Towards a Negative Capability in Education: An Interview with Deborah P. Britzman in The Quiet Room

February 23, 2016

Transcribing my interview about student activism and psychoanalysis with Deborah P. Britzman had me thinking about our subject matter of language. Transcription is a difficult and highly subjective endeavour, for although you are bound to record the content of what has been said, you must create punctuation, paragraphs, and sentence structure that are not indigenous to speech. A transcriber often edits out small oralities (the “ums” and “ahs” of speech) for clarity and cosmetics, adding to the illusion of the correspondence between speech and writing. Through much of the project, I felt very much like I was inventing grammar for the first time, deciding for myself what should be a sentence, what was a word and what was an “orality,” how to record a pause, and what a semicolon sounds like. The speech was hers; the writing was mine. Seeing that from inside the interview I saw a dimensionality and layering to our discourse otherwise invisible in the word “language,” a layering that was an effect of its belatedness with regard to the interview, the time of the symptom. My thoughts about language and sounds turned specifically to the rift between the speeches uttered by students on their campuses and the translation of their demands, observations, and sensibilities in the opinion pages of the press. All these serious ruminations of mine crumpled into an audible chuckle as I reached that part of the audio recording when Britzman points out that we are speaking in “The Quiet Room,” indeed the sign on the door of the room into which we were ushered to speak to each other. Quiet Room intimates something like a “safe space,” that thing some students have been asking for and that produces a knee-jerk aversion in many of the Boomer generation. We were using it to talk, of course, and yet as last year’s student protests made clear, speech acts and events like protests and disclaimers can be heard as a kind of silencing, a quieting, as it were, that is highly disquieting. There is a silence that is not mute. I had wanted to talk to Britzman about this crisis of higher education in part because the more articles I read in the press the less seemed to be communicated. Indeed, I had referred repeatedly in my questions to Britzman to not having a language to discuss this or that. What was occurring between universities and the public, students and professors, and administrators and politicians was a glut of language without signifiers, pure hostility, fear, and anxiety. Without language, Britzman told me, all we have is affect. But it also occurred to me how language can be produced as a symptom of an anxious position of unknowing. “Word vomit,” a term that students taught me, seems to capture this. The level of hostility was alarming to witness in the media, symptomizing as it did long-held anxieties about the basic good of education. Under the auspices of addressing new student language, many commentators seemed more interested in childish name-calling and generation-bashing. The Quiet Room felt like a pause – the very pause that I was not sure how to register in writing in my transcription – that could function both as a window for open exchange and for that disconnect I saw between students and others in the media. After all, the two of us were a Boomer and a Generation Y-er, making our exchange rather symbolic. The quiet was like the space between the speech and the writing. But something like a Quiet Room can never be more than a pause because, as Britzman reminded me, one can’t have protest and expect no struggle. What we’re seeing is struggle, and how we proceed – how we tolerate competing ideas, feelings, images, demands, legislation, and the people who have and make them – will be the true arbitrator of a democratic public sphere. Britzman suggested to me that we develop a waiting mechanism for a “negative capability” in schooling, a term belonging to the poet John Keats that describes the ability to tolerate and encounter difference and uncertainty and suffering without self-destructing. This does not demand an infinite capacity for self-effacement, but the ability to encounter threat without being destroyed and destroying each other. Negative capability is, in a sense, a form of survival. Britzman’s decidedly Kleinian approach in this interview shows how we can persist through and by struggle, how struggle takes the forms of relating and using, and why sometimes we just collapse under the weight of others and under the weight of words, words spoken in the present and words spoken so long ago in the past that we don’t realize it is their weight we buckle under. So I imagined, as I took my and Britzman’s words into my fingertips and typed out sentences, that my transcription was a form of object-use, using and abusing the language I had received and leaving behind a roughed object with a history unseen in its present form.

Interview with Deborah P. Britzman

Roshaya Rodness: Thank you very much for speaking with me today. I’d like to ask you about your work in the context of discussions about university student activism that have occurred over the past year and that have touched on topics of student protesting about trigger warnings, microaggressions, and other issues – related but also very different issues.

