Category: literary/social/critical theory

Crisis → recovery → crisis → recovery, etc…and the alternative: Bakhtin’s/Tina Turner’s co-authored future

19 minutes ago, my phone lit up with a headline from the New York Times:

Top Stories: President Trump’s reckless threats could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” said Senator Bob Corker, an influential Republican

Headlines like this feel relatively common, a reminder that crisis upon crisis has become the status quo in 2017. We recover, barely, from bad news (not from the outcomes of Hurricane Maria, not even close), when new and horrible events replace the last news story. We’re having a terrible year, and this seems to be plaguing people’s health and mental capacity to maintain a sense of balance, a feeling of being able to find perspective in a world that seems bent on chasing all sanity down and devouring it.

I wonder if this is simply a bad year, or possibly also a series of events that may generate changes in our ability to imagine different possibilities. How does this cycle of crisis and recovery occupy our consciousness, our creativity? I’ve written about a Baudrillardian take on our world, in which we have come to exist in a hyperreal social existence in which we don’t participate but simply experience as consumers. We are becoming shellshocked by the devastation wreaked by tropical storms, mass shootings, cholera epidemics, an opioid crisis, violent suppression of secession movements – by the way, all of this has occurred since August 2017 – which we experience as both perceived as “what those poor people have to deal with,” and in some cases, what is happening in our own communities. We seem to be perpetually stuck to our phones, our screens, fearful of the latest takeover of our already limited attention spans with the latest chaotic and terrifying news. Is this our mindset now?

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist who is coming into fashion again in academic thought, might suggest that we are experiencing our worlds in a sort of crisis ⇒ recovery ⇒ crisis ⇒ recovery mindset, where we are in a perpetual state of reacting to the hardships of the world. I’m not suggesting that our reactions are in our heads, much less the crises we’ve been dealing with on environmental, political, military, and social levels. Rather, I am interrogating the mindset that such a cyclical obsession generates: a sense of being trapped, of losing sight of any version of the now, or the possible future, as something we can contribute to. Bakhtin suggested an alternative mindset to this, a way of perceiving ourselves as what he called unique and once-occurrent Beings, each of whom is authentic and valuable as an author of the world. To own this, to view ourselves as responsible for our worlds and for our moments in it, is politically conscious, active, and powerful.

Sounds pretty hokey, right? I definitely don’t know how to get to this alternative road, as I’m slipping around in the dusty rubble on the ground like everyone else, trying to find a sane existence in the ruins of what seemed like a long-gone reality. Yet to be nostalgic about “better times” is to deny the suffering of others in the past and present, as well as to remove ourselves from the position of participant, of stand-taker, in a time of rising injustice.

Tina Turner’s anthem from 1985 (yes, it’s also the theme song from Mad Max, Thunderdome) pops into my mind as I write this:

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they’ve left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 11.10.07 PM.png

Now, this was intended for a post apocalyptic action movie, but I believe there are elements of Turner’s triumphant call to action that are more timeless, resonating for all who feel hopeless in the face of crisis, of a future that seems lost. The only place Turner got it wrong (beyond the video with the bizarre outfit and the shirtless sax man) was the line where she called this “the last generation.” It’s not Fukuyama’s end of history, or the end of theory. Nevertheless, her lyrics put the key line forward: We don’t need any heroes. No one is coming for us. And trying to return home will doom us to repeat and recycle the same stories. Where we stand, right now, can also be the beginning, as long as we can imagine and remember that we are here, co-authoring our future together, with all of our voices.

