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Jacques Derrida by Pablo Secca

Jacques Derrida

Mentioning Jacques Derrida makes some academic’s ears spike up. Derrida is known to be notoriously wordy, painfully dense, and riddled with jargon in anything he writes. Regardless of the difficulties, he manages to reveal patterns in Western thought that dominate discourse. One particular trend, however, forms the crux of his criticisms — the binary system.

Throughout Western thought, arguments have been presented in dichotomies. Socrates framed his philosophy through discussion by conversing with another party which would argue the objecting point. With the work of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, we have given this a title. Dialectics, as it’s called, consists of a thesis and an antithesis with the hope of producing a synthesis. This triad has become the basis of our argumentative Western society.

Dialectics-12

However, the influence of the dialectic process goes much further than argumentation. The dichotomy has become so strong that we presumably view all ideology and ideas within a binary. These binaries can be either contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary to each other, but are always opposite in meaning. And one is always seen as more important than the other. Western binaries tend to be, as a rule, hierarchical and unequal. For Derrida, these relationships are important to understand to fully grasp theory or texts. It is equally important to undermine — or deconstruct — these relationships and maybe even, in some cases, try to break their authority to reach a grander conclusion.

Let’s take, for a moment, the actual binaries and their content.

B versus A

Whereas is superior to A.

Good  ¦ Bad

Mind  ¦ Body

Reality ¦ Appearance

Self ¦ Other

Speech ¦ Writing

Man ¦ Woman

White ¦ People of Color

Bourgeois ¦ Proletariat 

These binary distinctions are based on institutional conceptions. Taken a step further, we can examine their relationship. “A” is supplementary to the dominate “B.” Noted literary critic Barbara Johnson explains this relationship in an essay titled “Writing” from Critical Terms for Literary Study.

A is added to B.

A substitutes for B.

A is a superfluous addition to B.

A makes up for the absence of B.

A usurps the place of B.

A makes up for B’s deficiency.

A corrupts the purity of B.

A is necessary to that B can be restored.

A is an accident alienating B from itself.

A is that without which B would be lost.

A is that through which B is lost.

A is a danger to B.

A is a remedy to B.

A’s fallacious charm seduces one away from B.

A can never satisfy the desire for B.

A protects against direct encounter with B.

These observations are not absolute. Different Western binaries express different relationships with each other; these are not applicable to all, but each of the examples given can fit into a few of these criteria outlined.

We have established the fact that Western dichotomies can take on two forms: contradictory (dialectic) or supplementary. Generally, discussions tend to be dialectical while the binaries in individual ideologies tend to be supplementary. This trend in Western thought is crucial in understanding the nature of discourse and its development. Particularly in the United States, most political speak is phrased as two sides to an argument. The outcome of argumentation is generally one of the following three scenarios — no conclusion is made, one side is proved correct, or a fusion of both opinions. It would be a insult to call American politics dialectic in nature, since a synthesis is seldom reached, but the binary of opinion is still present. This creates the illusion of two options and the constant regurgitation of the “lesser of two evils” argument in every aspect of American politics. Of course, European politics is not two-party centered. However, the Western binary still applies. Seldom is the dialogue expanded beyond the back-and-forth format of mindless debate and bickering.

Perhaps it is time to expand the periphery. The endless “debate teams” on high school campuses, the lecturing model of education, is based on a two-person argument. Inherently competitive, it usually demands one party to be deemed victor in “beating” his opponent during a debate. In education, the victor is clear — the instructor is the power in charge of mediating opinion and presenting information. During formal debate, the victor is decided through vulgar verbal exercises. Whatever the case may be, dialogue has institutionally become synonymous with debate and heated competition which is a perversion of what it actually means.

2617765Dialogics is concept conceived by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. It is seen as a methodology of dialogue that goes beyond dialectics. Rather than dialectics, where once ideology competes with another, dialogics is an alternative mode of discussion where many different ideas exist in the same space. There is no ideological closure afterwards and is aimed at progressing thought rather than resolving a contradiction. Bakhtin makes the argument that all thought is inherently dialogical. Nobody speaks in a vacuum — your language is based on what was said prior and the reaction it may create. Thereby, language is dynamic and perpetually redescribing the world. From this he concludes that dialogics has always existed as a phenomenon of speech.

