Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Autonomy? Part Six of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

Pococurante's Library in Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism (Public Domain Image; Source: Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Paris: Sirène, 1759)
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you the final part, below, of David McCallam's important and timely Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759). You can read the earlier parts by clicking on the following links: 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' 'Ethos', 'Work' and 'Equality'.  


Today’s students are being recast as consumers, as customers. Via consumer choice and customer satisfaction, they are to discipline universities into becoming models of competivity, efficiency and market-responsiveness, thereby ‘driving up the quality’ of their educational ‘product’. Yet the very notion of ‘quality’ would require both institutions and students to have comparable aims, aspirations, starting points and outcomes; it would also require accurate, objective and stable means of measuring all of these elements. In the glaring absence of one-size-fits-all institutions, a population of student clones, and reliable and valid data by which to measure their comparability and compatibility, any notion of consumer choice is false, any idea of customer satisfaction is misleading. In reality, in the new higher education marketplace, a lot of students will be culturally constrained and financially obliged to shop at the Lidl of universities, not at the Waitrose, let alone the Harrods, of higher education institutions. 

Some might object that money is being redirected to ‘widening participation’ schemes and bursaries for poorer students in order to offset this eventuality (even though the sums involved are paltry, and go nowhere near to compensating for the overall exorbitant hike in fees). The truth is that when universities are effectively recast as vending machines for degrees, some vending machines may well offer fair-trade products or discounted items, but they will remain first and foremost vending machines.

Within universities too, the new fees market means the increased adoption of private business practices. Already in research, we have moved from the industrial model of the Research Assessment Exercise (2008), and its talk of productivity and outputs, to the managerial model of the Research Excellence Framework (2014), with its key terms of impact, excellence and performance. In teaching terms, private business practice means workload quotas, performance-related evaluations and ‘outreach’ as the drive to tap new markets. This is the soft power of the free market, centred on competition, which relentlessly implicates university researchers and teachers in their own subjugation, in a process of constant self-disciplining to outperform their colleagues. The same goes for students. The same soft power constrains them, as consumers, to make educational choices which are presented as ‘free’, but which are heavily predetermined by the laws of the marketplace (credit, cost, interest, etc.). 

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out in a text published only three years after Candide, ‘there is no form of enslavement so perfect as that which retains the appearance of freedom’. And for both students and university teachers, subjection lies at the core of the construction of their subjectivity as education consumers and entrepreneurial academics.

Yet the very activities engaged in by both students and lecturers in the classroom offer a powerful means of resisting and rejecting this free-market model. Antithetical to the bipolar economy of greed-fuelled boom and panic-stricken bust, or the schizoid nature of debt/credit (called ‘debt’ when punitive, ‘credit’ when seductive), the individual and collective reasons exercised in the arts and humanities seminar measure gain only in terms of critical autonomy, in gestures of imaginative invention, ethical critique or empathic insight. At once wary and witty, they provide the means to ensure that we do not collude in our own oppression. If only by increasing our power to question, they challenge the language and the logic used to justify the increasingly subtle forms this oppression takes. 

This critical autonomy succeeds because, unlike market minds, it is first and foremost self-aware: it the exercise of critical reasoning and a critique of reason too, invoking emotions, imagination and ethics to make its case. In a world where power operates and is modulated in exclusive, encoded forms – your PIN, computer password, work log-in, supermarket swipecard, student registration no., etc. – the arts class affords a space for an individual and collective code-breaking. Codes are broken in both senses of the term: social and moral norms are willingly transgressed, systems and structures of meaning are cleverly unpicked. Critical autonomy is thus generated by outwitting our everyday forms of collective constraint and self-regulation.

Published in 1759, what can Candide possibly tell us of these very modern forms of subjugation and emancipation? On the surface, its disciplines are military and physical, involving the apparatuses of armies, inquisitions and prisons. It seems to fall back more on the classical methods of brute force and internment, rather than applying today’s subtle and varied techniques of internalization as means of control (chief of which is debt as a devolved form of self-policing, for states as much as for individuals). After all, Candide is press-ganged and violently drilled in Bulgar (i.e., Prussian) military discipline, and is thrown into prison when he attempts to desert; the erstwhile maid Paquette is imprisoned and only released on condition of becoming her judge’s sex slave; Cunégonde’s splenetic brother, the Baron, is incarcerated by the Spanish, and made a galley-slave along with Pangloss; and the English admiral Byng is famously court-martialled and executed ‘to encourage the others’. Yet in Venice, Candide meets a deposed king who had lain on the straw of a debtor’s prison in London, whose last servant now leaves his master because no-one in Venice will advance him any ‘credit’. Dethroned, he drifts from place to place, in perpetual fear of being thrown back in gaol; debt has become his new prison, and is all the more effective in that it accompanies him everywhere he goes.

