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_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 4: “The Society of Contempt”

Posted by joespencer on January 30, 2010

From Ben:

[Note: for unknown reasons, the online text jumps from page 75 to page 82, and I have no way of finding out what the missing section is. Thus, I fear we are missing a crucial part of the chapter’s argument. Also, I do not focus on many of the key points in the chapter, only those that especially caught my fancy; please feel free to discuss other key points in the comments.]

I especially enjoyed this chapter, because it is one about application; specifically, how application applies to mindset. After focusing primarily on abstract principles of intelligence and inequality, Ranciere offers a somewhat jolting first sentence to beginning chapter 4: “There is no such thing as a possible society. There is only the society that exist” (75). This is significant for Ranciere’s approach to intelligence, because, as has been repeated many times thus far, it is better to work from a principle than towards it. In a rhetorical tweak of Platonic dualism, European idealism, and Jacotot’s contemporary Romanticism, Ranciere argues for a collapse between the immediate and the vision, the dream and the reality.

However, I argue that it would be wrong to completely separate Ranciere’s (or more specifically, Jacotot’s) mindset from what is considered Romantic discourse, because the beauty of this mindset is to be found in the process of application—that the end product is not as important as the journey designed to get there. This is where Ranciere’s distinction between “theory” and “method” is especially poignant, particularly to our primarily pragmatic senses: Ranciere (Jacotot) is more interested in the overall mindset than the mechanical particulars. Rather than debating about “factual” realities and intended results—remember, Ranciere dismissed these types of conclusions in chapter 3—we are to acknowledge limitless capabilities of the mind, the equality of intellectual potential, and proceed accordingly.

There are obvious faults with this theory: we, as human beings, are prone to know the end of the beginning, and are more focused on the finished line than the starting point. “Show us proven results!” we proclaim, “And leave these abstract, over-optimistic mindsets out of our students’ education!” However, a reaction like that would overlook the benefits of Ranciere’s vision: his approach allows freedom in expression and application, enough so to include varying dynamics under the larger umbrella. He does not desire us to overhaul our pedagogical methods, just insert them into a larger ideological framework based on the potential of students’ minds.

In the ensuing “war” of minds that Ranciere describes, he takes aim at what he sees as the primary opponent to this theory: “rhetoric” (83). Serving primarily as a “distraction”—notice that Ranciere seldom speaks of outright “falsehoods,” only “distractions”—Ranciere argues that rhetoric shields the truth rather than embodies it (same critique as Nibley, anyone?). Continuing his critique on language from the last chapter—where, if you remember, he argued that language only “fragments” truth—he claims rhetoric leads to an intellectual hierarchical structure of “superior inferiors” taking ideological possession over other minds. (Echoes of the French Revolution certainly influenced Jacotot’s thought, here, which also influenced in very similar ways Hegel’s slave-master dialectic.) Ranciere’s solution is to cut past the rhetoric to the simple truth of intellectual equality—a message that would have been even more powerful in post-Revolution France.

The final message of chapter 4 touches on the relationship between intellectual emancipation and society; specifically, is it possible to completely overhaul an intellectually suppressive nation? Here is where Jacotot (through Ranciere) diverges from his French contemporaries: he argues that forced emancipation from suppression will in the end only be suppression itself. Similar to what we understand as the law of agency presented in the Plan of Salvation, intellectual emancipation can only be achieved in a state of freedom leading to personal choice. “There cannot be a class of the emancipated,” he reasons, “but any individual can always, at any moment, be emancipated and emancipate someone else” (98).

Emancipation cannot be given, it can only be chosen, because it is not a commodity to give. That, I feel, is the most important message of Ranciere. As a teacher, I can offer facts, ideas, and other intellectual materials, but the progression of intelligence can only be achieved individually, and the teacher’s role is primarily to place the student on the road to emancipation.

Also, on a somewhat tangential note, I have come to appreciate Ranciere on another level. This last week I read Louis Menand’s excellent diagnosis of the American University, titled The Marketplace of Ideas. His main thesis, that the professionalizing of the University has furthered the distance between the “ivory tower” and the rest of the world, has caused me to reflect on what the real role of an intellectual should be. Thus, Ranciere’s plea for a collapse between the “elite” instructors and the “common” students rings especially important to me, especially if his take-home message can be distilled (and likely simplified) for a broader audience. But most importantly, I have deep respect for Ranciere if he can take his historical subject, Jacotot, and not only use him as a tool through which to add to the school of intellectual history or philosophy, but to draw pedagogical lessons for our world today. I wish we saw more of such a desire.

