From farce to tragedy

1a. In a remarkable letter written five years after his presidency, Madison praises the state of Kentucky for its commitment to the provision of public education, observing—in language that precedes Marx’s (and Engels’ independent text) more famous phrase by thirty years—that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both”. Madison’s enthusiasm is directed specifically at the fact that the state is constructing a plan for education

“embracing every class of citizens, and every grade and department of knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty and superficial view of the subject: [i.e.,] that the people at large* have no interest in the establishment of academies, colleges, and universities, where a few only, and those not of the poorer classes can obtain for their sons the advantages of superior education. It is thought to be unjust that all should be taxed for the benefit of a part, and that too the part least needing it.”

Here Madison has his vision fixed a century into the future since, prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, less than two percent of the population received schooling beyond high school (and these naturally being the sons of wealthy landowners). He continues:

“If provision were not made at the same time for every part [of society], the objection would be a natural one. … It is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expense for the education of his children, it is certain that every class is interested in establishments which give to the human mind its highest improvements, and to every country its trust and most durable celebrity. Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most vociferous opponents of higher education today are also those in the process of retracting the promises of civil liberties for which our predecessors suffered through their very lives and bodies, whether through proposing the largest cuts to state funding for education in the history of this country or through explicit denunciations of “the academic left” (that follow an easily identifiable historical genealogy from the infamous McCarthy trials).

But in addition to the arguments advanced a century later by Dewey to the effect that the possibility of democracy is predicated on an educated citizenry, Madison also observes that such governments require not mere politicians but statesmen:

“[Schools] multiply the educated individuals from among whom the people may elect a due portion of their public agents of every description; more especially of those who are to frame the laws; by the perspicuity, the consistency, and the stability, as well as by the just and equal spirit of which the great social purposes are to be answered.”

The democratic provision of the public good, however, requires not only the presently favorable desires of majority opinion. Representation is not of majority opinion; rather, majority opinions ends at representation and the task of the statesman is to deliberate about the possibilities of justice in the face of present needs. Here Madison agrees with Plato: the statesman requires a specific form—and not a specific content—of knowledge, which had broadly speaking been the task entrusted to liberal education not as the reception of information but the capacity to ask, frame, and understand important (viz., ethical and political) questions. (One of the primary complaints of contemporary educators is the inability of students to “think critically”, i.e., to frame appropriate questions, identify their stakes, and establish criteria for their resolution.) Instead of the “right to have an opinion”, education demands that the right be earned by the capacity to know how to ask the right questions.**

**This too was Dewey’s point in an address to a conference of scientists: “the trouble with much of what is called popularization of knowledge is that it is content with diffusion of information, in diluted form, merely as information [think the “intelligence” required to participate in Jeopardy!]. It needs to be organized and presented in its bearing upon action” (i.e., as system). That, Dewey insisted throughout the end of his career, is the “supreme intellectual obligation”: to mobilize knowledge as knowledge and not mere information for moral and social improvement. If there is anything pragmatism understood correctly—and what its critics have misunderstood—it is that knowledge is useful when it is true (it is not, as the more decadent pragmatists would say, true because it is useful).

This critical capacity, Madison argues, must be acquired broadly under pain of plutocracy:

“Without such institutions, the more costly of which can scarcely be provided by individual means, none but the few whose wealth enables them to support their sons abroad can give them the fullest education; and in proportion as this is done, the influence is monopolized which superior information everywhere possesses. … Whilst those who are without property, or with but little, must be peculiarly interested in a system which unites with the more learned institutions, a provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the common purposes of life.”

Madison proceeds, again, to address a future he could not have foreseen, viz., one in which the US lags far behind several western European countries in terms of economic mobility with the one decisive factor being education (45% of people in the bottom 1/5 of the economy who do not graduate college remain in their present economic location whereas only 16% of those who graduate remain):

“Why should it be necessary in this case [of the provision of education] to distinguish the society into classes according to their property? When it is considered that the establishment and endowment of academies, colleges, and universities are a provision, not merely for the existing generation, but for succeeding ones also; that in governments like ours a constant rotation of property results from the free scope to industry [an observation unfortunately disqualified by the succeeding history of the republic] … and when it is considered moreover, how much of the exertions and privations of all are meant not for themselves, but for their posterity, there can be little ground for objections from any class, to plans of which every class must have its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor, ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendents; and the poor man who concurs in a provision for those who are not poor that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune.”

