This is a reworked version of a final lecture given to final year English students, studying literary theory in their final semester at an Australian University. The course, ‘Critical Debates’, was compulsory for English majors and was designated as the Capstone subject. It might have got me unhired. It was also reprised as a lecture for the MSCP.
Anyone familiar with Jacques Derrida will know that promises and threats are a matter of context. Unlike John R. Searle Inc, I cannot control iteration, so you will decide what this turns out to be. I have a bit of a fancy for institutional terms, the function of names, the intentions they presume to transmit (even if it is often a lack of intention that they transmit) the normative force of such terms and the ideological conditions of such terms. It would seem to me that in an educational institution – if that is not an oxymoron, and truly, it must not be – to think through the names is not a bad idea; especially if one presumes themselves to be educated. And perhaps this term education is the one we should be thinking about most of all, if we are to be Critical.
In 1795, when the French Revolution had gone over to the side of reaction and restoration the Marquis de Sade wrote a tract extolling his fellow countrymen: ‘Frenchmen, one more effort please if you would become Republicans’. Sade offered a new radicality to what it meant to ‘become Republican’, to follow this ‘desire’ right to the end. Without this, he declared, the real ‘murderers and thieves’, the state and the wealthy, would keep on ‘getting away with it’. So, faced with a situation in which ‘getting away with it' is the default setting of those who have been well schooled, I invoke Sade and ask: one more effort everyone if we would become ‘educated’.
My first lecture on this subject of Critical Debates was positive. I was selling you a course, the importance of debates, their critical necessity for the good life and so on. Today, things are a little different. I’m going to be flippant, make a few puns, some jokes, poke fun, provoke and generally be allusive. Am I serious? This is where you come in. Knowing that you are all so well-schooled in theory, I have no need to be didactic or demonstrative. Your job, as if you were butterfly collectors, is to catch the allusions.
My talk is modelled in a very casual way on what the ‘Situationists’ call a détournement. Not for the last time I quote Wikipedia: ‘A détournement is a variation on a previous media work, in which the newly created one has a meaning that is antagonistic or antithetical to the original. The original media work that is détourned must be somewhat familiar to the target audience, so that it can appreciate the opposition of the new message.’ Freud’s unheimlich is also worth considering in the context as is Lacan’s gloss, whereby the irreducible anxiety this encounter effects touches on the Real.
A détournement is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International and consists in ‘turning expressions [in this case] of the capitalist system against itself,’ like turning slogans and logos against the advertisers or the political status quo. Reductively, a detournement, a contingent linking of the disparate, creates a situation or a moment, one that is parallel yet newly withdrawn from the spectacle. The key figure in the SI or Situationist International was Guy Debord, author, most famously, of The Society of the Spectacle whose main thesis, to quote Debord from his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle written 20 years later, ‘showed that the spectacle was in essence the autocratic reign of the market… acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanies this reign’. From this, the argument goes, we need a detour, a new recuperation or reconfiguration of the disparate parts, rendered partial, and importantly, a detour that traces out the really or truly new as distinct from the debased novelty that the market serves up year in year out and in this place too in the service of its continuing.
The ‘Situationists’ took the idea of the detour – which is already in Plato – from Walter Benjamin’s development of Baudelaire’s depiction of the flâneur. The flâneur traversed the Parisian cityscape, domesticated by Hausmann’s architectural ‘Napoleonic Imperialism’ – ‘the great cuttings’, as Eric Hazan describes them in the Invention of Paris – on the lookout for the reality of the lived experience amidst the ordinary repetitions of commerce and work. For Benjamin, the flâneur is the artist of divergence, ever on the threshold between worlds, marking out a trace of something new.
I give my talk this literary and theoretical pedigree to veil the fact that I have made it all up. Basically, I’m riffing wildly on the sense of ‘capstone’ found in educational literature and I’m reconfiguring it anew. But I do it by way of detour. Seriously.
Let me, with all conceit intended, quote Debord one more time:
Our unfortunate times thus compel me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain decoys, like the very hallmark of the era. As long as certain pages are interpolated here and there, the overall meaning may appear. Just as secret clauses have very often been added to whatever treaties may openly stipulate; just as some chemical agents only reveal their hidden properties when they are combined with others. However, in this brief work there will be only too many things which are, alas, easy to understand.
