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Making It: A Miseducation

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In a place where succeeding means leaving, good grades are fraught with contradictions.

In fourth grade, “making it” did not mean anything to my friends and me. All living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, we knew no one who had “made it.” We knew of people who “made it,” but because “making it” seemed to be predicated on that person no longer being here, in Bed-Stuy, we did not care to know them. “Making it” meant that, to be successful, you had to get out of Bed-Stuy—you had to escape. It did not matter so much where you went after you left (it could even be jail); all that mattered was that you left. This was how success was measured for us: “If you want to be successful, leave. I don’t care where you go but if you’re here, you won’t make it.” It didn’t matter if this was ever actually said because the implications were loud and clear even if unspoken. We did not listen—who wants to be told that what formed them is something they must escape? This was especially true for many of my male friends whose fathers had gone away to “make it,” leaving our mothers to deal with us. We were catastrophes of our fathers’ success. We were what were left behind to remind our mothers that our fathers had been here before they left—and they in turn reminded us of this. “You act just like your father!” This was said whenever any of us had failed to measure up to burdens that were too heavy for us, but ours alone, to carry. Our fathers were able to “make it,” so, it seemed we weren’t allowed to. We accepted this as the price of our mothers’ love.

Fourth grade was the last year I would see my father. I had seen that he was getting ready to make it—he was doing everything in his power to get out. Seeing that, I cared less about being successful. Many of the boys in my class carried the same disposition. We rarely did homework and when we did do it, we did the bare minimum because it was the best way to ensure that we would never be successful. It was the best way to ensure that we would please our mothers by never being like our fathers. We would not leave like they did.

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Sleepwalking Through the Ruins

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Maurizio Lazzarato’s latest book seeks to answer, “What is to be done?”

The Realist, the third novel of Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers trilogy (1932), takes place during the waning days of World War I. One chapter presents a scene involving several of the novel’s principal characters, who, having met over dinner, engage after the meal in some metaphysical talk that grows increasing chaotic and fragmentary before ending in singing. August Esch, an anarchist bookkeeper turned newspaper editor, attempts to share with the others a sense of things that occasionally comes over him. “Sometimes it seems as if the world were only one huge dreadful machine that never stops,” he tells them. Its various components, which include “the war and everything,” obey “laws that we don’t understand.” Likewise, “every man is a machine,” he says, available to scrutiny “only … from outside.” In the picture of the world Esch paints for his tablemates, it’s gears rather than turtles all the way down.

Maurizio Lazzarato, a sociologist and theorist of “immaterial labor,” might agree with August Esch that the world is a huge machine but that it need not be so dreadful. In his latest book Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2014), he attempts a staggering feat of theoretical synthesis in service to the notion that, like the period covered in The Sleepwalkers, ours is a time of crisis in which one ethical system is vanishing and a new system must be coaxed into emerging to replace it.

To appreciate, or even to recognize, any possible emergent system, Lazzarato argues, it helps to understand the crisis brought on by the system poised to vanish. In our current crisis, that would be neoliberalism, the ideological contortions and consequences of which was the subject of his 2012 book The Making of Indebted Man. There Lazzarato describes how neoliberalism has recast labor as entrepreneurial venture, transforming workers from wage earners into debt-leveraged investors in the enterprise of themselves. “Now that the promises of wealth for all through hard work, credit, and finance have proved empty, the class struggle has turned to the protection of creditors and owners of ‘securities,’” Lazzarato writes. The carrot of riches having withered and slipped its tether, there remains only the stick of debt. “The indebted man, at once responsible for his lot, must take on himself the economic, social, and political failures of the neoliberal power bloc,” he continues, “exactly those failures externalized by the State and business onto society.” Owning guaranteed assets means never having to say you’re sorry.

If The Making of Indebted Man sought to answer the question, “What happened?” Signs and Machines seeks to answer, “What is to be done?”

Unlike The Making of Indebted Man, which a decent undergraduate background in philosophy and economics makes accessibleSigns and Machines demands that you have a theory graduate seminar or two under your belt. Lazzarato seems to believe a chorus of voices is needed to survey what could displace neoliberalism. In Signs and Machines, Félix Guattari looms large, as does Michel Foucault. Russian formalist literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Judith Butler all figure prominently, serving mostly as foils, and Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Michel de Certeau, Slavoj Žižek, and Paolo Virno also receive nods. As one would expect from a book so reliant on Guattari, the characteristic buzzwords are on full display, deployed for the most part unadorned by any definition. You’ll therefore get the most from Signs and Machines if you have some idea of the concepts denoted by such terms as “assemblage,” “schizoanalysis,” “diagram,” and “asignifying semiotics,” all of which carry peculiar meaning in the deleuzoguattarian universe.

