Skip to content

City Of Mind

July 20, 2013

City Of Mind

Although in general speech we tend to use the term awareness and consciousness to mean basically the same thing, I use them here with somewhat different meanings. Awareness refers to the basic knowledge that something is happening, to perceiving or feeling or cognizing in its simplest form. Consciousness generally refers to awareness in a much more complex way; consciousness is awareness modulated by the structure of the mind. Mind refers to the totality of both inferable and potentially experiencable phenomena of which awareness and consciousness are components.
States of Consciousness, Charles Tart

The deconstructive reverse does not result in the silence of language, but rather in the realization that the dynamic tension in the becoming of language is itself the whole. For Derrida, all of this cannot be understood as abstract theorizing. The language we are deconstructing is our own thinking and speaking —our own consciousness. We ourselves are the text we are deconstructing. That is why, for Derrida, there is nothing outside of texts. Deconstruction is the process of becoming self-aware, of self-realization.
Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward

…the French critic Roland Barthes pointed out that each text is a tissue of quotations; not a line of words releasing the single ‘theological’ meaning of an author-god but a muldimensional space where a variety of writings blend and/clash. Today Jacques Derrida argues that the meaning of such a multidimensional space
can never be completely fulfilled, for the continual circulation of signifiers denies meaning any fixed foundation or conclusion. Hence texts never attain self-presence, and that includes the text that constitutes me.
What would happen if these claims about textuality were extrapolated into claims about the whole universe?…

Indra’s Postmodern Net, David Loy

One afternoon in a Shakespeare class I noted how easy it was to confuse the ability to identify and articulate profound themes in literary texts with genuine wisdom, that the real trick was to understand that we live in the shadows of the great themes. When I shared this sentiment with the class, the professor remarked, “Do you mean that we live inside the texts?”—“Yes,” I replied, “exactly!” It seemed to me that there was no more profound confusion than to mistake mere glibness with real wisdom. My professors and fellow students kept remarking how similar my comments seemed to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I had never heard of Derrida, but once I read a bit about his ideas it was clear that no one I had ever heard of was at once so close and so far from my own intuitions. What I meant by saying, “We live inside of texts”—be they literary or existential—is not what Derrida meant when he said, “There is nothing outside the text.”

When I went from being a student to being a teacher, I then asked myself the question, “What does it mean to learn?” According to science, the self is a ghost in the machine: a machine in which, according to David Hume, the psychological self bottoms out in the human version of animal instinct; the biological self bottoms out in what Bertrand Russell called ‘chemical imperialism’; and the chemical self bottoms out in a physics that describes a world where all evolved out of what Russell called ‘an accidental collocation of atoms,’ a blind mechanism churning out a world that is, as Russell so chillingly articulated, ‘the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving.’

Every living thing is a sort of imperialist, seeking to transform as much as possible of its environment into itself…. When we compare the (present) human population of the globe with … that of former times, we see that “chemical imperialism” has been …the main end to which human intelligence has been devoted.
~ Bertrand Russell

In such a world the locus of control for all so-called selves would be as extrinsic as a google-car and, consequently the sort of intrinsic volition we needed for anything like real learning (or real ethics) would be absent (the self is, after all, a mere ‘ghost’).
If, however, we consider these mechanical forces to be what dynamical systems theory deems an attractor—a pattern that tends to arise in a dynamical system from a wide variety of preliminary conditions—then we might consider the possibility of a second attractor; something like what Buddhist thought associates with a ‘higher self’ and the individual self’s recognition of its interpenetration with the rest of the universe and its ultimate nonexistence.
In this book I argue that: 1) there are two fundamental ‘attractors’ that act as hidden determinants of behavior—an instinctive, orienting force, and a higher force or attractor that is the true determinative force, and; 2) the higher force can be accessed only by a kind of insight into what I call the false interior of the reflexive self (a process Buddhists call satori), coupled with a growing realization of our true interior (which Buddhists implicitly affirm yet explicitly deny).
It is only the deconstruction of the ego or false self that endows the sort of true individuality capable of real choice, real ethics, and real learning.