Yet at no point does Madison aver to the propensity of education to improve the material lot of oneself or one’s family. At best, as Adler cogently argued, the material benefits of education are corollary or subsidiary: they are not its primary function. Madison again:

“Throughout the civilized world, nations are courting the praise of fostering science and the useful arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and blessings of representative government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free government [emphasis added, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, that their political institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter … are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of man as they are conformable to his individual and social rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

If Madison is right about the mutual constitution of liberty and education, then the continuing and persistent degradation of liberty (ironically in the name of liberty itself, recognizable as such only to those who can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion) should come as no surprise. In an analysis of transcripts from presidential debates, where the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas occurred at an eleventh to twelfth grade literacy level, the Gore-Bush debate of 2000 occurred at a sixth (Bush) to seventh (Gore) grade level. Political speech, in other words, is addressed to adults with the literate capacity of children.

1b. Madison ends his letter with the remark that, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, that provision should be made for the study of geometry and astronomy since “no information seems better calculated to expand the mind and gratify curiosity than what would thus be imparted. This is especially the case, with what relates to the globe we inhabit, the nations among which it is divided, and the characters and customs which distinguish them. An acquaintance with foreign countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travelers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings”. Against the clichés of humanistic education that claim to provide insight into “discovering oneself”, Madison’s point here is that we must always understand ourselves as situated in the world and that ours is one among many ways of seeing, doing, acting, and living. Absent cognizance of the world and its other inhabitants, we are easily tempted by the narcissism of enjoyment. “Any reading not of a vicious species,” Madison concludes, “must be a good substitute for the amusements too apt to fill up the leisure of the laboring classes”. The vulgarity of such amusements (in large part what contemporary theory calls “spectacle”) is not intrinsic to any particular content but to their familiar effects: e.g., the silencing of discourse, the banalization of injustice, and the sublimation (in the chemical sense) of ethics into enjoyment (i.e., the reverse of Freudian sublimation).

The two activities of leisure in both ancient Greek and western bourgeois society were none other than politics and education. Both required a certain kind of autonomy from economic and material necessity. But instead of the reward of such freedom and the ability to “do nothing”, leisure imposed a grave duty, against which the ideology of “free time” has given seemingly inescapable means and opportunities of squandering for the sake of enjoyment.

2a. In the Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre analyzed the ways in which the everyday as the structural condition for life is at the same time the principal way in which the modern individual is alienated from her life. While Lefebvre was encumbered by the simultaneous mobilization of the everyday as both an ontological and sociological category, the Critique remains the standard account for the simultaneous collapse of leisure into the temporal repetitions of the everyday and the idealization of leisure as an escape from the everyday.

On the one hand, Lefebvre shows that the everyday is never simply given but constituted through the accretion of social and cultural signification.*** But he also shows (as Adorno and Horkheimer had also pointed out) that “the town and the factory complement one another by both conforming to the technical object [which Lefebvre in the middle of the twentieth century had already observed simply defined the everyday mode of existence]. An identical process makes work easy and passive, and life outside work fairly comfortable and boring. Thus everyday life at work and outside work become indistinguishable, governed as they are by systems of signals”. The word “signal” here is deliberate and appropriate: a signal, unlike a sign proper, has a meaning incapable of higher-order signification and functions structurally equivalently to Pavlovian response.

***I disagree with one of my own teacher’s remarks, however, that given this aspect of the everyday, as that which organizes experience and the world through certain spatio-temporal forms, it “becomes harder to endow it with an intrinsic political content. The everyday is robbed of much of its portentous symbolic meaning” (Felski). While on the one hand I accept her general corrective to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” endemic to cultural and critical theory, intrinsic to critical philosophy since Kant is conviction that the primary (and perhaps only) task of thought is not to take its conditions as necessary or as (enabling) limits.

Lefebvre finds examples of such a network of signals and conditioned responses in mass media (again, remembering that he is writing these particular words in the late 1950s):

“Day in and day out, news, signs and significations roll over [the individual] like a succession of waves, churned out and repeated and already indistinguishable by the simple fact that they are pure spectacle: they are overpowering, they are hypnotic. The ‘news’ submerges viewers in a monotonous sea of newness and topicality which blunts sensitivity and wears down the desire to know. Certainly, people are becoming more cultivated. Vulgar encyclopedism is all the rage. The [sociological] observer may well suspect that when communication becomes incorporated in private life to this degree it becomes non-communication.”

