Monday, November 2, 2015

Two Unrelated Thoughts on Failure

1. Many years ago I was a TA for Communication in Everyday Life. The course was taught by Terry Neiman, a long time sessional at Simon Fraser’s School of Communication. In some ways it was a good class to teach because I learnt a lot very quickly, but it was chaotic. Terry, himself is a genius, and perhaps one of the most captivating lecturers I have had the great pleasure to work for. Still, his genius is bizarre, and the class was a whirlwind tour of pseudo-deconstructivist linguistics and then its subsequent application to power and beliefs like sciences, medicines, religions and politics. The course hinged on Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It suited Terry's teaching personality.

Still, many of the students would come to this class thinking it was something altogether different. To the uninitiated, the apparently generic title certainly did not give any indication of post war French thought. (In fairness the course description was fairly clear, but then again most students don’t speak this theoretical vernacular, and because of the “W” designation the course was, and still is, a point which most undergrads had to cross to carry on.) This unfamiliarly, these lectures about differance, caused many students to lock down with fear. Indeed, Terry delighted in keeping students confused, because confusion and ambivalence was an indication of minds confronting the long chain of significant associations until they traced apparent impossiblies and encountered the limits of action and agency. Or so he thought. Sigh. So, with all this going on, I thought it my job  to provide assurance to students that it made sense, and give confidence that I would get them the mid-terms, exams, and essays.

At this stage I was hardly the best TA. I had moved here for graduate studies and was still learning the educational culture here in Western Canada, trying to figure out the discrepancy between what students did and did not know and what they were expected to know. In the meantime I had to rely upon the tradition I came from which was one of relative distance and formality. I now realize how antithetical this is to how things are done here. So despite my efforts I came across as gruff, callous, indifferent: This hampered my self-set goals.

In any case, between Terry’s lecturing style, the material, and my TA abilities, the fear of failure was never far from students’ minds. This was doubly so when asked to write papers on self-selected topics without much direction from the stage. While the A students always wrote A papers, the vast majority of students were befuddled and some took to took to recycling papers in from other courses just to try get by. We caught a fair number of those. (Once I was marking with a friend, and she read a paper that was so garbled and convoluted she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. An hour later I read her a paper that made no sense to me. She jumped up, rumbled through her stack, and pulled out the earlier paper. It was the same nonsensical paper submitted to two different classes.)

Still, that anomaly aside, altogether almost all papers were sincerely concerned with, and made vague allusions to technology as a general category being an accelerating force of social life. These papers walked a tightrope trying to exonerate the inventors and system which produced technology, while hand waving at the potential rate of social change. I spent a good portion of my time and energy trying to just get students to consider the role of ideology. Sadly, for a course that spent so much time concerned with beliefs, there was little to be found in the papers themselves. Aside from a lack of passion, or desire to look beyond the given, there was little genuine understanding of class, politics, or larger overarching inter-generational projects. And indeed Terry did little to clear the issue, for from his vantage social change to take one example was but another “grand narrative” that had to be binned, for as much as Marx bore the honorific ‘master of suspicion,’ substantive method was nevertheless replaced by iconographic cliché.

If I was being honest with you, I was a failure, most of those papers were failures, and the course was a failure. And in Terry’s mind, this made it a success, because the entire course was a performative exercise in deconstructing the educational institution and undermining traditional forms of authority, the lectern included. This didn’t sit well with me, and is still unsettling. This is not because of traces that have decentered my understanding of the classroom, but because I think of it specifically as an ethical lapse, where student’s good will is squandered. I saw the difference between students walking into and out of that class. Too many had become cynical with university and less interested in intellectual life. So as far as I was concerned, it was an unnecessary failure of our educational mission.

2. Most Marxist and communists, liberals and progressives are intimately aware of defeat. This is not because their projects are premature, historically ill-timed or self-defeating, but because their politics face well-resourced and well-entrenched interests and rulers. Despite what the prevailing ideology says, the Western tradition of government is not one of noble progress but is rather anti-democratic, and I would argue, anti-political and oppressive. More to the point, there is no natural tendency in Western government to mass democratic participation. Even Marx’s radicalism is predicated upon a necessary dictatorship of the proletariat in post-capitalist societies to get to a society of freely associated producers. So to my mind, democracy, even the little bit we have, is a historical anomaly and unfortunately, as much as I wish it otherwise, unlikely to last. I do hope to be proved wrong on this front.