Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bolano's 2666 and Ranciere's Ignorant Schoolmaster

Working my way into Jacques Ranciere's Nights of Labor, and came across this text written maybe six months ago on the parallels between 2666 and The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which may be of interest, even though it is probably guilty of being an explication. 

Ranciere's Ignorant Schoolmaster first appeared in French in 1987.  Ranciere reviews the career and thinking of Joseph Jacotot, a french literature professor who was forced into exile in 1815 (upon return of Bourbons to power -- after he'd served in the military).  Jacotot landed in Louvain in Belgium, where he did an experimental thing.  Not able to speak Flemish to his students who did not speak French, he used a translation of Fenelon's novel Telemacque with the Flemish on facing pages. 

Jacotot had some success and there was a faddish following for his novel theory of education.  Which could fit into a headline -- something along the lines of: "Illiterate parents teach their children to read!"  

The students were told thru a translator that they were to learn the French text with the aide of the Flemish translation, and to write in french their thoughts about what they read.  The students learned to write French on their own without any explication from Jacotot on conjugation, grammar etc.

The results astonished Jacotot who like any good professor was fully indoctrinated into what Ranciere calls the Explicative Order, where "the master's secret is to know how to recognize the distance between the taught material and the person being instructed,... between learning and understanding." (5)  That is, the master explicates and brings the student up to his or her level of understanding.  "The explicator sets up and abolishes the distance... deploys and reabsorbs it..."

Jacotot concluded that the logic of the educational system needed to be overturned.  Explication was unnecessary.  For example, in the acquisition of the mother tongue, learning does not require an infinite regress of explanations and reasons.  To quote Ranciere: "What is learned best cannot be explained..."  Language acquisition involves an "autonomous relation between apprenticeship and verification."

Ranciere goes far beyond the slogan of the enlightened: "Understand!"  He argues that understanding is nothing more than translating (9).  "Observing and retaining; repeating and verifying..."  It is possible to move blindly -- the way children move, learning by oneself without a master explicator.  "Words learned best... are those learned without a master explicator."

What is needed is a thing in common.  In our case, it is a book.  Something needs to be added to the configuration of the Parent (master) - Child (student).  A geometry is created by inserting the thing in common, aka the Book.

In the first section of Bolano's 2666, the academics have Archembolo's books in common.  That is the basis for their connection.  Their profession is to master the book and to explain it, and as a result they are hungry for any information about the reclusive author.

2666 is full of the unexplicable and tangential.  And we're left largely to make of it what we will.  In Whitehead's terms, it's full of lures for feeling.

Archembolo himself is completely self taught and had early intense experience with a particular book.  Like walking dreamily underwater, swamped in text.  And this leads him to very material relations to typewriters and with the world.

2666 is an open text, which is much like the Duchamp's unhappy readymade -- recreated by Almafitano in hanging out a geometry book on a laundry line to interact with nature.  One can find endless connections to the Book, which has a life of its own.

It is interesting that Almafitano's interactions with the book in the 2nd section are a mystery even to him.  He doesn't know how it has come to him, even tho it has various tell tale markings, but he can't reason out how it arrived in his box of books shipped from Barcelona. 

Like Jack Spicer, Almafitano hears voices but rather than dictating the poem to him, they're making him think about the difference between madness and calm.

"There is an order in madness as in everything." 

Jacotot's concept is to become an Emancipatory Master, leaving his own intelligence outside the classroom.  The emancipatory master gives "the command that enclosed the students in a closed circle from which they alone could break out.  By leaving his intelligence out of the picture, he had allowed their intelligence to grapple with that of the book.....  The two faculties in play during the act of learning, namely intelligence and will, had therefore also been separated, liberated from each other.  A pure relationship of will to will had been established between master and student: a relationship wherein the masters domination resulted in an entirely liberated relationship between the intelligence of the student and that of the book -- the intelligence of the book that was also the thing in common, the egalitarian intellectual link between master and student." (13)

"There is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another.  A person - and a child in particular - may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to set him on track and keep him there.  But that subjection is purely one of will over will.  It becomes stultification when it links an intelligence to another intelligence."  The coincidence of the two wills and two intelligences is called stultification.  Jacotot's students are linked to his will (eg, he demands that they demonstrate and verify what they've learned) but to the book's (rather than Jacotot's) intelligence. This is emancipatory rather than stultifying.

For me this resonates with 2666 as a Book.  The intelligence is in the book, not necessarily in Bolano.  And there are things to be experienced and thereby learned there.

Going back to section/book 2 of 2666, Almafitano's wife, who seems a bit mad but very calm about it, fetishizes an author, rather than the author's books.  And this displacement is interesting, since it is unhealthy and futile.  The author, a gay poet, is never going to give Lola what she might need or want.  But maybe its a nomadic hitchhiking thru time and space that she needs or wants.  Lola leaves Almafitano with a lesbian companion and thereafter deals with direct relations as they arrive. 

Towards the end of the section, there's a reflexive moment where Bolano is saying, don't look at the "perfect" short pieces of these masters (e.g., don't look at Bartleby -- look at Moby Dick; ditto Xmas Carol vs Pickwick Papers).  He revers the Book with a capital B, and 2666 is in fact B's book.  A totality in which (in Ranciere's terms) everything is within everything.

"A book that is a totality: a center to which one can attach everything new one learns; a circle in which one can understand each of these new things, find the ways to say what one thinks about it, what one makes of it.  This is the first principle of universal teaching: one must learn something and relate everything else to it.  At first something must be learned." (20)