If you’re at home in that universe,  you’ll have little trouble negotiating the terrain of Signs and Machines, which begins in the deep canyon of subject formation and wends its way over the darkling plain of late-capitalist culture before arriving at the shore of emancipatory direct democracy. The journey includes two extended side trips, the first into an analysis of cinema, and the second into a consideration of a slur uttered by Nicolas Sarkozy during his 2005 bid for the French presidency. Readers bent on arriving at the upshot of Lazzarato’s argument may wish to skip these sections, though these tangents do help anchor otherwise difficult conceptual relations in familiar contexts.

And the conceptual relations are indeed difficult. Part of this difficulty owes to their high degree of abstraction and subtlety, yet the greater part owes to the scope of Guattari’s theory. “Capitalism is characterized by a dual regime of subjectivity,” writes Lazzarato, following Guattari: “subjection — centered on the subjectivity of an individual subject — and enslavement, involving a multiplicity of human and nonhuman subjectivities and proto-subjectivities.” Subjection “allows capitalism to establish molar hierarchies,” he continues, “a first hierarchy between man (as a species) and nature and a second hierarchy within culture between man (gender, white, adult, etc.) and woman, child, and so on. These two hierarchies are the antecedents fundamental to the more specifically economic hierarchies.” And enslavement, Lazzarato argues, “does not operate through repression or ideology” but instead “formats the basic functioning of perceptive, sensory, affective, cognitive, and linguistic behavior.” Thanks to the combined influences of subjection and enslavement, individuals under capitalism hit the neoliberal market bundled with all the necessary software.

Subjection and enslavement are capitalism’s Scylla and Charybdis, and they defy anyone to imagine a course that steers clear of both. Yet a mighty flex of imagination is exactly Lazzarato’s prescription for navigating a way out of neoliberalism. “Revolutionary political action must … position itself between the molecular and the molar,” he writes, “although with a completely different end in view.” Fittingly, this “different end,” like capitalism’s regime of subjectivity, is dual. On the one hand he argues that “the machinic dimension,” in which forces constitutive of individual awareness, perception, and affect meet and enter into composition, must be converted to “forms of subjectivation that critique, reconfigure, and redistribute these molar dualisms and the roles and functions to which we are assigned within the division of labor.” And on the other hand “enslavement’s desubjectivation” must be regarded as “an opportunity for producing something other than paranoid, productivist, consumerist individualism.” Borne aloft on imagined possibilities, we may soar toward the future free of capitalist realism’s artificial horizon, which presents “the false choice between being condemned to function like one component part among others in the social machinery and being condemned to become an individual subject, human capital (worker, consumer, user, debtor), ‘man.’ ”

You may think all that is easier said than done — and not even all that easily said. Yet the key to carrying it out lies precisely in the saying. Lazzarato posits a reliably consistent homology between language and the formation of subjectivities. Language, indifferent to any individual language user, leads a given utterance back not to any utterer but to the operations of language’s fixed (lexical and grammatic) and variable (syntagmatic and paradigmatic) elements. “There is no subject,” writes Lazzarato, “there are only collective assemblages of enunciation that produce utterances.”

With “enunciation” Lazzarato has in mind something like J.L. Austin’s speech act, which, in addition to communicating some meaning, creates or alters states of affairs. “To accomplish an enunciation,” Lazzarato continues, “always means asserting power over extralinguistic constituents that are at once somatic, ethological, mythologic, institutional, economic, political, and aesthetic.”

By mastering language, an individual masters this power, and, in so doing, masters herself. An enunciation’s primordial conditions stake out territories of existential possibility, and the actual emergence of an existing self in a particular territory confirms this possibility. With subsequent enunciations the self in question achieves greater consistency. Lazzarato continues: “The self-relation to the self, self-affectation, and self-positioning draw on the signs, myths, narratives, and conceptualizations that, rather than acting as translation (which is in any case impossible) of the existential into the discursive, serve as a cartography for localization and access to processes of subjectivation and to existential territories.” Though you may neither reduce the map to the land nor the land to the map, the map recommends certain paths over others for crossing the land, which, for its part, has influenced the map to recommend those paths. “Knowledge of existence requires what Guattari, following Vico, calls a ‘topical art,’ an art of cartographies,” Lazzarato writes.

