Thursday, August 02, 2007

Do and Die, and Faith in the Classroom

To acclimate myself to Brooklyn College, I've been sitting in on Nicola's summer Canterbury Tales course and occasionally participating in class discussion. It's been fun, not least of all because I feel like a spy (although Nicola introduced me on the first day, the students persist in handing me the attendance sheet. I'm sure they think I'm a pretentious brown-noser, or maybe the equivalent of a Parisian taking a French course for an easy A). Yesterday, Nicola did the Clerk's Tale (here and here), one of several I know mainly by reputation (in other words, the course is also a chance for me to get a sense of this "Chaucer" you "medievalists" seem to know so well, since I'm a teaching a class on him in the Spring).

I immediately fixated on the ClT's presentation of death and duty. In the prologue, the Clerk declares himself to be under the "yerde" of the Host, and then lists the other forces that condition, or to which he has submitted, his existence: "resoun," "deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer," and, implicitly, time, since he cuts short his representation of Petrarch's prologue because it would be "a long devyse."

The other great "yerde" of the tale is of course Walter. Griselda didn't ask to be thrust into marriage; and despite Walter's formulaic rehearsal of the request for consent, her father, Junicula, has no more choice in the matter than his daughter. Walter must get what he wants. And the virtue of his subjects is not to wonder, and certainly not to reason why, but to tremble, "abayst and al quakynge," and to submit patiently to whatever power desires, regardless or even because of its pointlessness. Eventually, as is proper, death and time take Griselda ("Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience"), but not before she has given up everything to become, in what is surely among Chaucer's most chilling lines, "sad and constant as a wal."

It struck me first that the tale's engaged in something analogous to trauma envy (here inspired by the chapter on Tr. Envy in The Truth of Žižek). The Clerk more or less implicitly likens his submission before reason, death, time, and the game of tale-telling to Griselda's submission and suffering. Simply in allowing himself to be snatched from his great pleasure of studying "aboute som sophyme" to tell the tale, the Clerk shows himself "constant in adversitee," so modeling the first great moral lesson he extracts from his tale ("every wight, in his degree, / sholde be constant in adversitee / as was Grisilde). Thus the Clerk at least participates in the moral authority that Griselda gains by doing her duty.

The tale also naturalizes two great submissions, women to men and the poor to the rich. If submitting to arbitrary force as a woman and peasant is like the Clerk's submission to death, reason, and time, the Clerk presents these great social injustices as simply the way things are. At the same time, the Clerk presents his own incapacity before death, time, &c., as akin to the minimal choice the Clerk has allowed Griselda: she might have protested, after all. If she had no choice, we could no more admire Griselda's constancy than we admire the constancy of a wall. Go figure: given her class and gender, she doesn't really have a choice, but any admiring response makes it seem as if she does. Thus the Clerk represents his own quakynge before death as a choice also, so clearing space for virtue in the midst of a great, meaningless necessity of mortal existence.

Pretty straightforward, no? I'm sure this reading has been done hundreds of times in the criticism, but, again, I'm not a Chaucerian (yet), so I don't know. Now, I grabbed onto my thoughts on duty, and linked them to the godlike aspects of Walter: since Griselda surpasses Job in her patience, clearly Walter is structurally like God, or Satan, or both at once in their arbitrary, inaccessible grandeur. (Note that I don't think this is an allegory, although the googles show me that it's not that uncommon to see Griselda as the Bride of Christ and so forth). And then I leapt into Nicola's conversation with his class, where I began to offer up some of what I set out above.

A funny thing happened. Once I brought divinity into the classroom, the students came out as Clerklike. While they don't much care for Walter, they do admire Griselda, and they do think there's virtue in patient endurance. And once they began to think of Walter as godlike, they began to want to like Walter a little more (Nicola may dispute this, but this is the sense I got). They didn't feel that they understood him, but they began to think he had some kind of justification in testing his wife; indeed, they became convinced that he was testing his wife and not simply making her suffer in the way that all men do with patient wives ("wedded men ne knowe no mesure, / Whan that they fynde a pacient creature). In short, the students, at least the students who talked, think of God as a good thing.

This came as a surprise to me. I'm such an atheist--and, because of my reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing, a pretty intolerant atheist--that I would have thought that bringing God into the discussion would explode the whole complex of submission, virtue, death. So what I learned: some people think God is love (duh); when I teach the ClT, I'll have to be careful to frame my material on duty and divine force to keep the students with me.