Is this the Matrix?: Reality in the era of bots

NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosts a show called On Point, which covers a multitude of topics ranging from schooling to online dating to genetics to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Available as a podcast, On Point featured a story on August 9th about bots, which I listened to in curiosity and dismay, and not as much surprise as I wish I’d had. Bots are essentially automated software programs that run tasks on the Internet, and according to one of the experts on the show, they’ve been around as long as the World Wide Web has been. The show’s focus, however, was much more specific, targeting the use of bots by certain individuals, organizations, and political entities to disseminate propaganda and fake news, or “disinformation,” in order to meddle in electoral politics. The show’s guests discussed the ways in which bots originating in Russia were used during the 2016 election to influence the U.S. population’s view of the candidates, the issues being discussed, and the general political state of affairs of our country, to which an elected president theoretically would provide a resonating response. Apparently, these bots can generate commentary and content which is, at best, biased, and at worst, patently false.


By Ian McKellar from San Francisco, CA, USA – Elektro and Sparkotaken from: www.maser.org/k8rt/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18986910

This is clearly a new era we’re in, because though the use of propaganda is as old as human society itself – incidentally, propaganda means simply a form of communication intended to sway or persuade its audience in favor of or against a given individual or group – the bots are used in a curious way. Employed on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, bots create “news” content whose volume and relevance to one’s own opinions can persuade a reader to follow that opinion. They function cleverly, or rather are designed in a clever way, in that they are meant to emulate a real person by patterning off of language used by current participants, and further appear to confirm the views of the reader through the temptation of accepting information that appeals to our established beliefs, thus persuading us via confirmation bias. Given the magnitude of influence of these bots, whose presence appears to range in the thousands across popular social media sites, it may not be too much to suggest that our view of the world, at least the view which we draw from our screens and hear echoed in the mouths of our colleagues and loved ones, is not simply a wake-up-and-see-what’s-true-today process.

Or is it? I’m no technophobe, but I do come from a generation that was raised without the Internet, without screens (excepting only 1/2 hour of TV a day, for which I’m still grateful), and without that addition to my consciousness that I might at any time be missing out on something on a screen awaiting my attention. I remember rotary phones and the use of folded-up maps stuffed in the glove box. This is not intended to be simple nostalgia, however. I’m actually asking what we might do about something all of us as deeply smitten phone lovers are well aware of.


By Aditya19472001 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I suppose what I’m asking is, how did we develop critical literacy and media literacy in the past? How did we think about the information presented to us, sort through it, and determine what was of value not because it made us feel warm and safe but in fact because it presented us with what was happening in the world? The American poet T.S. Eliot apparently even distrusted newspapers, believing that those who read them were easily manipulated away from a true engagement with the world. I’m not suggesting not taking in any information from news sources, which we tend to read now online, but a return to the issue will ask where we get our “news” from. And this is really the key when we think about social media. Baudrillard’s hyperreality was one in which, as in The Matrix, individuals are completely enveloped by the worldview they consume as true (that is, my belief about my reality, is what is created and given to me outside of my own influence). Under this social logic, we are simple consumers of our reality, not participants. This is not unlike the consumer posture we are encouraged to take as we experience the ads and clickbait that accompany us as we look at photos of our cousin’s new baby. We may not realize that our reality, our political agency, is being slowly pushed back behind a curtain, and is being replaced by blurps and blips that confirm our perspectives and comfort us that we are right, that we are looking at what’s “real.” The battle, it seems, is a philosophical and a psychological one as well as a political and technological one.

To close with the questions Eliot asks in his famous modernist masterpiece, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”…
Do I dare…Disturb the universe?

Do we dare to do this? Do we dare to put the phone away, close the Twitter feed, log off of Facebook, even for a moment, a moment when we might miss something…a something which might be worse than taking in nothing at all?

The radical unknowing of hope

I am reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a postmodern text from the 1980s about the simulation of the real which has replaced our conceptions of reality. It largely works as a critique of the media as a means by which we “recognize” the reality of our world as consumers, a reality which is in fact a simulation of a reality now lost to us. We no longer live in a political economy but rather a production-centered social arrangement which, like Disneyland, refers to a reality that is beyond our grasp,  one which is hidden from us (which is a falsehood because nothing exists outside of the simulation of reality, or hyperreality, in which we exist and understand ourselves). If it feels a little nihilistic, perhaps even a bit like the movie The Matrix, it should. (The book inspired and appears in the film.)