My first question is: Many of the public responses to student activism have been hostile, diminishing, and damning. Much of the student activism itself also expresses extreme mistrust and hostility towards teachers and teaching materials. Thinking about these hostilities coming from several directions I was struck by the term “hatred of education” in your article “Thoughts on the fragility of peace,” which you suggest is symptomatic of the “affective imaginary of the figure of the teacher in the minds of the general public that contributes to an unconscious attitude of suspicion towards the worth of teachers, the ideas of knowledgeable people and ultimately, the value of education as such.” May I ask what particular anxieties about education you think we’re grappling with that have given rise to the hostile language we’re seeing? What do you think is at stake in this language for a pedagogy of peace?

Deborah P. Britzman: First of all I want to thank you for all the thought you’ve given to these questions. They’re very complex and have a great many dimensions. So I’ll try to associate with your questions. The idea of the hatred of education is an idea that has to do with having to grow up in education from the time we’re very small children, at least through compulsory schooling, and being subject to a great many things that we don’t choose. Most of it is hostile and one of the defences we have against that hostility is to hate it – it’s a fairly good defence but if it gets too diffused or diffuse one of the consequences is that there’s a hatred of books, there’s a hatred of thinking, there’s a hatred of having to wait, there’s a hostility towards those who are enjoying education, and there’s a suspicion towards one’s own education. So it’s a constellation of anxieties that I’m trying to think about in the relationship between this idea of the hatred of education. The irony or the paradox is that everyone thinks education is a good idea and nobody believes in it. Some of the forms that takes might be “I paid for my education now what am I going to do?” So education is supposed to do something for you and if it doesn’t it’s reduced to a commodity exchange. If it does it becomes a very valued experience, for instance. Now the anxieties have to do with whether the education is going to feed me or not, or is it going to take something away from me. There’s a question, I think, in the public mind about whether or not education is such a good idea, and why won’t people behave themselves and just have their education if it’s such a good idea. So there are fantasies about what education is and how it should treat people and how people should treat education. These fantasies are operative in the ways in which student activism is thought about outside of the university. Inside the university it’s very significant and healthy for the student to want to transform the imaginary of education. Recently, a good example of student activism – I just happened to read it in the New York Times – is Amherst College, which had a mascot called the Lord Jeffery mascot, and Lord Jeffery was a British colonizer who came to North America and part of his mission was to carry out genocide of First Nations people. His statements are in the historical record so this isn’t somebody’s fantasy that this is what he wanted to do. He had very specific plans about the destruction of First Nations people whom he did not see as human. In Amherst there’s a town named after him but not Lord Jeffery, his last name. Amherst is also in New York where there are a couple places named Amherst. But this idea of the Lord Jeff mascot comes into Amherst college in the sixties precisely during a very contentious time of private schools. The symbol of colonization and genocide somehow becomes a mascot and now over the last five or six years there’s been strong strong debate on Amherst College about abolishing this informal mascot. Finally, the board of trustees and the professors and the students came to vote to get rid of the mascot – and that will not be a mascot, let it be a moose, let it be something else, any social bond at all. There’s sort of a fantasy of the social bond, that the fantasy be rather benign. The last year and a half we’ve seen very strong student activism that has effected both good and bad outcomes at the university. The nature of the students’ experience is to push back. It’s a sign of health. When it becomes too obsessive though it may not be at all about social change – maybe about something else. So that’s a question that students need to have in mind: how it is that they’re working. But there has to be protest; it’s a very significant part of one’s education. And part of that education is beginning to understand how others feel about it and still have the courage to make your positions. People will have strong ideas about it for all kinds of reasons, for it and against it, and that should also be part of the dialogue. I came out of the protests of the sixties and the seventies and it was an opportunity to enlarge one’s worldview, to understand the world differently, to push back, to insist that education has to change. I think that this is a motive force for changing education, but the push-back – the force of it – other people will push back too and this is what we call a struggle. Not to expect a struggle may be a bit of an idealized notion that somehow we can say this is what we’re going to do and it’s going to change… but contestation is part of our curriculum, our life curriculum, and it’s very significant that even in times of relative calm there should be strong discussions and push-backs.

