So, I attended a major conference not long ago. It was one of these as big as it gets type of conferences with thousands of attendees, well, at least to my understanding, that is. The scale is so big that you know … just about no one, except a handful of familiar faces from a previous conference or conferences. The bad thing is that it’s off the hook diverse, to the point that you have no idea what sessions to attend. The good thing is that you are not sitting in session after session on more of the same or very close to the same anyway. It let’s you dip your toes in different waters, or so to speak. Of course, not everyone enjoys that, but I certainly do, even if it can be a bit bewildering at times. It works quite well if you are the type who reads quite a bit and often stuff that has no clear connection to what you do yourself.
This is going to be somewhat random, a bit of this and that, on this and that, whatever happened to get my attention. One of the first things I attended was on a session on all things language meets education and sociology. I don’t have much to say about the presentations. I didn’t think much of them by themselves. For me, what was interesting was the Q&A session that followed the presentations. The highlight for me was when a member of the audience, I have no idea who it was, not that it should even matter anyway, questioned the underlying idea of childhood, that is to say what is to be a child.
To contextualize this, before this, the discussion revolved around how adults set the rules, effectively bulldozing the will of the children. Children want to do their own thing, for example to play, rather than read and write, sit still etc. There was commentary on how the parents may find it rather disturbing if time is spent on playing rather than learning. The point here was that adults find such a waste of time, a waste of education if you will. Now, for me, this was sort of obvious criticism (worth pointing out though). Adults set the rules, according to which children must play before they reach adulthood, or so to speak. This applies basically to everything, not just fun and play, just so that this is absolutely clear.
The problem with this is, as noted by the presenters/panelists, is that the children, or should I say non-adults, get to have very little say in this. The point really being that childhood is this stage of life that one must grow out of, according to the set rules … set by the adults. It’s sort of a prophecy that fulfills itself. It’s all about reproduction of the existing conditions. So, in a way, to give credit to the panelists here, one way to solve this is to give children more say in matters that concern them. I mean, that only makes sense.
So, that’s the premise for what the audience member brought up. Anyway, getting to the point here, the audience member questioned this binary: child/adult, non-adult/adult. It took a bit of time for others to realize what the person was after. I got it immediately, perhaps because what I read often deals with such constructs. The well dressed Brazilian man next to me jumped at the opportunity to clarify the issue to others. Anyway, in my words, the issue is exactly that binary, treating children as children, i.e. infantilizing them. I know that infantilizing is typically used when one is treating adults as children, denying the capacity or competence to act, but the point was exactly on how treating anyone, not only who we consider adults, i.e. competent members of the society, as essentially children denies their agency, including rights and responsibilities.
I quite appreciated that people took this to the next level and challenged the whole notion of what it is to be of this and/or that age, to my understanding not because they think that a five-year-old, a twelve-year-, a fifteen-year-old or a seventeen-year-old (any age really, feel free to come up with your own points in life) is going to be simply as competent in this and/or that as some elder person, but because treating them as incompetent, unable, irresponsible, and the like (feel free to come up with other negative traits associated to the adolescent) effectuates such behavior, as if it was essential to them. Ay, as I did just emphasize, this doesn’t mean that now anything goes then, whatever, but that treating people a certain way, setting up systematic practices on this and/or that, has a tendency of resulting in the people in question acting that way. If one would have to really simplify this, infants act like they do because they are infantilized. They end up acting that way because they are expected to do so. Oh, and before anyone disagrees with this based on the notion that treating children as not children, i.e. as adults, would be irresponsible, it’s worth adding that no one is or was suggesting that anything goes, that one should go all Erran Morad on it. The point had more to do with rights and responsibilities of each individual, rather than treating everyone the same, as children, or as adults, just because they are this or that age.
The Q&A session also had an interesting point about formal education, i.e. schooling, in general. One of the audience members posed a question not only to the panelists but also to the whole audience, wondering if there are other voices, outside the European circles, that could be of use in understanding the role of formal education and how it could approached. The well dressed man sitting next to me, or, well, close by to be exact, pointed out that Paulo Freire’s views may be of interest to people. I took note of this, not because bringing up a random name is itself worth making note of, but because he managed to offer a neat summary of how education ought to function in society according to Freire. I didn’t write this down, so I’m paraphrasing the man who, I believe, paraphrased Freire. This means that there’s bound to be a bit of difference introduced here. He said something along the lines of that education should be liberating, but in the sense that it results in freedom qualified as not replicating the existing hierarchy, the oppressor vs. the oppressed duality. In the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, Freire (54) states that:
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”
I believe this is the point the well dressed gentleman was making. The point here is that resistance fueled by victim mentality is only bound to end up in the oppressed becoming the future oppressors because one ends up emulating the models of one’s former oppressors. Now, for me, this is a bit too simplistic, revolving around essentialized concepts like humanism and a duality of the oppressors and the oppressed, as if they were monoliths. I just don’t buy it that the oppressed are not capable of being oppressors, nor that they do not oppress others while being oppressed by whoever it is that oppresses them. It’s never simply about the good and the evil, black and white, but more like a continuum, of shades of gray.
