A Student of Hanging Students

“Suppose a man–a civilian and student of hanging–should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

IV.

AS what we’ve got here is a marvelously complex and brilliant failure to communicate, let’s get on the same page with an exercise: plumb the depths of the quote above, descending via any of the disciplines it courses through–feminism, militarism, literary criticism, mastery, Marxism, liberation, liberalism, sectionalism, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

The student may begin with an analysis of the role & responsibility of a “civilian” in the context of wartime, including the privilege, qualities, strengths and weaknesses such a status–or category–implies.

He might consider the linguistic effect of both/either Farquhar or Bierce’s choice of a particularly subjunctive subjectivity, especially in light of Farquhar’s prior description as a “slave owner and like other slave owners a politician.”

An attentive student of literature might even evade the formal structural logic of the story and attend to its interior, mythological temporality by pointing out that Farquhar is simultaneously a “master” and a “student” of hanging (in addition to having learned from the teacher-slaves he has hanged, he has been hanged himself, if not–as either inexact grammar or a cursory Freudian analysis might conclude–hung). This student might go further, especially if he were writing for an audience of teachers, and propose a discussion about how the inherent paradox of fiction writing stages a radical alternative to (or even rejection of) the evolutive-progressive method of education… how, respectively, the question of “accomplishment” or “achievement” can be viewed either as the becoming-death of learning (in which an accumulated body of acquired knowledge is frozen, packaged, and thoroughly economized) or as its being-born (e.g., Farquhar’s accomplishment or Bierce’s narrative achievement).

A distracted and hasty student might note, in passing, that a critique (& defense!) of both historicity and canonicity is located in the references to two other “failed” Rebellions that resulted in unified (dis)Unions… but that would probably require a long decline and fall, so let’s be spared the punishment of that particular student’s spur

[Hang on: as these fast-flowing eddies merge in confluence with Foucault, perhaps we can exercise discipline, descend hooks (or a diving bell) into the waters and fish out a singular line of inquiry–as long it doesn’t get caught on an errant piece of driftwood.

To approach a singularity, naturally, we have to begin with one. “A central point,” maybe, one that “would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known,” although whether such a “perfect eye” would be blue or grey (or gray) is best left to the imagination (D&P 173). In any case, upon further reflection the eyeball would certainly become transparent, which is or isn’t to say blind (like Justice and Love)

“The examination,” or the finished story, or the perfected blog post, or the correct answer, or the ‘authority of experience,’ “as the fixing, at once ritual and ‘scientific,’ of individual differences, as the pinning down of each individual in his own particularity… clearly indicates the appearance of a new modality of power in which each individual receives as his status his own individuality…” (D&P 192)

How can we live–and live with–these contradictions! It is not enough to merely be large or contain multitudes (or multicultural classrooms). Untranslatable thoughts, which have here to be typed into this white box, are the objects of faith, and so that could be a guide. “Really,” or apparently, if “it is difficult to find words adequate to explain how” ‘we cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects,” we must be engaged in the execution of our identities without getting hung up on ourselves (hooks 46 and Freire).

Time goes by / so slowly…

“Then there are times when personal experience keeps us from reaching the mountaintop and so we let it go because the weight of it is too heavy. And sometimes the mountaintop is difficult to reach with all of our resources, factual and confessional, so we are just there collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know” (Teaching to transgress 92).]

…after all, once they’d learned to hang w/ each other, what could they accomplish but the exercise.

 

 

11 comments

  • In reading that story and watching that video and listening to that song so many times, I never made the connection. Genius! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDwb9jOVRtU You are truly an originally. I’m glad you’re hanging with this class this semester.

    • Great post Jeff and I liked how you intertwine a few different ideas and bell hooks reading into it as well. As for the part about being a student of hanging…it wasn’t until I read your post that I even thought to put it together about the plantation owner being a “student” since he himself more than likely performed a few hangings himself of his slaves. I didn’t get to watch the full video yet that you and Cathy discussed but I will later time. Also in regards to your comment about personal experiences stopping us from reaching the mountain top brings to mind a quote I posted on our readings in regards to my other class readings… “To assess the damage is a dangerous act..to stop there is even more dangerous”.

