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Anyone whose attention and love are really directed
towards the reality outside the world recognizes at the same time
that he is bound, both in public and private life, by the single
and permanent obligation to remedy, according to his
responsibilities and to the extent of his power, all the
privations of soul and body which are liable to destroy or damage
the earthly life of any human being whatsoever. . . . To refuse
[this obligation] is to become a criminal.
Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations
The voice which calls us to teach never was and never will be situated or sustained within the academy. This voice always resides on the outside, in a place that can never be located in any recognizable geography. This is the place, or non-place, of the highest moral good, which can never be sought or discovered, but only revealed momentarily in the actions of persons who desire justice, and who are always disinclined to let any institution inform, interrupt, absorb, adjudicate or approbate their actions. Nor will they let any action inclined towards justice serve as a terminus for their labors. Their lives begin and end with an attention towards a moral obligation that can never be entirely fulfilled nor satisfied. The voice which calls us to teach with an attention to caring for others is also the voice which impels us to labor for justice. This voice cannot be named or figured, although throughout history it has been called by various names, including God, Morality, Reason, Philosophy, and Ethics. But none of these names can begin to exhaust the implications of the voice which calls us and implores us. The teacher's task is to incline her students' ears to hear this voice, and to be compelled by it. The teacher's task is also to never let her students be satisfied with deferring to her authority, which would only distract them from the higher, and more urgent authority.
While I realize that it is currently unfashionable and perhaps even naive to use the word "justice" as if it contained within itself a palpable and empirical reality, I feel I must insist upon it as a pedagogical, and even social imperative. The word "social," also highly contested and vexed, still refers, however obliquely, to a reality we inhabit daily. I maintain that it is possible to accept the postmodern insight that a metaphysical ethical philosophy, with its notions of the universal individual and the common social good, is impossible and oppressive, while at the same time insisting upon ethical obligations, upon caring for others. As teachers situated within a so-called "public" university, our attention must be focused upon those both within and without our periphery of vision. Ultimately, our students must envision and help bring into a being a society which would not have a university such as this, both "public" and state-funded, yet not "open." To labor for justice then, is to work for the reinvention of the space within which we teach, to enlarge it so we can no longer make the distinction between "inside" and "outside." Ultimately, we must be willing to put ourselves under erasure in order to be able to reawaken in a new world. To do this we must first feel uncomfortable, and we must make our students uncomfortable. We must realize that the lives we are leading are not the best possible kinds of lives, that we possess more than we need and that others possess less than what is adequate. If the term "wisdom" has any significance for us as teachers, if we think we are in the business of imparting it, or at least trying to articulate it, we might remember John Dewey who wrote,
Wisdom is a moral term, and like every moral term refers not to the constitution of things already in existence . . . .As a moral term it refers to a choice about something to be done, a preference for living this sort of life rather than that. It refers not to accomplished reality but to a desired future which our desires, when translated into articulate conviction, may help bring into existence.
. . . . there are certain words which possess, in themselves, when properly used, a virtue which illuminates and lifts up towards the good. These are the words which refer to an absolute perfection which we cannot conceive. . . .
God and truth are such words; also justice, love, and good.
It is dangerous to use words of this kind. They are like an ordeal. To use them legitimately one must avoid referring them to anything humanly conceivable and at the same time one must associate with them ideas and actions which are derived solely and directly from the light which they shed. Otherwise, everyone quickly recognizes them for lies.
