Monday, February 04, 2008

Pitched Past Pitch of Grief / 3

The question here for me, tonight, is one of response: to the murder of a student in my class, to my own processes of understanding, to those who responded to me and what I've written.

I find myself at an impossible impasse, where I cannot write anymore but where I must continue to write.

***

The first Anchorage Daily News article (December 3, 2007), "Police chase ends 26 hours of violence," detailing Christopher Rogers' killing rampage, yielded 105 online responses. Many condemned the killing and the killer, some thanked the police. Some wanted Rogers' blood, others pitied him and prayed for him. Some blamed the police for taking so long, others praised the police for acting so decisively. Others blamed Alaska or the Lower 48, bad education or poor parenting, and still others just insulted what other people wrote. A few posts were deleted for violating the ADN user agreement.

***

Genesis 22: 12a says, "And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him." The rabbis asked, Why did the Lord say 'lay not thine hand' and a second time, 'neither do any thing unto him'? Because Abraham tried to kill Isaac a different way—perhaps strangle him or extract just one drop of blood—to remain obedient to the Lord. So the Lord had to tell him both not to put his hand upon Isaac or do any other thing to him, out of Abraham's desire to be obedient.

***

indiefaith asked exactly the right question, the one I've been sneaking up to for weeks now and can no longer avoid: "The only thought that I have floating around is the relationship between Levinas' "uselessness of suffering" and your process of meaning-making. Do these in any way conflict or create tension?"

This is exactly my question: Is nonviolent meaning making possible?

***

"'He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,' says Ecclesiastes (1:18), where suffering appears at the very least as the price of reason and spiritual refinement. It is also thought to temper the individual's character. It is said to be necessary to the teleology of community life, when social discontent awakens a useful attention to the health of the collective body. Perhaps there is a social utility in the suffering necessary to the pedagogic function of power in education, discipline, and repression." (Levinas, "Useless Suffering," p. 95)

Perhaps there is a social utility in the suffering necessary to the pedagogic function, but who suffers in an ethical pedagogy, and in what way?

***

Responding to Kronman's high modernist sense of the sovereign self challenged and enlarged by art, Fish states:

Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?


The answer in both cases, I think, is no.

[snip]

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.


***

This connection is irresistible, though, isn't it?

Does Fish say that the Humanities must remain useless in the same way Levinas says suffering must remain useless?

***

Fish continues, as Mary Kate has described:

"It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by 'do' is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.


***

Elizabeth Rumsey, who was shot by Christopher Rogers shot near Winchester Lagoon, responded to a blog devoted to Jason at the UAA Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts:

It is haunting to read these posts knowing that it is by the skin of my own teeth that I am here to read them at all, and not instead by Jason's side in another dimension, perhaps looking down at my own community gathering to mourn me the way you all have come together to mourn --and to celebrate -- Jason. I was also shot by the man who killed Jason, but I survived. In the moments between being shot and being put out for surgery, I felt exquisitely close to that fine line that ultimately separates life from death, and I thought, "so this is how the story ends." I don't know if Jason had a moment to experience this space the way I did, but if he did, I strongly believe -- from reading about Jason and the kind fo person that he was -- that he felt a strange sense of peace that comes of knowing that he had lived his life with tremendous integrity, and that those he loved KNEW he loved them. I had wanted to tell my mom and dad on the phone, before I went into surgery, that if I didn't make it, it was OK. That all I was feeling at that moment was a profound gratitude for the life I did lead, the people I had known and loved... I don't remember feeling fearful or distraught or sad. It is selfish of me to write about my own experience here, but if I were to have died the way Jason did, and to have lived the life the way he did, this is the message I would so want to send to all of you from above.

Peace,
Liz


***

Fish writes as if there is no outside, no other who calls to us, no third disrupts the amorous and exclusive dyad. There is only the I and the pleasure I derive from what I do. Or as Levinas says about Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham and Isaac. There is nothing but the I tensed upon itself, and this allows Abraham to transcend the ethical through the immolation of his son, who has no voice and who does not figure in the divine calculus except as a figure, the null set, a placeholder so that the sacrificial equation may be balanced once again.