  • I wasn’t familiar with the video or song, and I never know with these things whether it’s worth trying to parse the narrative of a video vis a vis the song it features, but that one would be a tough nut to crack for me. I can say, however, that Madonna is [portrayed as] the most self-conscious and least interesting of all the characters — and the least talented dancer.
    (I’m not trying to slam Madonna, it’s just the truth!)

    • I think, especially in the case of Madonna, whose artistry is more misunderstood and incessantly criticized than most, it’s important to consider what she does & how she does it intertextually. Her videos, music, and lyrics have always been intimately and often wryly intertwined; she straddles postmodernity & postfeminism in a manifest, literal, performative way. The idea of a song-or-roman-a-clef is always sort of “out of time” (incidentally, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=vrQLfEAJvpg ).

      Timelessness & successive “keys” go together… as for instance we could read du bois to washington, or Ralph Ellison to dubois and Ellison, or Toni Morrison to Twain, and so forth.

      I find that last comment of yours– the “talent” one–particularly of interest because of the implied relative social valuing of performance. Madonna’s entire career has been noted by the ways in which her “sex/sexuality” alternately outpaces, defines or disgraces her “talent,” in much the same way that acknowledging or exploiting raciality in “minority education” tends to supercede/confound genuine ability or “mastery.”

  • Great post Jeff and I liked how you intertwine a few different ideas and bell hooks reading into it as well. As for the part about being a student of hanging…it wasn’t until I read your post that I even thought to put it together about the plantation owner being a “student” since he himself more than likely performed a few hangings himself of his slaves. I didn’t get to watch the full video yet that you and Cathy discussed but I will later time. Also in regards to your comment about personal experiences stopping us from reaching the mountain top brings to mind a quote I posted on our readings in regards to my other class readings… “To assess the damage is a dangerous act..to stop there is even more dangerous”.

  • Oh, Nicky– yeah!! V-a-v ‘student of hanging,’ I think there’s also the complex narrative idea that mastery=death, or that farquhar’s/bierce’s entire narrative is a lesson in hanging/mortality (i.e, by this point in the narrative farquhar is at LEAST in the process of being hanged himself).

    I also love Anzaldua read in syncopation!! The danger lies in the act of reversion to absolute truth/knowability, something that Bierce excoriated. While he is merciless in his rendition of the southern slaveowner (and the practice of human commodification masked by Southern “gentility”), the larger and immortal critique is of–in a sense– “stopping” at the “assessment of damage;” assigning a falsely (political) logical matrix of blame and exculpation to the inhumanity of war and/also slavery.

  • Jeff,
    Your riff sends my mind in multiple directions (how could it not?), and helps me to reconsider possible connections between An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and bell hooks, and Paulo Freire, in transcendental ways… the ways the pedagogical practice of freedom intersect, overlap, converse or conflate with, transcendental notions of freedom. Is there a performative aspect to being (acting?) I also wonder what liberatory pedagogy looks like in the wake of wonderfully ironic and ubiquitous Orwellian post-9/11 platitudes like “Freedom Isn’t Free” (remember Freedom Fries?).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJRdTWeXi1M

    To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.(hooks, 13)​

    Also, on an unrelated note, I thought it was interesting to think of the following Foucault quote as it relates to academic disciplinarity:

    The success of disciplinary power derives no doubt from the use of simple instruments; hierarchical observation, normalizing judgement and their combination in a procedure that is specific to it, the examination. (Foucault, 170)

    How might Foucault have responded to conceptions of freedom surrounding the Edward Snowden/NSA affair?

    The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. (Foucault, 170-1)

    Freedoms?:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDvlErh5zcc
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvjV_-_AWt4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRNe04kw3Cg
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT-IOkVP4B4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_5uknsonOM

  • yes. In each case, a deeply troubled freedom. Instruments (youtube, wikipedia, etc) that are harangued for their shortcomings can– with an ethics of noddings-style care–be redeemed as sites of freedom-writ-large. Va bene, also:

    Not to mention–

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iDNtqy0zjJA

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oG1YtqHGzqs

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LlY90lG_Fuw

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