What is at stake in terms of language –

RR: I have a few more questions about language, so maybe we could build up to those questions.

DB: Okay.

RR: You note in your 2010 book Freud and Education that one of the most difficult questions Freud leaves to education is the relationship between learning and suffering; we teach and learn about suffering but also enter the classroom as beings who have suffered, and teaching and learning can be insufferable. All this happens in an era when images and narratives of suffering are easily transmittable and available. And yet we do not possess a language, particularly an affirmative one, for the constant revenant of suffering in education. May I ask why the received language of teaching and learning excludes this important question, and why is it important to have a vocabulary for suffering as it pertains to education? (What is so insufferable in education that we’re not able to talk about suffering?)

DB: The first part of your question – why is it important to have a vocabulary for suffering – without the words all we have are affects, and those affects are very violent and irritating, such as anxiety, the force of hatred, the physicality of violence. The capacity for civilization is a waiting mechanism for trying to understand something about what is happening for me as a person capable of suffering or witnessing the suffering of others. This is a question of freely associating and not being afraid because suffering is a consequence of the human’s fate: The human will die; the human who cannot live forever; the human who will lose very important loved ones; the human who will become ill; the human who simply feels useless or displaced. Suffering is our lot. The worst suffering, Freud says, is the suffering caused by others. Part of why that’s the worst is that the other who causes my suffering discounts that experience and then I have to suffer more for the other’s suffering. It becomes a very emotional situation that we’re trying to talk about. Now, the idea that the study of suffering is difficult is that there’s always an unspeakable guilt that’s involved in the study of difficult knowledge, and that is that I may be mistaken for or I may be one of those who caused great harm, and there’s nothing I can do about my … who I look like. What I can do is think. Thinking and suffering go hand in hand, Lyotard tells us that. Plato calls thinking a living death. That suffering is not only the question of the injuries inflicted upon others but the necessary injury I must inflict upon myself in order to think. I have to disillusion my omnipotence, my capacity to think that I know what I’m speaking about. That naivety: that there’s a direct relationship between words and things, that understanding is possible, and all of those kinds of things … there’s a wounding that’s occurring. So this doesn’t sound theological; I’m not really talking about theology. I’m trying to understand the pain of becoming a subject, the pain of symbolization that requires suffering and alleviates suffering. It’s a paradoxical kind of suffering that I’m talking about that occurs in memory and that occurs in associating with ideas. We were talking about this at lunch, something like a negative capability, a negative capacity like Keats’s notion of being able to tolerate uncertainty without reaching out and ending it and saying “well that’s that” and walking away without trying to be addressed by the situation that you don’t know about. That too causes suffering. It’s interesting: you don’t teach someone how to suffer.

RR: That is interesting, to be able to tolerate a certain amount of suffering – one concept of the negative capability – where does one learn that if not indirectly?

DB: From the containment of the mother.

RR: You mentioned earlier that we all have this idea that education is a good thing, so I also wonder if we have trouble reconciling the idea that this good thing must involve a great deal of suffering.

DB: Well, the psychoanalyst Bion talks about learning as a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe because it means that I have to change my mind. And if I have to change my mind I have to change everything. If you imagine a series of networks and you change one little thing and everything else is affected by it, all of that has to change, too. Change is a catastrophic situation. Going back to student activism, it’s a catastrophic situation for those undergoing it, who are the activists, but also for the people who are watching these processes or arguing against them. It’s an emotional storm. How is it going to be clarified? Is there a place in activism – like when we walked into this room, the room called the “Quiet Room” – is there a place where we could have a quiet room to try to sort things out and then go out and be noisy again? Is there a pause for us to begin to think about emergency in two ways, like we have to act now and something is coming out, it is emerging. Something is being given birth to and birth is a very chaotic experience for the newborn and I’m sure for the mother as well. It’s insufferable to try to talk about these very basic experiences in education because there’s nothing we can do about it.

