What Good an Untrue Education 2?
On the University and its Capstone Part 2
In the 1950’s there was this ‘breakaway’ psychoanalytic movement in the US called Ego psychology. They took up a particular strand of Freud. Adaptation became their watchword. Cuseo and Gardiner, among many others who drive the contemporary pedagogical reflex, present within ego psychology’s symptom.
Jacques Lacan, the most prominent psychoanalyst of the late 20th century, hated this tendency. He asked the same question – adapt to what? For what is the subject’s ego to be strengthened? In Ecrits, Lacan answers that it is set up to win the ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval, attesting to its suitability to the ‘American way of life’ (685). This was the 1950’s and you could centre these claims in America. Today we would just say the ‘globalised way of life’ which is no less about Good Housekeeping or America: thus, a sickly sweet and vicious blend of economics and morality.
It works like this: the analysts, the exemplar for the subject of normalcy or the ‘good, American way of life’, provides the subject with the model ego to which, in the course of the treatment, the subject will come to identify, conform to or more accurately, adapt. The ego of the analyst is merely a more or less ‘strong’ representation of an exterior norm – like an abutment. Note that the norm is never in question, such is why my question is really dumb: what must always be adjusted – indeed by implication what can only be adjusted – is the subject. As you all know, the Melbourne Model parodies with all seriousness an American one.
Above, in italics, I have marked out the always already determined outcome of this making normal. It’s obviously the structure to which, suitably scribed and coped, we will be abutted and upon which we will make no impression, so seamlessly fitted will we be into a schema that needs no introduction. I don’t mean to sound cynical; after all, my goal is to ultimately identify the void or empty point of all this capstone normativity and so identify the real point of education but it would be wrong for us not to note the effect of structure on capping us off, of how the yesses and noes of something other than education seem to have consecrating power. No doubt we all (or most of us) need to make a living, to get a job, or as they say these days, a career – which is a word I really like because it can mean exactly not what it’s supposed to mean: definition 2 in my quaint old Oxford says ‘to go wildly’. This is probably what the Situationists meant when they said: ‘never work’.
But you will have noticed that getting a job is not what’s at stake in these copious lists. Rather, it's about how one’s education seems to be always already subject to a set of demands that obtain to the world as it is – to what we (or Badiou) might call ‘the pedagogy of the world as it goes’ or what Rancière calls, with less abstract beauty, stultification! Thus, education, it’s supposed, says nothing about these demands or the place from which they issue. It would appear that our education has no effect on its place. There is a seamlessness or a point-less-ness to this education, as if its goal is to produce an incapacity or lack, precisely. On the one hand, nothing is left to chance and on the other it is all your own fault.
It would be wrong to say that normativity is unconcerned with creativity and invention, but it would also be wrong to say that it is. Perhaps it’s a matter of the link forged or not forged between Idea and intensity. Provisionally, we can say this: the capstone caps something or other – we are not yet sure what – and this cap is a capping in stone such that what is inscribed on the body is now set in stone. It's a message on a tablet, no less.
The term capstone in Cuseo’s and Gardiner’s sense names no less than a set of literal laws; the 9 & 11 commandments of pedagogy if you like, of pedagogicisation to use Rancière’s unlovely word, given by the current Lords of the Earth. The Olympus of these lords, by the way, is not Wall Street, Washington or Brussels but Chicago circa the 1950’s. There we see the emergent power of neo-liberalism, a brute-esotericism, ego or constructivist psychology and the self-interested version of the care of the self. All the component parts of contemporary pedagogy.
As you Derridean/Butlerian/Agambenians know, terms are rarely innocent of intent, despite the immediate intentions of a speaker. That is to say, someone may utter a term in the course of their everyday conversation and not realise the force of the norm that the utterance carries. But this is not to say the term is therefore free of normative and, as such, structuring and effective force. Indeed, the less speakers and hearers realise the normative effect of terms and discourses, the greater the normative effect can be.
Of course, the relation between normativity and/as ideology is well marked. Suffice to say, paraphrasing Marx and Engels from the German Ideology, that the norms of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling norms, and, as such, terms are not innocent, nor are they accidents and nor, then, are they predicated on that which is natural or essential or necessary in some supposed absolute sense, so much as on that which must continue to be.
This is not to say ideology is a matter of opinion: rather it is the discourse – in this case, words and images, rules and regulations – best fitted to smoothing over real contradictions such that we can really believe they are not there at all. This belief, in fact, as Lacan noted, suits truth fearing animals like us, very well.
Of course, what must continue to appear to be, needs to be rebuilt every day and to be rebuilt in such a way that the terms used to drive its construction maintain their utility and hence their effect. ‘Mystification’ is what Debord called this work: ‘the fundamental need for the lack of consciousness’. As with our Capstone sea urchin, there is a vicious and barbed circularity in its makeup, coupled with uncomfortably penetrative force.
