Teachers as Cultural Workers: Therapy for Death-Dealing Neurosis (Grace Jantzen)

Picture Credit:  Gary Shennan


Teachers as Cultural Workers:  Therapy for Death-Dealing Neurosis (Grace Jantzen).

It is easy for the hubristic ego of the academic to imagine that what she is doing is vital to the flourishing of life, in some form or another.  The products of universities’ self-marketing are frequently pervaded by grand claims for the significance of what researchers are doing, even with the aim of attempting to outdo their ‘rivals’ as if they are football teams in a winner-takes-all competition, or scrapping for the scarcest of resources in order to continue to live.  The business of enquiry in order to understand and co-operatively promote ‘knowledge’ for the sake of human (rather than simply personal or institutional) flourishing is arguably no longer what much academic work is concerned with.  However, some years ago in a seminar in Cambridge’s Divinity Faculty George Steiner termed the commentator a “parasite”.  This was a claim that had been given expression some years before in a paper entitled ‘Humane Literacy’.  “The critic”, he claimed there, “lives at second-hand.  He writes about. … [Consequently,] criticism exists by the grace of other men’s genius.”[i]

Another image is useful to depict what is occurring in the intellectual labors of critical reflection, one that emerges from comments made by Edward Said, is that of being politically engaged in the borderlands of disciplinary discourses.  With government pressure exerted on (the now ‘corporate’) universities in the form of competition for funds from research data-collection exercises (especially in Australia where the quantity of each academic’s output to be measured in the exercise is not capped) the scholar is reduced to the mechanized system of ‘battery research output’, mass research production for research’s sake.  Steiner’s claim about “the retreat from the word” as involving “a brutalization and devaluation of the word in the mass-cultures and mass-politics of the age” is one that intensively resonates in the academic performance of contemporaneity.[ii]  Academia fiddles with pure peer-to-peer research while Rome burns around it.  Said, for instance, identifies a politically conservative turn in Western academia.  “I think that’s a transformation of the landscape as such now that the American left seems to have taken the easy alternative and has become largely academic and largely divorced from the world of intervention and the public realm, with a few exceptions.”[iii]  So, writing in the 1960s with the death knell of the Shoah still ringing in Europe’s ears, Steiner reminds his readers of the fact that all criticism comes “after, and that is the nerve of our condition” in the aftermath of “the unprecedented ruin of humane values and hopes by the political bestiality of our age.”[iv]  What this means, he continues, is that “We cannot act now, be it as critics or merely as rational beings, as if nothing of vital relevance had happened to our sense of the human possibility, as if the extermination by hunger or violence of some seventy million men, women and children in Europe and Russia between 1914 and 1945 had not altered, profoundly, the quality of our awareness.”  Some within the academy continue to long for the positive political significance of their labors, and that is precisely what Said attempts to undertake in his own work in the borderlands when exposing the politically determinative ideological operations of ‘orientalism’.  Such an endeavor, of course, demands that critical purchase be made on academic attempts to police the borders between disciplines.  So Said claims,

the literary-cultural establishment as a whole has declared the serious study of imperialism and culture off-limits.  For Orientalism brings one directly against that question – that is, realizing that political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination, and scholarly institutions – in such a way as to make its avoidance an intellectual and historical impossibility.  Yet there will always remain the perennial escape mechanism of saying that a literary scholar and a philosopher, for example, are trained in literature and philosophy respectively, not in politics or ideological analysis.  In other words, the specialist argument can work quite effectively to bock the larger and, in my opinion, the more intellectually serious perspective.[v]

This passage weaves a rich tapestry of suggestion and possibility, all the more important for the fact that this writer challenges the exclusion of certain potentially disruptive voices in the conversation.  “Orientalism”, he maintains, is a discourse freighted with unacknowledged assumptions, assumptions that are culturally specific (belonging to the descriptions made by the western European imperial powers of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century), that are imperialist (imposing a descriptive vision upon others, albeit in the main it is countenanced by the latter rather than violently imposed upon them, a program of ideological pacification that largely accounts for its durability), that derive from and subsequently enhance a positional privileging (the European imperial powers “civilize” what they regard as “primitive” or under-developed regions),[vi] that are naturalized and therefore exist in a state of denial with regard to the constructed nature of these assumptions that reinforce compartmentalization and therefore resist possibilities of genuine cultural and social exchange, and that are practically determinative (creative of certain possibilities for the shape of policy-making).[vii]  This is a fruitful ideology in the sense that not only does it produce new sets of possibilities for acting, but it also reinforces itself by producing an exclusive way for thinking.  So Said declares that “Orientalism’s power and effectiveness … everywhere remind the reader that henceforth in order to get at the Orient he must pass through the learned grids and codes provided by the Orientalist.”[viii]  Furthermore, defining the good and its flourishing for the subjugated culture lies not in its own hands.  The subjugated lose their self-descriptive voice and their ability to resist and correct the identifying system of judgment imposed upon them.