RR: So it’s, as you were saying earlier, a relation other than omnipotence, doing without the reparative or therapeutic effect of knowledge.

DB: If that’s possible.

RR: Your most recent book, A Psychoanalyst in the Classroom: On the Human Condition in Education (2015) lends particular interest to what is forgotten in earlier education (what Freud called “childhood amnesia”) as an engine of later dynamics in the classroom. May I ask if you could elaborate on this topic and explain why a literacy of the forgotten informs pedagogical practice in the university?

DB: The example that I often give and have written about is the matter of the teacher forgetting the experience of her or his own learning. That’s part of the amnesia, the infantile amnesia, forgetting “oh, I had to learn. There was a time when all of this was very confusing to me. I didn’t know what to do when I felt useless and hopeless,” all those kinds of feelings that you feel when you first try, however excited you were about it, there was still this crazy moment of “oh my goodness, I can’t do that.” The teacher forgets the chaotic side of the learning and consequently she forgets how difficult it is to learn, and she focuses instead on her teaching. That’s one very strong example. The teacher forgets about how she learned to teach. It’s repressed because it’s so horrible. Learning to teach is horrible, if you’re really honest about it, it’s not a happy experience. It’s upheaval, total upheaval. You go home and try to figure out how you feel and what happened and what you could do and who ruined your pedagogy today, and there’s just all kinds of stuff and you think “oh my goodness, I can’t bear to go back, and if they don’t want to learn why should I teach them?” There’s a kind of internal argument between a good teacher and a bad student. The bad student comes into your dreams and then you go back the next day and they’re this sweetie sitting there and you think “oh my goodness why did I think that?” And then you’re hard on yourself again for tearing them apart in your mind and it goes on and on. There’s a whole mental theatre on the question of learning to teach. It’s forgotten very fast and it’s repressed and denied.

RR: I have an experience when I’m trying to teach writing. I encounter a student’s writing abilities and I try to remember how I learned to write and it’s just a blank. There’s quite a bit of guilt there …

DB: It’s interesting because the question I have about the forgetting is: once you remember, so what? That’s the new question: what now? Does that affect the ways in which I think about my practice? Maybe I have to analyze if all that I’m doing is confirming my knowledge or am I entering into new forms of exploration not because they have to be applied but to read something I know nothing about to experience the particular kind of reaching that I like to see others do. So I’m going to experience this slowly, become acquainted, get to know, which is the work of our students – they’re experiencing the work of getting to know. At a certain stage in your time as a teacher you might be very interested in that work of getting to know as opposed to what knowing is.

RR: That’s interesting. I suppose if I were to remember how I learned to write, would I necessarily replicate that? What would I do at that point –

Psychological language has played a significant role in both student demands for changes in the university and in the public responses to those demands. Students have phrased their requests to professors and administrators in the terms of trauma theory, such as triggers and PTSD, while some opposition to those requests has come in the form of psychological evaluations of students and learning, often from the cognitivist side of psychology. So there is an interesting symmetry in this debate. Much of your own work has argued for the relevance of psychoanalytic theory to studies in education. And yet the language of the public discussions can seem rather reductive. For what purpose do you think this language is being used and how does it differ from your own interventions?

DB: It’s a very important question. It’s my experience that there’s a kind of wall of discourse at the university that is tied to important issues like human rights, accommodation, access, initiatives, all those kinds of questions. On the other side there is a lot of self-diagnoses occurring due to the popularization of psychiatric language and self-help. To give one example, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen, television shows …

RR: Dr. Phil.

DB: Dr. Phil for sure. Even the crime mysteries all have a kind of psychological language that explains something, such as 60 Minutes.

RR: Criminal Minds, or Motive.