I want to dwell for just a moment on a phrase I invoked at the beginning of this paper, "the highest moral good." This phrase, like Simone Weil's "God" and "justice," is unfathomable in any concrete, material sense. Yet at the same time, the teacher who conceives of her educational practices as inherently political, in the sense that she longs to live in a better world, must have an absolute belief in a morality emanating from an impulse, or intuition for "rightness." An inclination towards the highest good must be understood as a natural, preontological obligation, which is essentially a leaning, like heliotropism, towards equality, equilibrium, and proportion in a world which fosters inequality, disequilibrium, and various oppressions of power. The most modern of sciences, Physics, has shown us the violent relation between force and energy, and has given us the means to allow discontinuous elements to rupture and explode what is whole and continuous. We live in an age of wreckages, both physical and psychological. Wherever persons are oppressed or are suffering, it is our obligation, if we believe in justice, to do what is within our power to remedy the situation. This obligation is not bound by time. Just as the Sibyl revealed to Oedipus his parentage with a riddle, revealing to him, as it were, a terrible injustice, we, too, must listen to the voice which tells us, often with signs that cannot be called sensible language, that when we live complacently within the mythologies of self, state, and institution, we live a lie. Moral action then, requires both doubt and uncertainty. Here I would quote the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who has written in defense of an antifoundational, yet fiercely Other-centered morality:
. . . . it is moral anxiety that provides the only substance the moral self could ever have. What makes the moral self is the urge to do, not the knowledge of what is to be done; the unfulfilled task, not the duty correctly performed. . . . This uncertainty with no exit is precisely the foundation of morality. One recognizes morality by its gnawing sense of unfulfilledness, by its endemic dissatisfaction with itself. The moral self is a self always haunted by the suspicion that it is not moral enough.
As teachers, we must ask our students to share in our uncertainty and anxiety. We must teach them not what we know, but that they can never know anything. If my students look to me to demonstrate what can be achieved through writing, I remind them of what Rilke said, "You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines." We cannot allow our students to believe that the world of the classroom is separate in any way from the world of experience, just as I cannot allow my writing students to believe that the rhetorical techniques they practice are learned only in order to navigate their way through this closed system we call a university. While there are many who will argue, often cogently, that politics and morality have no place in the classroom, and that teaching practices must be oriented, as much as possible, towards disinterestedness, allowing students to make their own uncoerced choices regarding how they should read texts or conduct their lives, I would argue that a pedagogy divested of moral purposiveness, on the teacher's part, is empty and meaningless. Feeling strongly that students must be impelled to conceive of their learning practices as connected to some kind of active and critical participation in the larger, civic society is not the same thing as telling students what to think. Asking students to consider and to interrogate their position in society and within the university as citizens and learners, is to ask them to revision themselves, not as passive receivers of their teacher's opinions or of their culture, but as makers of their education and culture. But first, the students must understand that to be a moral being is to be utterly alone and unsure. At the same time, I would say here, quite openly and without embarrassment, that I can see no other aim for the public university other than that of producing graduates whose training, whether within the liberal arts, fine arts or the sciences, has been wholly oriented for public service. We must ask our students, therefore, to embrace an irony. They must understand and even live through existential abjection, while also valuing and embracing belonging. They must be willing to live beyond the Law, especially the teacher's law, while always honoring and working towards reciprocity. Here, I would again quote Zygmunt Bauman, who has written,
As a moral person, I am alone, though as a social person I am always with others; just as I am free though entrapped in the dense web of prescriptions and prohibitions. (As Maurice Blanchot put it, 'everyone here has his own prison, but in the prison each person is free'.).
Or, as Simone Weil has written, "If we love God while thinking he does not exist, he will manifest his existence."
The teacher who enters into the vocation of teaching has one pedagogy: to train the attention. This follows from Simone Weil, who wrote in her notebooks:
The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with an act of love. To know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do that is enough, the rest follows of itself.
The authentic and pure values truth, beauty and goodness in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.
Teaching should have no aim but to prepare, by training the attention, for the possibility of such an act.
All the other advantages of instruction are without interest.