What can we create from a model of dialogical discourse? We can create cooperative learning environments. We can destroy hierarchy relationships in public forums and education. However, dialogics is not a substitute for a dialectic process of dialogue. They have different uses. The issue is, however, that we have given debate precedence. Likewise, we have given these restricting binaries precedence. The aim of dialogue is not a cut-and-throat solution. It is for the facilitation of free thought and new ideas. It is a space where prejudice is suspended and where individually freely converse. And the need for such a discussion model becomes more and more apparent as we realize that a standardized education model of lecturing is not a satisfactory one.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical art where the audience becomes drama and enter the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

Theatre of the Oppressed is a beautiful dialogical method where the audience becomes the drama and enters the play themselves, rather than sitting as spectators.

Of any movement, of any change, education is vital. It is the beginnings of new ideas, and it must be given special attention to ensure it is doing its proper purpose. However, the initial question is, what is the purpose of education? What does it mean to be educated? 

Today we are in an age where measure of achievement are standardized — a “one size fits all” approach to teaching and assessments. Divergent thinking is disregarded, and replaced with single-solution scenarios that involve little thought outside the limitations that are given to the pupils in the classroom. It turns education into a chore rather than a passion.

Granted, there are many reasons for this, but its primary reasons lie in its creation during the age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Fundamentally speaking, although the Enlightenment was a beautiful period of intellectual growth, it corresponded with the industrialization of much of the, then, “modern world.” Likewise, many of the concepts attributed to the industrial model were applied to education: standardization, divisions, and hierarchy. All of these functioned in the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it. Perhaps the most important externality that was brought the industrialized education, however, was a similar form of alienation. Specifically, the alienation of the pupil from the work he or she was creating in the classroom. It is this dilemma that cripples intuition and advancement, and rather makes students into pawns molded into a pre-manufactured consciousness. It is an impediment to growth. Even worse so, to think outside the realm of normal studies is downgraded and displeasing, because conformity and efficiency are key in an industrial model of practice.

Paulo Freire addresses these concerns in his masterwork “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and attempts to properly describe the educational system and articulate its flaws. He starts by categorizing the teacher-student relationship in dialectic terms, with a lack of real struggle.

“A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)…. education is suffering from narration sickness” [52].

Most importantly though, is the lack of significance in the teaching itself. The dialogue is hollow, and consists of “alienating verbosity.” It does little to motivate the students, and it furthermore categories them as objects ready to absorb what the instructor is telling them, without fruitful interaction; it teaches them little to nothing on the fluidity of history, making them cautious when witnessing change, and it does little to awaken the aspirations the pupils might have. The language lacks any transforming power, and learning becomes overly-mechanical rather than engaging.

“The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, status, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to th existential experience of the students” [52].

It is based on these observations that Freire theorizes on what he calls “the banking concept of education.”

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” [53]. 

Bearing this mind, education must first solve this crux before it can go any further. The teacher-student contradiction must be properly handled before a true libertarian education can take root, that would eliminate the ignorance and encompass true transformation and radical praxis. Freire than goes on to delve into this contradiction, and I feel the quote deserves to be posted in full:

“The solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices which mirror oppressive society as a whole.  

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing
(c) the teachers thinks and the students are thought about
(d) the teacher talks and the students learn — meekly
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects” [54].

This is the major issue, and the contradiction between the teacher-student relationship. For the commoners, education does little to change the condition which oppresses them, rather it only changes the consciousness of the oppressed. This is why the need for a radical new pedagogy is paramount — one that is free from the alienating aspects of industrialization, horizontal in its power structure, involving in its dialogue, and promoting of inquiry and understanding. In a proper educational setting, it is not only the student that learns; it is both the pupils and the teachers that intellectually grow. They expand on their knowledge through dialogue and conversation, thereby heightening their consciousness and crushing their once-held ignorance. This is the goal of radical education, of revolutionary pedagogy — the humanization and realization of one’s potential.

pedagogy_of_the_oppressedThere is so much to say about Paulo Freire masterwork Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s direct, it’s unrepentant in its criticisms, and it’s eloquent in its message. It captures the essence of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, attempting to circumscribe such an abstract struggle onto paper — and Freire manages to do so, quite well. The main dilemma when writing a book of this nature is that the woes of the oppressed must be properly synthesized into one concrete message in order to be discussed in any real detail. The biggest issue is that the struggle, in itself, is both metaphysical and material. It requires a look at the cognitive ramifications of being oppressed, as well as the causes of them; all in an effort to analyze the strife from a truly introspective perspective, one that virtually enters the minds of those under oppression. It is because Freire’s magnum opus is able to successfully incorporate these concepts, it is able to transcend far beyond being just a mere analytic Marxian study — it becomes a riveting testament to those involved in the actual struggle, rather than being just a vague documentation of what their ills are. This makes it all the more powerful and enlightening. However, because it is so vast in its message, I’ll contain my comparatively brief analysis to the first chapter only.