The use of terms in institutional contexts, and especially institutions purporting to be educational is fraught because one expects or at least one is lead to believe – by the force of the institution itself, by its mere existence – that norms correlate with truths. If one is to be educated – and I’ll return to the tense of this word below – one would expect, given the correlation with truths, that this comes despite privilege, regardless of specificity, without partiality and even independently of institutions.
The latter, surely, should arise on the basis of the former. To confuse an effect for a cause is certainly poor science. But should one expect this? I’d say yes and no. No, because institutions, despite their sometimes ridiculous and desperate assertions to the contrary – although these are becoming rarer, the deeper in the mire of conceit we sink – operate subject to the political logics of the time.
There is some virtue in the fact that the pretence of the university being a special place, not like the ‘real world’, is being given up. But only insofar as the claim to specificity and the reward inherent to this conception can be put aside. It’s not at all good that it’s just another part of the capitalist world order.
What the university might do instead is claim what its name suggests: that insofar as it is universal, which is to say, is of and for all, it is a singular place. A singular place, a universal idea. When I say it’s for all, I’m not meaning everyone should go there, rather, that its very reason for being is for all. Singularity, in this sense, might be another possible sense of Capstone, perhaps.
So, yes, one should expect this because this is the immanent and proper trajectory of education: to a-void subjection to privilege, specificity and partiality as the very constitution of its practice. You can have institutions, schools, pedagogy and so on which are subject to the dictates of church, economy or state, but education, I’m saying, is always that which escapes this determination and this has been so since Plato invented the academy – despite what the ‘Academy’ says. After all, our nascent academician was accused of the corruption of the youth and impiety (for asking questions of that which ruled without question) by the representatives of the orators and rhetoricians, the men of the law courts, and the businessmen. He was condemned on the numbers.
As some of you might know, over the entrance to the Real academy, which was nothing more than a park or grove surrounded by some nice olive trees, was a stone portico upon which was inscribed ‘let no-one enter here who is not a geometer’. In a way, I suppose, it was a ‘decorative feature’ and indeed such Capstone inscriptions were not uncommon. The inscription has been generally not-mis-understood to mean that ‘if you don’t do mathematics, you can’t know nothing’ (which the mathematicians in the room will know is true, for knowing nothing is what mathematicians, like good, impious Socratics, do). But there is more to it. Geometry is fundamentally concerned with ‘fair shares. Thus, what the inscription actually says is ‘let no-one enter here who submits to the doctrine of unfair shares’. Now that, I would suggest, is to ‘dreamlarge’, or as it is today at Australia’s premier university, ‘Believe’ (btw this is the same moniker Bieber used for his 2013 tour and Britney uses for her perfume).
Parenthesis: I always wonder about these performatives. Is the slogan dreamlarge, for example, the outcome of dreaming large? I mean is the slogan equal to the declaration. I mean, when God said, ‘let there be light’, there really was! The performance equalled the declaration and the declaration was a performance in kind. Is dreamlarge really the largest dream of the PR consultants, all of whom, no doubt, had an appropriate university education? In this sense, there probably is no contradiction. The real contradiction falls on us, of course.
I was at a school awards night recently. Platitudes and ideology were rife in the speeches and self-descriptions. It was truly self-righteous, stupid and ugly. At the end, the president of the school council got up and started banging on about how great it was that this school, ‘now’ – oh yes, under his watch of course – ‘celebrated achievement and excellence’. He ‘was glad’, he said, ‘they had overcome the politically correct rejection of excellence and the rewarding of achievement’.
Obviously, he had a little bee in his tender right-wing bonnet. But the thing was that he delivered this peon to excellence in the most un-excellent fashion. It was partial, erratic, confused, stuttering, inconsistent and poorly delivered. He didn’t even have a joke! I hope this performative contradiction kept him awake that night but he looked like the type who sleeps soundly. The good thing about these sound sleepers is that come the revolution, we can kill them in their beds.
Thus, the correlation between norms and truths is no immediate thing and if this is what such an institution presumes to know, then its status as educational would need to be questioned.
This is not to say one desires no norms, no caps. Rather, it is critical we know what a cap is vis a vis that which it caps, that which is not capped and that which is uncappable. Now, my Oxford – and Oxford is a place filled with capstones, coping and scribing, pensums too well heeded (to modify Beckett), and a ‘distribution of sense’ unparalleled in its extension, though enviously copied across the white globe (and imposed on the rest) – does have an entry for Cap and it does have a sub entry specific to the University.