Lazzarato’s call for an art of cartographies chimes with his understanding of a self’s consolidation as ultimately an “aesthetic experience” and “autopoetic” event. “The essence of the ‘current crisis’ lies in the incapacity of capitalist forces to articulate the discursive and existential dimensions,” he writes, “in the impossibility of assembling ensembles of actualized economic, social, and technological flows and the virtual and incorporeal dimension of subjectivity production, existential territories, and universes of value.” The stories told about neoliberalism simply don’t work the desired effects. The formation of subjectivity — one convenient to neoliberal aims, particularly — is a dead letter, thanks to an absence of a “mythical consistency” that might compel such formation. In terms of an art of cartographies, neoliberalism is a map drawn on wind and running water.

Yet neoliberalism’s failures do nothing toward removing the need of getting our aesthetic act together quickly. “Just as the artist must not wait for whatever kind of inspiration is going to come,” Lazzarato writes, “political action must construct and invent tools and procedures of experimentation, research, and intervention aimed first of all at the production of subjectivity rather than at the economic, the social, the linguistic.” Whatever their eventual characteristics, those new tools and procedures must set in motion a passage “through points of nonsense, through the asignifying and nondiscursive which in politics manifest themselves in the strike, revolt, or riot.”

Some critics of 2011′s Occupy insisted that participants’ unwillingness to make concrete demands proved the movement’s undoing. Following Lazzarato, you might answer this by insisting that making demands would have achieved little because it would have signaled failure or unwillingness to break with convention. Occupations, on the other hand, offered intimations of other ways without attempting to impose them. Like all successful strikes, revolts, and riots the actions in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere sought to “suspend time for a brief moment and create other possibilities from which, if they take on consistency, other subjectivations and existential crystallizations might proliferate,” writes Lazzarato. When left-liberal commentators credited Occupy with having “changed the conversation” about the distribution of the nation’s wealth, the claim may have carried more weight than even those making it realized; for any change in conversation suggests a change in those engaged in the conversation.

In the final chapter of Signs and Machines, Lazzarato moves from Guattari’s ideas to a consideration of Foucault’s and Rancière’s. He specifically fastens on parrhesia, a rhetorical figure that figures crucially in Foucault’s final lectures. Defined as speaking candidly or truthfully, parrhesia stands in a tricky relationship to constitutional guarantees to equality. Parrhesiastic speech, Lazzarato writes, “mobilizes the speaker’s singular relations with himself and with those whom he addresses,” and in so doing presents an instance of enunciation, of a fully performative speech act of “ethical differentiation,” because “it means taking a position in relation to the self, to others, and to world.”

Parrhesia implies that political subjects constitute themselves as ethical subjects, capable of taking risks, posing a challenge, dividing equals according to their positions, in other words, capable of governing themselves and of governing others within a situation of conflict.

If a parrhesiastic utterance does not set its speaker at variance with others, it does set her apart sufficiently to trouble the presumption of equality that informs the speaking context. The possible dissonant notes may disturb otherwise harmonious themes. “In democracy,” Lazzarato writes, “competition, agonism and conflict between equals who claim to speak the truth degenerate into the seduction of orators who flatter the people in the assemblies.” Without the possibility of ethical differentiation via parrhesia, anything predicated on political equality effaces individual subjectivity in the name of that equality, leaving only demogoguery and parliamentary theatrics.

The task becomes to free subjectivity from parliamentary theatrics by delivering it from the stage and taking to the streets. An individual must mount a performance with her very person to supplant the tepid line readings of institutional debate. “Gestures, actions, example, behavior, and physical presence constitute expressive practices and semiotics addressed to others through means other than speech,” writes Lazzarato. In the available fund of alternatives to speech are such possibilities as “provoking, scandalizing, forcing others to think and to feel, and so on.” These tactics, because they rest on “practice and experimentation” as opposed to words alone, stand a chance of surpassing the present, limited horizon of possibilities.

Lazzarato deems it paramount that individuals live their politics. Indeed, he doubts that it is possible not to. He writes that “politics cannot be defined as a specific activity, because it is joined to ethics (the construction of a subject of reason and speech) and truth (discursive practices that demonstrate and argue).” The contents of an individual’s subjectivity — perspectives, experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires — all come under the influence of what Lazzarato, following Foucault, terms “the ‘microphysics’ of power relations.” The shaping and winnowing action of power relations give rise to a “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière’s phrase) that resolves into hierarchy at every level (man/woman, us/them, bourgeoisie/proletariat). If you wish to overthrow neoliberalism, or capitalism itself, the distribution of the sensible must serve as your field of battle: Lazzarato calls for a “new militantism” of individuals who have realized new ethico-political potential through experiments and procedures yielding heretofore unimagined modes of subjectivity formation. Any movement taking its cues from his prescriptions might wish to take the name Situationiste Individuel.