15 Responses to “_The Ignorant Schoolmaster_, Chapter 4: “The Society of Contempt””

  1. RobF said

    Should catch up on this reading tomorrow. Looking forward to it!

  2. RobF said

    OK, so I’m coming at this chapter after a very lively class yesterday where 20 students declared and debated (warred?) the differences between South Jersey and North Jersey and if there really is such a place as Central Jersey. Going into that ignorantly, I opened a door in which I learned that I am a shoobie who doesn’t know what a jimmy is, and that to someone from South Jersey, someone from North Jersey is still preferable to someone from anywhere else. It was quite an interesting ride!

    So from that exchange I come to The Society of Contempt. Lots of fun. Just a few brief thoughts and questions:

    1) My recent classroom experience made this from Ranciere particularly poignant: “In linking one person or group to another by comparison, individuals continually reproduce this irrationality [of alleged inequalities], this stultification that institutions codify and explicators solidify in their brains” (82). The way that the South Jersey students declared and compared themselves to be superior to North Jersey students was fun in the classroom, but I wondered what it might lead to outside of the classroom. What do we make of this idea of comparisons? How does this compare to President Benson’s famous talk about pride (much of which apparently borrowed from C.S. Lewis)?

    2) Poetic Language “reminds each speaking subject not to take the narrative of his mind’s adventures for the voice of truth…Perversion is produced when the poem is given as something other than a poem, when it wants to be imposed as truth, when it wants to force action” (84) This made me think of our discussions here about the Garden of Eden. To what degree do we take that poetic narrative and try to reify it into something “true” rather than a poetic expression? How doe we use the Garden rhetorically to promote action? What else do you see here? What can we make of this?

    3) “Whoever wants to be the people’s master is forced to be their slave” (85-6) How does this relate to some type of servant leader ideology? What does this mean? Does it mean something different than what Christ meant by “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Matt 20:27)?

    4) The Reasonable Man Raging (sounds like a good band title, eh?)–not sure I totally get this idea. We have to learn the tricks of rhetoric or other illusions in order to better defend the rights and possibility of reason? What do we make of this Reasonable Man Raging? What else can we see here?

    5) “At the moment when society threatens to be shattered by its own madness, reason performs a saving social action by exerting the totality of its own power, that of the recognized equality of intellectual beings” (97) How might his play out in our current political atmosphere? What about in a Sunday School class? Are our church classes ever threatened to be shattered by their own madness? What might that look like?

    6) Rhetoric urging action–this concept is really making me think, especially as we look at the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine class this year. How much are we tempted to find “truth” rather than poetics in these old Hebrew stories? Do we have a prejudice against seeing Old Testament stories as poetics, rather than “history” or some sort of hidden “truth” for us to rescue and “apply in our daily lives”? What is the difference between using these stories rhetorically to urge action, and “likening the scriptures to ourselves”? How can we make our own poetic orbit around these stories?

  3. joespencer said

    I’ve finally had time to read the chapter through. I was busy this week until this morning because I was preparing to give a lecture to a club at UVU on, incidentally, Ranciere. :)

    Ben says: “Ranciere argues for a collapse between the immediate and the vision, the dream and the reality.”

    I think this is crucial, absolutely crucial. What Ranciere works out is a way of thinking about emancipation that refuses to make emancipation a means to some undefinable and demonstratedly unachievable end.

    Ben says: “There are obvious faults with this theory: we, as human beings, are prone to know the end of the beginning, and are more focused on the finished line than the starting point.”

    Recognizing that Ben goes on to add a “however,” I’d like to add one of my own. Mightn’t we “Mormonize” Ranciere by just pointing out that our human desire to focus on the finish line is precisely the nature of sinfulness, that it is a consequence of the Fall? This seems particularly important in a theology where we announce that are no actual (or ultimate) finish lines (though, one must confess, Mormon theology is often enough portrayed as expressing not the absence of finish lines so much as an infinite number of finish lines; for what it’s worth, I’m not much interested in this latter interpretation of Mormonism). At any rate, I’m inclined to say that any obsession with finish lines is only a veiled obsession with death….

