Works reviewed: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,2012.pp 593.

This is the inaugural essay for this site of, hopefully, Useful Illusions. The rest of what is gathered here is the detritus of a previous project. That project was poetically characterized by a phrase, “closing time in the gardens of the West.” A hint of nostalgia too timorous to sustain an encounter, whether public or personal, aesthetic or political, beyond the most fleeting of glances. Oscillating between excuse and accusation, I could not claim, for myself, any but the simplest of failures. Nostalgia and regret simply do not offer a political vision. What they do offer, a paltry solace for the timid heart, is in the end rather poisonous. This sort of knowledge tree won’t feed anybody.

I refuse,however, to regard what I have written as a simple useless wreckage. After all, I cannot pretend now to possess a clarity of thought or fixity of purpose which I had previously not known. Past missteps may be retrod, even after careful consideration, and newer journeys prove equally fruitless. The task of learning to regard the past, especially the past of the European Enlightenment, whose shadow is felt not only in the West, is a constant discipline. Mistakes are a part of learning, particularly if learning is to extend beyond canned repetition. Repetition, to be sure, but with palpable difference. Not necessarily an endless deferral of meaning, for why should the carrot that leads us into madness be privileged as meaning? The difficulty of this discipline lies precisely in the need for a maturity that knows both its boundaries and their fluidity. Maturity is not reached in a single bound and precious isolation is seldom conducive to robust growth. Withholding judgement can occasionally be strategic, but one’s hand is always forced one way or another. The question that remains is with what kind of clarity and conviction we proceed, and what ways we can discern wherein to cultivate an aptitude for the clarity and conviction that will carry us forward into freedom. Old idols don’t have to be resurrected; the perpetual hold they have on us is familiar enough. Familiar because unexamined, perpetual because unchallenged. The abstract mathematical spirit coolly considering the world is one attempt to circumvent the problem of being beings in thought. The pragmatism of desires is an equally unsatisfactory answer to the thinking person. What claim do desires lay to the foundation or direction of existence? The question of desire has to be raised, in all its various guises, not only to have done with the spectre of essentialism, but more pointedly to keep the pathways of knowing legitimately active. Desire is a question not an answer. If we are driven to do all that we do we certainly cannot know it, but pragmatic acquiescence is emphatically not produced here. Limitation is not intimate with itself at a metaphysical level, if it were we would know what we do not know. In any case there is a way forward; we can question our desires and learn to read them more skilfully.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s book An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization is a preliminary lesson in such reading; a handbook of sorts.This impressive text gathers some useful formulations for navigating the debris of globality. “Globalization,” says Spivak, “takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.Information command has ruined knowing and reading.Therefore we don’t really know what to do with information.”(1) The inability to seriously read and know, not only texts but also ourselves and others, is bound up in a bi-fold legacy of the Enlightenment; doubt and the aesthetic. The top-down approach of knowledge management, implicit in the idea of a total globalization, offers little in the way of navigating the uneven, volatile, and “only apparently accessible contemporaneity” of the actual world.(2) The catchphrase of the day, as Spivak points out, is sustainability.Desire is left unquestioned, even though global contemporaneity requires an “epistemological change that will rearrange desires.”(2)

Spivak traces the intellectual heritage of the propensity to manage and balance as a displaced version of Schiller’s transformation of Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy. There is still something in Kant’s thought that, if not exactly hopeful, can be of use. The goal, however, is not to repeat the temptation to resolve the contradictions left open in his thought, but to cultivate an openness towards making other, perhaps more fruitful, mistakes. A double bind, rather than a polarity or resolution, is the guiding heuristic of this text.

Learning to live with contradictory instructions is the double bind that grounds the introduction of the book, which proceeds by way of tracing the trajectory of proper names Kant-Schiller-Marx-de Man. These names are metonyms of epochal changes, for Spivak, and the lesson she wishes to draw from each of these names and the changes they signal is how to productively undo the aesthetic legacy of the Enlightenment “without accusation, without excuse, with a view to use.”(1) The language of double bind is drawn from Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind wherein Bateson attempted to use the concept to understand childhood schizophrenia qualitatively. Spivak brings this concept into a briefly outlined model with Antonio Gramsci’s notion of an instrumentalized intellectual. The aesthetic education that can still be of some use is precisely an instrumentalized one, that is, an education that offers not the eloquence of abstract comprehension, but is worked out as a learned skill. A skill that requires careful listening and constantly questions deeply ingrained habits and the desires that produce them.

The introduction of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization is intentionally dispirited. The body of the book is comprised of essays gathered over the past 23 years. Those essays narrate a variety of subjects, from tertiary education in India and issues of translation to Marxism and the works of Rabindrath Tagore. The theory of a double bind is read back into these essays as an ongoing conversation and reflection. The essays themselves often portray a certain sense of hopefulness which, Spivak suggests, is out of step with where we are at today. A false hope, perhaps overconfident, but also in some sense necessary. Spivak enjoins her reader not to despair but once again to learning to live with contradictory instructions. Not bi-polar, but at least uneven. An aesthetic education that has a geography, that abounds in mother-tongues.

Spivak is rightly hesitant about what effect a book from an academic press could really make on such an educational endeavour. I echo those concerns, greatly compounded, about the directions of a blog, written in English. In what sense does this effort participate in the deep language learning necessary for reflexive awareness of the way we collectively organize our desires? How do I rather not fall into the purview of an unmediated cyber literacy as the greatest good. If the point is not guilt, however, but the cultivation of the aesthetic and ethical reflexes needed to teach subjects not only to play but to discover their own habits on the way to undoing them. Steps can be taken, not towards sustainability, but to a fuller understanding of being human that does not shy away from the wealth of language and misunderstanding. The Tower of Babel, says Spivak, is our refuge, though of course it is not the tower but the rich fallout of being that refuses to be marshalled to a narrow purposefulness. There is, at any rate, a kind of prayer that cuts far beyond the mantra of hope offered by those already in comfortable positions. The hope is not for a salvation from on high, not even a technological angel. Instead it is near at hand, a kingdom that is dreamt and built by the action and love of lost people in a wasted world. Yet, there is a learning that has to happen, an aesthetic education that trains people to live differently and for a different world. “What Marx left uncalculated,” writes Spivak,”was the epistemological burden of training the socialist subject.”(185) If the world is indeed to change for the better, then it must be seen differently.

So we are led to a form of prayer that is also a work, and often, an apparent waste of time. “That any reader will waste their time to learn to parse the desires (not the needs) of collective examples of subalternity is my false hope,” Spivak writes at the end of her introduction. The book is littered with phrases like these -to waste time, productively undo, to make intended mistakes. Against the privileged flow of information as data, of capital unbound from labour, the faltering steps we must take to really learn to know is powerful medicine indeed.

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