Lazzarato concludes Signs and Machines by posing a question. “How do we invent and practice both equality and ethical differentiation (singularization),” he asks, “while breaking with the machinic enslavements and social subjections of modern-day capitalism that have a dual hold on our subjectivity?” In other words, how do we have a “unique” self without capitalism’s potent mechanisms of differentiation? Regrettably, the text leading up to this question offers little answer beyond calls to provoke, scandalize, and force others to think and feel. Such performative techniques may have their troll-bait appeal, but you can’t help wondering whether they offer anything beyond that. Like the characters of Broch’s trilogy, people alive today are sleepwalking through a time between two ages. And with so much at stake in the age to come, it might be enough simply to wake them.

 

Our Fellow Travelers

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Spike Lee’s films recall the “life-building” of the art of the early Soviet Union.

I’m on a mission to bring our shit, undiluted, uncut to the screen.

—Spike Lee, Valentine’s Day, 1988

Tracee and I went to see School Daze during that week of celebrating Spike Lee all over (black) Brooklyn. The small theater at BAM was about half-filled, with mostly black couples and groups our age (early-tomid-30s) and older. The few outliers appeared to be single white men, with whole rows to themselves. As the delirious ode to American musicals tumbled out across the screen, in the raucous cadence of a black middle-class college at the end of the last century, the audience danced and sang along in their seats, alternatively laughing and sucking their teeth in recognition. Lee’s film glows with the spectrum of colors and registers of sound that make black life so astonishingly luminescent within a society of locked doors and drawn curtains. Like Nella Larsen’s painterly depictions of Harlem Renaissance nights, School Daze fills the entire screen with all the gestures and grace of a sweaty black club. At times, especially during the genius pajama-party scene, when that paleo-twerk classic of D.C. go-go music, “Da Butt,” sails over a sea of tightly packed asses rolling in waves, and we, the audience, roared and writhed along in our seats, I felt an overwhelming love for Spike Lee and everyone involved in bringing this film into my life. In School Daze, the plot is not the thing, just as in jazz, the melody is never the thing. Instead, it is the cascade of ghosts of black lives we have lived and witnessed, which first thrills us in the theater and then leads us to the subway in silent mourning.

What becomes clear as we leave the movie theater is how rarely we experience representations of black American life that resonate with our realities. The old lament: When we will see our “true” selves on the screen? But it is much more difficult to articulate what exactly it is that will make us whole, that will assuage years of malicious “Hollywood” treatments. In this essay I do not purport to give a step-by-step explanation of what it would take to deliver on-screen reparations for crimes against veracity. Nor will there be further talk of representing “true” selves. More interesting to me are the (rare) depictions of everyday black life, which affirm our existence in complex worlds, floating parallel to the mainstream. Are these simple acts of rendering, or is something more required of the “painter of modern [black] life”?

The last scene of School Daze has Dap, the campus militant, running across the main lawn in the wee hours of the morning after the night’s climactic party to ring the school bell, yelling, “Wake up!” over and over. A sleepy, solemn crowd gathers, and Dap silently locks eyes in a conciliatory gaze with his arch rival, a decidedly apolitical fraternity brother. “Please wake up,” Dap pleads with us, breaking the fourth wall. The frame freezes, the color drains to black and white, and an alarm bell rings. Who exactly is Dap talking to, anyway? Looking at the animated faces of my fellow moviegoers, it is clear he’s been talking to us—us black folks. And this is the first requirement for anyone who would take on the complexity of our existence—we must be (at least a part of) the art’s intended audience. A lot of American art and art criticism, no matter the racial or ethnic makeup of the creative team, is made for some imagined white America. That elusive yet endlessly sought-after demographic bears the dubious distinction of being the “target audience” for almost everything on TV, in the cinema, on the stage, and certainly in the art galleries and museums. Any depiction or discussion of black people that has as its intended audience primarily white people will never be able to see us, to fully acknowledge the registers in which we exist. All that will be on offer for us instead is to be mocked and disremembered, or maybe just dismembered.

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Recently, Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks got the idea to collect all the images he could find of Africans and African Americans created by Soviet artists between the 1920s and the 1980s. As a young artist in Moscow, Fiks was trained in social-realist painting and has turned that skill to documenting the communist world that, despite all odds, continues to exist in the United States. Upon visiting the New York headquarters of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) on a mission to paint portraits of the group’s contemporary members, Fiks was surprised to find that artists Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright, among others, had all been card-carrying members. He began to investigate the relationship between black political struggles and social movements, the CPUSA and the Soviet Union. His investigations uncovered long histories of mutual political support between black America and the Soviet Union, from its early years and into its decline. His original project, of painting members of the CPUSA in an anachronistic Soviet social realist style, gave way to a search for representations of black Americans made by other Soviet painters. The archive of more than 200 images is named for Wayland Rudd, a Philadelphia-born actor who traveled from New York to Moscow in 1932 as part of a delegation of black artists and never returned to the States. Taken as a whole, the Wayland Rudd Collection represents the possibility of an alternative experience of black Americaness, constructed in a country that no longer exists.