    Ben says: “Ranciere argues that rhetoric shields the truth rather than embodies it (same critique as Nibley, anyone?).”

    Exactly. This chapter did relatively little for me when I first read (two years ago now, maybe?). But because I’ve read some ten other books by Ranciere in the meanwhile (without going back to this book until now), it strikes me as crucial within Ranciere’s larger project: only here, so far, have I found Ranciere addressing the sophists or rhetoric. It offers a vital clarification of what Ranciere means when he speaks of the “people” claiming speech and not only voice. I need to get a hard copy of the book so that I can read the whole of this chapter carefully and work out these details (I’ve got a sketch of a paper in mind on Ranciere vs. Badiou on the sophists…). The connection with Nibley, I think, is necesary—and one might even take Ranciere as offering a helpful corrective to a number of Nibley’s tendencies in his work on the sophists.

    Ben says: “Emancipation cannot be given, it can only be chosen, because it is not a commodity to give. That, I feel, is the most important message of Ranciere.”

    I agree. And ironically, it is precisely here, I think, that Ranciere spells out the uniquely Mormon conception of grace: grace is not an emancipation-to-be-given, but the very fabric of what is—particularly after or through the resurrection. Models of salvation-by-grace that makes of grace something after-the-fact—something that comes along in order to fill in the gap between our works and the ideal standard by which are supposedly going to be judged (the “classic” Mormon model) or something that comes along in order to undo the infinite debt that we can’t do anything about on our own (the Robinson/Millet model)—present grace as something ultimately ungraceful. Emancipation is thus not something to be given, but something that makes up the very warp and woof of existence. Though I think I would amend the language of “chosen” that Ben uses just slightly: it is less that emancipation must be chosen than that stultification must be un-chosen. In other words, it is less that grace becomes operative when we choose to accept it (in which it is some, however minimal work on our part that mobilizes grace) than that grace ceases to be inoperative when we stop fighting against it (“accepting grace” is a question of ceasing to work against it). (And of course I have to add: Why do we work against grace? Because we love our death….)

    Rob says: “This made me think of our discussions here about the Garden of Eden. To what degree do we take that poetic narrative and try to reify it into something “true” rather than a poetic expression? How doe we use the Garden rhetorically to promote action?”

    Fantastic “application,” Rob! The very idea of the poem and its perversion may well provide us with a very nice outline of what it means to read scripture: too often, we take scripture to be something other than poetry, though poetry in this complex sense Ranciere describes. Any claim that the scriptures “contain” “unmediated” “truth” ultimately amounts to a claim that truth can only be propositional, and that scriptural texts can all be reduced to propositions. And it isn’t difficult to see how that grounds an entire system of stultifying teaching: you need me to tell how to reduce this text to the appropriate, “doctrinally accurate” set of propositions, so keep coming to my class….

    Rob says: “The Reasonable Man Raging (sounds like a good band title, eh?)–not sure I totally get this idea.”

    I’m not entirely sure I get this idea either, and I suspect that the missing pages are in large part to blame here. I’m convinced, though, that this might be the most crucial part of Ranciere’s argument, at least in political terms, but perhaps then in ecclesiastical terms as well. So soon as I can track down a hard copy of the text, I’ll have a good deal to say about all this, as well as a paper under way….

    Rob says: “Are our church classes ever threatened to be shattered by their own madness?”

    At every moment, no? As Ranciere goes on in his book Disagreement to explain (and here I’m translating politics into pedagogy in my paraphrase), the madness of the classroom situation only becomes visible for the first time when the reason of an actual engagement with the scriptures disrupts it. Indeed, in a Badiouian fashion, one might say that the thinking of scriptural texts in the classroom fixes the errant absurdity of the usual classroom situation and so allows that absurdity to be both toppled and replaced in a moment.

    Rob says: “Rhetoric urging action–this concept is really making me think.”

    Same here, but this is again one of the things that I see Ranciere doing uniquely here in his work. I need those missing pages so that I feel like I’m following the whole argument about what this reasoning usurpation of rhetorical practices might looks like. I think this might end up being the most crucial thing Ranciere has to tell us about what it means to teach in the Church: we have got not only to get at the scriptures in a thinking way, but also to acquire the rhetorical and even theatrical trappings employed by all those we are so quick to denounce as charlatans, so that we can use them to build the kingdom. As Ranciere seems to be suggesting: to do otherwise is to go to our deaths with Socrates, letting Anytus and Meletus rule when their command leads to nothing but the pure irrationality of Habermasian “rationality.”