My quaint old Oxford dictionary does not have an entry for Capstone. It jumps from capstan –(which is) a vertical-axled rotating machine developed for use on sailing ships to apply force to ropes, cables, and hawsers, itself connected with the Old French capestan or cabestan(t), from Old Provençal cabestan, from capestre ‘pulley cord’, from Latin capistrum thus,‘halter’, from capere, to take hold of! – to capsule (which is) – this is the first entry – a membranous envelope; and the second is ‘a dry seed case opening when ripe by parting of valves! You get the picture – halter, envelope, ripening, machine.
Wikipedia sends you to ‘Coping’ as in architecture, which is not completely outside the frame, as the idea there, is to cap or cover a wall in such a fashion that the weather doesn’t get in. In this sense, then, it’s about keeping something ‘within’ – having been so constructed – from being corrupted by something ‘without’ and the coping stone, often a decorative feature in itself, even has the decency to carry away to where it will be rendered no further nuisance that which seeks to penetrate into the newly capped construction. The Capstone, then, is most certainly no accident. It is integral to the edifice or at least to an edifice constructed in such a way that it then needs ‘capping’. A Capstone is an immanent demand of the edifice itself, a self-referential entity that refuses to submit to the weather ‘out there’ and instead blocks itself against it in order to maintain its integrity. It is the ‘end of the poem’.
In following the hyperlinks, so conveniently set out for me on Wikipedia such that I feel myself the agent of my own literary journey, narrator and constructor at once of my own special world – of course, as those smoking adds say, every key stroke is doing you damage – I came across this explanation: ‘Coping or scribing is the woodworking technique of shaping the end of a moulding or frame component to fit the contours of an abutting member.’
If we cut a couple of words, it’s instructive: ‘Coping or scribing is the woodworking technique of shaping the end of a moulding or frame component to fit the contours of an abutting member.’ I have to say, I like the word abutting, it suggests all kinds of things and abutting a member is just too much.
But given our educational context, indeed our ‘Academic one’ listen to this from Socrates in Plato’s dialogue the Charmides:
he did come and his coming caused a lot of laughter, because everyone of us who was already seated began pushing hard at his neighbour so as to make a place for him to sit down’ [...] In the end he came and sat down between me and Critias. And then, my friend, I really was in difficulties, and although I had thought it would be perfectly easy to talk to him, I found my previous brash confidence quite gone. And when... he turned his full gaze upon me in a manner beyond description and seemed on the point of asking a question, and when everyone in the palaestra surged all around us in a circle, my noble friend, I saw inside his cloak and caught on fire and was quite beside myself (155cd).
Polite psychoanalysts will call this admixture of knowledge and desire ‘transference’ – rude Greeks will call it abutment.
Interestingly, Capstone is also the term used to describe the fossil echinus or sea urchin, which inhabits a spheroidal shell. It is of the genus Cannulus. Cannulus provides the root for the word cannula, which is defined as ‘a small tube for inserting into a cavity’. In a curious, 19th century text called Rudiments of Minerology, I found this:
There are also quoit, boat, buckler or shield urchins, which you may meet with in your search; they are at least to be seen in the Museum. Some are only casts in flint, the outer shell having disappeared, the interior is filled with flint: the common capstone echinus is usually in this state.
Let’s note in passing that urchin is a derogatory name for the children of the poor who spend their days, out and about on the street, participating in what one might call ‘knowledge transfer’. Under the never patronising tutelage of UNESCO, and its humanitarian intervention on what it calls Low Development Capacity countries, we can rest assured a well-meaning pedagogue will catch up with every species of urchin still out there. No child left uncapped.
Anyway, coping and scribing: Scribing is basically, marking out a piece of wood or stone or sheet metal etc., to the shape or formation of the ‘abutting member’. Obviously, one then cuts along that inscription so that what was inscribed on the material body is re-actualised vis a vis the demands of the abutting member. Retrospectively, we could think of the inscription as a virtual cut, which a good abutment actualises. It’s impressive how the abutting wall – the dominant or structuring structure – is in no structural way disturbed by the abutee.
The latter, it turns out, must have been inscribed such that it attends to the needs and demands of the original structure, lest it either be unstable in its position vis a vis structure or at fault for letting in the weather. As none of us want to be accused of threatening the integrity of the structure, which we so solemnly and learnedly abut, let alone be characterised as unstable (it’s off to the imaging machine and some solid CBT for you), it is best, is it not, that we pursue our scribing and coping with all due diligence and with a weather eye to the good order it convenes.