I am writing a paper to talk about the possibility of hope, the hope for possibility, in an era when reality appears ever-larger as a face on a screen, divvying up alternative facts between greedy news conglomerates and sinking all of us in the United States into various states and prostrations of apathy. My graduate students express this, and I also feel that same drag on my positivity, on my creativity, in the fact of what appears to be a superstructure that seeks to cancel out my participation except through Facebook posts and, haha, blogging.

Still, I have faith that this writing can be practice for something bigger. I came to a beautiful, poetic thought today while riding the long train ride to Manhattan from Queens, a thought about hope and a way its unknowing of our present time could mean something powerful, something real, and not a simulation of real as expressed by Baudrillard. This is my thought:

Hope is the articulation of what is possible at the somatic and political level. It is neither loud or quiet, and it necessarily is accompanied by cultural and historical voices. Like agency, it is conditioned by the times in which it comes into being. Unlike agency, however, it by nature is diachronic, occupying a distinct ontological position in relation to reality. There is an unknowing to hope: it must to a point be ignorant of the current limits to reality in order to project forward into possible future contingencies. Yet simultaneously, hope knows what we are capable of before we come to attempt it. This can be a single individual, of course, but hope also can be multiplied across relational lines as such capabilities, untapped, join with those of kindred spirits and equally in-pain or joyful folk.

I hope to write more against this reality, and I hope more writing will find me and others who wish to hope, and hope together.


Hopeful” by ALEX Hill PHOTO

Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press. https://monoskop.org/images/2/26/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Toward_a_Philosophy_of_the_Act.pdf

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5679/1/Pedagogy_against_disutopia_Amsler_Nov_2007.pdf

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct/pages/JWM/Syllabi/Bourdieu/SocSpaceSPowr.pdf

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/gned/marxtonf45.pdf

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


“we dance!” (2016) by Pasha Cas (Temiratu, Kazakhstan)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Resist the punditry

A friend of mine shared a video of an interview between Gad Saad and Michael Rechtenwald, a professor at NYU who evidently has been “castigated for daring to criticize safe spaces and related thought policing, postmodernism, literary Darwinism, secularism in science, and the relationship between science and religion.” I’m including the video link here (I’d suggest watching 24:00-28:00ish) as well as my comments on YouTube. The point: The two speakers are hashing out the “bullshit” involved in postmodernism and the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and other poststructural scholars, stating that these thinkers are obscurantist and concern themselves with sounding intellectual rather than making salient and socially applicable points. What do you think?

The two speakers are aiming to be critics, which I can appreciate. However, to say simply that Butler is “full of shit” is to ignore her contributions to scholarly thought, which are valuable. She’s an important philosopher of language. One of the issues I think they’re conflating is the idea with the mode of expression. I agree that Butler’s sentence is abstruse and very very difficult to understand (weirdly, I understood it for the most part!) but I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’d look for a middle ground where we can still find ideas and assume that scholarly work can be exploratory and push the reader to think, even if at times it is hard to read.

I agree with the speaker on the left that literary/critical theory is often worshipped for the lofty and inaccessible (obscurantist) ways of speaking. For example, Derrida wrote a dissertation that was widely rejected for its meaninglessness. I read Derrida’s work for about 50 pages and it occurred to me that he could have said what he wanted to say in 5-6 pages. However, I think it’s facile to call it “bullshit” or a “false prophecy.” I agree with the gentleman on the right that literary/critical theory at times divorced itself from social reality…however, again, I think this is a reaction to the rock star-ness of French intellectualism in the 1960s and its social excesses and doesn’t justify a perspective that none of it contributes anything to scholarship and creative ways of resolving philosophical and political questions in society.

The moral of this story: READ FOR YOURSELF. We are in anti-intellectual times when we count on pundits to tell us how we feel. This temptation for the shorthand version of things is to be avoided at all costs.