There are many arguments, all highly learned and intelligent, which can be made against this kind of training. Some will say that the object of instruction should be nothing more and nothing less than a strict adherence to knowledge for its own sake, and that the application of this knowledge is an individual and private concern, even more a disciplinary concern, perhaps even a market concern if there are bidders. Then there are the anti-positivists, such as the late rhetorician James Berlin, who has written that "truth is always and only truth for someone standing in relation to others in a linguistically circumscribed situation." While this statement is part of a larger discussion admirably devoted to the project of acknowledging and including otherness and difference in our discourses and knowledge practices, the teacher who accepts this statement without modification is obligated to teach her students how to skillfully traverse and navigate these dialectical lines of relation, and to understand that the domain of truth is always subject to a variety of liens and sub-lets. Further, Derrida and his followers would have us know that language comprises endless chains of significations and representations and is ultimately indeterminate, opening up beneath us, if we dare to look, a bottomless abyss which is predicated upon an original, yawning absence. Here, one must live within a vertigo. And then there are those scholars, like Althusser and Foucault, who tell us that knowledge is always ideological, always shaped within power relations, and that truth itself is an effect of power, not its antidote. And this is why Foucault, sadly, could say that the soul was the prison of the body. But the highest good is neither private, marketable, relative, nor trapped within the warren of ideology, although it can be experienced, accommodated, instrumentalized, and ultimately devalued by all of these means. If we convince ourselves, as teachers, that our students can never know anything which is outside of ideology or which is not in relation to someone else's approbation or censure, or not subject to a variety of contexts or to a mise-en-abyme of indeterminancies, then we let the darkness close in on us. In this kind of space, only resistance is possible, and the good people live underground.
I would like at this point to return momentarily to Simone Weil's phrase, in her "Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations"■the reality outside the world. For Simone Weil, the moral individual's attention is always focused upon this reality, which is the same as saying, the moral person's attention is fixed upon an unfathomable and alien otherness which seeks to constrain and legislate the here-and-now of our present reality. How can this be? Call this otherness God, as Simone Weil would have, and our postmodern pragmatism leads us to balk, and perhaps logically so. We do not think we can allow ourselves, in other words, to construct an ethical philosophy upon a mysticism, and yet we must. This is not the same as saying, because I believe in God■because I believe God is watching me■I must be moral. For Simone Weil, moral action did, indeed, follow from the notion of God's gaze; therefore, she was able to say, "Men can never escape from obedience to God. . . .The only free choice given to men, as intelligent and free creatures, is to desire obedience or not to desire it." For myself, I have found, after much reflection, that moral action must proceed from an impulse which is always prior to any ontology, theology or philosophy which might claim that impulse as a logical outcome of its principles. True moral action, therefore, is before Reason, and perhaps even before God. As a teacher who believes deeply that the students of this university should consider themselves first as solitary moral persons, and secondly as social beings with social obligations, I would ask that they contemplate a civic ethics founded upon a negative non-rationality, what Simone Weil called the void, of which she wrote, "The world must be regarded as containing something of a void in order that it may have need of God." Goodness then, proceeds, not from a plenitude or fullness, but from a lack. To ask our students to contemplate emptiness, however, as a ground for the moral self, is not the same as asking them to accept the indeterminacy of language or the impossibility of human agency.
We should only do those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do, but, through well directed attention, we should always keep on increasing the number of those which we are unable not to do.
Necessity and Obedience
The teacher who has answered a calling has a singular desire, and that desire is to train the attention of her students, not on what is ultimately private, relative or ideological, but on what is real. And we must admit here, even while our postmodern skepticism helps us to locate and resist those cultural and historical forces which would seek to overdetermine our subjectivity and lease our agency, that there is such a thing as truth, or the real. Nothing exists in our world that is not made up of matter and what is inscribed upon that matter, and every day we are surrounded by material presences, as well as by absences. As Simone Weil has written, "We do not have to understand new things, but by dint of patience, effort and method to come to understand with our whole selfs the truths which are evident." An attention to what is materially present: an attention to a woman's hunger, for instance, which is physiological and manifestly there within her body is an attention to the truth. It is only with our hands, however, that we can make bread for this woman, or teach this woman how to make bread for herself. It is only with our arms, lacking condescension, that we can embrace her. Here, only love will suffice. It is imperative, situated as we are within a therapeutic and increasingly self-centered, neurotic culture in which everyone moans about their individual "rights," that we admit that there is such a thing as a reality beyond our own self-interest, and that we have an obligation to the well-being of others. Here, we must remember Simone Weil, who told us,
Justice consists in seeing that no harm is done to men. Whenever a man cries inwardly: 'Why am I being hurt?' harm is being done to him. He is often mistaken when he tries to define the harm, and why and by whom it is being inflicted on him. But the cry itself is infallible.