Paulo Freire, throughout the entire work, makes an effort to textually encapsulate the meaning of “humanization” and he revolves much of his analysis on “re-humanizing” the human spirit.

“But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation… It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppressed, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity” (26). 

However, he is careful in noting who must lead this liberation.

“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (27).

With this, Freire makes a monumental point that has been historically validated time and time again. The greatest issue with any revolutionary struggle is dealing with the vacuum of power, which plagued the leftist vanguard experiments of the 20th century. The key point being: power cannot concentrate and cannot be exerted to form a new “ruling class” of privilege and wealth — that would be the antithesis of any liberating movement, and would be a perversion of the humanization that was hoped to be achieved.

However, an issue arises (out of many) when attempting to foster such a radical change. The oppressed must realize the necessity to fight for it. The spark must be lit, but that must correspond with the oppressed realizing their downtrodden status. They must be lifted from their anesthetized state, by their own volition, and must be free of “their submersion in the reality of oppression” (27). Oftentimes, the downtrodden simply strive to become part of the higher class, in an effort to alleviate their poor condition, since they have been convinced it is the only way to move upward. They become fearful of greater repression to take action.

“… [the oppressed] have no consciousness of the themselves as persons, or as members of an oppressed class. It is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and this become landowners — or, more precisely, bosses over other workers. It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. This is because the context of the peasant’s sitatuion, that is, opression, remains unchanged. In this example, the overseer, in order to make sure of his job, must be as tough as the owner — and more so… during the initial stage of their struggle the oppressed find in the opressor their model of ‘manhood'” (28). 

The oppressed must overcome this personal struggle before he strives for anything, that much is crucial. He must learn to accept freedom, and to cherish it, rather than take the position of his former boss or owner. He must not be fearful of real change.

“This fear of freedom is also to be found in the oppressors, though, obviously, in a different form. The oppressed are afraid to embrace freedom; the oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom’ to oppress” (28). 

“…the oppressed, having internatlized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it when autonomy and responsibility… Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion” (29).

“…at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the middle-class…” (44). 

Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent that, first and foremost, reflection is essential to action. The goal is not to simply engage in dialogue with the masses, but to transform them in an effort to have them fight for their own liberation. It is this crucial step that will ultimately end their alienation. The difficulty, then, is how to go about doing so in a fashion that differentiates itself from the elusive efforts of the“humanitarian” oppressors.

“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. That is why… the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education” (36). 

Simply put, by making the oppressed the objects of humanitarianism, you are in effect dehumanizing them — you are leaving them in the same situation with produced them and fooling them with false gestures of generosity, which do little to fundamentally alleviate the ills they have grown accustomed to and inherited.

In order to fully articulate this message, you first have to clean up the semantics of certain terms to be able to even speak properly and understood in any reasonable context. The most important term that must be attended to is the definition of oppression. Oftentimes, the term is thrown around to describe the nature of egalitarianism; that equality is also oppression, since hierarchy is prevented through“force.” Paulo Freire actually addresses this misguided criticism:

“Resolution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction indeed implies the disappearance of the oppressors as the dominant class. However, the restrains imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human” (38).

Freire then goes on to describe the oppressors, and defining the class associated with that term. The quote itself is too long to post here (it surpasses a page of very concise text, and is elaborated on later in his the work), but there are a few stand-alone points that are worth reiterating.

“For [the oppressors], to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘have'” (40).  

“The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (40). 

He then delves into the destructive self-depreciating impact this has on the oppressed:

“If [the oppressed] do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because they are ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envious,’ the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched” (41). 

This is perhaps the root of Marxian alienation; it is this mentality that limits the human spirit and degrades the mind. The oppressed become convinced of their own unfitness.

Paulo Freire ends this dense chapter on the proper method of liberating the oppressed. He differentiates two different transformations: those that are for the oppressed and those that are with them — the latter being the valid one, which demands more than mere propaganda and simple populism. The struggle cannot be done for them, rather it must be done with them. It requires pedagogical action.

“They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger [or any other individually specific issue], but for the freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture” (50).  

And perhaps most importantly:

The oppressed have been destroyed precisely because their situation has reduced them to things. In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. The cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings” (50).   

Therefore, with these requirements in mind, it becomes apparent that the struggle demands committed involvement and an elimination of the cultural hegemony that preceded it. This must be done through a radical pedagogy, one that is lead by the oppressed. That is the synopsis of the message in Pedagogy of the Oppressed —that liberation, the humanization of human aspirations, can only come from the commoners themselves.

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