That said, I reckon that it’s still pretty much on point on the issue. I’d just give this a Nietzschean/Foucauldian/Deleuzian/Guattarian spin. To put it in terms discussed in a previous essay of mine, in order to actually change anything beyond oneself, not just who runs the show, one must change oneself first. One must engage in combat-between (oneself) before one can engage in combat-against (others). In order to be something else, one must embrace becoming something else without a predetermined fixed goal, to be this or that, like, say, one’s oppressor whose glitz and glam you may be after.
What else was there? Well, not in the same session, but in the session that I was presenting, Chaim Noy had an interesting take on museum-audience interactions. The gist of his presentation was that while museums are typically the sort of hands off, have a look at from the distance, type of built environments, people are, nonetheless, expected, even invited to comment on the museum or the exhibition before leaving. Typically this is done in the form of a guestbook. While it may seem rather mundane, to focus on guestbooks, there’s more to it. The interesting bit, at least to me, was how the museum, the exhibitor, invites people to write, addresses them. This made me think of Jean-Jacques Lecercle in his article ‘The Misprision of Pragmatics: Conception of Language in Contemporary French Philosophy’, in which he (28) states:
“‘If I address (or call) the person to whom I speak by whatever name I give him, I impose upon him a subject position, from which he will have to answer me, even if he rejects it’.”
If you are wondering what the context of that remark is, it’s him turning H. P. Grice’s maxims on their head through reading Jacques Lacan, this being the third maxim, the maxim of relation. In this treatment, it’s not about relevance, in the sense that one should co-operate, stay on topic, have something relevant to say, but about setting up what is relevant in the first place. It’s imposed, not implied, nor negotiated. In his (28) words:
“In this maxim, conversation receives an object: the point of it is not to co-operate, but to gain linguistic ground, to occupy a place – to be recognized by the opponent as occupying this place. … [T]he object of conversation is to assign a place to the other[.]”
This is why he (29) goes on to point out that:
“The law of ordinary conversation is a lynching law, where there is no smoke without fire, and where the accused answers from a position of presumed guilt.”
Now, this risks going off topic, so I’ll get back to the museums. Right, I brought this up because this is an interesting bit, even when isolated and not discussed thoroughly like done by Lecercle. So, the call or invitation to have people write about their museum experience on a guestbook is not exactly innocent. It’s a mixed bag really. If I remember correctly Noy did point out that museums are very expert oriented, as in you typically stare at objects, for example some artifacts or paintings, and some labels next to them that provide you extra information about the objects they accompany. In other words, there is very little involvement from the visitors, beyond the intended engagement with what is exhibited. So, in a way, it’s not, perhaps, fair to state that the guestbooks are there as something that you have to write in. I believe he pointed out that not everyone writes in them and as people only have this and or that much time, they may be in a hurry after spending hours in the museum, thus having no time for scribbling something into a guestbook. His point was that this allows people to participate in the museum, be part of it. That said, as I believe he did point out, that participation is within the parameters set by the museum. To go back to Lecercle for a moment, visitor participation is thus positioned by the museum.
At this stage I opt not to rely on my memory but to look up an article written by Noy, published in 2008. It’s titled ‘PAGES AS STAGES: A Performance Approach to Visitor Books’. Yes, I realize that the article is a bit dated and perhaps not representative of his works, as of now, but at least a quick glance, it’s on what he was talking about in his presentation. Anyway, in it he (519) specifies that it is not only the museum, but also the visitor book that posits the visitor behave in a certain way, to write as well as to draw something on its pages. It’s inviting the visitor to do so with its largely blank pages. Moreover, he (519) adds that if the visitor book contains something, such as symbols printed on the page (in his example it’s a column of symbols, logos or emblems, functioning like a watermark on each page), they invite the visitor behave in a certain way, for example to draw on the visitor book. It is in this sense that he (519) calls the visitor book as a graphic scene. In other words, as hinted by the title, in theater terms, it’s a stage which has a certain setting, which, in turn, sets up how people are to act on the stage. By the way, oddly enough, Lecercle actually uses a play to explain how this kind of positioning operates. Anyway, in case study presented in Noy’s article, the museum in question is part of a memorial site, commemorating the Battle of Ammunition Hill. It’s not worth getting into details here (you can read the article yourself), but to point out, summarizing Noy (520-523), that the visitor book, including the large blank pages and the faintly printed emblems, as well as the inscriptions of the visitors, be they written and/or drawn, long or short (albeit typically short), invite people to do more of the same, or so to speak. Now, of course, it’s not like everyone does just that and/or only that. It’s not determined. The point is rather that, as pointed out by Lecercle, the visitor is positioned, put in a certain place, which forces the visitor to (re)act from that position. Those more interested in this topic can take a closer look at the article or Noy’s more recent book ‘Thank You for Dying for Our Country: Commemorative Texts and Performances in Jerusalem’.