But…I’m getting ahead of myself.

This book began as an assignment for my Cognitive Psychology class. The first chapter is a rewrite of that paper. The assignment was to get a unit lesson plan from a teacher, observe the classroom instruction, interview two students to assess the degree to which the teacher was successful in reaching the unit goals, then write up our evaluation.
The paper is divided up into a description of what I observed in the classroom, the student interviews, and my evaluation.

As you read this chapter, keep in mind the phrase, ‘the interpretations anterior to our perceptions.’
Derrida simultaneously affirms the need to deconstruct these ‘interpretations’ while denying the possibility of any kind of transcendent ground that might make such a deconstruction possible—calling his philosophy ‘a passion for the impossible’ —indeed.

The Lesson Plan

We are the only species that creates the environment that creates who we become.
Frank Smits

I observed a twelfth-grade Language Arts class for my senior learning project in cognitive psychology. I had been in this class every day for six weeks, but would use only two lessons, one on a Monday, the other on a Wednesday, for the purpose of the learning project. The idea was that I would get a lesson plan from the teacher and then interview two students
in order to assess whether their learning matched the stated goals and objectives of the lesson plan (they have been included as an addendum—the reader should be familiar with them before reading the classroom discussion below). I also interviewed the teacher to get some sense of her critical interpretation of the novel. The Monday lesson I observed was the beginning of the last week of the unit, and the unit test was to be given that Friday. On Monday the students finished watching the movie version of the novel. On Wednesday the teacher, Carlene, began a review for the test.
There was little to report about Monday. The students watched the movie and left. There was no class discussion. On Wednesday, the teacher handed out her list of outcomes and objectives and began her review.

Wednesday’s Class
Carlene began by asking students to identify instances of biblical symbolism in the novel.
Students: (no response)
Teacher: What about the names folks?!
S: Oh, Jim Casey…J.C.
T: Right, J.C.—Jesus Christ. Number of people on trip was…how many?
S: Twelve…the twelve apostles…
T: (nods approval) Casey’s wandering mirror Christ’s wanderings in the desert. Like Christ, Casey comes to conclusions that don’t sit well with traditional religion (she quotes a passage of Casey’s) “You don’t know what you’re doen. You’re starven kids.” And this mirrors Christ’s words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Casey is Christ to Tom’s Paul. Tom takes up Casey’s mission as Paul takes up Christ’s. What about the flood in the squatter’s camp?
S: (no response)
T: Come on folks!
S: Oh! (going through notes) John places the dead fetus in the water, just as Moses is placed in the water in Exodus, Chapter Two.
T: (reading from the text) “We couldn’t tell ‘em, you tell ‘em, so people will know what’s happening because of their greed and oppression.”
There’s a part of the book that wasn’t in the movie. Probably even today if they made a movie out of it they couldn’t film it; the part where Ma and Rosa Sharon are in the cave. What did they do? This caused many school districts to ban the book as too “mature” for high school students. What does Ma ask Rosa Sharon to do?
S: (silence)
T: She asks her to breast feed the starving man, right? Some people see this as symbolic of the milk of human kindness, but Steinbeck was very earthy. “She has this funny smile on her face, a smile of pleasure.” His description of her face is hard to reconcile with a purely symbolic meaning.
What about the turtle?
S: Symbolizes the Joan family.
T: It reflects the Joad’s plight. The turtle plants seeds on barren land. The barriers represent barriers of the spirit. Describe the setting of the novel.
S: (silence)
T: Come on folks!
S: (going through notes) Sets a mood. When it’s used symbolically, it’s used to communicate ideas. Creates character…creates atmosphere…communicates ideas.
T: Right! Describe the Joad family unit.
S: (silence)
T: Compare it to your family.
S: (silence)
T: How many of you live in a family where the mother is head of the family? (some hands are raised) The Joad family starts off as patriarchal, then becomes matriarchal. Ma, and later with the maturity of Rosa Sharon…