The colonial scheme is hereby founded on, and sustained by, a pronounced anthropological duality of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, of a ‘self’ and an ‘other’.  This paternalistic perspective on colonial presence and action is displayed, for example, in Arthur James Balfour’s House of Commons’ speech of 13th June 1910 in which he announces that the Egyptian ‘them’ “have got it far better” under the British imperial government “than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilized West.  We”, he continues, “are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.”[ix]  ‘Our’ rule, this expression of colonial ideology assumes, is for ‘their’ betterment.  Balfour speaks glowingly, then, “of all the loss of which we have relieved the population and … all the benefits which we have given to them”, and of Britain as exporting “our very best to these countries.”  While far from seeking to create possibilities of exoneration for those involved “with this rather sordid experience of imperialism”, what this nevertheless amounts to is for Said an indication of modern European imperialism that cannot simply be demonized through a “politics of blame”, a response which equally trades on an (colonial) ‘other’.[x]  There is both the complicity of the subjugated in the imperialistic ideology, the occasional good intentions of the imperialists, and the imperial succumbing to a whole set of ideological assumptions.  There is a very real sense, then, in which this form of imperialism not only insidiously affects and ‘creates’ those who are subjugated by it, but also manufactures the very people who serve it.  In other words, while this ideology in some senses have a certain broad coherence with features of the world it purports to describe, it says significantly more about the world-views of its advocates.  The world of the ‘Orient’ itself is largely rendered mute and thereby unable to resist or surprise the projects, images or mere descriptions devised for it.

Developing such a critical perspective on all this is a feat made possible by serious attention to particularity – to the particularity of those described by this discourse of Orientalism and those who do the describing.  In particular, Said attempts to open up time for listening to a multiplicity of previously silenced voices, voices drowned out by the controlling master-narrative.  This movement of giving a certain sight to those “blind to other histories” in itself, then, becomes a form of resistance.[xi]  Resisting the discursive hegemony becomes, it should be added, a morally significant matter that is shaped by the construction of alternative visions or ways of telling the story that more comprehensively incorporate and retain the distinctiveness of these voices.  Incorporating these voices into the dominating master-narrative is an analysis characterized by a certain exteriority to what it describes.  This means that the subverting morality of witness involves a responsibility to open up the conversation in a way that resists the hegemony of monologue.  And it does this not for its own sake, as if suspicion is to give way to cynicism, but for the sake of better integration.[xii]

Moreover, as the first lengthy citation above declares, subverting this hegemony imposed and adopted is a task broader than what is made possible in the agencies of politically-trained ideology-analysts.  It is of a piece with the responsibility to tell well the stories of our lives and those of others who claim to representationally speak in our place, that the contemporary proliferation of specialisms cannot release the so-called amateur from responsibility to probe, interrogate and imagine matters differently.  This claim can be broken down into the following two broad claims:  in the first place, the matter is much too ethically important to be left to specialists, and thus cannot properly be dealt with at the rather thin and distorting hermetic level of the ‘history of ideas’;[xiii] and in the second place, even those identified as specialists are not free from the formative operation of special ‘interests’.  It is worth quoting Said again at some length on this:

[T]he determining impingement on most knowledge produced in the contemporary United States … is that it be nonpolitical, that is, scholarly, academic, impartial, above partisan or small-minded doctrinal belief.  One can have no quarrel with such an ambition in theory, perhaps, but in practice the reality is much more problematic.  No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.  These continue to bear on what he does professionally, even though naturally enough his research and his fruits do attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from the inhibitions and the restrictions of brute, everyday reality.  For there is no such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more, partial than the individual (with his entangling and distracting life circumstances) who produces it.  Yet this knowledge is not therefore automatically nonpolitical. … What I am interested in doing now is suggesting how the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not ‘true’ knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. … For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality:  that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.  And to be a European or American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact.  It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer.[xiv]

A potentially useful image in this connection is that of “teachers as cultural workers”, a claim made by critical educationalist Paolo Freire in his work on identifying and transforming pedagogies that undemocratically oppress and dehumanize as a result of the vested power “interests of the oppressors”.[xv]  If Freire has been able to successfully make and sustain a case for the role of teachers in the process of transformative learning, a quite significant way of construing cultural analysis and criticism becomes necessary, as Grace Jantzen argues.  She characterizes “the west as [being caught] in the grip of a cultural neurosis of which its death-dealing structures are symptoms”, and this entails, “then [that] the task of the intellectual can be likened to that of a therapist who seeks by patient listening to bring the repressed dimensions of history to the fore and to release the springs of wellbeing.”[xvi]  This therapy involves considerably more than argument.  So Jantzen recognizes that one can treat the troubles of the contemporary West “as an obsession or psychic disorder of the social realm, then it will not be changed by arguing against it.”[xvii]  The problems, depicted as neuroses, are far too deeply learned and conditioning for that to be the case.  “Appeals to rationality will not bring about the desired change, any more than it would help to tell a person in the grip of a neurosis what it is that they are repressing.  Such strategies only bring out stronger resistance, ever more clever rationalizations, deeper anger and control.”  In contrast, she maintains, bringing “about human flourishing … requires substantial change in material as well as discursive conditions, changes in behaviour as well as in thought.”[xviii]  However, lest the cultural commentator despair at the magnitude of the task of criticism and properly transformative repair, Jantzen indicates the need for “patient investigation and analysis” over the shape and content of the beliefs that form or enculturate our sensibilities and that thereafter regulative our imaginations and practical judgments.[xix]

