood could be seen as the bind of a common project of global understanding–and the need and even care for those people whose views oppose yours. Seton Hall Communication Professor Jon Radwan understands Pope Benedict XVI’s “God is love” letter as concerned with an attitude towards communication–a self/other disposition. Though the debate about marriage equality has brought out a fair amount of rancor, I wonder if the emphasis on public debate and the inclusiveness those long hearings foster (six hours in Maryland), might allow for moments of caritas.  The buoyancy—mixed with the rancor—of the gathering in RI perhaps supported a debate that took place with warring attitudes, but perhaps also with brotherly ones.

Scholarly writing gets hijacked, interpretation is a wild ride

pen mightier than sword
Creative Commons License photo credit: smemon87

After reading violent threats against Frances Fox Piven online, my first thought was “If books are so powerful, then why threaten with a gun—go and write your own book.”

Hannah Arendt, in On Violence, describes violence as indicating the lack of power. Power, she says, is the capacity to capture people’s hearts and minds, to change the way they think and act. In the late 1960s, she wrote against what she saw as leftist writing that glorified violence (she cited Fanon and Sartre). Power is what separates Karl Marx’s ideas, which galvanized, inspired, and engaged debate, from Joseph Stalin’s regime of suppression through threat and through actual violence. (See also page 2 in her article in The New York Review of Books). Fascist regimes, according to Arendt, are regimes without new ideas (see her review of The Black Book in Commentary, page 294).  What they have instead is a monopoly on the means of violence.

But, what is the written threat of violence? It is not the same. This week seemed like a good time to turn to Judith Butler’s scholarship on hate speech (Excitable Speech). I was surprised to find that Butler takes apart the distinction between physical violence and language, and two of the main terms she uses in this project are control and vulnerability. In society, people are vulnerable to and dependent upon language, and language is beyond our control. Therefore, hate speech is said be “like a slap in the face” because being called a demeaning name actually affects a person’s sense of their self and the way they appear to others.

Control—language is beyond the speaker’s control. Frances Fox Piven’s writing has been interpreted in ways she never intended, ways that seem irrational to her (and to me). Yet, Butler argues, engaging in language always means the speaker does not control the way her words will be interpreted. Others may not read the same material in the same context in which you wrote it. The speaker can suddenly find herself in a struggle she never intended to enter, one with terms and stakes she never predicted.

Even in the absence of real violence, does the written threat of violence prove Hannah Arendt’s point—does violence in language indicate a lack of power, and the lack of new ideas? If it does indicate a lack of power, how is one in the position of professor at City University, and other professors and authors, to respond? As Butler argued, it seems to me that suddenly authors are being unpredictably granted a power they have not themselves presumed to wield. Are they responsible to a power that anyone ascribes to them?

Graduate scholars are aware of how insular and hermetic our work and our communications can be. Now I’m wondering if scholars should be prepared to take their ideas out for a spin, outside the contexts of journals and conferences, to imagine interpretations from more diverse audiences and to defend and delineate their ideas. This hasn’t been part of my training—I’ve been trained to confront some scholarly authors with the oppositional arguments of other scholarly authors.  As a writing and public speaking teacher, I coach students to consider their intended audience, to write towards their common knowledge and interests. Now I’m wondering how much writers and speakers need to consider their ability to respond to unintended interpretations, unintended audiences. It’s a frightening challenge, but Fox Piven seems to be responding steadily in what I can only imagine has felt like a very shaky playing field.

Jumbo vs Small Class and students who sit and listen or click

Listening Post: installation culled from real-time internet chat rooms, by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin

It has been hard not to take the announcement that many level two classes at Baruch will become jumbo-sized next year—increasing from 24 to 50 or 100 students—as a rejection of my work and values, as well as my colleagues’. The more experience I have, both as a student, teacher, and consultant, the more I see a need for what I’ve come to think of as “communicative reciprocity”—listening or reading and acknowledging the uniqueness of a student’s work, the back-and-forth that fosters authority based on critique and reflection.

I’m not saying lecture and jumbo classes might not be effective, even best, in some situations. Many professors have brought great talent, knowledge, creativity, and hard work to covering a large amount of information succinctly, coherently, and vividly. And of course, this is all contingent, you can have a demagogue in a small class. (A student told me she didn’t want to turn in a paper to her teacher that stated an opinion that disagreed with his.) But it seems nearly impossible in a class of 100 or even 50 to have the kind communicative reciprocity that recognizes a student’s developing opinion as valuable, responds with respect and consideration, and encourages more bravery, exploration, and complexity.

Often when I help students with drafts of essays, their first impulse is to mimic the teacher’s opinion and way of speaking, or to paraphrase research they’ve found online. I ask students to tell me their opinion, and then ask them to support it. When I tell them to write down what they’ve said, or when I write it down as they speak and hand it to them as a sketch for their rough drafts, students often seem surprised. To them, their own thoughts don’t seem appropriate in a class assignment.

One professor who teaches a communication intensive Theater 1041 class asks her students  to write a theater manifesto. I met with one of this professor’s students to work on her paper, and as she developed her opinions into ideas about what she thinks theater should and could be in terms of political and cultural relevance, she told me: “This is a whole different way of thinking. I never do this.” Here is a student telling me she’d never before been asked to reflect upon and develop her own observations and ideas in college before this assignment. So it isn’t a stretch to suggest it possible that a student could get a BA at Baruch without ever being asked to develop, support, and explain her opinions—about culture, politics, economics, and ethics.

In a class of 100, or 50, how will teachers foster this kind of reflection? How will teachers read and make significant comments on student writing, and get to know each student well enough to meet them where they are, in order to support and challenge them? Without a significant amount of practice in communicative reciprocity, I think that we set students up to be receivers of opinion as well as information. In the communication intensive classes we support at the Schwartz Institute, we work to help students develop and present their own perspectives in response to an assignment. And we try to support professors’ efforts to include more student writing and presentations in their classes. It’s fine that in many other classes students show their knowledge through more multiple choice and short-answer responses. But Baruch lauds itself for the diversity of its student population, and what does diversity matter if in most of their work the same answer is right for every student? What is the value of diversity if we don’t recognize the importance of developing an inclusive, reflective, authoritative political voice of one’s own?