In analyzing the teaching and learning I observed the first thing that struck me as significant is Carlene’s tie to and opinion about the book. She told me she felt The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick were the two great American novels. She also related that her parents went through the Dust Bowl experience. Two questions then occurred to me; to what extent did her personal ties to the Joad family influence her critical opinion of the book, and does the fact that she holds the book in high regard affect the way she teaches it? Because I disagreed with Carlene as to the status of the novel, I read some critical commentary and found that opinion seemed divided as to whether The Grapes of Wrath was a great novel. In an article from “Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” Art Kuhl states…

I think The Grapes of Wrath isn’t even a truly great novel…it is not a case of Steinbeck’s having lost completely his power of realizing a character…But something happens to Steinbeck’s characters as the novel wears on…the first chapters…have admirable characters…But as the novel wears on, these men…disappear and…everyone begins to be a part of a chorus that is singing Steinbeck’s message. Characterization goes by the board.

A counter opinion is issued in a chronicle of reviews edited by Roy Simmonds in the same collection of essays….

The Joads are certainly not the puppets of a theory…they are not mere personifications of…qualities. They are individual men and women.

The class discussion I related is representative of class discussion I observed over a six week period, and there seems to be a couple of things missing. First, the sort of issues literary critics debate are never discussed, such as, “Is The Grapes of Wrath a great novel—and if so, why?” Carlene seemed to have predigested the text in order to feed it to her students, which meant that there was no need for students to engage in real critical debate. This sort of learning is teacher, rather than student, centered. It represents the reading of fiction and learning itself as a process of being handed “received” knowledge from on high. Where is the discovery? the vital engagement? After observing this unit and reading Carlene’s list of outcomes and objectives, I wanted to add one—“Students will be encouraged to make their own critical evaluation of the novel.” The second crucial missing element was some sense of Carlene’s answer to the question “What is the purpose or primary goal of literary criticism?” This question is different and more basic than the question “What is the primary goal of reading The Grapes of Wrath.” The question is so basic it is easy to overlook, yet until a teacher has an answer to this question the pedagogical ship is at sea without a rudder.
In an article titled “New courses in the linguistics of writing” Durant and Fabb suggest two basic opposing views on the function of literary criticism; the “familiarization” or “touchstones” argument, and the “defamiliarization” argument. The authors claim the first argument…

Familiarization serves the classical-humanist purpose of supporting forms of cultural hegemony…In this paradigm, the form of “literacy” which results…often comes to mean simply being well-versed in an acknowledged canon of works, rather than having skills which makes possible informed and independent choices about what we wish to read and value.

The second approach views the study of literature as not simply a way of learning about a culture, but also as a tool for looking at one.
Defamiliarization means finding out things about the world by investigating the established forms, but also the limits of the way things are represented.
Carlene’s opinion about the status of the novel makes it clear she views The Grapes of Wrath as just such a canon. And given the limitations of the class discussion and her list of outcomes and objectives, it seems fair to question whether she feels the function of literary criticism should include “investigating of established forms.” But even if she had included “investigating the established forms” as a critical goal, the established form we are investigating is “culture,” and we need to further explore what we mean by “culture.” Specifically, is culture something “out there” or “in here?” Can the self dissect culture as if it were somehow outside that culture? And if a text is a canon of a culture, can it be dissected as if the reader were outside the text?
I’ll come back to these questions after I’ve discussed the students interviews. For now I’ll just say that, unlike an essay, for which explicitness is a cardinal virtue, ideas in a novel need to be implicit and connotative rather than descriptive and denotative. In this sense the issue of interpretation of a novel presents more of a challenge than interpretation of an essay. Faced with this complexity and subtlety, the teacher may make the mistake of trying to make what is implicit explicit by predigesting the novel, turning it into an essay—“A Critical essay on The Grapes of Wrath by Carlene.” This approach can translate into a nice looking lesson plan (Students will demonstrate knowledge of…setting, mood…). The teacher knows exactly what the students “should” know about the novel. If the student takes good notes, he or she knows exactly what he or she is supposed to know to get a good grade. The problem with this approach is that it sidesteps real critical analysis and misinterprets the nature of real learning.
When preparing a lesson plan if our primary goal is a narrowly circumscribed clarity such that students or administrators or parents will always immediately grasp what we are trying to do, we may have lesson plans with clear, predetermined outcomes, but is this real education?