The other cry, which we hear so often: 'Why has somebody else got more than I have?', refers to rights. We must learn to distinguish between the two cries and to do all that is possible, as gently as possible, to hush the second one, with the help of a code of justice, regular tribunals, and the police. Minds capable of solving problems of this kind can be formed in law school.
But the cry 'Why am I being hurt?' raises quite different problems, for which the spirit of truth, justice, and love is indispensable.
Attention to others is a form of love, which is better qualified as charity, the type of charity which is selfless and unsentimental. Our world is in dire need of this kind of attention. If we have intelligence and two hands and strength in our bodies, we possess everything we need to begin attending to others, yet we are full of indifference. We live in an age of self-indulgent complacency, and our students are asleep, dreaming of all the things money will one day buy for them. Everything is fine, they tell me■there is no intentional racism, no poverty that is not deserved, no injustice that is not unconscious, and as for the rest of the world, that is none of our business. Just as our world is imperfect, yet we must love it in order to endure it, we must love our students and wish the best for them while also realizing their infinite capacity for selfishness. We must insist that they work at standing outside of themselves in order to focus more attentively on others and on the needs of others. We, ourselves, must also work to stand outside of our own personal and professional self- interest. This is not to be understood as a personal sacrifice or loss of self, but rather, is a first principle for living the better kind of life, a life we can only envision and work towards after first realizing the inadequacy of our present situation, of a world in which persons strive mainly to make themselves more comfortable. It is a grave error to believe ourselves so primary and important. As Simone Weil conceived the situation, "The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being. Even if we could be like God it would be better to be mud which obeys God."
Men owe us what we imagine they will give us. We must forgive them this debt. To accept the fact they are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I am also other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.
Simone Weil Void and Compensation
The desire which the teacher possesses to train her students' attention upon the voices which cry out for justice emanates from love. And this love is a kind of belief, or faith in the potentiality for good which each students carries within herself. There is a kind of optimism inherent in this faith which epistemological evidence will deny at every turn, but which the teacher must abide by, even while she attends to helping her students sharpen their intellect and vision. The teacher must love her students while also demanding high levels of excellence in thought from them, because it is only through love that the teacher can raise her students out of their social apathy and awaken in them the desire to see and to hear those things that they have never seen, and have never heard. Like Krishna when he was a boy, they must want to see what lies outside the walls of the beautiful city, or university. And only a fierce and absolute faith, which we are calling love, contains the kind of plenitude of forgiveness necessary to allow students to fail again and again, and still succeed. This love does not imply that teachers and students must develop close, personal relationships■this, in fact, would only confuse all the larger issues; rather, this love is an impersonal (detached from specific persons), unconditional, and very high regard in which the teacher holds each student. This love forms the very large field of expectation within which the teacher and students work closely together, always understanding that the work at hand is more important than any of the persons involved in it. To believe in and practice this impersonal love is not to divorce the mind from the body, but rather to unite them in a way that each transcends the other, enabling the self to escape the cave of the ego and focus more attentively on others.