So, finally, the question, here in anticipation of the weekend: talk about the ClT, if you like. But rather than going round with Chaucer again, you may want to talk, instead, about encounters with faith in the classroom. If you're a religious person, what have you experienced with other faiths in your teaching? Or with beliefs against faith? And for my fellow atheists, how have you tolerated, or coexisted, with faith in your classroom, or even used these encounters to stir up discussion, learning, and mutual wonder?


J J Cohen said...

Great post. Two quick reactions.

In my own classroom, when I offer that Walter is structurally playing the role of God (we read the Book of Job as a prelude), the students begin to dig into a -- to pun on a Puritan -- Sinners in the Hands of an Evil God reading. The Clerk's Tale is in this analysis something of a thought experiment: what if that divinity to whom we're supposed to bow in reverence is actually perverse? Pathological? These are questions the Clerk himself raises through his own incomprehension at Walter (an incomprehension evident even in his take on Petrarch in the opening: he admits that he doesn't get how the allegorical genre works). The Chaucer I offer my students is an artist very much engaged in bringing works of art to their generic limits, staging their own breaking apart, and creating something new out of the pieces. My students, who tend to strongly self-identify with this secular and heroically artistic version of Chaucer, almost never yearn for a more reverent or doctrinal exposition.

Second, on Griselda's lack of choice, your words remind me of these ones from an earlier day in the blog -- down even to your use of "thrust" here and with Griselda:

Note the traditional family narrative, where the glowing bunny fits nicely into the structure where a child normally would be. We have the selection of a name, the announcement, the delivery of Alba, created not so much not against but indifferently to her will, to the family. Is this not the very image of the human family (having a little chuckle at my Zizek echo), of the child thrust into this world?

That was from our bunny discussion.

IndieFaith said...

For a bunch of liberals, humanists and atheists you guys sure talk about God a great deal here (feel free to attack those assumptions :)). I have found that the academy tends not to be a place where the diversity of religion can be addressed with much integrity. I sense a certain surveillance around views of divinity that tend to the transcendent or existential. That God may actually be active in the world and may not be interested in the discussions we are having about divinity!
Between studying and professional pursuits I worked at a greenhouse with young men a few years out of high school. One was about as foul-mouthed (and minded) as I had ever met, another was from a Calvinistic background who thought that The Passion of the Christ was blasphemous but who also advocated smoking pot. Another was mostly into women, music and looks. etc. etc. etc. Then there was myself as I was looking to become a pastor at the time. I had never encountered such a refreshing context to discuss God and religion. We were free to voice differences (even with some level of passion) and still enjoyed going out for a drink afterward. Most of those who were not part of the church had left because some priest had yelled at their parents or something of the sort. Otherwise they were quite open to it all. There needs to be a level of trust and vulnerability to speak of divinity well.
Anyway, this is likely drifting quite far from what your concerns in this medieval nerdom.

mu phage said...

I want to thank you, Indiefaith, for placing the concerns Karl raises into what I like to affectionately call "the real world." (That phrase drives 'em loopy--just watch.)

Your introduction of trust and vulnerability is so crucial, and speaks directly to the way we get along with others in the world rather than the ways we interpret the world for others.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for that reading of Chaucer and the Clerk's Tale, Jeffrey: I find it totally helpful and what's even better, efficient.

What do your secular-minded students do, then, when they read the 'religious' tales? Do they recoil at the Second Nun and the Parson?

As for the issues on being unwillingly thrust into life: yes, precisely. It's been on mind for ages now, I suppose. Thanks for the reminder. It's generous.

For a bunch of liberals, humanists and atheists you guys sure talk about God a great deal here

Well, of course. First, we're medievalists. Much of what we read from the period we study has something to do with divinity, theology, &c. It's a period when even the most 'secular' concerns would be thought through systems of faith, since these systems were the professional tools of thinkers. So I read a lot of Penitentials, Glosses on the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and so forth, and my co-bloggers do much the same. Second, why shouldn't "liberals" talk about gods? Obviously, no one political sect--whether leftist, liberal, conservative, rightist, &c.--has lock on faith, or indeed antifaith (you'll find atheist rightwingers as readily as you'll find atheists leftists, for example).

Is the problem with the academy and faith, as you see it, in part due to the modes of inquiry and argumentation that it promotes? In other words, is what you see a systemic "problem" (if it's indeed a problem) or do you think it can be "fixed"? What would a more faith-friendly academy look like to you? That kind of vulnerability you describe in the greenhouse, in which we see an unwillingness to just 'tolerate' differences, indeed, the eagerness to discuss differences (but not with a mind to eliminating difference), is precisely the space I described, and hoped for, in Jeffrey's post, below, on tolerance and coexistence. I've always tried to get my classrooms to look this way, too.