Aside from current concerns about “attention saturation” from cognitive psychology, Lefebvre continues to describe the mechanisms of the alienation that results from the uncoupling of signification from significance:

“Radio and television do not penetrate the everyday solely in terms of the viewer. They go looking for it at its source: personalized (but superficial) anecdotes, trivial incidents, familiar little family events. They set out from an implicit principle: ‘Everything, in other words, anything at all, can become interesting and even enthralling, provided that it is presented …’ The art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly skillful [Lefebvre has, in fact, described reality TV forty years before it existed]. … At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call ‘the great pleonasm’: the unmediated passing immediately into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is in the everyday—the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness—the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the ‘news’ never contains anything really new.”

Lefebvre thought that this “extreme point” of closure between communication and information was “still a long way away”. It turns out, however, that thirty or forty years is not so long. “At one and the same time the mass media have unified and broadcast the everyday; they have disintegrated it by integrating it with ‘world’ current events in a way which is both too real and utterly superficial. What is more or less certain is that they are dissociating an acquired, traditional culture, the culture of books, from written discourse and Logos. We cannot say what the outcome of this destructuring process will be.” But it seems that we can: the impossibility of philistinism because of the total absence of a culture about which to be literate (a parody is no longer a parody when it cannot be understood as such).

The obsession with difference after May ’68 in French thought can be interpreted as a refusal of this eternal repetition of the same on which mass culture insists as both the cause and the cure for existential boredom. It is for this reason that Lefebvre calls for the critique of the everyday because “to know the everyday is to want to transform it. Thought can only grasp it and define it by applying itself to a project or radical programme of radical transformation. To study everyday life and to use that study as the guideline for gaining knowledge of modernity is to search for whatever has the potential to be metamorphosed … it is to understand the real by seeing it in terms of what is possible, as an implication of what is possible”. Despite the disagreements between Lefebvre and Goldmann, so too the latter would insist that “the possible is the fundamental category for comprehending human history. The great difference between positivist and dialectical sociology consists precisely in the fact that whereas the former is content to develop the most exact and meticulous possible photography of the existing society, the latter tries to isolate the potential consciousness in the society is studies: the potential [virtuelles], developing tendencies oriented toward overcoming that society. In short, the first tries to give an account of the functioning of existing structuration, and the second centers on the possibilities of varying and transforming social consciousness and reality”. Of course, these two enterprises are not opposed; the second is the consequence of the first, which shows us the necessity of such an overcoming. As Foucault would say—a point that critics of postmodernism such as Furedi have never grasped—the moment power/knowledge is grasped as historically constituted it is recognized in its contingency and the possibility of political action and change (Foucault’s word is “destruction”) is realized.

2b. Kant contra Hegel (and Nietzsche). In a series of what are generally regarded as minor texts, Kant anticipates the stark differences that would separate him from the idealism he resisted in Fichte and what would become the absolutism of Hegel on the notion of history. Kant insists that history is not the continuous improvement of humanity or, in short, that we cannot say in fact that humanity is always improving. Rather, the perfectability of humanity is a sort of regulative ideal of practical action: that we must assume that the improvement of humanity is possible or else, if we were to believe that every triumph of virtue is simply negated by a corresponding tragedy, “it may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce [emphasis added]. And even if the actors do not tire of it—for they are fools—the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will go on in the same way for ever” (Kant rejects, in short, the doctrine of amor fati).

What Kant (nor Nietzsche for that matter) did not anticipate was the ways in which nihilism would be made not only tolerable but the primary object of desire for civilizations in which no other alternatives are presented as either possible or necessary. Against the popular maxim there are actually three inevitabilities: death, taxes, and inevitability itself parceled in distraction and enjoyment.

2c. In Kierkegaardian terms, Kant tries to establish within the structure of practical reason itself the priority of the ethical over the aesthetic. There is no existential decision to be made for Kant because the moral law is simply a fact of reason. On the one hand, Kierkegaard accepts Kant’s rejection of heteronomy: “the person who says that he wants to enjoy life always posits a condition that either lies outside the individual or is within the individual in such a way that it is not there by virtue of the individual himself”. But Kierkegaardian authenticity has nothing of the character of Kantian autonomy if for no other reason than for the singularity of the “infinitely concrete” self that does not exist prior to the absolute choice to be who one is. What leftist critics of Kierkegaard (and existentialism generally) resisted was the propensity for the certitude of authenticity to remain inner in the complicity of the ethical self for an aestheticized existence, even if such aestheticism is transformed into the spiritual immolation of guilt.