It says: ‘to put a cap on; confer a degree on’. Again, we have room for the play of etymologies. If one attends a graduation ceremony one wears a cap and a gown (let’s ignore the strange juxtaposition of medieval clerical pageantry, and the questionable virtues this pageantry evokes, with contemporary neo-liberal capitalism whose logic our educational institutions, at their best, try to negotiate, and at their worst, foster hale and hearty, caps in hand and gowns up around their ears.)
Anyway, if you can ignore that (or: If you can, ignore that!) and instead note that this cap is called a mortar-board (sometimes it’s called an ‘academical’ which is a brilliant word even if Plato would have never been caught dead in such a thing; even at drinking parties!) we can circle back to the stone tablets and the abutments above.
Mortar is of course what bricklayers and stonemasons use to bind one material body with another and they carry it about on a square board with a handle underneath. Most brickies I have known – and I have actually known plenty – do not wear gowns, despite the fact that building sites are a hive of homoeroticism. It’s quite funny too, I think, that this bricklayer’s term is used, for can there be a greater distinction in the history of western civilisation than that between head and hand – the intellectual and the manual – and this despite the fact that our Jesus was, apparently, a carpenter by trade – ‘or at least that’s what I’m told’? Is the usage an act of homage to the worker in stone and wood or is it an ironical appropriation meant precisely to inscribe the distance between worker and scholar, or to be more Hegelian and so Lacanian about it, slave and master?
Or further, is the appropriation of ‘bricks and mortar’ an attempt to assert, against outside hostility and self-doubt, that the intellectual house that Jack, sorry, James built was ‘solid as a rock’; ‘built like a brick shithouse’ as the colloquialism goes, and not at all a gated community of castles in the air fortified by (crumbling) ivory towers?
Sorry to say, that as far as these Jack’s were concerned, Jill’s didn’t much feature. They were ‘her’ or ‘er indoors’ as the English (or rather, cockney, as Jason Barker reminded me) say; ‘la bourgeois’ as the French worker refers to his wife. The academicians were having none of Plato’s sexual comedy. Today, we are instructed, we live in a post-Jacks’ world, so there is nothing to see here concerning the place of Jills!
So, caps worn to graduate, which is the capping of an education, are called mortar boards – and the cap signifies the bond between the gowned body inscribed with the shape of its necessary abutment to come, which is to say, that to which it will have been abutted. But what exactly is capped, and is a cap an end, is it meant to set off the head, and is the inscription worn by the student body set in stone and is this stone itself set, mortared in place, binding and fossilised or is it a rolling stone, a boundary stone, a steppingstone, a cornerstone, millstone, grindstone, curbstone, touchstone or get stoned? Is it a building block or a stumbling block, to use Saint Paul’s terms (no doubt a slur against Peter)?
Derrida’s question: Am I serious?
Deadly! I spent 5 years of my life wondering about the truth of education (marketing opp.). And so, if the pre-eminent institutions of education today claim to cap an education in stone, I want to know what that means. I’m assuming, given you have to wear it, that you want that too.
Let me recount a little anecdote from Plato’s dialogue the Cratylus: for two reasons; one, because it’s pertinent and the other because I just mentioned Derrida – ‘Am I serious’ (Limited Inc)? You see, Derrida stole that from Plato’s Cratylus, which is a dialogue concerning etymologies: meaning and sense, in which Socrates is basically taking the piss out of Cratylus and the entire sophistic tradition for its obsession with words over things. The sophists, if you don’t know, are teachers for money, who, Plato demonstrates, do not know what they profess to know.
It's a dangerous word, sophist, and education is a dangerous game. When one tries to turn the world upside down, thus setting it in orientation to truths rather than appearances, the world doesn’t like it. For such impudence and impiety, the world will kill you.
Plato was obsessed by the question, what is education? Contrary to the sophists, Plato thinks that one should begin to think with things and not words. Words, for Plato, are like a cap – they sit nice and proud and high but without the thing beneath them holding them up they fall to the ground bereft and stupid. But this is not to say Plato was a realist or heaven forbid a correlationist – words are not adequate to things; things count without words but that’s another story.
Anyway, there is a lovely exchange I cannot not recount for you. As always, Socrates is talking with a youth, Hermogenes, and Cratylus, a sophist. The conversation is on the proper use of words. Hermogenes says he’s been talking with Cratylus, his teacher, to whom all his HECS goes, and Cratylus says everything has its proper name despite what people agree to call something. Hermogenes says that Cratylus won’t explain, and asks Socrates if he can.
Socrates responds by saying two great things: he says that ‘fine things are hard but worth doing’ and then he makes an allusion to one of the most famous and richest of all 5th century sophists, Prodicus (if, like it is supposed about universities, sophists could be ranked, he’d proudly proclaim himself to be in the top 50 or 20 or whatever he thinks he can get away with). Socrates says:
if I had taken Prodicus’ 500 drachma course, which is a proper course in grammar and understanding, I’d know all about the meaning of names, but as I’m poor, I’ve only had the one drachma course, and so I don’t know the truth of it.