What is more, a close reading of the Eldorado episode shows us that it is effectively governed by a form of soft power. Its people will their own internment between its high mountain walls and rushing rivers. Their ‘oath’ never to leave recalls Rousseau’s ‘perfect enslavement’ which ‘keeps the appearance of freedom’ and (he goes on) ‘thus subjugates the will itself’. It is a system conceived to make one’s behaviour behave (to paraphrase Foucault). And Candide recognizes the subtle and pervasive forces of conformity into which he and Cacambo would be co-opted if they stayed: ‘if we stay here’, he tells his companion, ‘we’ll only ever be like all the others’. This – and not the deceptive show of freedom and equality – explains the absence of courts and prisons in the kingdom. There’s no need of legal or physical constraints where the inhabitants willingly connive in their own subjection.

In effect, Candide’s critical autonomy dates from his decision to leave Eldorado in pursuit of Cunégonde. He turns his back on this ‘utopia’, and its self-regulating, self-perpetuating conformity precisely because Eldorado has chosen to shut itself off from the realities of inquisitorial rule and cannibalism to the south, and the inhumanity of the slave trade to the north. This newfound critical autonomy is confirmed by Candide’s subsequent decision in Surinam to renounce Optimism and to contrive a plan to have Cunégonde brought to meet him in Venice. It’s an independence of mind that allows him to counter Martin’s pessimism, negotiate the worldly traps of Venice and Paris, and settle outside Constantinople where he and his fellows are not in and out of power as are the effendis, cadis, and pashas paraded past their windows, but in a state of empowerment, discoursing, dissenting, cultivating garden and minds.

The ending of Candide lends itself to innumerable readings. In part, this is because the text plays with disparate and divergent narrative codes in wending its way to its conclusion. Candide’s tale thus evokes a medieval romance, an epic quest, a picaresque novel, moral satire, conte philosophique, Bildungsroman, modern parable or classic fable as well as the contemporary travel narratives of the grand tour and sentimental journey. Its universe may well be one ruled by brutish, explicit violence – war, torture, natural disaster, execution, enslavement and incarceration – yet even these forms of physical coercion and subjugation are encoded in the narrative. They offer Candide, and his fellow protagonists, opportunities to test the grand theories, worldviews or meta-narratives by which oppression is variously explained, justified or excused. Experiencing forms of extreme physical disciplining allows Candide to challenge and ultimately break the code of Pangloss’s Optimism or Martin’s pessimism, and sundry other ‘totalitarian’ philosophies (e.g., the ‘–isms’ of Catholicism, imperialism, even possibly nascent capitalism). And like Candide, the reader too gains in critical autonomy in ‘cracking the codes’ in the text, in ‘getting’ the parodies of Optimist language in the euphemistic descriptions of sex and violence, in reading at once a tale denoting various adventures in a universe of appalling, inhuman viciousness and a tale connoting sophisticated philosophical satire and light-touch political irony. Hence even Candide and Pangloss’s inquisitorial dungeons (the depth of physical oppression) can be rendered as ‘separate apartments of exceptional coolness in which one was never incommoded by the sun’ (the height of poetic liberty). 

Candide is thus very much a story for our times: one of confronting a succession of crises of representation. The world is presented, or rather represented, to Candide in a number of systematic, philosophical ways, of which the most insistently reductive is Pangloss’s Optimism. Yet the inchoate, arbitrary nature of events in the world, as experienced by Candide, gives the lie to these systems of representation and pitches them into crisis. And, as the etymology suggests, crises are the moments par excellence for critical autonomy to assert itself, for more intelligent questions to be asked, for codes to be broken (and definitively rejected where necessary), for self-awareness to challenge our own collusion in the processes of deceptive and oppressive system-building, and for alternative, tentative interpretations to emerge. And once again, as in Candide, so in the arts seminar in which it is read. 

When our own collective endeavours are threatened and shaken by events seemingly beyond our control or comprehension – a natural disaster, a financial crash, a political upheaval – it is then that the critical practices of the arts class empower us to make sense where little or none seems to be left. More than any other area of study, the arts and humanities teach us to negotiate and shape the shifting historical, political, philosophical, discursive and visual fields of meaning constituting our understanding of the world around us. 

A fortiori then, when these fields of meaning appear to disintegrate, it is the arts and humanities students who can best recognize and manage such crises of representation. To give a few examples: in the face of a humanitarian crisis, they provide a voice for the voiceless; in an economic crisis, they are least surprised by the fluid, illusory nature of credit; in a political crisis, they propose alternative modes of action, and can draw on their own democratic practices to do so. In the twenty-first century, the critical autonomy gained in the arts classroom may prove to be at the very least a fundamental survival skill, and at best, an individual and collective guide into a more enlightened, humane future.

But first, it leads us to the following, and final, manifesto principle:

Article 5°

By educating us to be self-aware and critically autonomous, the arts and humanities ensure that we are less likely to collude in our own oppression; equally, they best equip us to manage society’s increasingly frequent crises of representation (political, economic, cultural, rhetorical, visual).

Further reading:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, ou de l’éducation (Paris, 1999)

  • Tzvetan Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment (London, 2010)

  • Michel Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris, 2004)

Further further reading (on Candide):

  • David Williams, Voltaire: Candide (London, 1997)

  • Roger Pearson, The Fables of Reason. A Study of Voltaire’s Contes philosophiques (Oxford, 1993), ch. 8 on Candide, pp. 110-136

  • René Pomeau, ‘Candide entre Marx et Freud’, SVEC 89 (1972), pp. 1305-1323

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