“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:


The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:


Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.


The radical unknowing of hope

I am reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a postmodern text from the 1980s about the simulation of the real which has replaced our conceptions of reality. It largely works as a critique of the media as a means by which we “recognize” the reality of our world as consumers, a reality which is in fact a simulation of a reality now lost to us. We no longer live in a political economy but rather a production-centered social arrangement which, like Disneyland, refers to a reality that is beyond our grasp,  one which is hidden from us (which is a falsehood because nothing exists outside of the simulation of reality, or hyperreality, in which we exist and understand ourselves). If it feels a little nihilistic, perhaps even a bit like the movie The Matrix, it should. (The book inspired and appears in the film.)

I am writing a paper to talk about the possibility of hope, the hope for possibility, in an era when reality appears ever-larger as a face on a screen, divvying up alternative facts between greedy news conglomerates and sinking all of us in the United States into various states and prostrations of apathy. My graduate students express this, and I also feel that same drag on my positivity, on my creativity, in the fact of what appears to be a superstructure that seeks to cancel out my participation except through Facebook posts and, haha, blogging.

Still, I have faith that this writing can be practice for something bigger. I came to a beautiful, poetic thought today while riding the long train ride to Manhattan from Queens, a thought about hope and a way its unknowing of our present time could mean something powerful, something real, and not a simulation of real as expressed by Baudrillard. This is my thought:

Hope is the articulation of what is possible at the somatic and political level. It is neither loud or quiet, and it necessarily is accompanied by cultural and historical voices. Like agency, it is conditioned by the times in which it comes into being. Unlike agency, however, it by nature is diachronic, occupying a distinct ontological position in relation to reality. There is an unknowing to hope: it must to a point be ignorant of the current limits to reality in order to project forward into possible future contingencies. Yet simultaneously, hope knows what we are capable of before we come to attempt it. This can be a single individual, of course, but hope also can be multiplied across relational lines as such capabilities, untapped, join with those of kindred spirits and equally in-pain or joyful folk.

I hope to write more against this reality, and I hope more writing will find me and others who wish to hope, and hope together.


Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press. https://monoskop.org/images/2/26/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Toward_a_Philosophy_of_the_Act.pdf

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5679/1/Pedagogy_against_disutopia_Amsler_Nov_2007.pdf

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct/pages/JWM/Syllabi/Bourdieu/SocSpaceSPowr.pdf

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/gned/marxtonf45.pdf

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Resist the punditry

A friend of mine shared a video of an interview between Gad Saad and Michael Rechtenwald, a professor at NYU who evidently has been “castigated for daring to criticize safe spaces and related thought policing, postmodernism, literary Darwinism, secularism in science, and the relationship between science and religion.” I’m including the video link here (I’d suggest watching 24:00-28:00ish) as well as my comments on YouTube. The point: The two speakers are hashing out the “bullshit” involved in postmodernism and the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and other poststructural scholars, stating that these thinkers are obscurantist and concern themselves with sounding intellectual rather than making salient and socially applicable points. What do you think?

The two speakers are aiming to be critics, which I can appreciate. However, to say simply that Butler is “full of shit” is to ignore her contributions to scholarly thought, which are valuable. She’s an important philosopher of language. One of the issues I think they’re conflating is the idea with the mode of expression. I agree that Butler’s sentence is abstruse and very very difficult to understand (weirdly, I understood it for the most part!) but I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’d look for a middle ground where we can still find ideas and assume that scholarly work can be exploratory and push the reader to think, even if at times it is hard to read.

I agree with the speaker on the left that literary/critical theory is often worshipped for the lofty and inaccessible (obscurantist) ways of speaking. For example, Derrida wrote a dissertation that was widely rejected for its meaninglessness. I read Derrida’s work for about 50 pages and it occurred to me that he could have said what he wanted to say in 5-6 pages. However, I think it’s facile to call it “bullshit” or a “false prophecy.” I agree with the gentleman on the right that literary/critical theory at times divorced itself from social reality…however, again, I think this is a reaction to the rock star-ness of French intellectualism in the 1960s and its social excesses and doesn’t justify a perspective that none of it contributes anything to scholarship and creative ways of resolving philosophical and political questions in society.

The moral of this story: READ FOR YOURSELF. We are in anti-intellectual times when we count on pundits to tell us how we feel. This temptation for the shorthand version of things is to be avoided at all costs.