And Michael, I'd say anytime we have people coming into contact with one another, in whichever workplace or bar we're in, we're in the 'real world.' Obviously. Play nice, why don't you?

mu phage said...

We disagree on what constitutes what the "real world." Your conception is centered on the university and its life, mine (and most others') is located elsewhere. Abstractions do not make it all "real." Someday I suspect you'll grasp that.

mu phage said...

Take a look at your last paragraph: you very consciously frame your discussion of tolerance and coexistence in the university setting: "in the your your classroom."

Why this frame? A simple question, really, and one I imagine to which you've devoted little self-reflection. It's apparently automatic that one should broach the subject of tolerance in a university classroom.

I see several problems with that.
One, there is the issue of generalizability. All encounters between people are not generalizable to the "real world" since no two grounds upon which they are meeting are identical. Issues of trust and vulnerability, as indiefaith pointed out, set different stages at different moments. Two, the power dynamics skew whatever conclusions you might draw (witness Cohen's uncontainable posturing as the subject presumed to know Chaucer). How would know what your interlocutor thinks about tolerance when you've, say, turned Chaucer into a postmodern genre-busting artist at the outset? Three, the use of an abstraction like "tolerance" is better defined from from the bottom up. University classrooms are not encounter groups, despite whatever lip-service you might be tempted to pay to "dialogue" in your teaching statements.

For the difference between what is apparently done in the classroom and something closer to the way people genuinely interact in other spaces, take a look at the essays in the Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, 1972, ed. J. W. Pfeiffer & John E. Jones (Iowa City: University Associates), particularly the work of Jack Gibb.

highlyeccentric said...

How your Christian students will react to the suggestion will vary greatly depending on the Christian student. I'm a Christian student, and although I'm not a Chaucer person and don't know any more about the Clerk's tale than you just told me, I'd be willing to take what you've said without fuss.

I've had a few courses with doctrine-bound Christians (it's fine to have a sense of *faith* in the study of history/literature, in fact it's sometimes helpful. but when you can't let go of your own doctrine, you're screwed. this goes for hidebound atheists as well). What I've described below is the kind of approach *I* appreciate from a teacher in that situation. Obviously, I don't appreciate those who take the approach that No Sane Education Person Is Religious These Days. That's personally aggravating, even if i'm siding "against" the conservatives in the classroom. A good teacher is one who can head off a conflict situation and get *everyone* thinking.

If your students have problems with the idea of a character being "god-like" without being "good", it might be a good opportunity to prod them a little.
Ask if they think the parrallel could be between the church and the husband. Most protestants have a horrible negative view of the medieval church anyway, that shouldn't be too hard a step.
Then ask if sometimes churches or people try to teach them things about God which aren't good. Things they disagree with or find abhorrent in any way. Many of them will get bogged down here, trying to justify their faith to you. It takes careful steering to keep them thinking over possibilities, and above all, you lose out if they think you're attacking them.

What do you think of Chaucer's faith? Like I said, i've never read any, but I've always just assumed that as a medieval person he was in one way or another Christian.

If that is the case, should you find yourself with a bunch of students who are stuck on their own faith, you could pitch the "man of faith criticises the way the church teaches him about God" line at them, and see how they take it.

And if you find yourself with hardline atheists, it's always worth prodding them too. It will earn you a reputation for fairness, and besides which, if an atheist can't learn to think about faith and the way people experience it, they are unlikely to get fair in medieval studies.


IndieFaith said...

I think part of the problem with the academy and discussions of faith is because the academy is staked in its power structures as well as its points of access and acceptance. It is geared to performance, grading and status. It is hard to be involved in classroom discussion without some of sense of anxiety over the boundaries prescribed in a given institution. This holds true for the church as well (and has perhaps intensified for myself as a new pastor).
I am still attracted to the academy and wouldn't mind living in that "real world" but it has not yet made me much money. My notion of truth (and so in my case faith as well) has become much more relational and if relational then very unsettled with abstractions being placed anywhere near my "foundation" or "center". This has resulted in me elevating both the particularity of my belief as well as its de-centering effect on me (I can't be at the center of any good relationship).
I think as an educator the best you can do is enter in relationship and conversation with your students with the highest degree of integrity that your "faith" offers. Which means having a self-awareness and articulation of what that is.
All the best in your pursuits. As educators do you talk to your students about the "third discourse" that guides your institutions?

mu phage said...

