Re-turns

As the semester winds down, I begin to re-turn to myself, having gone, ritualistically, “from myself to myself” over the course of the semester. I am interested in these direction-driven spatial metaphors, how they describe both a certain estrangement from self experienced during the semester that is, simultaneously, a re-absorption into the self. We might call this the double-edge of the pedagogical performative. Or, less fancifully, the entanglements of pedagogy, the weavings that take hold, the snags that develop, the dropped and recovered stitches, the snarls and knots, the knottings and knottedness that we experience retroactively.

In casual conversation, I have described this semester as “schizophrenic,” not only two new preps, but two classes that direct me differently and that I, in turn, inhabit differently. African Fiction and Queer Studies. In trying to think about them–a dangerous task as the semester is not yet done, and I have tried to avoid writing about them–I am struck by the problem of desire in each one: what students want, what I want, what the text materials want, what the space of the classroom wants (I teach one in a lecture room and try to run it as a discussion class), and what the institution wants.

In a crass way, I could say I attempt to manage my students’ desires in African fiction while I attempt to cultivate my students’ desires in Queer Studies. What does this mean?

African literature is a site of intense desires, especially in U.S.-based institutions. It is the place where diverse types of students assemble to test out their various, varied relationships to Africa–as a place of origin, a space for revolution, a place for NGO internships, a space for humanitarian interventions, as a space from which one can measure one’s modernity, as a space where real politics takes place, as a space uncorrupted by materialism, as a space corrupted by capitalism, as a place where colonialism (never really defined, but always bad) lingers, as a space where colonialism (never really defined, but beneficial to natives) lingers, as a space of the native, as a space of the tourist, as the site where U.S. interests can be critiqued, as the space where U.S. interventions can be praised. It is a long list, and I have barely started to map all of it.

These desires, these investments, make themselves palpable in the research paper I assigned. It was amazing to see how many papers, even fairly sophisticated ones, reached for Social Science paradigms, Sociology and Anthropology, especially, to map one-to-one correspondences between texts and contexts. The need, the overwhelming need to claim, “this novel is accurate.” There is a complex way to read this enactment of desire. If the scholarship supports the truth-claim the novel ostensibly provides, then students somehow evade or at least justify their desires. It is not simply “I need Africa to be like this.” Instead, “I need Africa to be like this and my desire has been fulfilled using a scholarly method.” The class itself, a diversity requirement, is not yet at the level where I can ask about how students’ desires can be used to read researchers’ desires, though this is one place I would like to take it, eventually.

In my Queer Class, I have been focused on trying to articulate what it means to desire queerness and race.

Part of what has been so surprising is how much my students desire queerness, as a kind of identification, as a point from which to disidentify (hence, the obligatory, “I’m straight” comment), as a kind of measure of political good will (and this crosses the liberal/conservative divide; it is “bipartisan”), as a kind of cultural capital (on the class blog, and in class, students mention talking about the class with friends and family), as a kind of generational marker (I’m queer, you’re old, is how it sounds), as a way to make sense of social practices that are difficult to name (often ones whose relationship to resistance is oblique, often because of their proximity to pleasure), as the name for a kind of politics that can somehow incorporate a heavily multicultural education whose promises are impossible to realize, affectively truncated, or both (I should be using semi-colons, but don’t want to).

Students also desire race, as a kind of object or sets of objects that can be placed in proximity, as, in a few instances, a multicultural escape from the problem of blackness within libidinal histories, as a site to experiment with varieties of affect, as the place where real politics can be found, as a place where whiteness remains unmarked or becomes marked as a kind of guilt from which there can be no escape, as a kind of literacy without ideological implications (we are post-race, free to be what we want to be, and this crosses various racial groups), as something that can be transcended, a vestigial object, as something around which injury clusters (and this, I admit, I frustrate in many ways), as something around which desire clusters but must remain un-named, unacknowledged, as something stable, as something imaginary, as something material, as something fantastic, as something felt, as something forgotten.

To cultivate these desires means letting their various contradictory manifestations play out in various ways, to let the class move affectively as well as intellectually, to embrace the many moments of failure, when discussions don’t or can’t ensue, when discussions follow odd, strange detours, when discussions are really self-justifications, when some of us feel incredibly uncomfortable, when all of us feel incredibly uncomfortable, when moments of pleasure and, yes, ecstasy, take over, when moments of shock hang in the air, when ennui haunts us, when conceptual difficulty creates resistance and I play Lacanian psychoanalyst, unwilling to resolve the knot of silence, or when, more often, texts and concepts get knottier and knottier, and anger builds and builds and, at times, explodes.

Of the queer class I note one spectacular failure, though not an unexpected one: the move to reconsolidate identity as the semester ends, in a way that pushes back against the identity-banishing I have sought to do all semester. It is, I stress, not unexpected. But I do experience a little pang.

I have taught two different classes in two very different ways. My body language changes, my affect changes, my voice changes, my relations of proximity change. And these changes, these turns, create snarls and knots, tangled spaces where intellect dances and wars with affect, where the “myself” that travels to “myself” (I take this from Tahar Ben Jelloun), doubles on itself, folds in ways I have yet to understand, becomes not multiple or multiplied, but creased.

I don’t yet have the wisdom to speak of how the entanglements of pedagogy leave their mark, but they do. I don’t yet have the courage to think of how the passions of pedagogy leave their impressions, but they do. As the slow re-turn takes place, I might learn from the unfolding crease new flexibilities, new configurations of space and self.

For now, the re-turn continues to unfold.