Quin etiam obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt auctoritas eorum qui se docere profitentur; desinunt enim suum iudicium adhibere, id habent ratum quod ab eo quem probant iudicatum vident.
In fact the authority of those who stand forward as teachers is generally an obstacle in the way of those who wish to learn, for the latter cease to apply their own judgment, and take for granted the conclusions which they find arrived at by the teacher whom they approve.
—Cicero, De Natura Deorum [On the Nature of the Gods], trans. Francis Brooks (London: Methuen, 1896) 1.5.10 (see Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children“)
Normally, in the classroom, the place of learning, teachers cannot help but put and keep students in their place by stepping into the centre of the room, which is the institutional place-holder. They then, intentionally or not, prescribe what learning work can take place there.
This happens even in the liberal—read: enlightened and equalitarian—writing studies classroom in a university, where students are compelled to disclose themselves to their co-workers to be allowed to participate fully and freely in the work of learning. This is obviously problematic, say, when the classroom is multicultural and the teacher is of the dominant culture—or, for that matter, when there are females in the class and the teacher is male (see Alison Jones’s “Pedagogy by the Oppressed: The Limits of Classroom Dialogue“).
Thus, the “democratic heresy” of the writing zone, to borrow Rancière’s phrase, which takes “equality as a point of departure” (see “Politics and Aesthetics: An Interview” 192), proves, like most heresies, to be an authorised misreading of a “religious” authority. That is to say, the writing zone’s not really democratic or heretical: it’s another cloister, a “free” space within the institution that has been authorised by it—much like the space of the seminar.
It’s not one of those sites that, according to Foucault in “Of Other Spaces,” “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites [in the spatial network of a society], but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect,” the non-site of the utopia or the counter-site of the heterotopia that “contradict all the other sites.”
(For Foucault, utopias [ou-topos, “no place”] are unreal places “that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society,” that perfect or invert it; heterotopias [hetero-topos, “other place”] are “real places . . . which are something like counter-sites, . . . enacted utopia[s] in which the real sites . . . are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” [see wikipedia].)
The writing zone’s not a utopia, an ideal refuge, or a heterotopia, a critical vantage. It is not the counter-university within the university: there is no counter-university—especially not one that works from below; the university goes all the way down.
Of course, this was always already true of the university, ever since the academy was placed at the centre of education by the Greeks (not at the centre of the state per se, which centre is occupied by the religious site). It is called the academy (Ἑκάδημος) from when Castor and Polydeuces, guardians of Sparta, invaded Attica to liberate their sister Helen, and Akademos betrayed to them that Theseus had concealed her at Aphidnae. Whenever the Spartans invaded Attica, the twins always spared Akademos’s land, which lay on the Cephissus, six stadia from Athens. In the historical era, his land became identified with a grove of Athena outside the walls of Athens—just outside the city proper. The academy, the garden of Athena, goddess of wisdom, seems, then, to represent a haven from politics—but it is one secured by politics.
The only alternative for teachers seems to be to enable learners—and teachers themselves—to map their places within the place of learning, thereby taking account of the various positionalities at work there and their relative positions: a process of description, rather than prescription. Of course, this process is in itself prescriptive, in that it closes off the room by defining what can or does go on there. Or, you might say, it offers
- an open prescription for what can or does go on there or
- a prescription that is a decryption [kryptos, “hidden,” thus decryption, “unhiding,” a.k.a. aletheia, truth as unconcealment], in that . . .
. . . we thereby decode the institutional code (a code uses a cipher or algorithm that makes it unreadable to anyone who doesn’t possess special knowledge, a.k.a. a key), transcribing its ciphertext in plaintext. The teacher gives the lead in this decoding process, because they work within and know how to “work” the system to which the learner wants access and cannot but work with.
Not coincidentally, this is akin to the sacrilegious practice that Vilém Flusser in “The Future of Writing” calls writing, by which we “learn to decipher . . . images, . . . [to] learn the conventions that give them their meaning,” images—and imagination—for Flusser being mythic, magical (and thus propitiatory) and prehistoric, and writing—and conceptual thought—being religious, scientific (and thus political) and historical (65). When we write (rightly) at university, we decipher the immutable mythic entity that is the university to understand the magical gestures by which we propitiate it and thereby understand it as a mutable institution, with a liturgy (a way of working), an epistemology (a way of knowing), and thus a politics (a distribution of work).
I note the phrase that Rancière uses to describe how we learn new forms of representation: “sensible education,” in line with his notion of the “distribution of the sensible” (partage [sharing/sharing out] du sensible):
Perhaps our role as teachers is to invite learners to educate themselves as to and give an account of the distribution of the sensible that prevails in the classroom space, a microcosm of the university in toto.
Would we oppose a “sensible” to the “sentimental education” that might be said to prevail in the wisdom tradition, a.k.a. the ecclesiastical tradition, of the university, a tradition that now finds itself in ruins?
N.B. Rancière has Schiller’s Aesthetic Education in mind, aesthetic (sensible) sensation being the most important of the four aspects of education: physical [of the body], logical [of the understanding], moral [of the will] and aesthetic [of taste, i.e. of the beauty of the whole, “the totality of our various powers”] (99 [letter 20]). For Schiller, aesthetic education happens through art; for Rancière, it happens through perception.
One way to put decryption into practice is to deform ways of writing (genres, modes, etc.) by bending their conventions, political and aesthetic, i.e., decoding them to re-encode them as an “new code” that is an “own-code,” thereby affirming a sense of possibility (possibilities) in writing.
Such deformance is a form of autodidacticism: we teach ourselves by learning the conventions to unlearn them (and, ideally, to teach others about them in the writing zone).