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A Smear is Born 4/4
A brief history of repression in education
“Reason’s just an ox You have to load it tight and lead it firm.”
« La rason es pas qu’un buòu que cal cargar sarrat e menar fèrme. » — Ives Roqueta
“First they came for the other people who used the term Critical Theory rather loosely, and I said nothing, because I used it only in the historically specific sense of the Frankfurt Institute.” — Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft
About Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: he’s White. Also: he’s a dick. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, spent a lot of thought on dicks — “The Phallus,” rather, which he defined as the signifier in search of a signified, a dick confronted by that terrifying emptiness Kant calls the Sublime.1 Moby Dick is just an average working dick who performs a function for which he himself knows no rationale:
“And be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” [Ch. 36]
We didn’t need Lacan to tell us that. It’s long been argued by staid professors of American Literature that in Moby Dick, Melville attempts to forge a way to read the world, an epistemology against the grain of Kant and of Cousin:
“We had an extraordinary time & did not break up till after two in the morning. We talked metaphysics continually, & Hegel, Schegel [hic], Kant &c were discussed under the influence of the whiskey.”2
Kant defined the human condition as the Kingdom of Ends; Moby Dick-the-book produces meanings without end and without ends.3 Moby Dick-the-whale is an allegory, not a symbol: as in a Medieval allegory he has no say himself in what he stands for, what he does, or why. He’s cousins to that disturbing figure, the Old Man in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, who may be Time itself but who himself is a mere agent, a victim of Time:
"Thus walke I, lyk a restelees caityf And on the ground, which is my modres gate I knokke with my staf, bothe erly and late And seye, 'leve moder, leet me in!' Lo! how I vanish, flesh, and blood, and skin! Allas! whan shul my bones been at reste?"
What Freud would say, or Lacan, about the staf and modre needs no saying; Foucault would say he lacks that “Technique of the Self”
which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.4
Charles Olson, the poet who wrote a classic take on Melville’s novel, saw in it the rampant, uncontrolled unfolding of America’s oceanic dickheadedness. As a book and a protagonist Moby Dick stands as a kind of cognitive vanishing point, a hegemonic configuration that makes no sense in itself but organizes everything around it, a cosmic Confidence Man. It’s no accident the three harpooners, Daggoo, Tashtego and Queequeg, are B, I, and POC respectively: they’re the only ones who have no illusions about the kind of beast they face:
“We act big, misuse our land, ourselves…. [Melville] lived intensely his people's wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.”5
Melville was the First Woke: through Moby Dick he confronts the two Kantian pillars of Eurocentric hegemonism, the regulative principles and the synthetic unity of apperception: 6
Kant for Dummies (and Cousin, meaning Kant for Dummies anyhow): 1] One can make sense of material phenomena only by resorting to ultimate, abstract Reason. 2] Deductions from the observation of material phenomena have little if any Truth value, being based on sensations, since the sensations themselves are limited by the operations of our various senses and the conflicts between them. Melville, with his acerbic sense of humor, is trolling Kant: for Kant only abstract synthesis can reconcile the perceptions we derive from the senses, whereas Moby has eyes on either side of his head, so that he
“must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side.”
Which does not seem to impair the higher faculties of Reason, quite the opposite,
“as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstration of two distinct problems in Euclid.” [Chapter 74]
Melville is only one of many artists to have twisted Kant’s logic into a pretzel; some day I want to tell their story:
As to the first concept: Somewhere, somehow, there are universal, abstract and ethically directed forces (“regulative ideas”) to which all right-thinking humans wish to submit, and that, to Kant and Cousin, is the meaning of higher education. Neither Kant nor Cousin is consistent as to the endowments that empower the right-thinking, except Imagination (Empfehlung) ranks high among them, the "pure intuition of the moi, outside all experience.”7 Back in the days when we all shouted “Power to the Imagination!” we had no idea that Power had beat us to it by a hundred fifty years.
Because, if the ability to access universal Truth rests with each individual, then all epistemologies are standpoint epistemologies, no matter how close or removed they may seem from that one unattainable Truth idealized by Kant. As long as there is no discernible way to identify the holders of truth, the search for truth reduces itself to subjection to anyone who can credibly claim authority. As a result, attacks on “Cancel Culture” or “Woke” become a game of “So’s your mom” in which accusers merely mimic the repressiveness of which they accuse their victims, while the truth-content of either position is permanently deferred by reference to “ultimate, abstract Reason:”
“To pretend that […] certain views must be treated as truth […] is to give in to the illogic of standpoint epistemology.”8
In her introduction to The Post-Revolutionary Self, Jan Goldstein urges us to read Foucault with caution when addressing the postures of the bourgeois self:
“While his genealogies of the modern self concerned issues of power and were, in a very general sense, historically situated, they also lacked intentional actors”9
When one starts out, as Foucault seems to do, by addressing Power as an abstraction in its own right, then Power itself becomes a subsidiary form of the Kantian regulative idea, intrinsic to abstraction itself. Today the average university classroom has become a dreary game of King of the Hill, a struggle of isolated monads scrambling to occupy the Place of Authority, the incarnation of Abtract Reason. The motivational force is supplied by “intentional actors,” whose field of action, socially determined, happens in this particular case to derive from the regulatory techniques imposed by the educational system itself: the hierarchy of imagination corresponds to the hierarchy of administration. One need only visit the Harvard Coop, the assigned bookstore for America’s most prestigious university, to be convinced: Where one would expect to find the most rigorous works, written by the most illustrious minds in America, one finds a mass of self-indulgent narratives, the technique of the self taken to another level.
The line between Kantian liberalism and Übermensch fascism is a thin one, and thinner by the day. It’s time to face the fact that this situation can only be rectified by a shift in the real power relations that determine education as a practice. It’s a lesson the fascists, with their prioritization of power, have long understood. It’s time we understood as well.
WOID XXIII-10a4 4/4
Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), pp. 575-84. Jacques Lacan, « La Signification du phallus », Conférence de Jacques Lacan le 9 mai 1958, Les Écrits (Paris: Seuil, 1999), pp. 685-695.
Melville, Journal, quoted in A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 174; see also Shirley M. Detlaff, “Melville’s Aesthetics” in A Companion to Melville Studies pp. 634-5.
Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, 1785).
Michel Foucault, "Technologies of the Self" in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, University of Vermont, October 1982, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 18.
Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (New York: Reynal & Hitch, 1947), pp. 14, 15.
Immanuel Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft (Riga: Johann Friedrich Hartknoch 1781), p. 644.
Wilhelm von Humboldt; see “A Smear is Born,” Part III, footnote 2. https://theorangepress.substack.com/p/a-smear-is-born-iii
John McWhorter, “DeSantis May Have Been Right,” quoted in “A Smear is Born,” Part I, footnote 3. https://theorangepress.substack.com/p/schools-and-scandals-i
Jan Ellen Goldstein, The Post-revolutionary Self. Politics and Psyche in France, 1750-1850 (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 15.