The Search for Illumination: Education In the Penal Colony

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By HECTOR VILA

for my mother, on her 91st birthday, 12/19, who tells me she wishes she were 30 so that she could once again teach kids about this world today and take to the streets

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can go to study abroad in Paris,” she says and hesitates and grins.

When she sits across from me, her shoulders are barely higher than my desktop. Her hijab frames her face perfectly: wide, inquisitive, dark eyes that are alive, dancing, penetrating; high cheekbones; her lips are full and when she smiles she gets small creases at the sides of her mouth that resemble ripples edging from the shore of a serene lake.

I ask why not?, though I know the answer: She’s from Sierra Leone and a Muslim.

“Even when I flew to Kenya,” she continues, still smiling, “the police at the airport stopped me — it was very scary — because they thought I was Somali. No one is safe — no one that looks like me. An African Muslim.”

She giggles a bit, this time as if to call attention to the tragic irony of it all.

This young woman, but nineteen, left her family and traveled from Sierra Leone to Hong Kong to the United States to the state of Vermont andMiddlebury College for an education. She’s earned scholarships all the way. She’s brilliant and will undoubtedly do great things in the future.

But reality is harsh; the world she — and all of us, really — navigate is dark, foreboding, threatening, many parts forbidden.

How then do we justify this world to our students? What do we tell her? Where’s opportunity now?

What is the educator’s role in addressing the harsh reality that not everyone has the right and capacity to move about freely in what we still falsely call the free world?

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Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Ferguson, Iraq, Syria & ISIS: The World According to Kafka

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The most disconcerting lines in modern fiction, the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, perfectly capture our condition, today; it’s what we’ve become: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

It’s the tone of the lines that gets to us; its matter of fact, almost as if half-expecting this metamorphosis; it’s as if becoming a “monstrous vermin” is not shocking. It simply is. To simply be means that it has always been; it’s not sudden, new, shocking.

“What happened to me?” thinks Samsa. “It was no dream,” he realizes. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, looks over to a table, on top of which he’s placed a picture of a young lady “done up in a fur hat and a fur boa” inside “a pretty gilt frame.” He has no one; he’s alone, fantasizing plastic dreams that will never come. Nothing is real; and the nothing that isn’t real is his life. The unreality is the reality. The illusion is what he’s living. Truth and illusion are interchangeable.

What’s real? asks Kafka.

Gregor Samsa tries – or rather, he thinks about going back to sleep, but can’t. In his present state he can’t sleep on his right side, which he prefers, because he “always rocked onto his back again” and could then still see his “squirming legs.”

If we turn away from something that is, does it cease existing? Is turning away possible, real, more real than the “squirming legs”?

Gregor Samsa can think of nothing else but the “grueling job” he has, “Day in, day out – on the road.” The reality that he’s a vermin is less important. Gregor Samsa, “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone,” is more concerned with getting to work on time than he is about his new condition. Samsa is anxious about his responsibilities. Vermin or not, he’s not going to lose his job, his footing.

But is Samsa’s condition new? And is Samsa’s condition our very own? Kafka is telling us that Gregor Samsa’s acceptance of his “monstrous vermin” state is something long in the making. Acceptance of horror takes time to enter into a culture. It doesn’t happen over night.

In the opening scene of another Kafka piece, In the Penal Colony, examining a “remarkable piece of apparatus” to be used to kill a condemned man, we learn that the “condemned man looked like a submissive dog that one might have thought could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”

The dominion that builds gradually and unconsciously to the point that we don’t even notice our transformation into submissive subjects – vermin, the condemned- is key to understanding Kafka – and ourselves.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a “hot” book everyone seems to be talking about, though quite clearly chewing at the edges – as Gregor Samsa does when he experiences his altered state – Thomas Piketty says, “…that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”

Our systems push and pull; merge and deviate, detour; and there’s no “natural, spontaneous process” to prevent damaging and undermining, undemocratic forces from, eventually, reigning. In other words, we’ve awakened into a state – as in a dream – we have a hard time understanding, never mind getting at the root causes of why we’re here.