I enjoyed Indiefaith's posting for its honesty about the reality (and allure) of the "power structures" inherent in the university, what I referred to above as power dynamics.

I've always been astounded by the lengths to which academics (especially those who consider themselves liberal) will go to ignore, deny, and whitewash the real power dynamics at work in the university structure. Most can talk about them in oh-so-smart terms, and many bitch about them, but few seriously analyze the real effects they have on the students. There is also the unfortunate phenomenon of academics ascending to positions of power in the university. Aronowitz has written on this debacle.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I've linked to this post from my Chaucer class blog, which is private, and invited the students to participate.

Pondering relationships between belief, questioning, and the ontology of humanistic knowledge. Hope to post later.

J J Cohen said...

Indiefaith, HighlyEccentric: thanks for stopping by. It's good to hear your thoughts. IndieFaith, I especially liked your narration of the mixed setting in which some of your reflection took place. Nothing stultifies like homogeneity.

I hope to post something fuller later (I have a three year old tugging me away right now), but both of you have pointed out something crucial: there is potentially a world of difference between a student with religious faith and a dogmatist. They can be the same thing, of course, but as both of you emphasize through your openness and incessant questioning, it isn't fair to assume that they are. And of course an atheist or a secularist can be an utter dogmatist (as can a theorist, etc.). The classroom is never well served by the doctrinaire.

Lastly, it is a little different when someone with the last name of "Cohen" teaches Christian material, even Chaucer, especially to a classroom that has a large Jewish and Muslim population mixed with Christians of varying denominations -- that is, my students don't necessarily assume that religion = Christianity, and that's fairly unusual in a post-secondary American classroom. It does give more more space in advance for asking questions like "How does divinity work in this text?" It does allow without much persuasive work on my part that Chaucer might be thinking critically about his God, might be wondering (like Job) how injustice can co-exist with the supposed benevolence of the heavens.

J J Cohen said...

One more thing, IndieFaith, that may be of interest to you in ruminating upon some of the issues raised (it's amazing what you think of on the bike trail in the morning). If you are curious about some of the ways faith and god are conversed about chez Cohen (rather than in my classroom), you can catch a glimpse here. If you want to spy upon the dynamics of anyone's classroom, on the other hand, you can get an unvarnished (though not unbiased) portrait through RateMyProfessors. You'll see that my students discuss everything from my exams to my teaching style to the way I dress. Ouch!

IndieFaith said...

Thanks for all the interaction. JJ, I noticed you are in D.C. Did you ever come across the name Michael Hrynuik? Hew as at the John Main Centre of Inter-Religious Dialogue at Georgetown. He is now chair of the Henri Nouwen Society. I took a course with him. I thought I would throw that out there given the topic of conversation and his position in D.C.

IndieFaith said...

He also a lot of work on Evagrius of Pontus for those of you wanting to keep in medieval.

mu delta said...

Indiefaith, you may find this very recent essay by Camille Paglia interesting. It's on "Religion and the Arts in America," and she argues that "Without compromise, we are heading for a soulless future. But when set against the vast historical panorama, religion and art—whether in marriage or divorce—can reinvigorate American culture."

Karl Steel said...

Highly Eccentric wrote:

If your students have problems with the idea of a character being "god-like" without being "good", it might be a good opportunity to prod them a little.
Ask if they think the parrallel could be between the church and the husband. Most protestants have a horrible negative view of the medieval church anyway, that shouldn't be too hard a step.

Right. This actually happened in the classroom: someone spoke about the corruption of the church. To my mind, that rhetoric preserves God's goodness from the wickedness of the world. It's analogous, isn't it, to the complaints against Richard II's courtiers, which also preserved the King's goodness (and also preserved the complainers from the wrath of the King, at least ideally). We might say it's a belief in the purity of God or the King, but we might also say that it's a kind of Manichaeism.

What do you think of Chaucer's faith? Like I said, i've never read any, but I've always just assumed that as a medieval person he was in one way or another Christian.

Well, there were lots of medieval people who weren't Christian. Chaucer wasn't one of these. Most, however, claimed some kind of faith as their own: Judaism, Islam, or indeed various heterodox Christianities (and indeed faiths that don't align with any of these). As to what I think of Chaucer's own faith: I don't have a good answer, and I don't think it's the best question to put to Chaucer. If we're talking late 14th-century British authors, Langland is probably the better choice for asking that question.

