Confronting Stupidity

I made the observation at a recent USyd/UWS postgrad event that the experience for contemporary postgrads of being a postgrad is not the same as it was for the current crop of Profs. when they were postgrads. The problem of neo-liberal mechanisms of subjectivation is a problem for us (the postgrads) not so much them (the Profs) because they actually constitute the field that most postgrads are trying to enter (if they want to pursue an academic career). Or, rather, there is a different problem for them, in the sense they must both manage themselves and perform ‘academia’ in different way to us (see Mel Gregg’s blog post and comments from various people on this).

An example is in Elspeth Probyn’s book _Blush_:

“An example close to home is the habitus of the academic. In order for one to become an academic, it helps to have had a family background where education was valued. If early on, reading and being interested in ideas is inculcated, you will be more disposed to the (strange) idea of spending your life with abstractions. In more grounded ways, as you jump various hoops – good grades, undergraduate and postgraduate – your body learns to focus in certain ways. It becomes used to navigating the spaces of thinking: finding its way around libraries, putting up with hours of concentrating on some arcane passage of text. The habitus tells the body how to speak and move at conferences, while lecturing classes, when talking to other academics. As the years go by, the habitus incorporates all the rules, and the body moves easily in the spaces of academic life, what Bourdieu calls “the field.” The habitus is the body’s second nature; it often wears arbitrary rules like a glove.” (49)

Elspeth is certainly writing for a broader audience than simply academics and she is providing an example of habitus, not an example of contemporary academic life. This image of the academic habitus revolves around the traditional conception of the academic as someone whose primary activity is thinking involving concentrated practices of reading and education and performative displays of belonging to the field such as mixing at conferences, talking to students and with other academics. On thinking, from Foucault (“Theatrum Philosophicum”):

Intelligence does not respond to stupidity, since it is stupidity al­ready vanquished, the categorical art of avoiding error. The scholar is intelligent. It is thought, though, that confronts stupidity, and it is the philosopher who observes it. Their private conversation is a lengthy one, as the philosopher’s sight plunges into this candleless skull. It is his death mask, his temptation, perhaps his desire, his catatonic the­ater. At the limit, thought would be the intense contemplation from close up-to the point of losing oneself in it — of stupidity; and its other side is formed by lassitude, immobility, excessive fatigue, obstinate muteness, and inertia — or, rather, they form its accompaniment, the daily and thankless exercise which prepares it and which it suddenly dissipates. The philosopher must have sufficiently ill will to play the game of truth and error badly: this perversity, which operates in paradoxes, allows him to escape the grasp of categories. But aside from this, he must be sufficiently “ill humored” to persist in the confronta­tion with stupidity, to remain motionless to the point of stupefaction in order to approach it successfully and mime it, to let it slowly grow within himself (this is probably what we politely refer to as being absorbed in one’s thoughts), and to await, in the always-unpredictable conclusion to this elaborate preparation, the shock of difference. Once paradoxes have upset the table of representation, catatonia operates within the theater of thought. (190)

One way to read this is that Foucault is separating ‘thinking labour’ into processes of intelligence and procesess of thought. For a rather abstract parallel, Foucault’s ‘stupidity’ resonates (from the perspective of _force_), with Deleuze’s ‘nonsense’ of The Logic of Sense. That is, stupidity has a positivity of being, like nonsense, and is not an absence of force. On the other hand, Elspeth’s academic personae is very intelligent, and I know this is a misrepresentation of what she actually would argue, because I have discussed it briefly with her, but the image of the academic she presents is basically organised according to the intelligent/error model – be intelligent and avoid making errors while intelligently engaging with the errors in the world around you. My practice has always been to welcome errors (well, almost, at least to not be unhappy when they are made and certainly not to be disappointed when they are pointed out), especially if they have been unintentional. Why? Because it might help me to confront my own stupidity, which I am very aware of in my everyday practice. Stupidity isn’t the absence of intelligence, there are some very intelligent people in the world who are also very stupid; it is the force of thought that battles with thought so as to quell it, but, [edit] I should add, the ‘battle’ actually enables thought. Thought needs stupidity. I am acutely aware of this problem and I would suspect so are most others who are attempting to critically engage with the world.

So what to do when you feel compelled to combat the stupidities of the world and the structures that seek to capture thought, and admittedly encourage the cultivation of just a little thought, but which actually urge you to become ‘intelligent’ and focus on ‘error’ (ie the contemporary academic environment)? I know I am certainly of sufficient ill-humour, lol! That is not a problem. Seriously, though, is it a question of being perverse in the sense Foucault suggests? How to be academically perverse?

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