Credo: What the Wild Things Know

17 May

by Jack Halberstam

This credo was commissioned by Jeffrey Williams and heather Steffen for an anthology of credos they are editing based upon a 2009 special issue of the Minnesota Review. A credo is commonly defined as a “statement of belief.” My credo is about unknowing, ignorance, queerness and Fantastic Mr. Fox…

Credos have always been a little off-putting to me: first there is the religious element, the Catholic chanting of a set of beliefs during mass; second, and probably deriving from the first, credos reek of piety and self-righteousness…not that I am not self-righteous much of the time, but why advertise it? Third, I have been turned off to credos by the saccharine “This I believe” segment on NPR radio where some pious, self-righteous and quite possibly religious person tells you what he or she believes and therefore what everyone else in the world must start doing as a consequence. These “I believe” segments rarely surprise: “I believe there is still a place for love in the world….”; “I believe in the sanctity of marriage….”; “I believe that we can find a way to eliminate phosphate emissions by the end of the year…”: and the worst, “I believe that everything happens for a reason.” I always imagine myself on the show intoning: “I believe that random acts of violence really do make the world a better place” or “I believe that pet owning is akin to beastiality.” But precisely because I have imagined myself talking back to the “I believe” people on the radio, I believe I can write a credo.

One of the first credos that actually appealed to me appeared in the unlikely form of Kevin Costner in Bull Durham (really unlikely! I know….) where, in a pitch to win over Susan Sarandon (a worthy goal), he lays down his credo for her, a list of life lessons he has learned from being “a catcher in the minor leagues” – a metaphor for some kind of smart but down-trodden masculinity.

“I believe,” says Crash Davis, “in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”

Ok, there is so much that is wrong with this credo: let’s start with the obligatory hetero pairing of “cock” and “pussy,” two words you do not want to hear Kevin Costner say by the way, and then we can move down to the rejection of Susan Sontag’s “novels”…hmm, she was not noted for her novels but for her incisive and clear-headed essays and so why even bring up her novels? But the idea of outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter and living for the hanging curve balls and the sweet spot, these seem like worthy goals. So, if I were to rewrite Crash Davis, what would I say? The short version would be something like this: “I believe in the queer and the freak, dying quickly and for a good cause, the long ball, the short book, strong coffee; I believe that high school students deserve better than The Catcher in The Rye; I believe that Bush lost. I believe that artists should let others speak about their work, that the push for gay marriage is a betrayal of earlier generations of queer activism, that Finding Nemo is one of the best films ever made. I believe in slow food, fast dialogue, hot baths, cold swimming pools. I believe that Ivy League schools tend not to be the places for intellectual innovation and I do believe that anarchy, creative or otherwise is possible, preferable and perfectly doable. I believe that Lady Gaga is a genius, that Justin Bieber is a lesbian and that Prince is Lady Gaga. I think we should abolish English departments, change disciplines every few years, go back to school, get rid of standardized tests, all speak 3 languages and I believe in the living wage. I also believe that straight men don’t try hard enough, gay guys try too hard and butches should catch a break.”

Well, maybe not, but that is what came to mind when I was asked to write a credo. So, having offered the quick and dirty version of my credo, let me draw out a few of my hastily offered rules to live by. In our line of work, professional scholars, there are lots of benefits and not a few downsides. The benefits include flexible hours, working without an onsite boss, summers without teaching and job security. But the problems in academia are sometimes a consequence of those benefits: namely, complacency (produced by job security), laziness, absenteeism (flexible hours), elitism, nepotism, intellectual snobbery and cronyism. I really do believe that many academics need to buck up and remember how to learn – many people teach the same classes over and over, repeat the work they did years ago in “new” scholarship and then jealously guard the gates of their discipline from intruders and newcomers who might shake things up to such a degree that their own work becomes irrelevant, anachronistic or at least in need of an update. Let’s remember what tenure is supposed to be for while we ponder some of the stagnancy of the university: tenure was supposed to protect scholars while they pursued possibly unpopular or at least counter-intuitive ideas; it should provide a shield behind which socially useless along with socially useful work can be completed. Tenure, in its ideal form, allows scholars to take risks, try out daring theses and innovate. But, in a university where senior people often deny tenure to junior folks much more talented, skilled and qualified than they are, we have to begin to question the validity of a system that protects the mediocre from the brilliant. And so, I believe in shaking down the big disciplines once a generation, replacing dinosaur forms of knowledge production with improvised programs and reinventing curricula, disciplinary knowledge and knowledge clusters every decade at least. I believe that administrators are too often failed and bitter academics and that the university needs to dance carefully along the thin line between raising funds and becoming a corporation.