***

Levinas writes that "the justification of the neighbor's pain is certainly the source of all immorality" ("Useless Suffering," p. 99), but is this the same kind of "justification" that Fish is talking about?

***

This is exactly my question: Is a nonviolent pedagogy possible?

Or must we settle for a "less violent" pedagogy and be thankful for that?

There is no doubt that I am part of a disciplinary mechanism that subjects students as I teach. After all, I have a discipline (I am a medievalist and literary critic) and I teach specific subjects--in all the Foucauldian valences one might see fit to layer onto that vocabulary.

And is it not our function to discipline students into our disciplines? To subject them to our subjects?

So that the undecided first year student leaves our colleges and universities four years later not only thinking but behaving differently than when they came in? So that as individuals they say, "I am a nursing major!" or "I am a history major!" or "I am …" and the list continues.

Is this not what is at stake in what we do? Are these not, contra Fish, real effects in the real world?

Is this not the starting point for an ethical pedagogy?
To embrace the violence of our practice?
Not to excuse it but to reveal it?
And to offer our students the opportunity to understand and negotiate it?

***

I teach because it *does* save lives. It has saved my own.

***

The ADN article that detailed Jason's death, "Grad student found shot dead in Spenard" (December 3, 2007), yielded 45 comments. Many of these comments were specifically about Jason from people who knew him, including his family members, but many others used the comments to opine about the failures of current city leaders or to promote the death penalty.

***

My scholarship is the desperate attempt to make sense out of what's going on in my own head.

***

Leaving aside for a moment Fish's tautology that (1) although there is no evidence we should (2) take his word that there is no evidence because (3) his word is backed by 45 years of non-evidence (as well as other specious reasoning in this paragraph), maybe some Ph.D. type folks learned what Fish says they learned "to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge," but that seems an impoverished account of (at least) my experience.

***

I teach literature because I live in a culture whose economic engine is powered by deliberately manipulating and confusing people about the distinction between what they want versus what they need. I teach because I live in a culture that chooses its elected leaders on the basis of carefully contrived appearances and stage-managed messages that have little to do with real issues and everything to do with manipulating public opinion and maintaining power in the hands of a few.

***

Fish writes, "There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise."

This final word, this telos, this theodicy, is violence.

***

Even after Fish concludes by saying "There is nothing more to say," his column has rung up "484 comments so far …" according to the NYT webpage.

***

Justification is a word that I think Justin's family, if not Justin himself, would understand very differently.

***

Here are two faces, of whom I have been writing:

Christopher Rogers & Jason Wenger

***

Each semester, when we stand in front of our classes, how many new faces do we see? How many faces are there before us? Some we recognize, some we know well, and others are brand new. Some, we know too, will disappear before the next class, or in the third week, or after the first major assignment, or at the add/drop date. Some will disappear, and we will never see them again, ever.

***

I teach because people live and die based upon how they (and others) read and interpret texts.

***

Sometimes I have to be reminded what the stakes are, so that I may proceed with fear and trembling.




3 comments:

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Leaving aside for a moment Fish's tautology that (1) although there is no evidence we should (2) take his word that there is no evidence because (3) his word is backed by 45 years of non-evidence (as well as other specious reasoning in this paragraph), maybe some Ph.D. type folks learned what Fish says they learned "to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge," but that seems an impoverished account of (at least) my experience.

I admit: mine, too. I'm bothered by Fish's account because I want to be able to state that the opposite is true, that literature makes lives "better" (scare quotes because when I try to say how I am stymied) or maybe even saves them. I suppose one could just as truthfully say that countless lives have been ruined by literature. Still, among those lives saved by literature and those who teach it I do number my own.

