Thursday, 28 January 2010

"Welcome fool, you have come.....

...of your own free will to the appointed place.The game is over.The game of the hunted leading the is we who have found you and brought you here and controlled your every thought and action since you arrived......."

This is a quotation from the final scene of The Wicker Man, where at last Sergeant Howie learns the terrible truth from Lord Summerisle about what is to happen to him at the hands of a remote community of pagans. I've mentioned it before, and hope to post again on the cultural significance of this film more specifically, but here I want to use it in relation to "knowledge politics" (just as I did in one of my first ever posts, which quoted Tyrell's speech to Roy Batty from Blade Runner, as mirroring the academic supervisor/student relationship...and also The Matrix as an allegory of the kinds of theory favoured in the blogosphere). So this is the most recent part of an occasional series, on my part.

To be sure, I mentioned before in "Loneliness As a Way of Life" that The Wicker Man holds some appeal to me as part of a fantasy of what my funeral could consist of. Just imagine Lord Summerisle's words I've quoted here opening the service, turning to address the casket. I know that some people may not share my sense of humour, so it is hardly a practical proposal, just as I am only too well aware that the sections of the blogosphere I've referred to before are not inclined to critically apply the science fiction tropes they favour to their own practices.

But rather than talk about them specifically again here, I'd like to consider what else appeals to me about Lord Summerisle's speech. I can't help thinking that part of the appeal of horror as a genre is that it can act as a catalyst to paradoxically heal cognitive dissonance. The epiphany, the horrific moment of revelation, concentrates the senses, so that the scales fall away from your eyes. At last you can see the truth for what it really is. Danger can then sometimes become a prelude to escape (although not in The Wicker Man of course). There is some appeal then in escaping the mundane contingency constitutive of modernity. A special characteristic of this contingency is the institutionalisation of formal democratic equality, which is undercut by the commodification of social relationships. This contradiction in turn has a corrosive effect on intimate communication, thereby generating cognitive dissonance.

The best explanation I've read is Pixley and Bittman's sociological approach to the communication patterns characteristic of modern family life. Referring to Bateson's work on the inability of schizophrenic patients to metacommunicate, they reference how it becomes difficult to distinguish play from serious intent: i.e. a nip is not a bite. Hence, ways and means have been devised to manage the contradiction between the recognition of formal equality and its actual realisation. The discrepancy between the two is discernible in the way that a command can be disguised as a query: a husband who asks his wife, "where is my tie?", is actually issuing a command, "go and find my tie, and bring it to me". Psychotherapists describe this common scenario in terms of "pseudomutuality". It is played out and replicated in many institutional settings, and not surprisingly, this can include the relationship between student and supervisor, in which the former can be made to feel like an anxious child attempting to please a capricious parent. A variation of this theme can be found in the management technique of "remote control" described by Richard Sennett in his Authority.

These are powerful social forces, so it is to be expected that they conspire against the realisation of the Habermasian "ideal speech situation" advocated by Pixley and Bittman. The university may offer access to esoteric knowledge, but it is not the norm for the institution to be forthright about the discrepancy between subjective experience and the ideals it supposedly represents, which can prove disenchanting for students. The student life can prove to be a trial by ideal, just as it was for religious novices who had to suffer horrendous deprivations to emphasize the point that accessing the esoteric knowledge was no easy thing (for films on this topic, check Martyrs and A Man Called Horse).....with the important difference that the liberal student environment helps ensure meaning is always "deferred". "Rites of passage" are perhaps not what they once used to be, because there are two [deeper] forces undermining each other. The horrific moment of revelation, should it ever arrive in the university context, is something like The Necrosocial I posted about earlier. Indeed, the reference to a "cult" in this context makes my The Wicker Man parallels seem even more apposite:

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe. (That's another topic I've written about before; see "Is Graduate School a Cult?" (The Chronicle, July 2, 2004.).

And for those who "make it" as tenured faculty, is there any circulation of a timeless devil's dictionary to help prepare them for the otherwise unspoken assumptions that will govern their work practices?

In either case, it is difficult to say how much, and what kind, of consolation exists, for those who somehow feel cheated. That's not for me to decide. All I'm saying is that there should be complete disclosure about the benefits and hazards of the respective available courses of action. The risk, as I see it, is that contrary forces can sometimes send the naive to their doom. Too late, they catch a glimpse of a wicker man over Lord Summerisle's shoulder (resplendent in his formal academic gown, in my scenario). And these are the last words they ever hear, a horrific moment of clarity, before they are sacrificed in an act of altruistic suicide, by the lighting of the wicker man: you will die, so that others may live!:

You are the fool, -

Punch, one of the great fool-victims of history,

for you have accepted the role of king for a day,

and who but a fool would do that?

But you will be revered and anointed as a king.

You will undergo death and rebirth -

resurrection, if you like.

The rebirth, sadly, will not be yours,

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