So what do we do?

We accept. We’ve authorized – a nice word for this – the move toward the ongoing merger of financial and military spheres that diminish our authority, for instance; we’ve approved the move away from a substantive global democracy; we’ve endorsed the humanization of the corporation. In all this, we’ve established our de-humanization. We prefer not noticing.

The deaths of Gandolfini, Hoffman and Williams, for starters, suggest that even at the highest socio-economic levels we don’t understand suffering; we don’t understand the conditions in our lives that may cause us stress and harm; we don’t understand how we might help one another, collaborating and cooperating, sometimes across differences, which is the only way to prevent becoming Gregor Samsa. We seem to be okay letting people go – or at least, okay that this is how things go.

Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and the horror that was the murder of journalist James Foley are characteristic of an age that has grown cold, unsensual, dismissive and callous. It’s hard to argue against this. It is a world that – it should be obvious by now – looks to the short term rather than the long view. And compressing all experience into tight, corporate mediated narratives that leave no room for questions and dialog. Iraq, ISIS, Syria and James Foley are horrible unintended consequences of a world – like Kafka’s – where the gruesome apparatus for death is a machine we just have to look at; “it works all by itself,” Kafka writes. We approve that the mechanisms of death work by themselves.

The rise of evil and violence is directly related to our incapacity to engage our world – and each person in it – in ways that address our interconnectedness – because, as Don DeLillo says in Underworld, everything is indeed connected. There’s no escaping this fact. The murderers that ended James Foley’s promising life know this; 9-11 was all about the relationship between blindness and interconnectedness, something we still yet deny. Disconnected people, cultures, societies react – they have to.

Ferguson, for instance, appears to us as a shocking reminder that we are not a post racial America; yet we can’t seem to find the language to try and understand the piercing reality that Ferguson has been festering for quite some time, and it’s been smoldering across our land. People in Ferguson – and many, many places in the US – are feeling very disconnected. Ferguson is a sign. We could move towards greater freedoms or we could move towards greater oppression.

Unobstructed mechanisms work to ensure that this is how we live: Propaganda and Ideology. They work in tandem. One needs the other.

Propaganda, says Jacques Ellul, “is scientific in that it tends to establish a set of rules, rigorous, precise, and tested, that are not merely recipes but impose themselves on every propagandist, who is less and less free to follow his own impulses. He must apply, increasingly and exactly, certain precise formulas that can be applied by anybody with the proper training – clearly a characteristic of a technique based on science” (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes). This happens by analyzing environments and individuals; it’s thought through. And it works in business, as well as in government, affecting political speech, for instance. A key characteristic of propaganda is that “the individual,” says Ellul, “is never considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths.” A key characteristic of popular media – the assumption that we’re all one.

Enter Ideology. An ideological apparatus or mechanism in any given culture works by ensuring that each individual see himself as an other, as with others. In other words, one’s individualism, through a propaganda model set in an ideology, say grounded in capitalism, is used to actually justify what Slavoj Žižek calls a “vast anonymous power” that works unconstrained, “without any democratic control” and which regulates our lives (Demanding the Impossible).

What has happened?

How we measure balance, virtue, truth has changed; our very measures of what is extreme have changed. When we look around – Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Iraq, ISIS, Syria and Ferguson – we fully realize that these are extremes. But, like Gregor Samsa, these are metaphors, today, of the hard shell we wear and that keeps us from moving as we might like; and like Samsa, when we begin to feel “a slight, dull pain,” something we’ve never felt before, we think about our grueling jobs, the challenges of just getting to work on time, not losing time, not losing our step in the illusory game of our own private enterprise to succeed. And go to happy hour or rush to ESPN.

The long-run evolution of capital, I’d argue, has lead to our awakening in a vermin state, though like Gregor Samsa, we half expected it so we rush to social media, we rush to screens and rapid fire texting and calls to check on one another, not saying anything meaningful, mind you, just merely acknowledging that we’re alive amidst all this pain and suffering we’ve allowed to grow and flourish, and which, sadly, we accept as ongoing.

A great darkness hangs over us now.