    And now my own single original contribution to the discussion:

    There is a world of instruction in this snippet, in part from Jacotot and in part from Ranciere:

    Reasonable man knows, therefore, that there is no political science, no politics of truth. Truth settles not conflict in the public place. It speaks to man only in the solitude of his conscience. It withdraws the moment that conflict erupts between two consciences. Whoever hopes to meet up with it must know, in any case, that it travels alone, without any retinue. Political opinions, on the other hand, never fail to give themselves the most imposing retinue: “Brother or Death,” they say; or, when their turns come, “Legitimacy or Death,” “Oligarchy or Death,” etc. “The first term varies but the second is always expressed or understood on the flags, the banners of all opinion. On the right, we read The Sovereignty of A or Death. On the left it’s The Sovereignty of B or Death. Death is never missing; I even know philosophers who say, Suppression of the Death Penalty or Death.” As for truth, it isn’t given any sanction; it doesn’t associate with death. [I’ve only added the bolding, not the italics.]

    Death or truth: either/or.

  4. RobF said

    Joe, you’ve thought a lot more about the death/truth disconnect than I have. I’ll have to go back and look at what you’ve said about it on your podcasts to get up to speed. Maybe I wasn’t ready to engage that idea before, but I’m very interested now.

  5. Karen said

    I only have a minute here, so forgive me for not engaging the post or the comments yet. I just finished reading the chapter, and I thought I’d at least share what struck me the most.

    Pg 96 talks about Socrates being “too lazy” to study out the sophist’s art. I have to admit there are a great many things I don’t study out, but under the guise of assuming their inferiority. I find just one or two things that I can call inferior, so I can excuse myself from studying it out. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to focus my efforts here or there. But too often I excuse myself from making the choice by looking for even just one flaw. It’s unfortunate.

    For example, I know I could be a much better teacher if I took the time to read commentaries or listen to comments in Sunday school that I don’t immediately agree with. If someone has written it or is sharing it, then they believe it for some reason. Even if I in the end decide I don’t agree with that opinion, by taking the time to read or listen I can better understand people, and that is certainly a worthwhile endeavor!

    This also reminded me of Brigham’s statement that we will seek truth, even if it is in hell!

    (I do hope to read and engage the discussion soon.)

  6. Robert C. said

    I finally read this chapter. I think I’m scheduled for chapter 5, but I won’t get to it for another 2-3 days or so—sorry for the delay, but it’s coming….

    I’d like to echo Karen’s comments here, in particular. I think the charity aspect of what Ranciere is saying is very interesting and productive, and I think this might be what the Reasonable Man Raging is all about. This is also how I think Habermasian rationality, “properly” (i.e., charitably) understood might be taken and used to understand the redemptive features of public discourse, esp. as it might be applied to the “public discourse” of Sunday school (to try and provoke Joe).

    And, I think this provides a very important way to think about the marketplace of ideas (to invoke Ben—I’m just going off the NYT review of the book, however…). That is, I think charity requires that we listen in the marketplace of ideas, and I like how Ranciere seems to argue that marketplace rhetoric must not be simply dismissed with condescension, but it must be engaged and overcome (and thus effectively redeemed). Too often, I think we take the mandate in the church to preach repentance to be an endorsement of a model of superiority: “this is what I think the scripture means, and so the rest of you (who might disagree with me) need to repent.” This is a recipe for contention. Rather, what is needed, is an engagement of reason, of preacher and listener, and this entails close readings of the texts.

    I wonder, then, if this isn’t a model for understanding, say, Book of Mormon prophets (I’m thinking Abinadi in particular) that invoke canonical (i.e., “popular,” at that time) authorities, and bring out the reasonable implications of those already-accepted texts. This, then, is a model for an effective call to repentance that avoids notions of hierarchy, where the individual intelligence/conscience of those listening pricks each hearers’ own heart, because of the speaker’s reason that has faith in the hearer’s own reason…. Or something. (Gotta run, so sorry for not making this comment more coherent!)