Among the other interesting ones was the session on the crossroad of power and language. Unfortunately the session was cut short by two cancellations. On the plus side, the two presentations held were then longer and thus, likely, superior versions of what they would have been, had everyone made it to the conference. Vladimir Paperni’s presentation on revolutionary discourse in Russia. What was particularly interesting about this presentation was that it did not only focus on the revolutionary discourse in Soviet Russia or Soviet Union (once it expanded to that), but also on how the revolutionary discourse came to be. It had an interesting ‘making-of’ take on the topic, which got my attention. I’m rather aware of the Soviet era discourse. Living next door, or so to speak, it’s hard to avoid the topic. That said, the making-of, how things came to be, how it was built, what it was based on, prior to the revolution, that’s not something that gets covered or discussed, almost at all (unless you are a history major and really into the topic, I guess). He presented two lines of thought or components in this discourse. The first one is the (quasi) rational or historical component: how it is necessary to move from the old (bad) times to a brave (good) new world, in the spirit of Enlightenment. In other words, moving from the sovereign era to the modern era. The old world has to be destroyed for this to happen. The Czar needs to go, same with the nobility. The second one is the mythological or eschatological (religious) component: how the old world has to be destroyed, purged or cleansed. It more or less becomes a moral duty to cleanse the world of its sins, everything that is part of the old world order really. In the Q&A, it was noted that how this has and still operates in revolutionary discourse, how it seems that there is this religious component to much of contemporary discourse, how one ought to be righteous and those who aren’t must be removed for the sake of purity. At this stage I thought of the principle of judgment, a topic that I covered in an essay not long ago. As a final note on this, after the session, I pointed out to another member of the audience that the speech was rather captivating, to which I got a response that it was almost too captivating, that is to say in the spirit of revolutionary discourse, as if, somehow, the discourse started to manifest on the speaker! Fascinating to say the least, albeit, perhaps, slightly disturbing at the same time.
There were, of course, a number of other sessions that I attended, but here I chose to focus on the particularly interesting ones. For example, I attended some sessions on relational and/or processual theories, but it’s very hard to pinpoint anything specific in them, at least not without going into a level of detail that goes on and on and on. Whats worth noting is a presentation by Olli Pyyhtinen. While he spoke a great deal about Georg Simmel, what I took from the presentation, what was its core anyway, was to temper people from thinking that there is no stability, in a very Stoicist sense, along the lines of not only Heraclitus (stepping into a river only once) but also Cratylus (what river?). I know I’m condensing quite a bit here, but for me the point is to take the Stoicism very seriously while also acknowledging that it is crucial not to get stuck on whether there is a river or not, true or not, but that we take it to be so, which, if my memory serves me, is a bit to be found in Michel Foucault’s ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language’ (translation by Alan Sheridan-Smith).
- Baron Cohen, S. N., A. Hines, T. Schulman, A. Newman, D. Mazer, and A. Lowitt (Ex. Pr.) (2018). Who Is America? (S. N. Baron Cohen, Cr.). London, United Kingdom / New York, NY: Four by Two Television / Spelthorne Community Television / Showtime Networks.
- Foucault, M. ([1969/1971] 1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language (A. M. Sheridan Smith and R. Swyer, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
- Freire, P. ( 2000). Pedagogy of the Opressed (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.
- Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts (pp. 41–58). New York, NY: Academic Press.
- Lecercle, J-J. (1987). The Misprision of Pragmatics: Conceptions of Language in Contemporary French Philosophy. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, 21, 21–40.
- Noy, C. (2008). PAGES AS STAGES: A Performance Approach to Visitor Books. Annals of Tourism Research, 35 (2), 509–528.
- Noy, C. (2015). Thank You for Dying for Our Country: Commemorative Texts and Performances in Jerusalem. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.