Critique, Thinking and the Shock of the Encounter


Larval Subjects concludes a well thought out and interesting response/diagnosis to student malaise (as well as some of the issues raised here, here and here):

In light of the foregoing, it seems that we are faced with two possible pedagogies. If we assume that thought is a natural attribute, an innate disposition, then we will pursue a pedagogy that assumes it is sufficient to explain in order for students to engage in certain forms of intellectual engagements. This seems to lead to much frustration, for in the humanities and social sciences, at least, we discover that very few of the students seem capable of benefiting from our explanations. However, if we begin with the premise that thought is an involuntary result of an encounter that disrupts our habitudes, then we will not be surprised that students have a difficult time distinguishing rhetoric from arguments, recognizing ideology, or discerning deeper strata of texts. Such students have not made the transition from the immediacy of the being in question (language, social organization, texts), to the reflection-into-self that problematizes these phenomenon and turns them into a question.

Since I’ve been on something of an Althusser kick as of late, this kind of materialism and the suggestion that thought is an involuntary result of an encounter that interrupts our habitual formations seems by and large quite correct to me. I don’t have too much time this morning, but here a few thoughts. The post ends with this comment:

The issue then will become one of how to form a pedagogy that artificially creates encounters, that doubles phenomenon, that presents them in their non-identity, allowing the site of a question to emerge. In-sight into rhetoric, ideology, argument, meaning, being, etc., only emerges in response to the emergence of a question that doubles phenomena and calls forth the ground. Bluntly, it is difficult to become fascinated with rhetoric if you’ve never been screwed by rhetoric (by language that differed from itself) or if you have no desire to screw someone else with rhetoric. In much of our day to day life the non-identity of the identical does not appear at all, as things present themselves as immediately self-identical– Simply being what they are. These artificial encounters need not be traumatic or negative. They can be playful, ironic, surprising. What is important is that they perpetually challenge the identity or immediacy of phenomena, presenting the phenomena in question in such a way that they differ from themselves, so the site of a question might emerge.

In fact, this response reminded me of a passage I came across the other day. In a late essay,”Marx in his Limits,” in Philosophy of the Encounter, Althusser writes:

The old notion of criticism or critique, which a whole century, from Bayle to Kant, had invested with philosophical dignity, had been charged by the entire rationalist tradition with distinguishing the true from the false; or again, and more boldly still, with denouncing error in the name of Truth, whenever Truth was ridiculed or assailed by error. In his early work, Marx was largely pursuing this rationalist tradition in order to denounce the irrationality of Reason’s conditions of existence. At the level of Capital, however, Marx confers an altogether different meaning and function on the word “critique”…For Marx; critique is the real criticizing itself, casting its own detritus itself, in order to liberate and laboriously realize its dominant tendency, which is active within it” (17).

Althusser goes onto suggest that Marx

did not content himself with this still abstract notion of critique…Marx tied critique to that which, in the real movement, grounded critique: for him, in the last instance, the class struggle of the exploited, which could objectively overcome the specific nature of the existing forms of their exploitation: the forms of capitalist exploitation.

Later on, in the other major essay contained in this volume,”The underground current of the materialism of the Encounter,” Althusser makes this comment right before he begins to compare Epicurus and Heidegger (!?):

The world may be called the accomplished fact in which, once the fact has been accomplished, is established the reign of Reason, Meaning, Necessity and End. But the accomplishment of the fact is just a pure effect of contingency, since it depends on the aleatory encounter of the atoms due to the swerve of the clinamen. Before the accomplishment of the fact, before the world, there is only the non-accomplishment of the fact, the non-world that is merely the unreal existence of the atoms (170).

Philosophy then, is no longer to be concerned with statements about the origin of things, or their reason, but instead, philosophy would recognize and theorize the fact of contingency. The proper job of philosophy is to lay bare the forms that gives form to the “effect of the encounter,” as Althusser often puts it. Naturally, in order for an encounter to “take hold” it has to “take place.” Quite literally, for a being to be, whether a state, a region, an animal, a person, a student, an encounter has to have taken place. Such encounters, in fact, every encounter is aleatory, both in its origins and effects. Before I veer off track (one of the nice things this “blogging” format allows for, the creation of rabbit holes one can endlessly jump into) too too much, I still wonder how we can most effectively get our students to “get the rubber to hit the road” so to speak. Anyway, I’ll remain always astonished, for part of my daily challenge teaching is transforming the “pornographic distance” some of my students adopt into a more constructive space of difference (or distance).

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