DB: That’s right, so this language is in the air. People are constantly diagnosing themselves as if that’s the cure. The strategies some people have for being at the university are contra to what the university expects of the docile student. A lot of what’s happening in the university has already happened in compulsory schooling. In public places, we’re obligated to have anybody that comes and to create the conditions for that. There’s a lot of sensitivity that has to be created. Saying that, the question I have is: how do we create a way of rendering as ordinary the emotional world so that people can begin to understand what’s happening to them regardless of their limits? This psychiatricization of learning has competition among the haves and the have-nots, so to say. How do we accommodate difference across the spectrum of capacities at the university and the same in the compulsory schooling? This is a very important question of human rights but it is also a very important question of the capacity to think about what phenomenon we’re talking about and the ways in which the phenomenon is used. This is an important topic that does not undermine our responsibility but gives us some elbow room to have other kinds of thoughts. This popular language of the “triggers,” it’s a language out of psychology; it’s not a psychoanalytic concept. We have something different than triggers; we have the drives. There’s already inside an excitable push that demands the mind to work. I think that the language that we’re using is foreclosing our understanding of what it means to be upset. It’s not a new issue but it is a new language. The language may veil or create … it’s like a decoy language: it doesn’t let us get to the heart of the matter. It reminds me of an electric switch: we’re turning things on and off; that’s how we think learning happens is we turn it on and off. It’s a bad theory of the complexity of the subject. That’s one side of it. Another side of it is at the exact time of trigger warnings there was something called “pedagogy should be shocking. We should wake up our students, we should do this, we should do that …” Well, that’s their responsibility. I think that we can work in such a way that is not humiliating. I think a lot of what happens is that, and this might not be a popular viewpoint but, you have to care a great deal about the conveyance of the material regardless of the material, even if it is very boring material. My guess is that it’s sort of like the Maoist cultural revolution and how knowledge is treated in a lot of classrooms, very hostile teaching that goes with the trigger warnings, I don’t think it’s just the students. There’s something else happening that we haven’t been able to talk well about. When we think, “this is how we have to teach people how to think,” why does it have to be that way?

RR: It’s like the emergency, the way you were talking about how we’re at a point of emergence.

DB: There’s that and there’s also a lot of displacement. Suppose someone is very thoughtful about their pedagogy and the student still is upset not at that teacher but at the one before. The student is involved in a series of projections.

RR: So we take on the pedagogies that we have no control over, as well.

DB: Yes, I mean I’ve had a lot of students walk out when I talk about sexuality in the human development course. If they need to walk out, let them walk out. I’m not going to stop talking about it but I don’t give warnings. On the other hand I don’t think that the curriculum is something you warn someone about. You help people work with the material.

RR: The debate about trigger warnings in the classroom and the emotions it raises on all sides seems to be part of the on-going question of the teacher’s responsibility to and for the students’ psyche, and what should be the relation between education and psychical development. The stakes of this question shift when the subject is higher education, or what you, after Freud, have called “after-education,” when the students are legally adults and the teachers are professors. Obviously this is a hugely general question that you have approached intricately in your work, but may I ask why the question of psychical responsibility in higher education is such a polarizing one, or what is at stake in this question?

DB: The teacher’s responsible for her own psyche and the students are responsible for theirs. What could that mean? That means that whether I’m a teacher or a student I’m responsible for thinking about the nature of my thought. I can’t teach somebody how to do that; they’re responsible for doing that. The degree of freedom that is accorded to each of those positions matters a great deal. You have to have time to think things over and so do I. We may have disputes but we don’t have to destroy each other, that would be our ethic. You know, you don’t like this book or I don’t like this paper, but that’s not the end of the world. The idea that there is an emotional depth to learning, that education is an emotional situation, is deeply resisted because it’s seen as somehow taking away from larger issues in the world. The view of the self (we saw this in the seminar), people get very nervous when you talk about the self because it seems that it takes away from “what about others? What about sociology?” But why must we choose? Why is there really a choice in this matter? I think I have a privileged place in the university because I work with people learning to teach. So there are two things I have to always keep in mind: the people I’m working with are in a laboratory of the classroom and they’re experimenting with how to be with other people. At the same time they’re thinking about what will be between me and the student, namely the curriculum. I have to think about both knowledge and sociality simultaneously. Knowledge and the human bond, and what those things have to do with each other. In other places that don’t have an association with practice or pedagogy, it’s for its own sake; in other words, reading a novel doesn’t hurt somebody’s feelings. You don’t hurt the character’s feelings. You can hate the character and it will be fine. But you hate the other in the classroom, so there is something other. These emotional situations have different ramifications. The question of practice raises some really interesting things. Having said that, there’s another thing that doesn’t put it in such stark terms. In every classroom there is a group psychology, how it is that people treat each other when they are trying to learn. That’s another kind of situation that the teacher must be very thoughtful about. Otherwise you have an authoritarian group psychology that’s either racist or sexist or – I call that authoritarian. We can call it as many different names as we want but ultimately the worry people have is about power. I’m only worried about it if humiliation is at stake. That to me is the limit of power at the end of its rope, so to say. Humiliation is a sadistic pedagogy, in my view. It doesn’t do anything other than release the drive derivatives, no signifiers that can be thought about.