Indiefaith: As educators do you talk to your students about the "third discourse" that guides your institutions?

Some of us do. I have. I taught my first college class in 1997 and have taught every year since then except for 2000. Given that I started graduate school as an anarchist, I've actually spent a fair amount of time thinking through the power dynamics of the institution and the classroom. I'd like to think it's affected my pedagogy. That said, I've generally found that my students are not very much interested in the topic, but perhaps I've been presenting it incorrectly, or perhaps my position in the institution has made it impossible for me to have that conversation. I imagine it's even harder when someone's a "hotty totty."

Now, without any analysis, here's an example of the problem of tolerance. An uncle who lives in the Twin Cities sent a family-wide email concerning the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis. There was a lot of hooha about God looking out for his family, as various coincidences and delays preventing them from being on the bridge when it fell. What do I do with this email? So far I've merely 'tolerated' it, which is to say, I've let it be, as I've let all questions of religion be in my family. They don't let me alone, but I let them alone, in part because I want to allow them the pleasure of their belief (surely Zizek could help me here, something along the lines of the teenager who enjoys orgies so long as he believes his mother is sexually puritanical), in part because I'm so confident in the truth of what I believe, and the risibility of what they believe, that I think it would be cruel to let them know my thoughts.

So I "tolerate" rather than, say, pointing out the obvious: that by my uncle's logic, God didn't care about the people who died; or that God just had a plan for them, which means that perhaps the uncle should complain because God didn't intervene in his family's life by implementing his plan; or that any praise or complaint to God is as rude as telling your host that his food is good: of course it's good, and the compliment is a sneer as it suggests that it could have been otherwise; or, more materially, that my uncle's Republican politics are directly responsible for the bridge's collapse, given that Republicans seem to believe that one can let the rich get off with paying no taxes because, after all, the infrastructure doesn't need any money.

So there's a 'real world' dilemma of tolerance, where tolerance is a kind of scorn.

mu delta said...

Karl, I appreciate your "real world" example. It is so much more convincing than, let's just say for argument's sake, more Levinas or dead-end musings over "coexist."

The question I have for you is this: how do you know that what you were practicing with respect to containing your thoughts about God and Republicans is tolerance, as opposed to, say, what psychologists might could label personal control or reality negotiation? Notice that in my question, I am not going for the pejorative "edge" of tolerance (as Beard did or as you do in the linkage to scorn).

So the meta-question is: what prevents us from parsing tolerance in positive terms? I could acknowledge your scorn of your uncle but also see that the tolerance you were exercising was also based in something drawn from your character strength. Do you see my point?

Anonymous said...

character strength

Tolerance as a negative or a positive - this is very close to my current agonies about the relationships between power and charity (in 12th/13th cents) - so I need a reading list/suggestions on power - please - I am currently on MF's The Subject and Power.

mu delta said...

Quick glance at my shelves...

On power:

Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance

Third volume of The Essential Works of Foucault

Bataille's The Accursed Share and his Theory of Religion [very likely useful to you}

Ricoeur's new Reflections on the Just {also potentially very useful}

Closer to your topic perhaps:

Helmuth Berking's Sociology of Giving

Alan Schrift's The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity

and the classic:

Romand Coles's Rethinking Generosity: Critical Theory and the Politics of Caritas.

mu delta said...

Lurking under a stack on the floor:

Batson's The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-psychological Answer.

And from the files:

Cialdini, Schaller, Houlihan, Arps, Fultz, & Bearman, "Empathy-Based Helping: Is it selflessly or selfishly motivated? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 749-758.

Rushton, Fulker, Neale, Nias, & Eysenck, "Altruism and aggression: The heritability of individual differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 1192-1198.

Karl Steel said...

Anon: who are you? I've done thinking about those matters in a few sermons by Raoul Ardent, a 12th-century scholar (I think a Canon Regular) in the circle of Peter the Chanter. I'd love to see what you're working on. My interest in Raoul had to do with a sermon on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the question of who got to count as 'poor' (the Canons themselves? or the people we traditionally think of as poor).

how do you know that what you were practicing with respect to containing your thoughts about God and Republicans is tolerance, as opposed to, say, what psychologists might could label personal control or reality negotiation?

I don't know, in part because I don't know the professional terminology you're using. If you have time, what's the difference?

As for my own 'personal strength': I doubt it. Although I should say, if I can make this distinction, that I don't scorn my uncle, as that's too total. We actually get along well. What I scorn is his (dominant?) belief system.

mu delta said...