In recent years, I have been deeply interested in the politics of knowledge and in thinking through what some have called oppositional pedagogies. In pursuit of such pedagogies, I have come to realize that, as Eve K. Sedgwick once said, ignorance is as powerful a force as knowledge and that learning often takes place completely independently of teaching. In fact, I am not sure that I myself am teachable! As someone who never aced an exam, who has tried and tried without much success to become fluent in another language, and who can read a book without retaining much at all, I realize that I can only learn what I can teach myself and that much of what I learned in school left very little impression upon me at all.I thought about this while watching the extraordinary French documentary about a year in the life of a high school in the suburbs of Paris, The Class (Entre Les Murs, 2008, dir. Laurent Cantet). In the film, a white schoolteacher, Francois Bégaudeau (who wrote the memoir upon which the film is based) tries to reach out to his disinterested and profoundly alienated mostly African, Asian and Arab immigrant students. The cultural and racial and class differences between the teacher and his pupils make effective communication difficult and his cultural references (The Diary of Ann Frank, Moliere, French grammar) leave the students cold while theirs (soccer, Islam, hip hop) induce only pained responses from their otherwise personable teacher. The film, like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, tries to just let the action unfold without any voice of God narration and so we actually experience close up the rage and frustrations of teacher and pupils alike. At the end of the film, an extraordinary moment occurs. Bégaudeau asks the class to think about what they have learned and each write down one thing to take away from the class, one concept, text or idea that might have made a difference. The class disperses and one girl shuffles up to the front. The teacher looks at her expectantly and draws out her comment: “I didn’t learn anything,” she tells him without malice or anger, “nothing…I can’t think of anything I learned.” The moment is a defeat for the teacher, a disappointment for the viewer who wants to believe in a narrative of educational uplift but it is a triumph for alternative pedagogies because it reminds us that learning is a two way street and you cannot teach without a dialogic relation to the learner.

“I didn’t learn anything” could read like an endorsement of another French text, a book by Jacques Ranciere on the politics of knowledge. This book was another revelation to me, a reminder that I too require a different model for knowledge transmission and reception. Jacques Ranciere’s inspired speculations on “intellectual emancipation” in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Ranciére 1991) consists of a short series of essays in which Ranciere examines a form of knowledge sharing that detours around the mission of the university with its masters and its pupils, its expository methods and its standards of excellence, and that instead endorses a form of pedagogy that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy.Drawing from the example of an 18th century professor who taught in French to Belgian students who spoke only Flemish, Ranciere claims that conventional, disciplinary pedagogy demands the presence of a master and proposes a mode of learning within which the students are enlightened by the superior knowledge, training and intellect of the schoolmaster. But in the case of Joseph Jacotot, his experience with the students in Brussels taught him that his belief in the necessity of explication and exegesis was false and that it simply upheld a university system dependent upon hierarchy. When Jacotot realized that his students were learning to read and speak French and to understand the text Télémaque without his assistance, he began to see the narcissistic investment he had made in his own function. Jacotot was not a bad teacher who became a “good” teacher, rather he was a “good” teacher who realized that people must be led to learn rather than taught to follow. Ranciere comments ironically: “Like all conscientious professors, he knew that teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots, but he knew equally well that students had to avoid the chance detours where minds still incapable of distinguishing the essential from the accessory, the principle from the consequence, get lost” (Ranciere, 1991: 3). While the ‘good’ teacher leads his students through the pathways of rationality, the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’ must actually allow them to get lost in order for them to experience confusion and then find their own way out or back or around.

In a less lofty vein, I believe in knowledge both practical and obsolete, knowledge that fosters collective forms of being and knowledge that breaks with conventional wisdom. To that end, I want to close my credo with my favorite film of the moment, a film from which I have learned much about masculinity, life, risk, wildness, love, loss and survival. Based on a Roald Dahl novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, dir. Wes Anderson) tells the story of an aspiring fox who gives up his wild ways of chicken-hunting to settle down with his foxy lady in a burrow.

As the film begins, we find Mr. Fox striving for something more, looking for excitement in his life, wanting to move above ground and out of the sedate world of journalism and into the wild world of chasing chickens. From his new above-ground home in a tree, Mr. Fox can see the three farms of Boggis, Bunce and Bean and they present him with a challenge he cannot refuse. “Who am I?” he asks his friend Kylie, an eager but not gifted possum, and he continues: “why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” How indeed?

And of course, Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) cannot be happy without that chicken in his teeth and he reminds the viewer that the difference between a fox in the hole and a fox in the wild is just one hunting trip away. While this stop-motion animation marvel seems ultimately to reinforce the same old narrative of female domesticity and male wildness, in fact it tells a tall tale of masculine derring-do in order to offer up some very different forms of masculinity, collectivity and family.

But the best moment in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of credos, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have survived the farmers’ attempt to starve them all out of their burrows. The sturdy group of survivors dig their way out of a trap laid for them by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and find themselves burrowing straight up into a closed supermarket stocked with all the supplies they need. Mr. Fox, buoyed by this lucky turn of events, turns to his clan and addresses them for the last time: “They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”

Maybe it is not quite a credo, something short of a toast, a little less than a speech, but Mr. Fox gives here one of the best and most moving addresses in the history of cinema. Like Mr. Fox, I believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, learning not to learn, risk, sissy sons, and I believe in the raw importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers, the parents and the politicians would like to bury alive.

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2 Responses to “Credo: What the Wild Things Know”

  1. French Learning Books May 24, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    I am with you. The speech was really the most vital moment.

  2. Crystal Son Brownell June 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    This is one of the most empowering things I’ve read in several months! Keep things fresh, and keep the queer(animation)rant alive!

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