But of course, institutional workers often thrive on a variety of separations and false binaries. Teachers situated within the academy often prize their solitary intellectual work over their teaching, and even put them in opposition to each other. Intellectual work is seen as an end in itself, and is especially highly valued when it perpetuates modes of thinking similar to itself, helping to create a dialectical prison from which material truths rarely break free. Sadly, brilliant scholars who loathe teaching often thrive within the university setting. Of course, solitary intellectual work is vitally important, and necessary, but teaching must be seen as the ultimate fruit of our solitary labors, and it must also be seen, a priori, as intellectual, practiced with all the rigor and precision of high, academic thought. Intellectual work which is not seen as binding upon teaching, and upon other pressing social matters outside the university proper, is a criminal perversion of human capability, and here, we might again recall Simone Weil, who wrote that "the intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell." Scholars must begin to ask themselves, "how does my work enrich the social life of the community which sustains me?"
Further, the work of thinking and teaching cannot be conceived of as separate from the teacher's "life." Often, in our culture, we talk of our work as being separate from our "life," and daily we navigate the schism between the two, risking a vertigo of identity. And this is why we often think of our time off from work, with pay, as a type of compensation. Our labor as teachers then, is seen as coerced, by circumstance and necessity. That pearl of Vergillian wisdom, virtue is its own reward, is no longer weighed upon our scales. Our labor and "life" must be conceived together, as mutually nourishing and sustaining. It is only through work that one can achieve a balance, or equilibrium, between entropy and eternity, a balance which is absent in nature. The scholar who enters into the vocation of teaching must think of herself, in every waking and sleeping moment, as a teacher. Her solitary intellectual work, her thinking and writing, is the wine that sustains her through the long evenings, and in the mornings, she breaks bread with her students, and eats with them.
The contradictions the mind comes up against■these are the only realities: they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity.
Simone Weil Contradiction
Writing is the most crucial component of any pedagogy concerned with training the attention. But first, what is it that the attention is to be focused upon■what, exactly, is its object? The attention, in order to come at last to the ground of moral action, must be focused on contradiction, which is the highest form of the real, or the truthful, in its starkest, most incommensurable form. Again, thinking of the woman who is starving, the ultimate truth of her hunger■the point at which hunger manifests itself as part of an ontology prior to her personal suffering■is located in the contradiction between her lack and the plenitude of food which surrounds her, but which she is denied by virtue of economic circumstance. That she feels this hunger within her as a physical pain is the first instance of the real that we come to, but the larger ontology (capitalism, perhaps, or a political regime indifferent to persons) contains within it the larger truth of the situation. The proper object of the attention then, is first the brute material presences of the world we inhabit, and secondly, the ontologies and ideologies which inform and constrain those presences. Finally, our desire for justice compels us to devise a way, with all of our intelligence and strength, to break apart the contradictions■in this case, to restore the woman to her body, which she has become alienated from.
There is no art or craft better suited for training the attention upon contradiction and the real than writing, which is an expression of thinking at its highest as well as its most rudimentary level. Writing is a cognitive act, and should be taught as such. Writing is also a form of mysticism, which some students will understand better than others. Our language is mainly occlusive, always covering over with a representation another representation, one fall always marking another fall■deconstructionists have demonstrated this so well, we are prone to despair. Students must understand that their writing is a form of sorting, of cataloguing congruous and incongruous relations, and these relations are rendered best in the form of metaphors, which body forth the writer's main dilemma■that is, the metaphor stands in for something it is not, in the same way that language represents, always imperfectly, something which is other than itself. This is why writing can be, if practiced properly, a form of mysticism, because if it is truthful in any way, that truth is revealed, not in the language or its objects, but in the approximation between the two. Mystical knowledge, in the same way, is a function of the distance between the mystic and her God. Just as the student would focus her attention on the distance between the woman who is starving and the food which is not available to her, she must also focus, as a writer, on the distance between her language and the meaning that she is trying to demonstrate or apprehend with that language■but first, she must feel estranged, in the same way the mystic feels estranged from her object of desire. Here we find the first impetus, or principle, for writing■that we are lost in our own world, perhaps even to ourselves, and we wish to craft from the physical (for language, as black marks upon the page, is utterly corporeal and "fallen") some bit of light within which we can reside. But this is only a first principle, a first desire, and the teacher cannot allow her students to hide behind their language, which is always more shadow than it is light. Writing is ultimately a form of differentiation, a medium through which the student begins to understand what is larger and more truthful than herself, and which can only be fully addressed after she stops writing and finds herself looking out the one window with an unnameable desire, when she sees the branches of a sycamore, framed by the granite stones of the casement, and she longs to see the whole tree and the piece of earth it is rooted in.