Karl, allow me to take another tack.

Is scorn an inherent part of tolerance?

Or is it a by-product of it? That is, the negativity (e.g., scorn) might one feel toward another's politics or his beliefs may be a reaction to the positive feeling of tolerance that preceded it. Scorn is often compensatory.

Myself, I come down on the side that human beings are complex, one sign of which is that they are able to hold potentially contradictory or self-cancelling affective states simultaneously. So the scorn one might feel exists along side the more positive tolerance one also feels. It is telling that tolerance in a sense "wins" the struggle, since it emerges as the way you characterize your behavior, your restraint.

I, for example, can hold warm fuzzies for JJC as a Mensch, while at the same time find his thinking to be inconsequential and often objectionable.

Karl Steel said...

Or is it a by-product of it? That is, the negativity (e.g., scorn) might one feel toward another's politics or his beliefs may be a reaction to the positive feeling of tolerance that preceded it. Scorn is often compensatory.

This explanation sounds right to me. I think, haha, of Zizek, and his discussion of the disgust we feel when someone declares his or her love for us. In his response essay in the Truth of Z., he quote Deleuze, which I'll translate from memory as "if you get caught up in someone else's dream, you're fucked." In other words, when we tolerate, we've been put in a situation in which our concentration, our peace, our whatever, has been disturbed: by demands for love, by forwarded email jokes, by parties next door, by embarrassing (because unwanted or unfelt on our part) sincerity and emotion. In these situations, tolerance is forbearance. We've had responsibility thrust (that word again) upon us, and we've decided to "be the adult." Of course we're going to compensate with secret scorn, with our horde of contempt that we'll share out over drinks with friends, if we're lucky. Hence my suspicion at "tolerance" for community building: I know what I feel when I do tolerance, and I know that it's all about shutting down, deferring, redirecting conversations, not, in other words, about working out ideas together. Because if I thought the person I was tolerating was willing or capable of working out ideas together, I'd let him or her know what I 'really' thought.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Ok, Karl, so how about tolerance as forgiveness, a word I think Michael used a while ago, tolerance as loving allowance of the other?

Karl Steel said...

let's just say for argument's sake, more Levinas or dead-end musings over "coexist."

Okay, 'real life' example of Levinas and ethics. On the flight to Kalamazoo, I was reading this, happily ensconced in the aisle seat. The person who had the seat next to mine came along and looked surprised. I asked what was up, and he said that he thought he'd had an aisle seat; and he added that he found window seats frightening. I switched with him. Now, I might have switched anyhow, even though I'm also afraid of flying and, being sort of tall, I don't fit well in window seats (particularly in the small craft we flew from Chicago to Kzoo); but I had just read this passage:

The same claim is reformulated a little later as follows: 'It is through the condition of being a hostage that there can be pity, compassion, pardon, and proximity in the world--even the little there is, even the simple 'after you sir.' This suggests that Levinas is asking what underlies that behaviour which is sometimes called superogatory, gratuitous or, as he prefers to say, ethical. His answer is that at the heart of subjectivity is not a 'for itself,' but what he calls 'the one-for-the-other.' This is his working definition of substitution, and when Levinas explains substitution as 'the one-for-the-other' he not only posits an alterity at the heart of subjectivity, but gives it an ethical sense. Levinas is not preaching. He is not saying that should sacrifice oneself. He merely wants to account for its possibility. (235)

How could I not give up my seat, here, in the world, when I had just underlined this?

(Nicola: now I really have to get some work done. But that's a great question)

srj said...

Sorry - Anon was me. I am trying to tame the least tameable chapter of my albatross - which i do not want to be a typical chapter on 'government'. It has masses of material which needs taming into a coherent narrative - and today the light came on and I think that power and love will come close to doing that. Fingers crossed.

J J Cohen said...

IndieFaith, that sounds like a valuable contact for me. So far GW and G'town haven't collaborated much. As department chair I have been working to change that. In three weeks I am leading a departmental retreat, and one of the issues we'll be discussing is how to make productive alliances with educational, artistic, social (etc) institutions outside of GW.

On a different note, readers wondering why in general I haven't had much to say here to Michael Uebel (mu phage etc.) may want to check out this post from a year ago. Yes, a year ago. ("Emile Blauche" is an anagram of Michael Uebel). I don't really have anything to add to what I said then.