    • Robert C. said

      (I will add, however, that I don’t completely buy my own argument here. The reason is that I think that the kind of faith exhibited by, say, those awaiting the sign of Christ’s birth in the beginning of 3rd Nephi, may not conform very well to this model—so I’m nervous about it….)

    • BHodges said

      Isn’t it buying right into notions of hierarchy when Abinadi appeals to a source the other finds authoritative? ie, he is utilizing the ethos leg of Aristotle’s tripod of rhetoric?

  7. joespencer said

    Officially provoked:

    Robert, you have got to read Disagreement. I wholeheartedly agree with Ranciere’s fantastic critique of the Habermasian approach as he lays it out there.

    So if by “charitably” reading Habermas you mean “pretending he’s actually saying what Ranciere is saying,” then I suppose we could get something productive out of him, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Robert C. said

      Joe, I’ll get back to you after I’ve finished Disgreement. For now, having read the most relevant chapter, I think it’s clear that Ranciere is critiquing a very early version of Habermas’s thought that Habermas later moved away from himself, with less of an emphasis on concensus per se, and more of an emphasis on the processes of deliberation which allow for real engagement and real differences, so that any practical concensus is only and always temporary. Also, I think there are significant similarities between Habermas’s critique of the colonization of lifeworld by systems and Ranciere’s critique of society (“A society, a people, a state, will always be irrational,” p. 98). And I think that Habermas’s thoughts and emphasis on public discourse are ultimately quite similar to Ranciere’s critique of Socrate’s failure to win over Anytus and Meletus (p. 96).

      My conjecture, actually, is that Ranciere and Habermas can serve as mutual checks on each other. Ranciere has a tendency, I believe, to be too anarchistic, without really thinking about differences between better and worse institutions, organizations, etc. This is fine philosophy for those who are not burdened, or who do not want to be burdened, by the problem of leading and shaping societal organizations, institutions, and norms more generally. However, I think that avoiding questions of society (e.g., organizations, institutions, and norms) is a weakness that Ranciere seems prone to….

      Anyway, when you track down the missing pages from this chapter, I hope that you’ll share, and that we can continue this conversation then (and I’ll commit to finish Disagreement, by at least this summer, and hopefully sooner).

      • joespencer said

        Interesting. I still have much reading in Habermas to do before I can speak terribly confidently about how he might wiggle out of Ranciere’s critique, but your summary here fails, I think, to engage what Ranciere is really trying to say about Habermas—a consequence entirely, I suspect, of your having not yet read the whole of Disagreement: what he sees as being wrong about Habermas is only really clear once it is clear what politics is for Ranciere.

        That said, I think you may well be right about Ranciere’s tendency toward a kind of anarchism (I delivered a lecture this past week on Ranciere, and many of the objections to him were along the same lines). But if something needs to go beyond Ranciere toward the work of construction (“leading and shaping”), I suspect Badiou would provide a better route than Habermas….

        If you’re committing to reading Disagreement, is there something by Habermas you’d like to commit me to read by the same time?

  8. Robert C. said

    Joe, Between Facts and Norms is the book I’d recommend.

    My concern is that Badiou, although admittedly more constructive, is a bit too . . . well, diagonal or subtractive—in the sense of being withdrawn and not having sufficient engagement with a wide spectrum of public discourse to be able to address what I think are important gaps. That is, at an abstract and philosophical level, I agree with Badiou (what I understand of him), but I think there is also much constructive work to be done thinking more about the context within existing organizations, norms and structures. Ranciere’s part in this chapter about the necessary evil of war is roughly along the lines of what I mean, but Ranciere only offers a brief gloss on this just-war-theory can of worms. I’m not interested in just war theory, per se, but I do think that to engage the world as it is (in order to tranform it) requires a deeper engagement of the organizations, structures, and theories that give shape to the current milieu.

    Otherwise, I fear that Ranciere and Badiou will remain only marginal figures in Anglo-American social, legal and public discourse. Habermas, though probably offering less philosophical insights than Badiou or Ranciere, bridges this gap that I’m trying to describe much better—esp. regarding law in Between Facts and Norms. And I think this is an important step to take, in order to understand the practice of law in the Book of Mormon, and its contemporary relevance, if for no other reason….

  9. […] discussed Ranciere’s book here on the blog in a series of posts to be found here, here, here, here, and here. An electronic version of the book, which is unfortunately missing a few pages at the […]

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