The teacher who believes in reciprocity and justice has an obligation to history. Likewise, our students must understand the pressure of this obligation, which is not an obligation to correcting or adjudicating past mistakes, but rather constitutes an attention to the fact that our history is incomplete, that every visible structure or mark of human activity covers over an invisible labor, and perhaps, an inaudible anguish. Again, we confront a mystery which compels us by virtue of its negativity. To be more specific, I would insist that my students focus upon the architectural space they temporarily inhabit, that they study the physical contours of the classroom itself, and move outwards to the building, then to the campus grounds, to layout of the streets, and so on and so forth. Who built this university? Who designed it? What does it most resemble? A prison? A corporate office park? A state mental institution? Why are the chairs in the classroom arranged the way they are? Where should I stand or sit, and why? I would ask my students to read Hilltopics critically in order to come to some kind of understanding of how the university administration conceives of them, and to explore the contradictions between their rights as persons and their rights as subjects of the university. I would share with my students the current philosophy of the English department concerning the teaching of writing and rhetoric, and I would ask them to interrogate with me the motives of such a philosophy in order to determine whether or not the techniques currently in vogue are adequate to the task of producing writing that is socially engaged and personally meaningful. I would ask them to consider the fact that I am unwilling to participate with them in any kind of educational project until they first help me to determine why I should bother at all. I would have them work with me to construct grounds and methods for their evaluation, but only after they first agree to think about the reasons why universities require teachers to grade students' performances in the first place and to debate the efficacy and value of such grades. Ultimately, and I realize this is a dream, I want my students to exist, if only for the briefest moment, in a state of hyper-awareness as regards the boundaries, both physical and socio-psychical, of this institution. I want them to have the ability, by sheer force of attention, to discern that the university in which they are situated represents an intricate web of contingencies and purposes, both past and present, and I can only hope that they would resist being acted upon, that they would take it upon themselves to demand more of us and of each other, and that they would seize the opportunity to live, not in the moment, but in all moments at once.
When Simone Weil was teaching mathematics in the lycŐe, her students were well- known because of their inability to pass exams. One of the contributing factors was Weil's emphasis, in her teaching, upon historicizing mathematics. In other words, she insisted that her students understand mathematics, not as a pure, abstract science, but as a field of inquiry developing over time, shaped by specific individuals whose unique intellects and world-views affected their modes of approach to their subject. When Weil was eventually relieved of her position, she shocked her rectors and peers by announcing that she had always regarded dismissal as the normal culmination of her career. I relate this story because it illustrates how much of an outsider Simone Weil knew herself to be, and because, for me, it serves as a cautionary tale. For years, I have heard teachers who are committed to teaching values comment that, even though department or university administrators may not support their pedagogical projects, these projects are still successful as long as just one student is reached, but I beg to differ on this point. Teachers committed to the project of liberatory and moral education cannot afford to operate as subversive loners, never really knowing the full effects of their practices, and which are negligible at best, but must come together as a group to demand that the university devote its resources to restructuring itself as an institution which is more inclusive and more democratic, and which insists, forcefully, that its students devote themselves to moral and social action, to public service, and to participating more fully in determining the form and content of their education. This would be a university with open admissions and without grades, and it would be difficult to tell where the city ended and the campus began. This university will not exist in my lifetime, or perhaps in any lifetime.
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