Of particular interest in the collection are the ­sketches and paintings of Aleksandr Deineka, a Kursk-born painter who, in the 1920s and ’30s, contributed to the invention of the social realism that became the stylistic stamp of Soviet art and propaganda. In late 1934, Deineka traveled from Moscow to New York on a three-month art residency sponsored by the Union of Soviet Artists. He spent time in Harlem, making sketches of everyday (and night) life. His pictures of people just going about their business resemble, in their attention to normality, strains of modernism arising in the Harlem Renaissance. These new forms of writing, dance, music, and image-making sought, in the rhythms of regular folks’ speech and gestures, the poetic humanity denied black people in mainstream “primitivist” representations and appropriations of blackness. Deineka’s figures—women attending a lecture, a thoughtful young man with downcast eyes, an elegant singer and his accompanist at the piano, a pair of clubbers with their skirts hiked up—could be drawn directly from Larsen’s stories of middle-class Harlem moderns, who went from ladies’ luncheons to jumping speakeasies in a single day.

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Deineka’s depictions of particular black lives bear marks of what early Soviet art theorists called “zhizhnestronie,” or life-building. Life-building was a critical area of design for the young nation, by which the novy byt, the new way of living, would be created, and artists were asked to lead the effort. According to Art in Production, a collection of essays published in Moscow in 1921, the purpose of art is “the introduction of artistic elements into the life of production,” and to bring about both the “transformation of the form of the production process and the form of everyday life.” Art would no longer be, as art writer Nikolai Punin put it at the time, “a holy temple where the lazy only contemplate.” Instead, the new art would be a joint project of social activists and “art-makers” committed to creating “a future consciousness.” Playwright Sergei Tretyakov was even more specific: the new “art worker” would be a “psycho-engineer, a psychological constructor,” working to “reorganize the human psyche with the goal of achieving the commune.” Transforming the means by which art was produced was key to developing art forms in solidarity with the nascent proletariat society. Art could no longer be a method for “raising questions” and “understanding life,” but would have to create entirely new lives. Art would need to work in the streets, not merely in the studios, galleries, and museums. It would eventually have to be no different from any other kind of work—“a temporary activity, which in future will be dissolved into life.” Art historian Christina Kiaer describes Deineka’s way of making pictures as a kind of “supercharged mimesis,” which “infects” the viewer, such that he or she can “imagine other affective possibilities under socialism.” It is possible that Deineka’s pictures express co-feeling for Harlem and its residents, many of whom were part of the decades-long Great Migration of black people fleeing terrible conditions in the South. Maybe he experienced in the neighborhood the energy of a proletariat struggling to recognize itself through new art forms, to rebuild life in its own image.

Somewhere between the premiere of School Daze, and the start of shooting on Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee also got a close-up look at what happens when black folks try to make pictures of themselves for themselves. On January 14, 1988, upon learning of Columbia Pictures’ refusal to provide both television advertising and print promotion in major black publications like Ebony, Jet, and Essence, Lee writes in his journal:

All they see is niggers: nigger director and nigger audience, second-rate, second-class shit; therefore the project is not worth their time and money. I’m gonna have to carry School Daze myself on my back. And when it takes off, without any effort on their part, Columbia will claim they knew it all along.

What gives Lee confidence in his filmic vision is the conviction that “black audiences are starving for films by and about us.” With the artists of the young Soviet Union, who sought to construct an art of and for the proletariat, Lee shares a commitment to building worlds—both on screen and off—that are safe for black youth. This is why the BAM theater felt so welcoming: The images were for us, challenging works of art for which we were the primary audience. According to theorist Nikolai Chuzhak, art as life building was fundamentally about “welcoming the growth of a form that could be a fellow traveler to the proletariat, ‘nudging’ and helping it to reorganize itself.” Our survival as a people depends upon the arrival of “fellow travelers,” sometimes strangers, sometimes familiars bearing new forms, who will contribute to our remembrance—our “re-memberment”—who will help us with our project of perpetual reconstruction.