I don't think I've ever met anyone with so great a comprehension of the world, but so little understanding of himself. Michael: in your meditations upon identity and being (meditations you have often shared with us here to good effect) I hope that you eventually come to a greater equanimity than you demonstrate here.

mu delta said...

Beautiful intersection of Levinas and the interpersonal moment, on a plane to the Zoo no less.

You know why I take pot-shots now and then at Levinas, right? It's not because he's not extremely rich (I still return to him often--indeed passages like those are marked in my copies, and I picked up the Companion about a month ago), it's because he's come to be the horizon of what a literary humanist reads when he or she begins the study of the ethical. I think that’s unfortunate, because ultimately limiting due to his lack of historicization. Not that Levinas should be a historian, it’s only to point out that nearly all his major ideas are found elsewhere (e.g., the one-for-the-other found in Hampden-Turner’s Radical Man (1971), and thus his ideas, along with the others, are better, I think anyway, historically conceptualized/contextualized.

So...that said, what I hear in your story of the seat substitution is mainly compassion (and I won’t repeat the relevant theorists and researchers again), but also what, in gestalt specifically and humanistic psychology generally, is called the paradoxical theory of change. It may be stated thus: change occurs when one becomes what one is, not when one tries to become what one is not. So I would reflect on the ways in which you internalized Levinas’s passage before acting compassionately toward the other person. So, in retrospect what might look like (and this is how you describe it) a case of influence producing change is more like a becoming of who you already were. The Levinas passage was icing on the cake.

The reason I like the paradoxical theory of change is that it can be plugged into the social easily. It is not only a theory of personal change. To take an example involving power/domination, since that came up, the political version of the theory may be put thus: to become fully aware of being dominated is itself a step toward ending domination. I have argued in my book on masochism that this kind of thinking underlies radical action in the 60s. An excellent account of this is the memoir of James Kunen (The Strawberry Statement, 1968), his account of the “revolution” at Columbia U.

mu delta said...

Cohen: Haha. If your life, your self, your work, your thoughts, were a fraction as peak, creative, and self-actualized as mine, I'd take what you said as insulting. Instead, I still love you, man.

mu phage said...

Postscriptum: Cohen, you really ought to take a look at your own fear of engaging me. Get inside that fear, mate.

Karl and Eileen exhibit little anxiety drawing me out, and the result has been some productive exchanges. You, on the other hand, appear unable to get past the trauma of having your work called into question as the often superficial and inert stuff it is. Put yourself out there, instead of resting on your misunderstandings from a year ago. Inert, indeed. You gotta roll, man. Risk that authority you spent your life convincing yourself you have. That's my advice. (God, I love being Spotnitzian sometimes.)

Anonymous said...

I'm just a bystander, and I like Jeffrey and Michael equally. I can understand JJC's reticence to match wits, scholarship, whathaveyou, against MU. As Al Shoaf once told me, "I don't know a better read medievalist than MU." And that was said to me a few years ago, before MU's reinvention of himself as another kind of thinker. I think what MU has done is admirable--and formidable at the same time.

Karl Steel said...

As Al Shoaf once told me, "I don't know a better read medievalist than MU."

Huh? Must have forgot Caroline Walker Bynum, Joan Ferrante, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne. I'm sure everyone's wellread, but of course in different things.

Karl and Eileen exhibit little anxiety drawing me out, and the result has been some productive exchanges. You, on the other hand, appear unable to get past the trauma...

Now, Michael, isn't it possible that Eileen and I are able to draw you out because you've no history with us?

Now, I have to say that while some of what's happened here is interesting, I'm a bit grumpy that you've more or less explicitly signaled that my original question about the classroom wasn't worth asking. It might be a waste of time for you, but it's not for me. It is, after all, where I work.

mu ex said...

Karl, don't be grumpy. I think the classroom is a fine place to think about tolerance etc., but my point is the real work of being tolerant, practicing tolerance, is not likely to be located there. Why not think one's way (back) to the classroom, instead of starting there? The classroom may be where you work, but it's not where you live.

Shoaf was out of his mind, in a good way.

Now. . .isn't it possible that Eileen and I are able to draw you out because you've no history with us?

No, I don't think so. Here's why: I stand on my judgment of personality when I say that Eileen, whom I know far better than you, is one to take intellectual risks, do serious rethinking, ask questions and not get flustered when she receives an answer she didn't anticipate or initially finds unpalatable or challenging. She's got a foundationally solid ego. I've never known Cohen to be like that--that is, rethink without defense. His ego is heavily fortified. He's led, despite what he might claim, a pretty placid academic life, set on a boring trajectory to deanhood. I think too of the time Cohen once backed down from justifiably chiding Dinshaw when she delivered a NSC address that not only ripped him off, but left him unacknowledged. Cohen doesn't stir big waters, even when they need to be; he's not self-actualized to the point that he can transcend his enculturation.