Student Interviews

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
—Kirkegaard


Who Do We Shoot?

Interviewer: What was the lesson about?
Lisa: Use of character. I disagreed with what the teacher said about (Steinbeck’s) use of character. I felt she saw Ma as the main character. She saw Ma as having an overview…I guess that’s why. I felt Tom was the main character. Most of the direction came from him. He gave direction to Al and to Kathy. Tom knew where he was going and what he was doing…
Natural forces and the flood (trying to remember more from the lesson)…
Don’t remember much about that.
I; What was your impression of the book?
L: Had depth, but the book’s given too much credit. Not a lot of representative things…
I: What do you mean by “not a lot of representative things”?
L: The book talks a lot about things directly, doesn’t show…
I: You mean the book talks about a lot of things directly, like issues, rather than showing you by representing them?
L: Yes, exactly.
What struck me about Lisa’s response was that in the time I spent observing this class, I’d never heard a student express a strong opinion about anything under discussion. I watched students react to parts of the novel and the movie, but this was done in a code of grimaces, knowing smirks and whispered asides. When a student did engage in a discussion it was only to ask for the teacher’s clarification of some part of the story. The class was not a forum for real critical discussion, it was a place where the teacher imparts critical concepts and themes. The second thing that struck me was how close Lisa’s critical response was to Art Kuhl’s criticism of the novel. Despite the lack of emphasis on independent, critical thought, Lisa engaged in it.
I wanted to know more about Lisa’s real feelings about the book and its characters, so I asked her to respond to what I felt was a provocative scene from the book. In this scene a banker drives to a farm to deliver an eviction notice. As he gets out of his car to deliver the notice he is greeted by a farmer with a leveled shotgun.
Banker: Don’t shoot me! I’m just delivering the notice!
Farmer: Who do we shoot?
Banker: I don’t know. If I did I’d tell you. I don’t know who is to blame.
Lisa: Shoot yourself! (laughs) I don’t know. I’d be gentle. The farmer’s lack of education surprised me. They seemed to lack financial resources. My father always told me to save your money, try to have at least $6,000. I come from a family that is always well prepared. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for them, but I do.
This last statement shed light on a response to an earlier question.
Interviewer: What was hard about reading the novel?
Lisa: The people seemed very stupid to me in the beginning…had a hard time overcoming prejudice…
A look at Carlene’s stated outcomes 1.3 & 1.7 in light of Lisa’ response makes it clear that these outcomes cannot be achieved if students do not examine their underlying interpretive schemes. Like most high school students Lisa has little experience with the real world of late twentieth century suburban America, and no experience or insight into early twentieth century rural America. Simply putting the book under her nose with nothing but an interpretive scheme that is itself skewed by the teacher’s unexamined opinions and prejudices is a good way to eviscerate just about any text. Reasoning backward from her reasonably secure life and unquestioning acceptance of her father’s philosophy that security can be purchased by anyone ambitious enough to secure their education and thrifty enough to put $6,000 in the bank, she feels sorry for folks who lack this ambition and thrift but, darn it all, it’s really their own fault, isn’t it?
Interestingly enough, the second student I interviewed responded to this same passage in a way that was an almost perfect counterpoint to Lisa’s.
Interviewer: What was the lesson about?
Phil: Today’s class, let’s see. Biblical references, setting as symbol, the flood, his use of character…she really hadn’t gone to the list (of outcomes and objectives)…I could add a lot.
I: Like what?
P: I don’t know, things I noticed. I’d have to think. Biblical references, Moses, sheep, people of character…you will treat people with kindnesss.
When recalling the lesson, Phil seems to recall only general categories of objectives. When he does recall details they seem like disjointed flotsam and jetsam or vague renderings of his sense of Steinbeck’s “message”—You will treat people with kindness! Phil’s comment that “he could add a lot” indicates he felt he never got the chance to contribute to critical discussion of the novel.
Interviewer: What scene or character sticks out?
Phil: Things strike me, but subconsciously…didn’t identify with a character…
Thought about where they were coming from. I guess I related to Casey and Ma. Casey was very conscious, that’s the most important thing (for Phil about Casey). With Ma I think about having her family uprooted, moving to a strange place. I was born in Buenos Aires. Moved here a few years ago. Spoke English, but felt like an outsider.
Unlike Lisa, Phil does know something about the world outside suburban America. Unlike Lisa, Phil knows what it is like to be uprooted, to be an outsider. Again, as with Carlene and Lisa, we are getting a peek at the underlying experiences that drive the schemata that drive interpretation of the text. When I asked Phil to respond to the “Who do I shoot?” passage, his response was very different.
Phil: Banker is being simplistic…banks must eat profits or die…maybe they should die.
This seemed a very interesting and complex response. The image of banks needing to eat profits or die comes from the novel. Citing this indicates an attempt to grapple with some of the real complexity of the novel. But then he pulls back from this confusing complexity and decides “Maybe they should die.” This little dance is a distillation of the reader’s dilemma. Confronted with characters and dramatic situations, the reader must decide “How do I feel about these people?” The reader’s response will be shaped by his or her experience and background. Any novel of reasonable complexity will set up conflicts that transcend simple strong/weak, smart/dumb, victim/exploiter stereotypes. Whether the reader is able to engage the issues in a complex fashion will depend on the reader’s ability to fathom his or her own reactions to the novel.
This sort of cognitive dissonance (a clash between two valid but opposing truths) represents a potential barrier to engagement with any novel that presents difficult and complex conflicts. Faced with such a conflict Phil tries to accommodate “banks must eat profits or die” and “you will treat people with kindness.” Rather than staking out a more complex and painful middle path between these two poles, Phil, after a moments vacillation, retreats to the safe and familiar.