RR: The populist language of this debate – I’m thinking specifically about the word “coddled,” a term for student activism and certain student dispositions that did not begin with but I think was certainly popularized and legitimized by the Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind” in September – carries connotations of the parent-child relationship as a kind of perverse and unhealthy distortion of the pedagogical relationship. It suggests something queer. You note in your work on psychoanalysis and education that theory and practice of education involve engaging concepts such as the dynamics of love, memories of authority, forgetting one’s own childhood education, and sexuality. So the term “coddled” seems to tap into something in the unconscious of education that is consciously rejected. What do you think is being resisted with the use of the term “coddled” and is there something to gained by forging a language for that resistance?

DB: The good breast, the thinking breast! Coddled … are we mad at babies? There’s an idea and I think it is a hostile concept that adults are jealous, angry that the adolescent gets its way and they don’t. I think it’s an Oedipal dilemma that is being talked about, an Oedipal conflict. I’m always interested when babyhood gets described as what grown-ups are doing. There is an infantilization occurring there … it’s almost as if the better pedagogy is the poisonous one, like don’t coddle them, give them reality, show them how bad it is. There is something new about the younger generation and people who have never grown up without Facebook or without an iPhone or without texting or all of the applications they have. It started by junior high school, kids going to school in pyjamas.

RR: Really?

DB: Yes. It became a big thing about kids going to school in pyjamas, like “I feel relaxed,” and wanting a lot of hugs – hugging each other and being like the Teletubbies. Like big Teletubby kids.

RR: With the screens!

DB: Yes, and the principals thought it was weird because they refused sexuality; it wasn’t that they wanted to have sex with each other, they wanted a cuddle. They wanted to be coddled, they wanted to be cuddled. They wanted to be affirmed. Partly, it would be the parents who appreciated the children, who appreciated basic experiences, like “good job, you crossed the street!” Or, “good job, you put your plate in the sink!” And everything was good. Everything was rewarded. It’s a kind of niceness that creates the illusion that this is how it is. Now, it’s not that kids should suddenly be immersed in cold water, that wouldn’t work. But I think that all of the attachment disorders that we see today are somehow linked to the demand that we be attached, that we be in contact, that we be available. There isn’t a waiting mechanism that is cultivated that would allow for say, a negative capability, of being able to tolerate difference and the love and hate that are working in the classroom. I think that the kind of language that may be useful for us is a language that would begin to describe, without hostility (if that’s a possibility), what dilemmas we see people experiencing in the ways in which they are with each other. That’s a little bit different than coddling or not coddling. But there is something about this, the consequence of our technological precocity. We don’t know what that will mean and how the idioms of kids growing up under this new regime of surveillance (giving over your information and curating your life as opposed to having an experience) will affect them, like “defriending.” It sounds so Orwellian, the Facebook language, even how everything is measured, like how many steps you take in a day, the importance of health … that in and of themselves are okay, but we are urged to be, we’re urged to enjoy, we’re urged to do this and that. That creates a kind of spectacular disappointment internally and maybe a very veiled depressed worldview. Very small, under the guise that we are attached to the world.

RR: We have a need to cultivate the ability to be alone and to be okay being alone sometimes and to be in solitude, yet that’s only linked to a language of deprivation.