With School Daze and She’s Gotta Have It, we’ve started something. Young black people are coming together, as one, to make our own films. It’s never been done before on this scale. What we’re doing is revolutionary and courageous. No other black people in the industry are doing what we’re doing. I’m not bragging, I’m just sorry it isn’t being done by more folks.

—Spike Lee

 

Not for Teacher

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The fight documented in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars may be a lost cause

The tag line to Dana Goldstein’s new book The Teacher Wars is “A history of America’s most embattled profession.” That Goldstein, an education journalist now at the fledgling Marshall Project, can make that claim without ruining her credibility before the first page speaks to the unique role educators play in American society. They’re (mostly) unionized government employees, but they spend their time working alone. We ask that they produce standardized results and demonstrate individualized care at the same time. We say their work is invaluable and pay them as if they were semiskilled. They come under frequent attack from all corners of the political map. Whether that necessarily makes teachers more embattled than psychologists or babysitters or coal miners or housewives I’m not sure, but they are certainly curious.

The biggest reason teachers are so embattled is that their unions still exist. While other segments of American organized labor have declined in size dramatically over the past few decades, educators have managed to hold on, at least until recently. As a result, the debate around the teaching profession is incredibly polarized: Union members and their allies are fighting an existential battle for their jobs, while their opponents are constantly devising new schemes to chip away at what the unions have left. Both sides have made support for teachers a question of character, with little room for good faith in between: Either you believe teachers’ unions are important and must be protected, or you think they’re a moribund obstacle to “reform.” I confess that when I began Goldstein’s book, I feared it would be a pro-union pity plea, but her writerly commitments are to the historical record, and she gives readers a solid and critically detached account.

At the beginning of the teacher wars in the 1830s, progress was built on a foundation of pseudoscience, malarky, and personal psychology. Horace Mann, the architect of American public education, was also an avid phrenologist. Goldstein is careful to point out that skull-­measuring—though racist and fully fraudulent—was considered innovative and liberal compared with early 19th century Protestantism. At least phrenologists believed people could learn.

Mann pushed forward a unified and compulsory Massachusetts state school system based on a similar Prussian model. From the start, Mann imagined teaching as women’s work, and not just any women: “Mann depicted these cost-effective female educators as angelic public servants monitored by Christian faith: wholly unselfish, self-abnegating, and morally pure.” Women weren’t just cheaper to hire; they were also assumed to be naturally nurturing and pious enough to teach godly behavior. “Teaching,” Goldstein writes, “was promoted as the female equivalent of the ministry: a profession whose prestige would be rooted not in worldly rewards, such as money or political influence, but in the pursuit of satisfaction that came from serving others.” In other words, you can pay teachers in work.

One of the tensions that runs through The Teacher Wars, as well as the teaching profession in general, is that between the angelic volunteer and the hardened union negotiator. By original design, American teachers aren’t supposed to be in it for the money. The U.S. education system was built around a historically specific moment in the development of women’s relation to the workplace: Teaching was high-prestige and intellectually demanding, compared with other career options available to women in the 1830s. Our heavenly ideal teacher still resembles Mann’s vision:

How divinely does she come, her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!

Compare this to the introduction of Miss Jennifer Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda,

Their teacher was called Miss Honey, and she could not have been more than 23 or 24. She had a lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure.

Goldstein points out that Mann’s description of the perfect teacher sounds a lot like his eulogies for his wife Charlotte, “whom he mourned acutely for nearly a decade after her death at the age of 23, just two years after their wedding.” As a saintly and fragile young woman, the ideal teacher is the pre-emptive answer to a question society prefers not to ask out loud: How can we trust someone with so much yet pay them so little? Now that women hold half of American professional jobs, another question comes to mind: Why would anyone talented want to be a teacher?

One reason is economic security. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Chicago Teachers’ Federation founded a national association—the American Federation of Teachers—and state unions began to win tenure protections, another idea borrowed from the Prussian system. Devised as an effort to depoliticize teaching appointments, tenure was understandably popular among instructors. Since then, teachers have jealously guarded it, holding on to it and their unions and protecting them with solidarity and strikes.

Since teachers are supposed to be self-sacrificing, they’re often pilloried for failing to act in the interests of the children when they dare act in their own self-interest as workers. Teachers may commit to doing their jobs well, but just because the job was created to attract angels doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get paid. Goldstein shows that there have almost always been men and women in the American teaching corps who were dedicated to the union first and the kids second. In 1968, the United Federation of Teachers went on strike in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville section of Brooklyn after community-controlled schools attempted to purge some white teachers.  Goldstein quotes the legendary UFT president Al Shanker when he’s asked if the strike was going to hurt the education of already disadvantaged students: “I don’t represent children. I represent the teachers.”