Karl, you're a bit of an unknown to me. You're smart as fuck, better read than any medievalist of your generation I personally know, and, I'm not being mean, you're still kinda green. Our history is virtual.

My "history" with Eileen is richer than my history with Cohen, and since the duration of the former is a fraction of the latter, that should give you an idea of the richness of the latter. (I'm not rewriting that sentence...)

So, I think it's a matter of personality structure, not history. You will recall that I challenged EJ back when, and that she wasn't perturbed and she didn't stammer like Cohen. When was that? Hmmm...a year ago? Yes, a year ago!

Karl Steel said...

Sure, I'm green. No offense taken. As for reading: a kickass database and a few great syllabuses can help anyone out. As Plato complained, who needs a memory?

Now, in terms of Jeffrey: I could counter by testifying for my friendship and affection for him. I like him. We have good times together. He's fun to needle and confound. &c. I've also found his work inspiring. Yadda yadda yadda. But that's no good, because it keeps us churning here, unproductively, keeping aloft an argument that just isn't going to produce results, perhaps because of what you think is Jeffrey's personality (but please let's not get into that any further), but likely because of the venue itself. Seriously. What response could you hope for here, given how very very public this all is? My advice, please, is to let it go. Tolerate it, if you must, but I'd like to see you do something better. If you're convinced of the great value of your ego, then, you know, docere exemplo a bit.

Starting from outside the classroom and moving in is a fine suggestion, in general, but this particular instance in the classroom, especially in light of the Bible as Lit course I'll be teaching in a few weeks, is what got me thinking. So in general, sure; but that general notion isn't particularly applicable here.

Kermit said...

it aint easy... bein' green...

mu triplex said...

I think to some extent I have taught by example. If Eileen were around, maybe she could/would throw in on that score.

I do want to encourage a certain fearlessness in thinking and doing. Though I'm more convinced of the value of others' egos than that of my own, I do recognize that fear is now alien to me in the specific sense that, by excoriating layers of false consciousness, I see things with a clarity that compels me to forge an ethics that is not rendered inactive by, say, 6 books dealing with the same metaphoric chain.

In short, the project is Diogenesian: I have come to debase the coinage.

mu iratus said...

Readers who value their internet privacy will be interested to know that is spying on the traffic to and from this blog. This server is connecting to your computer.

Confirmation of this was achieved using TCPView.exe (available from, which is a handy little executable that shows all connections to your computer. Try it, you'll see what I'm describing. You can also open your command line window and enter "netstat" and that will show connections.

What is interesting is that the connection will remain after you move to another www page.

Spying of this sort is reprehensible, and, fortunately, easily subverted.

If you have a firewall (which you should have!), set it to block out this range of IPs: to

This will prevent that server from connecting to your computer and monitoring your traffic.

This will absolutely no effect on your access to this page (which resides on a different

highlyeccentric said...

As to what I think of Chaucer's own faith: I don't have a good answer, and I don't think it's the best question to put to Chaucer. If we're talking late 14th-century British authors, Langland is probably the better choice for asking that question.

just starting on Langland this week. So far, Piers seems to me to be so passionately concerned with the gospel and the correct ordering of the church that I'm reluctant to think he could be anything but a passionate believer. Atheists criticise the church intensely, and so they should, but they don't tend to get hung up about the correct preaching of the gospel. And an apathist wouldn't bother at all...

Anyway. Thanks for the tip ;) I'll make sure to badger my lecturer about it. And probably be told i'm off the topic, since the topic is supposed to be "Dreams and Visions", not "medieval christian literature". But ah, such is life.

Karl Steel said...

And probably be told i'm off the topic, since the topic is supposed to be "Dreams and Visions", not "medieval christian literature". But ah, such is life.

Well, if it's medieval Dreams and Visions, lord knows you can't do the study without bringing in a lot of Christian material (although you would also require the Romance of the Rose (for your purposes, I would suggest confining yourself to the Guillaume de Lorris portion), i.e., Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, some Hildegard of Bingen, some Christine de Pizan, and even some little-known works like the Flower and the Leafe and Why I Can't Be a Nun, and, oh, I could go on all day. Good luck with your studies! You'll love Langland...