DB: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

RR: In A Psychoanalyst in the Classroom, you address anxieties of teaching and learning theory. One of the objects of the “hatred of education” over the past year has been students’ political use of theory, specifically theories developed from feminist and anti-racist studies. For instance, much of the public resistance from the media to student protesters has been directed towards students’ use of concepts like cultural appropriation, privilege, and power, as well as psychoanalytically-derived theory about how classroom readings and representations affect the psyche. May I ask how the language of psychoanalysis (itself a theoretical language) speaks to anxieties about theory’s difficulty for teachers and for students as well as the very idea of theory as pragmatic or useful?

DB: A distinction that I’ve found very useful belongs to D.W. Winnicott, who talks about object-relating and object usage. I won’t go into a long discussion about these terms but very basically, relating comes before using. Relating is always a unifying moment. As the baby relates to the mother, the mother is always benign, the mother is always there to be eaten up without any consequence. Relating is not in the sense of social relating, but relating is closer to eating.

RR: Taking in, consuming.

DB: Yes, taking in. Object usage, the use of the object is that the object is separate from me and that I can destroy it and rebuild it and repair it.

RR: The transitional object.

DB: Exactly. So if theory is treated through object-relating then I’m always going to look at it as a mirror and if I don’t see myself it’s no good. But in the use of theory, my self isn’t at stake in the usage of it, and I’ll discard it when it’s no longer needed. That’s the transitional object, the one that’s discarded without being worn. It’s the first not-me possession. So theory might be the first not-me possession and what we’re relating to is our anxieties about theory. This is where I think psychoanalysis may help us, at least in the classroom, understand how theory is being handled and used and destroyed in the classroom. So that’s one example of how a psychoanalytically-informed – but you have to know a lot to do this, to use psychoanalysis. But thinking about it in these ways, you can think about what it is you are responding to.

RR: My last question – it’s a little long so please bear with me. I wonder if we could talk for a moment about the theme of language and free association in discussions about microaggressions specifically. You quote in your most recent book an argument from Paul de Man: He says, “The resistance to theory is the resistance to the use of language about language. It is therefore a resistance to language itself or to the possibility that language contains factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition.” For many, microaggressions are matters of free speech and free association of thought. It is also the case that microaggressions are such difficult topics of discussion in higher education because they are recessive speech acts, speech acts that encode, misdirect, defer, or substitute ideas and tend to be heard as such. And they work in a sense by bypassing will and intention; the ideas they communicate and are heard as communicating tend not to be intended. It is like what is said and what is heard are two different languages, or how you might say the anxiety of having to treat words as the subject of alienation. So in these ways they are a fascinating form of unconscious speech, and this is one of the reasons they are impossible to regulate in the classroom, or at least to expunge. The media embodiment of this anxiety has been to say out of one corner of the mouth that recessive speech (the microaggression) means nothing and should just be ignored if you don’t want to be called oversensitive, and out of the other corner that free speech is so important that the expression of any utterance should be protected at all costs. The argument appears to be Janus-faced, both that language is nothing and language is everything – language should both be ignored and protected as twin expressions of democracy. The anxiety between these two states seems to bubble over upon the stage of education. I wonder if you could speak about this odd cleaving concerning how to use and treat language in education.

DB: Well, I want to say that your posing of this question is very fine.

RR: Thank you.

DB: It’s really a very interesting and deeply thought question, and I think that you are getting at something that we haven’t really thought about as a cleavage. I think that’s a very interesting way of putting it.

RR: That’s quite a libidinal word, isn’t it?

DB: That’s right. I’m curious about the rise of this idea called microaggressions. I first heard it in a clinical session. One of my patients was describing how his mother speaks to him. And I was struck because, maybe I’ve been hiding behind a rock but, I’d never thought of microaggressions. Where did this term come from? It would be very interesting to trace the rise of microaggressions. It’s like hostile pinpricks or hostile persecutory things that are being thrown at you.

RR: I agree that it’s a bit of a misnomer because from what I know it’s not that the aggressions are small, it’s that the aggressions are coded recessively in speech, but we don’t have a language to talk about that kind of coding and the effect that coding can have.