Student interests don’t play much of a role in The Teacher Wars, but Goldstein doesn’t shy away from distinguishing between parents’ interests and teachers’ interests, especially when it comes to black parents. Race is central to the story of American teaching, as it is to the story of America at all levels, and Goldstein doesn’t shy away from that either. The Teacher Wars, for a book that’s not explicitly focused on race, does an admirable job tracing the line from the W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington fight over liberal arts and technical education for black children all the way through the late-1960s battle over community control and white teachers. It’s a vision of the black freedom movement that doesn’t place voting rights or even desegregation at the center; Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, but Goldstein reminds us that school integration peaked in 1980. Instead, she centers black people’s attempts to secure an education for themselves and their children in a country hostile to their pursuit. The Teacher Wars is a strong rebuke to anyone who imagines that the civil rights movement ends where the Panthers begin, and an even stronger rebuke to readers who imagine that black parents have historically been or currently are disengaged from their children’s education.

Liberals like to believe that teachers, union members, and black communities form a group with common interests that they call a constituency. Goldstein spends a fair amount of space on the Ocean Hill–Brownsville strike and community control, a moment in the history of American education that proves these groups aren’t always so harmonious. In the ’60s, as part of their long battle to break the teachers’ unions, corporate charitable foundations teamed up with New York City mayor John Lindsay to decentralize the eastern Brooklyn district and turn it over to local management. Parents and community members in the district had a separate goal: Desegregation was not succeeding in the ways they had hoped, and kids bussed into white schools had to deal with racist white classmates and racist white teachers. This is, unsurprisingly, not a good environment in which to learn.

The individualist and white supremacist school system was not in sync with ‘60s black-liberation attitudes, and neither was the UFT, which had replaced the more radical Teachers Union (TU) after it was wrecked by anti-communist purges. Goldstein advances the idea that the often earnestly anti-racist TU teachers were more appreciated in black communities than their liberal replacements. Still, by the later part of the decade, some activists were not convinced that white teachers belonged in classrooms with black children at all. “We cannot have white people working in the black community—on psychological grounds,” Stokely Carmichael, the newly chosen head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said in 1966. “Black people must be in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves.” White liberals found these sentiments racist.

In 1967, with a $44,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Mayor Lindsay handed over the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district to superintendent Rhody McCoy, over the strong objection of the UFT. The UFT’s fears were well-founded: McCoy and other community-control advocates thought the unions were protecting mediocre white teachers who weren’t ideologically prepared to nurture black children. The district flexed its new authority and fired 13 teachers. The UFT went on strike. It was resolved a couple of months later with the imposition of state control and the teachers’ reinstatement.

In her book, Goldstein is careful to stick to the facts and avoid taking a side, but she leaves little doubt that there were indeed some incompetent and racist teachers hiding behind the UFT and damaging the minds of black children. Though the Ford Foundation may have thought of the community-control movement as a pawn in its anti-union plot, the movement’s critique went deeper, to the heart of an education system that was built for white children alone.

When most Americans think about teachers, we don’t imagine mediocre or average minds ingrained with pedestrian prejudices. We don’t much imagine teachers who are irrationally afraid of black kids, even though we know many if not all white Americans are irrationally afraid of black kids. We know many American adults believe all sorts of crazy things, and we caution children not to trust strangers. At the same time, we turn them over to a structure of civil servants that was originally designed to teach them to obey the King of Prussia. Is it possible that the American public education system is a really bad idea? And can I even say that without becoming a tool in an anti-worker corporate agenda?

The Teacher Wars does a good job raising some very good questions that it can’t possibly answer. But then, these are questions no one seems able to answer. In a country that promotes and protects white mediocrity, would black parents put their children at the mercy of white strangers if they had any other choice? Is there any way for white teachers not to pass on their ingrained racism to impressionable black kids? Can we have an American public education system that doesn’t reinforce the inequities on which this country was built?

In a famous passage from his autobiography, Malcolm X remembers when he first truly learned that white society didn’t have an appropriate place for him. A teacher at his barely integrated middle school asks about his career plans. When Malcolm says he wants to be a lawyer, the teacher answers:

Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer — that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you’d get all kinds of work.”