Digging about further among the things of shadow and light, I discovered, without surprise, that Capstone is a particularly popular term in educational institutions. Everyone nowadays has a capstone this or that and they are generally referred to as, wait for it, ‘capstone experiences’. They are, it is said, ‘varied’ – which, the capstones or the experiences? They never tell you these things! But anyway, they, they say, may be grouped as:
• Experiences that illustrate a student’s skill development; and
• Experiences that broaden a student’s understanding of the work environment and the societies and economies with which they will engage and contribute.
As experiences, they are something one undergoes or endures – like an abutment. The character of the experience – emotional, intelligible, painful, pleasurable, cognitive, demonstrative etc. – are, I suppose, matters for the individual and yet, as we can see, this is not a matter of contingency or chance. Already the experience, according to the above, is a strictly delimited, well, experience. You know precisely what the experience will be, the form it will take and thus what an experience is.
Once upon a time, the word experience also meant ‘to experiment’ (note the verb form). One subjected oneself to the possibility that something new might be possible: for the subject in the world and even for the very form of subjectivity. Experiments require hypothesis and speculation and work under the shadow of the impossible. If one is truly to have a ‘Capstone Experience’, the possibility of the stone not appearing as a cap would have to be included as a variable in the experiment otherwise it would not be all it might be (even as it might be all it should). But as is well known, science is very annoying. It often threatens to reveal the CON in contribute and the GAG in engagement, messing up the right of everyone to their proper capstone experience.
When searching the ‘intynet’, this in particular caught my attention: A chap called Joseph Cuseo had constructed a rubric of the Capstone – people really do lead interesting lives, don’t they? Letting my ressentiment shine, I can imagine this was well funded by the US equivalent of the ARC. Anyway, if we look closely, this rubric combines bodies, inscriptions and abutment and is driven by an architecture that pre-establishes or presupposes the coherence of the whole. In new(ish)-speak, pre-established results are called ‘outcomes’.
promotion of the coherence and relevance of general education;
promotion of integration and connections between general education and the academic major;
fostering of integration and synthesis within the academic major;
promotion of meaningful connections between the academic major and work and career experiences;
explicit and intentional development of important student skills, competencies, and perspectives that are tacitly or incidentally developed in the college curriculum;
enhanced awareness of and support for the key personal adjustments encountered by seniors during their transition from college to postcollege life;
improvement of seniors' career preparation and pre-professional development, that is, facilitation of the transition from the academic to the professional world;
enhancement of seniors' preparation and prospects for postgraduate education;
promotion of effective life planning and decision making with respect to practical issues likely to be encountered in adult life after college (for example, financial planning, marriage, family planning).
I also found the following in a document from the University website – it’s taken from a guy named Howard Gardiner, a constructivist pedagogue any education student out there will know. He is the guy who invented the notion of ‘multiple intelligences’, which, when I think about it, has a certain smell about it, as Nietzsche would say, of the kind Bourdieu tried to sniff out, and no doubt Rancière would have some harsh words for this effort to ‘enlighten the populace’, as Alan Ginsburg said: to ‘do the worm on the acropolis, slam dance cosmopolis’.
As you can see, it runs a similar game to Professor Cuseo but its contemporary piety seems even more explicit:
Capstone experiences can be designed to address:
• Connecting discipline specific curriculum to general education objectives
• Assisting students to reflect on and demonstrate what they have learnt over the course of their degree
• Relating discipline specific learning outcomes to the world of work
• Providing a forum for students to participate in interdisciplinary activities
• Enabling students to reflect on and imagine personal, social, emotional and practical issues of transition beyond the university into the world of work
• Providing a bridge between final year of an undergraduate degree and graduate programs and lifelong learning
• Directly engendering the development of graduate capabilities that employers are searching for in graduates
• Linking undergraduate students to employers and employment arenas
• Connecting graduates to alumni in their chosen fields
• Linking major subject students to another discipline
• Preparing graduates to become active alumni.
Its all very pastoral, seamless, unproblematic, facilitating, positivist, conjunctural and fastidious and, if you know what I mean, American-nice. In short, it’s normative, which is to say, it's a rubric for making normal. Not, note, making the normal, but making normal. Which, to use some more terms in fashion, is to say it’s all very adaptive, flexible and resilient making. But to what? To what are we supposed to adapt, be flexible before, be resilient in the face of? I never find an explicit answer to this in any of the documents.
But that’s because it’s really an ignorant question and as such unworthy of a Capstone subject.
End of Part 1