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In Willful Subjects (Duke 2015) Sara Ahmed’s framing of will in terms of body parts that do things (or refuse to do things) enables her to layer and arrange her phenomenological analyses of will among an impressive number of social and existential strata, including:

  • the clashing wills and wishes of child and parent
  • the tremulous and generative development of feminist and queer subjectivities
  • political theories of general and collective will
  • labor relations between employers (masters, colonizers) and employees (slaves, colonized)
  • political activism as a ‘call to arms’
  • the impotence of institutional diversity policies
  • the novels of George Eliot
  • Christian legacies about will and morality
  • philosophical reflections on will as agency and attentiveness
  • the phenomenology of the temporality of will,
  • and poignant reflections on the shaping of will in and through pedagogy (two of which she labels: poisonous pedagogy and stone pedagogy).

I suppose because I am a teacher, I hear Ahmed’s intermittent comments about pedagogy as the ethical reasoning programming and animating her entire set of conundrums about will, identity, and action. Pedagogy operates through flows of power that are similar to but importantly different from those inherent in a parent-child or employer-employee or state-citizen relationship, and its difference lies in its stripped-down or formal character. That is, the flows of power in pedagogy can be (though are not always) separated from investments of intimacy, mere productivity, and citizen rights and obligations. Pedagogy can be staged through simple differential between learner (the ‘paidos’) and teacher (the one leading, ago), a stage with clear directionality but empty form. That is, the dynamics of pedagogy do not require any specific content or goal. In evoking the scene of pedagogy, then, Ahmed raises the ethical and socially expansive question of what kind of pedagogy can best respond to and nurture willful students.

Ahmed’s book posits willfulness as a life orientation arising from weariness or rage that certain persons, bodies, and thoughts must always ‘recede’ as the silent or mere accessories to the norm. They must recede in order for  the norm to be sustained as visible and familiar. If we take seriously the movement and labor of this receding, then we come to feel how the social status quo is naturalized through perpetual dynamics that keep it in front of what has been put behind and made to recede. It is in light of this persistent social dynamic that Ahmed’s discussions turn at different moments (and with different densities) to ‘poisonous pedagogy’ and ‘stone pedagogy’. Without going into the details of her discussion, the pedagogical question it elicits for me is this: How might educators attend to willfulness and invite it to the fore, without allowing it simply to replace the tyranny of the previous norm?

The question evokes a late interview with Foucault titled, “The ethic of the care of the self as practice of liberty” (published in Concordia: Revista internacional de filosofia, no. 6, juillet-décembre 1984, p. 99-116, and republished in Dits et Écrits 2, p. 1527-1548.) Liberation, Foucault says, is a word that fills him with distrust unless it is kept within “a certain number of precautions and certain limits.” Liberation does exist, he avers; humans can singularly and radically break a chain that binds them, but this break hardly matters compared with the labor still to be done. He writes: “When a colonized people seek to be liberated from their colonizers, it is indeed a practice of liberation in the strict sense. But even in this rather clear-cut case it’s well known that this practice of liberation does not suffice to define the practices of liberty which would then be necessary for this people (this society and its individuals) to define receivable and acceptable forms of their existence or of political society” (D&E, 1529, my translation).

Practices of liberty, in short, are technologies of self, or what Foucault describes as matrices of practical reason. They require a formal rubric and a careful combination of practice and reflection to position experience within and through that rubric. They require, in short, a pedagogy.

Deleuze makes a similar argument about learning in Difference and Repetition. To learn, he notes, is to encounter the other. We encounter the other in the classroom and in assigned texts, but more fundamentally in oneself. To learn is thus to find difference within repetition, to repeat the teacher’s words with the differences inherent to and incumbent on one’s own singular bodily and cognitive history, affective temperament, and liminal hopes. Consider the problem of learning to swim. Deleuze asks us to imagine a swimming instructor pacing his students through various strokes on the sand. But when the student moves to water, he asks us to imagine the difference—that is, to imagine what has to differ, what has to change, to be grasped, felt, and enacted—in order for the student actually to swim. Deleuze comments, “The movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs” (23). The student cannot simply reproduce or copy the teacher’s movements, as representations of the actions the student’s body needs to make. Rather, “To learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective Idea [i.e., that of swimming] in order to form a problematic field” (165). This sense of conjugation between the Idea of swimming and the student’s own particular body beautifully expresses how learning does not actively replicate a teacher’s representation, but requires an idiosyncratic—that is, a willful—response to a set of signs. “We learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do’,” Deleuze writes. “Our only teachers are those who tell us to ‘do with me’, and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce. In other words, there is no ideo-motivity, only sensory-motivity. …To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself” (23)

To learn is thus not to think correctly, but to gain practical experience in feeling with the world. And to teach, and especially to teach the willful student, is not to convey correct content or correct behavior but to reframe student resistance through a matrix of practical reason, that is, to provide space, time and validation for the student to encounter and productively navigate the difference of and in herself.