[W]hat we can learn from the therapeutic model is that to the extent that the problems of post/modernity are consequences of acting upon a destructive cultural symbolic, strategies and policies to change behaviour are unlikely to be effective unless the underlying patterns of thought are changed.  Moreover for this to happen it is necessary to bring those patterns, the cultural symbolic, to consciousness, and this, in therapy, means probing its sources and history.  Once the contours of the symbolic become clearer it becomes easier to see what is involved in its transformation and why it is necessary to go through the massive process of tracing its past in order to redeem the present.[xx]

The cultural symbolic of Western societies and the options for social order that are made possible as a consequence require observation, analysis, and critique.  The aim is not to simply ‘understand’, as if knowledge is separate from hope and planning, or in order to achieve some nebulous ‘cultural/media literacy’.  After all, as Stanley Aronowitz argues, “without agency there can be no history except an automatic kind”.[xxi]  The key to practices of transformative pedagogy is to resist the loss of agency, and therefore the reduction of hope.  In that way, academic reflection and critical thought has to serve human flourishing and not become a self-referential substitute for socio-political engagement for constructive change.

In an important scene in The Matrix Morpheus reveals that Thomas (‘Neo’) Anderson has sensed that there is something wrong with the world.  It is this feeling that results in Neo’s choosing to ‘wake up’ rather than to slumber in the reality created for him, it is soon revealed to him, by “the machines”.  According to Jantzen, “There can be little doubt that the world is in sore need of redemption.”[xxii]  Of course, even to make such a claim is to already position oneself, to have a perspective, and it is important not to be naïve about the legitimacy of such soteriological claims lest they too become discursive impositions of one’s perspective.  The flow of the narratives in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix series reveal the naïveté at work in Morpheus’ particular and distinctly limited vision of things.  After all, according to Said, “modern empire requires, as Conrad said, an idea of service, an idea of sacrifice, an idea of redemption.  Out of this you get these great, massively reinforced notions of, for example, in the case of France, the ‘Mission civilisatrice.’  That we’re not there to benefit ourselves, we’re there for the sake of the natives.”[xxiii]

[i] George Steiner, Language and Silence:  Essays 1958-1967 (Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1967), 21.

[ii] Steiner, 31, 67.

[iii] Edward W. Said, The Pen and the Sword:  Conversations with David Barsamian (Edinburgh:  AK Press, 1994), 168.

[iv] Steiner, 22.

[v] Edward W. Said, Orientalism:  Western Conceptions of the Orient (London:  Penguin Books, 1978), 13f.

[vi] “Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources.  Why?  Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.  No better instance exists today of what Anwar Abdel Malek calls ‘the hegemonism of possessing minorities’ and anthropocentrism allied with Eurocentrism:  a white middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as human as ‘we’ are.  There is no purer example than this of dehumanized thought.” [Said, Orientalism, 108]

[vii] “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism” [Said, Orientalism, 39].  This entails, for Said, that Orientalism is not a system of lies or fantasy, and certainly not a simple description of states of affairs about the Orient, but a systemically operating created “body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.” [Said, Orientalism,  6]  “[T]he imaginative examination of things Oriental was based more or less exclusively upon a sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world emerged, first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to general detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections.” [Said, Orientalism, 8]

[viii] Said, Orientalism, 67.

[ix] Said, Orientalism, 33.

[x] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York:  Vintage Books, 1993), 70.

[xi] Citation from Said, Culture and Imperialism, xix.  This text gives more room to the various resistance counter-movements.

[xii] Said, Culture and Imperialism, xxx.

[xiii] Said, Orientalism, 23:  “Without those emphases and that material effectiveness Orientalism would be just another idea, whereas it is and was much more than that.”

[xiv] Said, Orientalism, 10f.

[xv] Citation from the title of Paolo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers:  Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, trans. Donaldo Macedo, Dale Koike, and Alexandre Oliveira (Boulder:  Westview Press, 2005); Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York:  Continuum, 1990), 39.

[xvi] Grace M. Jantzen, Foundations of Violence:  Death and the Displacement of Beauty (London and New York:  Routledge, 2004), 4.

[xvii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xviii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xix] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19.

[xx] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 19f.

[xxi] Stanley Aronowitz, The Politics of Identity:  Class, Culture, Social Movements (New York:  Routledge, 1992), 11.

[xxii] Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, 3.

[xxiii] Said, The Pen and the Sword, 66.


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