I know from my own experience of professing literature for these many years that I have had a consequential and affirmative impact on at least a handful of lives. These are the students who came to be very different for having passed through my classroom and having entered my own life (just as I am different for having known them). Sometimes this mutual change has been the product of crisis, or just good old mentoring, or by leading via example and challenge. And sometimes an impact isn't revealed to me for many years, when a former student appears and announces how a comment or an accolade or even in a few cases a declaration of inadequacy altered their course completely.

I realize that the majority of my students pass through my classroom mildly entertained and destined to forget what has unfolded there. But I also know that I will have an influence on some of them that is strong, significant, and almost impossible to articulate in advance.

Thanks for another great post.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Dan, since I have Beowulf on my mind ... I wonder what you make of these words by Seamus Heaney, in his "Translator's Forward" -- words about the power of literature to escape historicity and affect psyches:

At these moments of lyric intensity, the keel of the poetry is deeply set in the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and far-sightedly in the element of pure comprehension – which is to say that the elevation of Beowulf is always, paradoxically, buoyantly down-to-earth. And nowhere is this more obviously and memorably the case than in the account of the hero’s funeral with which the poems ends. Here the inexorable and the elegiac combine in a description of the funeral pyre being got ready, the body being burnt and the barrow being constructed – a scene at once immemorial and oddly contemporary. The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo; her keen is a nightmare glimpse into the minds of people who have survived traumatic, even monstrous events and who are now being exposed to the comfortless future. We immediately recognize her predicament and the pitch of her grief and find ourselves the better for having them expressed with such adequacy, dignity and unforgiving truth.

The lines that really grab me there are "and find ourselves the better for having them expressed with such adequacy, dignity and unforgiving truth." They capture something of what I've felt about your series of posts, though I'm at a loss to try to articulate why or how this should be so. What does it mean to be "the better for having them expressed" thus? Why should it matter?

dtk said...

Jeffrey--Thanks for your comments here and the invitation to think about Heaney. (I hadn't remembered his reference to 'the pitch of grief'! But maybe he too is calling Hopkins to mind?) I'm constantly reminded these days about how much of what I read and think about as a scholar is so much a part of my own history and psyche--and I'm so mindful these days about the uncompromising nature of Levinas' challenging call to ethical relation--that I might be 'chasing the mice in my own skull' (to quote a great line from _Munich_) that what I experience in Heaney's lines not 'the power of literature' trope (which Fish seems also to be flirting with) as I seem to *hear* the sound of keening, the wordless cries of the heart that escape meaning, or see the flames that consume a house or town or body.

And Beowulf a hero? I understand why he's called that, but Beowulf had a choice to enter that final battle and knew the choice he was making and its consequences. His funeral pyre is a sign of his choice, but Heaney's lovely comment quietly elides the fact that the cries from Rwanda or Kosovo come from an entirely different place of suffering and horror. His turn to the third person there near the end--rather seductive don't you think?--quietly draws us into collusion with his beauty of his prose that at the same time ignores not only the differences between experiencing Beowulf's funeral pyre and the fires of Kosovo but the differences in lament for the loss of a great leader and the gaping maw of genocide.

Eliminating these differences through beautifully expressed prose is a danger, methinks, that leads to many other kinds of problems.

If I could be so presumptuous as to comment on my own posts viz. Heaney as a way of addressing your really fine questions, I tried for quite a while to write a more or less straight forward narrative but it never seemed to feel right. First, because it was too tidy an expression of what has been an emotionally fraught experience. Second, the fragmented chunklets allowed me *not* to have to draw definitive conclusions from this still ongoing experience yet at the same time gave it *some* kind of form (against that chaos you mentioned in a previous post).

Finally, if the structure of the posts achieved anything, I hoped that it both conveyed some of the jarring, discontinuous manner in which I have experienced Jason's murder and its aftermath, and putting it in this form would allow folks to experience and then to (re)assemble those chunklets (or find trajectories through them) in the way most fitting to their situations and experiences. I wanted to provide a structure but not a telos, if that makes sense? If what I've written is at all adequate, let alone dignified or truthful, that's some of what I was trying to do--even while I fight that gnawing sense of 'oh god did i really write that ... ?'