Monday, 14 March 2011

Equality? Part Five of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

File:Voltaire and Diderot at the Café Procope.jpeg
Voltaire and Diderot at the Café Procope in Paris. Seated in the rear, from left to right: Condorcet, La Harpe, Voltaire (with his arm raised) and Diderot. [Public Domain Image: Source]

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you Part Five of David McCallam's persuasive Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759).

The 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' 'Ethos', and 'Work' have already appeared. The final instalment of the Manifesto -- Autonomy --  will appear tomorrow. 


Politically, Candide moves in a world of feudal overlords, absolutist monarchs, autocrats and despots. Even utopian Eldorado is a consensual, if not constitutional, monarchy (in effect a sort of tyranny of conformity). The closest he comes to a republic is among the Oreillons, a South American tribe of cannibals who nearly roast him and Cacambo alive under the impression that they are Jesuits. It is true that Venice, where Candide stays for months awaiting Cunégonde, is styled a republic, although it is in fact ruled by a repressive patrician oligarchy. And Candide meets there only more deposed kings and a cynical, blasé aristocrat who dismisses England’s liberal parliamentary monarchy as corrupted by rabid factionalism. So the notion of democracy seems totally alien to Candide’s narrative universe.

We might then be tempted to think that we have improved on this situation; that our western democracies offer forms of civic freedoms, civil rights and equality before the law unimaginable to Candide and his fellows. Yet, before we get too smug, Jacques Rancière points out that what we call ‘democracy’ is really no such thing. First of all, our democracy is conceived of not as a fundamentally political entity but as a social one; it is characterized by such things as individual or minority rights, social mobility, and equal access to services and credit, etc. That is, it is reduced to a sort of egalitarian individualism whose defining feature is an inviolable freedom of ‘choice’. And by subtly effacing the collective civic nature of democracy, our systems of governance have substituted political equality with consumer equality. Thus our democracy’s showcase elections increasingly resemble a consumer challenge between three or four brands of washing powder (each promising to come cleaner than the others); a vote for either Pepsi or Coke. This is democracy as consumption, democracy as greed à la Thatcher, a share-owning, home-owning, self-serving democracy; and as we have recently discovered, in such a democracy the only thing we end up holding in common is debt.

This is also, or course, the democratic model currently being rolled out in higher education. (Yet free-market democracy and consumer equality have proven to be precisely the least equal and most unjust of modern liberal systems. As Danny Dorling has compellingly shown, over the last few years wage inequality in Britain has returned to levels not seen since the 1850s. Admittedly, we have greater general access to welfare, healthcare and education than our Victorian forebears – but for how long? When the government is hell-bent on selling off or tendering out public services, civic spaces and communal activities to competing private interests – and these include the voluntary sector – the Dickensian workhouse, not the arts and humanities workshop, best prefigures our collective future…)

Consumer equality in higher education clearly means the fees market with its attendant exacerbation of existing inequalities of access (a 40% drop in students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds who said they are definitely going to university in the wake of the Browne report). As the US has decisively proven in this regard, educational inequality entrenches social immobility. Those few students from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university in the US (3% from the lowest socio-economic quartile) are more likely to drop out, consolidating a lack of aspiration in their peers – ‘university’s not for the likes of us’ – thereby betraying higher education’s fundamental civic mission. On top of that, tuition fees consistently rise faster than inflation, so poorer households, already hit by wage inequalities, see the dream of university education receding ever faster away from them.

And yet let’s look at what is happening not to higher education but within higher education, specifically in its arts and humanities classrooms. Here a very different conception of democracy is at work. It is, as Rancière suggests, a truer democracy, one conceived of as ‘government by those who have no desire to govern’. It is the collective exercise of power in the absence of any title to exercise it. Let’s illustrate this with some stereotypes: it is the mousy young woman at the back finding her voice, the immigrants’ daughter relating a text to family experiences, the grammar-school lad confronting troublingly new worldviews. Those who haven’t spoken before, who didn’t know how to speak, who always spoke from a certain point of view, now speak together – as equals.