DB: It’s a quality of language, that it can deceive. When I think about Yiddish, it’s one of the few languages in which you can insult someone by just saying good morning. It’s a language of insult. I practice this with people I hate, insulting them by saying good morning. So I take your point that it’s recessive but I think that it’s also small. We don’t quite miss the aggressive speech act. The problem we are dealing with is denial of the uses of language. It’s like bad object-relating in a very destructive form. There’s a lot in here. For instance, one of the gamers recently who was being sued by a woman who was attacked by the way he was tweeting about her, her opposition to him, and he sexualized it. She sued him and it was seen as being about free speech. He was found not guilty. I don’t think we understand free speech anymore. I think that’s the first thing we have to say. The kind of publication that’s possible today is very different than even ten or fifteen years ago. It’s interesting because the idea of free speech in the United States (and it’s different in Canada) is that regardless of its hostile effects, one has a right to say what one thinks or what they want. It’s not the Kantian “say what you think but obey.” The obey part, that not a part of it anymore.

RR: It strikes me that the concept of free speech is a little like the concept of education in the sense that everyone agrees it’s a good thing but none of us knows how to go about it.

DB: That, and there is probably a spectrum of hurt feelings from narcissistic blows that are just a part of everyday life to feeling devastated. There’s another part of the dilemma. You’ve identified a very significant contradiction that’s implicit in language as such. That’s the deception and the denial that language is, the speech act. And yet, if we put it in the classroom, the students and the teacher are obligated to frame their viewpoints in a way that does not create humiliating education. That, I think, is the limit. That has nothing to do with free speech. You might be able to humiliate in the public sphere, but the teacher is conducting a class and can’t say there is a safe space but can intervene when the social bond becomes disparaged between people. Feelings are going to be hurt in the debates, but that’s a little bit different than what you’re saying, that the anxiety has to do with a danger that something has already been destroyed. The microaggression, if you want to call it that, is essentially a repetition of something else that has already happened. They’re not original.

RR: It’s interesting, you were talking earlier about the education of afterness and I’m hearing now that the pain of the microaggression is in some way an effect of its belatedness, its coming after something that has already happened, or revisiting something that has already happened.

DB: That’s the beauty of the psychoanalytic language, and Derrida of course teaches us as well that the meaning extends in time and space. So in another way, after always pushes forwards and before. That’s the nachträglich or deferred action [Nachträglichkeit] that is at stake in the microaggression. Freud has a great little paper on negation. The patient says to the analyst, “you probably think I mean to insult you but I don’t.”

RR: Like, “no offence, but …”

DB: Yes. That’s a language of undoing and doing at the same time. It’s not quite clever but it’s a deflection. A displacement. Or, “don’t take this the wrong way…” We can see it in the everyday ways in which we try to control how our message will be received, even though we wish it to be received badly … so I can still be a good person. It’s an ingenious, infantile strategy that children bring to a high point. In the case of adults, we’re stepped on by history and we step in history. We have no control over that. That’s not free association, because free association is chains of signification that are experiences to be somehow woven together to convey something more than the original set of events that people articulate. It’s a borderline state, these microaggressions, I have to say, it’s a new kind of disordering of the social bond.

RR: It’s one thing to articulate microaggressions, but it’s another thing to know how to respond to them. How do you respond to that thing in speech that is encoded or that undoes itself?

DB: Yes, Freud says you take away the no. The N-O. You take away the negation and you see this is what they intend. That’s all. Oh, so it is your mother! You treat it as a signifier. But when your feelings are being hurt it’s hard to realize that your feelings are being hurt by words, and there is a hypersensitivity that could be thought about, an expectation that someone is going to wreck me. That’s part of what we’re dealing with with trigger warnings, that something has happened before and it is going to happen again in the same way. That’s anxiety, traumatic anxiety. The individual is on high alert.

RR: Well, thank you very much for talking with me today.

BD: Thank you!


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DisruptED: Education Interrupted Copyright © by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence, McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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