By Martin Wagner
“We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philosophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good.”
-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
At the core of Christian ethics stands a radical demand for the primacy of humility over all other virtues. The true Christian does not presume to judge anyone’s behavior, not even his or her own. Today, in the age of tolerance, the Christian virtue of humility enjoys unprecedented authority. What we overlook in the shadow of humility’s dominance, however, are the ways in which humility might threaten our most fundamental notions of justice.
For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
One of my favorite images in Arendt's writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem "Magic" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke's poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke's poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that "the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought."
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are "thought things." They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in "Magic": To "set fire to the dust" and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke's poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato's illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato's cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge's art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato's politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt's words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt's lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge's words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, "There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust."
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke's fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge's First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.