Monday, September 10, 2012

The Pedagogy of Pickets; Or, Let's Do It for the Kids!

The struggle against austerity continues. With the struggle comes the whole set of neoliberal discursive maneuvers through which mouthpieces of capital attempt proving that tight fiscality is coterminous with a loving sentimentality. Not only are teachers’ demands opposed to anything like fiscal discipline, but the very articulation of these demands shows that, well, they just don’t care. Relations of care are best derived from the calculations of accountants. The Chicago Teachers Union, Mittens tells us, has “turn[ed] its back” on “the hundreds of thousands of children in the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education.”  Fiscality and sentimentality operate conjointly to effect a decisive displacement: they serve to depoliticize the antagonism between State-capital and labor. The necessity of caring for children, like the necessity—not matter how hard it is, how tight the belt becomes—to follow rigorously the demands of stingy accountancy, trumps any assertion of autonomous will, of freedom. Within this discursive field, the assertion of any political subjectivity requires, as a prior movement, the cultivation of an indifference toward the Child and the city’s Books—a turning-away, a turning-one’s-back-on, a willful neglect of one’s duties to Capital and Kids. Neglecting fiscal necessities is coterminous with neglecting one’s pedagogical duties to children; to resist the one is to attack the other; “[t]eachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children.”

Obviously, this is all horseshit, but that doesn’t mean that the figure of the Child, of the Children—all 400,000 of them, deprived of any adult care, left out on those dangerous Chicago streets—hasn’t been and won’t continue to be effective in determining public response to the strike. Much of the CTU’s defense of its action necessarily stakes a claim to being in the Child’s best interests: teachers’ conditions are students’ conditions, small classrooms benefits everyone, and so on. These claims are, I think, true, and they are important claims to make. But what really intrigues me, here, is the absurdly reductive concept of pedagogy that organizes responses to the teachers’ decision to strike. “Teaching” seems to be isolated to the slice of space-time we call the classroom; it only takes place during the school year, when performance can be enumerated and evaluated with faux precision. We already know that this definition of teaching is made in something like bad faith. After all, “teaching” is seen as a vocation that extends beyond the confines of the classroom to wider networks of sociality and identity formation. A “caring” teacher is the one who works beyond the actual scene of pedagogical production—that is, one who hyper-exploits herself by working outside of the education factory in the social factory more broadly writ: coaching teams, advising clubs, writing recommendations, being a mentor, and being, in general, a role model. As a disciplinary norm, “teaching” demands a set of behaviors that extend beyond the circuit of educative production into the circuit of social reproduction. Yet, the fact of this extension is carefully elided when minimalist definitions of pedagogy are proposed so as to chastise teachers for not caring about their kids. Anyone, however, who has walked by or walked in a picket line knows that teachers are not “turning their backs” on children—they’re facing the street, addressing the public at large, and are more than willing to explain to anyone—children such as their students or childish brats like Rahm—why they’re striking.

The picket is a pedagogical scene. So, what does it teach?

Let’s see if we can derive any lessons from the manner in which Rahm encodes the strike: “This is not a strike I wanted,” Emanuel said. “It was a strike of choice … it’s unnecessary, it’s avoidable and it’s wrong.“ Clearly, Rahm refuses to understand the centrality of disappointment to democracy, to understand democracy as a mode of living-through the non-conformity of wills. But let’s stick with these middle modifiers, “unnecessary” and “avoidable.” The question, of course, is: unnecessary for whom? Obviously, the strike is only “unnecessary” and “avoidable” from the perspective of a neoliberal accountancy operation that is willing to continually subtract the value of labor in order to enhance the freedom and value of capital. But this perspective is posed as delinked from any political subjectivity: it’s not Rahm the neoliberal opposed to the strikers, it’s just good economic sense (supplemented by a sentimental care for displaced kids) that determines the strike as “wrong.” By declaring the strike unnecessary and avoidable, Rahm gestures to a rationality exorbitant to the interests of both the city and the teachers—a fiscal causality that should coordinate the entirety of social life, a causality that is well nigh natural and objective. The teachers are, in effect, narcissistically fighting the way of the world.

Let’s agree with Rahm. Let’s say, indeed, that the strike is “unnecessary,” “avoidable”; let’s say that we will never be able to derive with any kind of scientific or apodictic certainty—calculate and compute as much as you will—the eruption of a strike. A brief course through history shows that submission to the heteronomous compulsion of economic necessity is the norm: subsistence limits have always been downwardly flexible, and real wage packages have been on a decline for centuries. It is this fact that precisely constitutes the eventalness of working-class revolt. Despite our habituation to heteronomy, it remains the case that the Atlantic world has—for centuries—seen action underived from necessity as the paradigm of ethico-political freedom. Freedom begins in the nonlinearity of the unnecessary, in the space of compossibility opened by the co-presence of the “avoidable” action with other courses of being. What Rahm is telling us, in short, is that the striking teachers, having set upon an unnecessary and avoidable course, are operating according to a self-given teleology of freedom.

It seems clear to me, at least, that the cultivation of a taste for freedom is a primary pedagogical responsibility of teachers. (Even a gross, reactionary, conservative ass would agree with that; it’s the Enlightenment-era genetic code of instituted learning.) This cultivation will not (and cannot) always take place in a classroom, particularly when classrooms are defined (as by Mittens above, and many others worried about 400,000 kids on the street) as little more than daycare centers (or prison cells). The picket line generates a new pedagogical scene, and, ultimately, establishes the same breach in our understandings of freedom as the third antinomy Kant draws in the third critique. On one side, we have those who believe that the movement of the world should be organized simply be natural-economic rationalities, laws. On the other side, those who know that natural-economic rationalities are not the sole determinants of human action—that there’s another causality, vague and obscure, that begins when a subject “turns her back” on necessity and lives the irreducible possibility of making an event. The Child, that figure derived from neoliberal accountancy, might feel neglected by this inaugural neglect of necessity. Actual children, however, might be getting a lesson in the (a)causality of freedom.

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