Someone wrote a great thesis using that claim about the one drachma course. It’s not very influential. Indeed, ‘fell stillborn from the press’ as Hume said.
Of course, given this is Plato, Socrates will come to know the truth of it – he just doesn’t know what it is the sophists know about it – and the truth of it will be that one cannot exchange money for education and that what one gets for one’s top dollar may be a chimera, an image or a simulacrum. Not that these don’t have their use. After all, in a culture ruled by images, chimera and simulacrum – a pornography, as such – information about such things is currency; whether it be false coin or not. Deleuze turned this into an ontology – can I say that?
Plato says: ‘a wise man follows his guide but is not ignorant of his surroundings.’ At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to stick your nose in everything.
Can one cap education? This is the question. If, as I said, education is that which avoids all institutional determinations, themselves determined, which is not to say that what happens in institutions is of no value and has no educational worth, not at all: ‘do we reject the Law? In the words of Saint Paul, ‘hell no’! But on the other hand, ‘down with being down by Law, right!’ ‘I scream, you scream, we all scream…’
Yes, it’s this paradoxical articulation again, but so be it. If education is what a-voids the state, what is at stake is: not having what is education subject to that which education is not. Education is not subject to callous cash payment, to a priori ascriptions as to the useful, the expedient, the appropriate or the normal. It is not a ‘training up’ in the ways of the world as they are, so you might simply join in the ignorant, no less than arrogant, which is not to say unsophisticated, reproduction of the way things are.
Yes, we cannot not be included in this but we only participate in this to the extent that we do not work to avoid reducing what we will be to a seemingly endless sequence of lawful repetitions. Speaking like Socrates messing with Cratylus, or Derrida messing with SARL, to be educated (verb), is to not be educated (noun). The former is the work of the corruption of the corruption that is the latter.
If we are to be capped let it have the status of a mark; let the mark denote a series of enquiries undertaken. The mark denotes a series but it does not mark an end. These enquiries are no doubt subject to all kinds of extra-educational demands: the demand, for instance, that it not avoid the state or the law. But at the same time enquiries do insist on such an a-voidance, simply because they are enquiries, hypothesis and speculations organised by a point indiscernible to normal knowledge. This means that what education insists on is the aporetic point over the copingstone and the mortarboard. In shorthand, education insists, it does not consist. The mark, then, not only marks this set of enquiries undertaken but importantly, it is the mark for what will have been. What will have been, which is to say, that which is to come, which is not natural, necessary or ordinary, will be entirely conditioned by one’s fidelity to this mark.
Stay with me, almost there.
If the capstone is nothing more and nothing less than a mark, then what it marks – future or anterior – is not set in stone, set by what is opposed to it and exploitative of it, but is instead an instance in a trajectory that must take place. The mark is nothing more than a point of orientation, taken and held. It determines no course, prescribes no particular path but that a path be traced out. It is a demand to be taken it up in all its effective power.
If one leaves University thinking you have been educated then one leaves under the sign of the structure to which you have been scribed in advance of you ever arriving there and prior to all possible education. If one leaves here thinking that only here, can one be educated then one leaves here in thrall to the ideological gowns and mortar which geometry already shows to be beneath thought’s contempt.
To be educated, which is the trajectory and the goal, takes place here as well as anywhere, though not everywhere: Indeed, the fundamental contention of all truth, and education is truly only by truths (what good an untrue education?) is that it is free and open to all, and this is not because the state sets up schools but because this capacity is always already equally shared. Who lacks this capacity?
Education is the trace of this equality, the inscription in the world of this justice and not just-us. It is justice and not just-us that should constitute our institutions. Paradoxically, this is why institutions as much as economies and corporations as much as states want to corral education – which they recognise precisely as the site of something vital, forceful and affective – to their side and stand as its champion and claim its universality as their own.
It’s because justice is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a real Idea in the world and everyone everyday speculates on the truth of this. However, given the instrumental power of appearances, it is critical to note that one is educated, one is marked, if you like, only when one has been truly corrupted or, to paraphrase Beckett again, when a certain amount of terror has been achieved.
That is to say, one is educated insofar as one is corrupted of the corruption which denies that equality insists and that education marks its trace; one is educated when one is corrupted of the corruption which insists that education marks success in the state, moral superiority, the right to rule and to own. Let’s cap a stone in that corruption’s ass, as the pseudo-gangstas say, pass through it and fulfil it, and go into the world militantly bare-headed or cap-less.
It’s a lifelong task which everyone should undertake to the limit of their strength.