It sounds idealistic, and yet we see it everyday in the arts faculties of our universities. This is democracy not as the ‘power of the people’ (already a self-interested ideological construct), but as the empowerment of anyone at all. Consumer equality is replaced (if only here, if only for a moment) with the equality of intelligences. At its best, students become the source of the questions, not their target audience; they ask questions to which they don’t have an answer and to which their teachers have no definitive response. Democracy, in this context, no longer resides in expressing the ‘popular will’ but in exercising collective reason(s) and collective imagination(s) – an exercise which both guarantees the democratic nature of the classroom and grants critical autonomy to individual students.

A similar equality of intelligences reigns between Candide and Cacambo. Their relationship is ostensibly that of master and servant. But as they travel picaresquely across South America, it is the servant who takes the initiative, speaks up, works out the situation and takes action. (This might be read as part of a more widespread eighteenth-century inversion of power between master and servant – think Almaviva and Figaro – yet its philosophical and pedagogical significance runs deeper than that of a daring plot device. It also goes beyond the ‘truth’ of the master-slave dialectic which subjugates the master just as much as the slave to its dynamic. Instead, it realizes a master-servant dialogue; and despite the restoration of a certain social hierarchy in the denouement, for as long as the pair exchange words, they do so as equals. Hence the scandal of Figaro is the scandal of equality and the promise of democracy inscribed in the very discursive fabric of a society of orders).

As Rancière again has pointed out, the apparent inequality of their positions as master and servant is only made possible by a inherent equality of intelligences: that even as Candide commands Cacambo, in the very act of commanding him, the master has to assume a speaking position of equality in order to be understood. And as for the fictitious master and servant, so for the arts lecturer and his or her students. The assumed knowledge disparity existing between lecturer and student is only allowed to obtain because of the fundamental equality of intelligences on which it is founded, and which permits any exchange of views at all. Hence the arts student, like Cacambo, takes the initiative, speaks up and ‘acts as interpreter’ – ostensibly for the lecturer, but in reality for the class, for his or her interpretive community. This is how Candide’s enterprising servant interprets again and again not just for his master but also for the reader.

Cacambo’s interpretations and Candide’s interrogations, along with other dialogues and personal stories, drive the narrative of their philosophical tale. In fact, to borrow Roger Pearson’s description of Voltaire himself, we might say that Candide ‘thinks narratively’; that it is a masterclass in thinking narratively. As much as anything else, then, the text’s mockery and denunciation of Pangloss is as a teller of a sole tale, as the narrator of a single metanarrative (Optimism) to which all else is unerringly subordinated. In contrast, Candide – and the Old Woman, Cunégonde, etc. – recount and relate micro-narratives, short stories, anecdotes in which they incessantly rehearse the acts of affirmation and resistance that structure their world. Even the Surinam slave has his tale to tell, forging a subjectivity out of the very terms of his subjection.

Micro-narratives thus provide a further means of making speakers equal, of instituting a sort of discursive egalitarianism in the face of Pangloss’s Single Truth. For storytelling collapses hierarchies, its equality of tale-teller and listener being among the purest, oldest and most common of equalities; and one that is rediscovered daily in our arts and humanities seminars. Hence students are often tempted to interpret narratively, to relate anecdotes as a means of explaining how they read the text: how Pangloss reminds them of an Irish uncle, or how Candide’s adventures recall in places such and such an episode of The Simpsons… And as with their anachronisms, students should be actively encouraged to develop these anecdotes. Originally, anecdotes – such as those of Procopius – were secret and subversive histories told as witty, revealing correctives to the metanarrative of History structured around the acts of the great dead white male. And they retain this revealing, corrective function in the arts and humanities classroom, as in society at large.

The anecdote is, in a sense, narrative in its most elemental form, micro-narratives that debunk ‘History’ or ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Art’ and empower their speakers, at once levelling and enfranchising; a democratic discourse among others practised and learnt in the arts classroom.

From all of which we can advance the following manifesto principle:

Article 4°

University arts and humanities classes constitute a genuinely democratic space, founded on the equality of intelligences of their members; at once levelling and empowering, they are the workshops of citizenship.

Further reading:
  • Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (London, 2006)
  • Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (Bristol, 2010)
  • Roger Brown, ‘The Impact of Markets’, in Higher Education and the Market, ed. Roger Brown (New York, 2011), pp. 20-52

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