The functional parallel for (the obstruction of the real) is, for Derrida, the privileging of one of the opposites of language over the other, and thereby destroying the dynamic tension between the opposites. The tension between opposites is, for Derrida, the hallmark of the real.
Derrida and Indian Philosophy—Harold Coward

Becoming
If we are to grow, to come into fresh ways of being in the world, we must excavate until we come upon the origins of our notions of self and the world; learning is unlearning. Only by following back our interpretive schemes through the labyrinth of our psyche can we begin to tap the vital possibilities of education. As teachers we can get stuck in old, comfortable patterns of knowing about the nature of learning itself. We can spend a lifetime in the classroom offering a way of knowing that is false without ever trying to articulate an answer to the question ‘What does it mean to learn?’

Interpretation is not a reproductive procedure by which fixed cognitive meaning is extracted from the text. Rather it is the production of an understanding that arises from the excess of meaning found in the text—an excess because it can never be encapsulated in words in such a way that all of its meaning is exhausted.
Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward

For Lisa, Phil and Carlene The Grapes of Wrath represented an opportunity for real growth, for greater self-realization. This opportunity was wasted because the text was treated as if it had a fixed cognitive meaning and because the teacher acted as if she alone was privy to this meaning. More importantly, there was a failure to understand learning as a deconstruction of consciousness. Rather than seeing text as a tool for the exploration of self, other and world, it was treated as if it had a meaning separate from received notions of self and world.
If education is to become vital it must help us see that real learning involves more than abstract theorizing. It must help us see that literary themes constitute the actual, real fabric of a real self. Until we bridge this gap between mind and heart, facile insight and true developmental growth, thought and deed, education will remain little more than a superficial exercise by which we, at best, engage in glib discussions of themes such as “prejudice,” “social and individual displacement,” and “universals shared by all people.”
Derrida’s deconstruction does, it seems, verge on solipsism or subjective idealism. The idea that there is no fixed cognitive meaning in a text that can be encapsulated in words such that all meaning is exhausted is a long way from the solipsistic view that all beliefs are equally subjective and therefore equally real (or unreal). Particularly extreme is Derrida’s claim that not only is there no fixed, cognitive meaning to a text, it is impossible to arrive at even something like a
simulacrum of truth.