Ethical guilt leads in the opposite direction of political action, which is predicated not on the identity of the subject but, rather, in the dereliction of subjective pride in the suffering of others (even if one is oneself the subject of oppression) in what Lévinas and Derrida have nominated as “responsibility”. The standard political distinction between responsibility and obligation consists simply in the fact that responsibility is not chosen and that my responsibility extends beyond my power of knowledge or even of satisfaction, e.g., in the fact that I can be responsible for injustices I never intended to commit. In a certain sense, then, the autonomy of my ethical responsibility is conditioned by the absolute heteronomy of my identity as one implicated prior to my decisions since those decisions must be made within a situation I have inherited.

3. Just as we have inherited the world of our predecessors, the critical political task is to be conscious of the futures we both prohibit and create. In this light, the fundamental imperative of education, Adorno said, is that Auschwitz should never happen again. What he meant, of course, is that education must form minds that are not pliable to the forces that lead us to fascism. What his hyperbolic statement has unfortunately made possible, however, is complacency with any injustice not commensurate with the most radical evil in recorded history (Abu Ghraib, for example, just “wasn’t as bad”). In a sense, politics always happens too late and the mistake of utopianism is to posit the possibility of redemption as the end of political action.

What criticism must resist at all personal and material costs is the reduction of politics into farce and the tragedy of recognizing that the necessity of criticism comes too late, i.e., when “the unthinkable” remains unthinkable because it has already become our modus operandi and when injustice can be recognized only the in the cold****, ironic laughter of those who can be persuaded that “it’s all good”. The real meaning of freedom (or Kant’s “autonomy”) is nothing other than a separation from reality and the given: “truth has no place other than the will to resist the lie of opinion. Thought … proves itself in the liquidation of opinion: literally the dominant opinion. This opinion is not due simply to people’s inadequate knowledge but rather is imposed upon them by the overall structure of society and hence by relations of domination. How widespread these relations are provides an initial index of falsity: it shows how far the control of thought through domination extends. Its signature is banality. … The banal cannot be true” (Adorno).

****We should not forget that Adorno explicitly claimed that Auschwitz was made possible by those without the capacity for love.

À la Lefebvre, though, it is not simply the content of opinion that is false but the very structure of opinion that criticism must interrogate. The fundamental insight of critical philosophy is that the given (the everyday) is never merely given but always (socially) mediated (this was, incidentally, Fichte’s insight into the possibility of ethics, which preceded Hegel’s formulation of the state as the “ethical substance” of the subject): the habits and routines of everyday life are both sedimentations of cultural meanings but also, ipso facto, a necessary condition for (self-)identity. The relation between the everyday and the extraordinary, as Felski argues, cannot be reduced to the opposition between the material and the ideal if only because the everyday is the materialization of the ideal. There is, therefore, no single “everyday” experience apart from specific histories, which constitute such experiences as gendered, economic, etc. The everyday, consequently, cannot serve as the final court of appeal against the demands of the extraordinary but, like the state, precisely because it is a condition of life must also be subjected to unrelenting critique. As Felski points out, the everyday is necessarily caught in a fundamental ambivalence: disdained and even mistrusted for the ways in which the political, economic, and biopolitical forms of power have normalized the inequalities of reality while at the same time our subjection is also that which creates our possibilities as subjects.

The everyday thus presents us with the perennial choice between immanence and transcendence: Foucault and Deleuze represent the most radical attempts at an immanent critique of the given. Contemporary criticism, however, has learned that, properly speaking, our choice is not “between” immanence and transcendence since, as both Derrida and Badiou have shown, despite being otherwise irreconcilable, immanence only manifests through a presentation of the transcendental. The chiasm from the immanent to the transcendent passes through the unpresentable singularity of that which, from the side of the immanent, can never be given “all at once” and, from the side of the transcendental, exceeds the circulation of discourse (e.g., Derrida’s transcendental signifier or, equivalently, his notion of justice as the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction). The sympathy of criticism, politics, education, and art consists in the insufficiency and contingency of the present and what is presented as affirmative in character.