This is an example of what President George W. Bush called (in a beautiful phrase credited to speechwriter Michael Gerson) “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But eliminating it is not just a matter of ensuring that teachers’ express confidence in their black and Latino students. In his 2011 book Punished, sociologist Victor M. Rios studied the lives of 40 black and Latino boys growing up in Oakland, California. School plays a major role in their lives, but not the constructive one that reformers believe. “When asked, ‘What was your first experience with the police?’ all the boys commented that their first encounters with police took place in or near school,” he writes. Rios finds that schools are part of the dangerous youth-control complex: “For the boys, the school represented just another space where they were criminalized for their style and culture. The school … was indistinguishable from the police officer stationed at McDonald’s, the adults in the community who called the police on them, or the community-center staff who ousted them.” Most of the young men told Rios they felt that their teachers were afraid of them.

If you were to build a 21st century public education system from scratch, the teacher’s role would undoubtedly be quite different. You don’t have the same cheap women’s labor, but you do have a number of labor-saving technologies. When it comes to imparting basic knowledge—the kind of skills measured on standardized tests—well-­tailored computer programs could do it at least as well as the average human instructor. In the 19th century, every classroom needed its own lecturer, but wouldn’t kids today rather have Neil deGrasse Tyson backed by million-dollar graphics than a local 25-year-old with a degree in political science?

Against all evidence, experience, and common sense, we cling to and generalize our idea of the perfect teacher. Among nonpornographic depictions of teachers—I admit that most movies about teachers are probably porn—fantastic teachers are vastly overrepresented. It’s part of the national bargain with schoolteachers: We won’t pay you as well as a dental hygienist, but as an individual, people will assume you’re doing a good, important, and generous job. Whether it’s Matilda’s Miss Honey or Ryan Gosling teaching ghetto dialectics in Half Nelson, we have to imagine that all teachers share a common passionate commitment because the alternative is unbearable: We force all children to spend most of their waking time being evaluated and instructed by some underpaid randos because otherwise we’d have no idea what to do with them. Ask any babysitter how much they charge per hour to watch 30 nine-year-olds. It’s an absurd thing to require of a person, and America was able to pull it off because the women they were asking didn’t have a lot of other options.

The teacher wars will continue for now, but I’m not sure the unions can hold on. The National Education Association’s membership has been dropping significantly over the past five years, and the new corporate reformers are advancing mission-directed charter schools as the newest way to undermine organized teachers. The union’s enemies plan to break its back state by state and they’ve got history—though not the angels—on their side. When most 11-year-olds can access most of the information in the world with a quick search, the instructor’s job has to change. The system has survived near 200 years now; it’s time to imagine what comes after the teachers finally lose the war.

 

Radical Strain

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For the contemporary female pop star singing is still not seen as deliberate work, but rather effusive labor.

Rifle through enough music blogs and you’ll start to see hundreds of them: young duos in overexposed press photos, probably from Brooklyn, with a girl at the mic and a guy at the knobs. At shows she hangs toward the lip of the stage, pushing lungfuls through her pipes, swaddled in reverb, fog, and purple light. The blogs might describe her as wistful or ethereal or pretty. She might be called a chanteuse, even a seductress. Meanwhile, he’s at the back, hood up, head down, eyes on the machinery, working furiously.

It’s an arrangement that makes sense to consumers of music and critics alike. We listen to women the same way we look at them. Like beauty, a woman’s voice emanates from her body without visible effort. Listeners don’t hear the voice as an instrument, but as a primal extension of the singer herself, a through-line from her anatomy to yours. The voice is a component of a woman’s affect—never learned, never forced, but something she’s born possessing. Watch the audition episodes of shows like American Idol and the Voice. Like beauty, vocal talent rests on a binary: You have it or you don’t.

Like it does with women’s bodies, popular culture permits a narrow range of acceptable beauty in women’s voices. There’s a reason Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons has room to sing flat on a live television performance but Beyoncé is expected to catapult through multiple key changes with perfect tone and pitch. There’s a reason Lana Del Rey bore the undiluted resentment of her audience when she failed to sing charismatically on Saturday Night Live. There is a reason Britney Spears’ isolated, untreated vocals score listens in the millions every time they’re leaked and the guttural quality of Shakira’s voice is as hotly debated in YouTube comments as her sexual attractiveness. As an object of beauty for public consumption, a woman’s pleasantness must permeate the senses.

The pressure doesn’t just constrict the blockbusters. Even under the “indie” umbrella, where artists support ad campaigns for Levi’s instead of Pepsi, audiences and critics expect women to adhere to a certain standard of vocal beauty. “Only the fact that the singer’s rather limited voice wears thin at times keeps I Never Learn from being an unqualified masterpiece,” Jim DeRogatis wrote recently about Swedish songwriter Lykke Li’s third album. I can’t recall a man making a similar comment about Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, or Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings, or Jeff Mangum, or Jack White. Their limits contribute to their charm. They have never experienced their voices as obstacles to creating masterpieces.

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