There is, it seems, one important point of divergence between Bohm and Derrida. Bohm concludes that:

Even though the mode of being of each thing can be defined only relative to other things, we are not led to the point of view of ‘complete relativity.’ For such a point of view implies that there is no objective content to our knowledge at all, either because it is supposed to be defined entirely relative to the observer, or to the general point of view and special conditions of each individual, or to special preconceptions and modes…of thinking that may exist in a particular society in a particular epoch of time. In our point of view, we admit that all of the above things actually color and influence our knowledge; be we admit also that nevertheless there still exists an absolute, unique, and objective reality.

…Derrida, on the other hand, appears to reject all pretensions of objectivity…there are no distinctions at all, just play of…presence and absence…This certainly appears indicative of the type of ‘complete relativity’ Bohm rejects…In short, Bohm’s relativity is positive, Derrida’s negative…”
–Deconstruction Reframed,
Floyd Merrell

And, while Derrida does not believe the discovery of the real can be reduced to a simple dialectic—an endless deconstruction of thesis and antithesis resulting in synthesis—while he does not see the dialectic as an end, but a means to the end…

Language is there infinitely…and in its questioning from the midst of silence leads us to confirm ourselves in ethical action, not through debate of thesis and antithesis, but in relation to the other.

…it’s not clear how deconstruction, as he envisions it, can constitute any sort of ethical soteriology…

He (Derrida) belongs to a school of modern philosophy that…includes such diverse names as Wittgentstein, Heidegger, Quine and Sellars–all of whom, despite their diversity, are united in their criticism of the idea that knowledge can have a firm foundation in anything. Not in sense data, nor intuition nor divine revelation.
London Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch, Vol 5 NO. 13

Nevertheless, true learning does entail a deconstruction of consciousness, leading to ethical action in relation to the other. And this is, it seems, the “great theme” of Judaism, Christianity, and The Grapes of Wrath. Once we understand that concepts such as self, world and text are not autonomous elements in external relationship but dimensions of a single continuum, then discussion of profound themes can become an exploration of felt aspects of a real self.

The philosophy I’m advocating is a pedagogy of relationship that “facilitates an authentic evaluation of our relations to other, as a means of confirming ourselves in ethical action.”
The word education is derived from the Latin root educere meaning to lead out—as in giving birth…

Most people fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit…(but)…we can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing; the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.
e.e.cummings

Grapes Of Wrath—Outcomes (Goals)
1.1—Students will understand the unique contributions of the historical novelist as contemporary chronicler and critic.
1.2—Students will uderstand/appreciate the interdependency of nations of the world—economically and politically.
1.3—Students will understand/appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life.”
1.4—Students will understand the historical context of the novel.
1.5—Students will understand the nature of change—social, political, cultural—and will recognize the elements that have potential to be catalysts for change.
1.6—Students will understand the varying nature of the family unit and its role in maintaining individual stability.
1.7—Students will understand the contributing factors to and the experience of social and individual displacement.


Student Learning Objectives
2.1—Students will be able to describe the nature of the Joad family unit—the hierarchy of individual members, the basic values, and the role of each member.
2.2—Students will be able to identify and analyze Steinbeck’s methods of characterization.
2.3—Students will be able to describe the use of setting in the novel.
2.4—Students will be able to identify and explain Biblical and Christian symbolism in the novel.
2.5—Students will be able to identify elements of Jeffersonian agrarianism in the novel.
2.6—Students will be able to describes the elements of Emersonianism in the novel.
2.7—Students will be able to match major speeches with the characters.
2.8—Students will be able to explain the uniqueness of the migrant farmworkers of the 1930’s.
2.9—Students will be able to analyze the nature of prejudice portrayed, its basis and development.
2.10—Students will be able to explain the use of imagery, particularly that surrounding banks..
2.11—Students will be able to explain context for and the nature of Communist Party activities alluded to in the novel.
2.12—Students will be able to use citations from the novel to develop a formal essay.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: