La Fabrique de l'enfant «Post-Moderne»

Malaise dans l'Äducation


Par Dany-Robert Dufour

Professeur de Philosophie

à Paris-VIII


From Le Monde Diplomatique (Nov 2001) pp. 10-11.

(trans. by Stephen J. Harris)


"Neoliberalism" does not only refer to the destruction of long-established collectives (families, unions, parties, and more generally, culture), but also the form of the individual-subject which has appeared over the long course of modernism.[1] The fabric of the new "post-modern" subject, uncritical and "psychotisant," results from a formidably effective enterprise at the center of which one finds two major institutions dedicated to the fabrication of this new subject: television and a new school considerably transformed by thirty years of reforms termed "democratic" where it is always summer—in the sense of enfeebling critical thought.


The laminating[2] of children by television begins quite early. Those who arrive today at a school are often force-fed the box at a most tender age. In a new anthropological event, they often meet in front of a television even before conversing. The consumption of images has reached almost five hours per day in the United States.


The inundation of familial space by this always-open spigot, in which streams an uninterrupted torrent of images, is not without considerable effect on the formation of the future subject. One is engaged by the contents of these same images, denounced for example on account of their violence, without perceiving that it is also the medium itself which can be dangerous, that which distributes content. By comparison, the children's fairy tales told by grandmothers of another age contain a number of stories of ogres devouring children, yet they never sought the gory images currently distributed.


The "Children of the Telly"


But it isn't for nothing that there is a difference between the purely imaginary universe of the fairy tales' ogre, obliging the child to think of this universe as another world (that of fiction), and the very realistic universe of t.v. dramas with violence, rape and murder, without great distance between it and the real world. Admittedly, television, as a dominant site prized by omnipresent and aggressive advertising, constitutes a veritable and premature training ground for consumption. Nevertheless, the question is not only about the content of the images, but also the form.


To begin, alongside television, it is the family, as the source of generational and cultural transmission, which finds itself reduced to a meager allowance. The expression "children of the telly" taken literally confirms the fact that the television has effectively abducted the educational place of the parents next to their children. This time of the lessening of generational transmission produces very precise effects which push us to the brink of the collapse of the symbolic and psychic universe.


The symbolic universe refers to the essential capacity which distinguishes humans from animals: That power of speech which designates oneself as a speaking subject and to address oneself to others from the point which ╔. To accede to the symbolic thought it suffices to make a self and to integrate it into a system where "I" (present) speak to "you" (also present) about an "it" (the absent, it is not important who or what one wants to represent).[3] These fundamental symbolic reference points permit the fundamental distinctions between me and the other, here and there, the past and the future, and presence and absence.


Thereby guaranteed access to symbolic thought and to a certain psychic integrity, this system transmits itself essentially through the go-between of discourse: the parents address themselves to the child. Speaking is indeed the transmission of accounts, of beliefs, of proper names, of genealogy, of rites, of obligations, of wisdom, of social rapport . . ., but prior to all speech itself. It passes on from one generation to the next the human aptitude for speech; of the sort through which one is able to address oneself and in turn identify oneself in time (now), in space (here), as oneself (I), and from these reference points to convoke in one's discourse the rest of the world. This face-to-face oral discourse institutes the faculty of speech in a double register: the discourse is sonorous or gestural and it carries with it mental images—when the other speaks to me, I see what he wants to say to me. It is this generational transmission of discourse which television may imperil.


In the case where the symbolic reference points of time, space, and person are not well fixed, the external image becomes a sort of extension more or less abutting internal images—or phantasms—which haunt the psychic apparatus, and thus the key is stolen [hidden] from the same person who carries it. The images are able thus to overwhelm those who perceive them, without fixing themselves or connecting themselves in a cumulative, controllable process, placing the subject in their dependence.


In this case, the use of television risks removing the subject even more from the control of the symbolic categories of space, time, and person. It muddles perception, adding to the symbolic confusion and unconnected phantasms. It is the discursive capacity of the subject which one thus finds implicated.


Not only can the use of television not supplement a lack in the symbolic register, as some naively believe, but one risks muddling it even more at each viewing.[4] This remark applies to all sensorial prostheses, not only for tele-vision [i.e., tele or transporter, of vision], but for the tele-machines which play upon tele-presencee, that is to say all those devices which transport a here to there, and a there to here: video games, portable telephones hereafter accompanying each one of us twenty-four seven . . . Everywhere is found the risk of decoupling the competence of some and enlarging the confusion of others. Certain subjects become beings quasi-enfranchised by spatio-temporal constraints, others don't know how to live in any space-time.


These are the essentials of the "children on the telly" which one finds henceforward at school. One understands now why a number of teachers are reduced to making the bitter statement that those that are before them "are no longer students", "they don't listen anymore."[5] They speak probably less and less. They're not becoming mute; on the contrary, but they illustrate the great difficulty of integrating themselves into the fiber[6] of discourse which distributes alternatively each one into his or her place: (s)he who speaks is (s)he who listens. It is no longer possible to reenter the discourse which, at school, permits one (the teacher) to advance propositions founded on reason (being a multiple knowledge accumulated by previous generations and constantly reactualized), and the other (the student) to dispute them as far as (s)he is able.


It is quite evident that numerous professors do not account for their effort[7] and waste away, often the entirety of their energy,[8] trying to reposition the youths as students, and only in appearance fulfill their role as teachers. But the novelty is this: as the students were prevented from becoming students, professors are more and more prevented from fulfilling their roles. After thirty years of so-called "democratic" reforms, responsible politicians and experts in pedagogy do not cease their statement that they continue to abandon their archaic pretensions about teaching. The ex-Minister Claude AllĆgre admonished professors to renounce their "archaic tendencies", summed up in [╔] exemplified in "they are not the ones that I listen to, it is me that knows." And he introduced in place of the term "student" the new category "the youth," and said to them, "The youth . . . want an inter-reaction."[9]


In the name of democracy at school, he thus ratified the fact that there are no longer students. Why didn't he also do this to the professors? In the discourse of those responsible and of the experts in pedagogy, the educational model which was marshaled against the supposed "archaism" is, at the end of the day, that of the television talk-show where each person may "democratically" gives his or her own view.


Everything thus becomes an intersubjective affair. There is no longer a critical effort to abandon one's own point of view in the face of acceding to other propositions a little less narrow-minded, less specious, and better constructed. That is what has become intolerable: the professor who teaches and pushes students incessantly towards critical thought. It is the enemy to battle, but it does not respect the point of view of "youth." Numerous experts in pedagogy "explain" the violence in schools thus: the "youth" react to the unreasonable authority of the professors.


If they find themselves restrained by the violence and subject to the revenue of force, there was no other result possible: they were products to escape from the revenue of sense and from patient, discursive, and critical elaboration. In this sense, one is able to predict painlessly, inverting the pedagogical process accusing the master of violence, that fewer students will enter into the professor-student relationship, and more will become subjects of violence.


Modeling Litigious Cretins?


[much excised. Selections follow] ╔ there is nothing to think, because there is no object of thought: everything will rest on self-affirmation and on a relational administration of self-affirmation which becomes appropriate to defend, as all good consumers ought to know how to do. Are they themselves intervening in the manufacture of litigious cretins, adapted to consumption?


It is probable that pedagogues don't want this: they don't want to adapt the state to what they find among the "youth" at school. ╔ This use of pedagogical services furnishes a new example of the manner in which neo-liberalism uses for its profit the schemes of liberty from the 1960's.


╔ A new type of flabby institution, which post-modernity has as its secret, midway between a youth hostel and culture, a day hospital and social sanctuary, comparable to a sort of park of scholarly attractions, is on the way. It does not exclude certain residual zones of production and reproduction of knowledge ╔


The creation of an individual is removed from the critical function and is susceptible to a floating identity which is never risked: it is taken perfectly to heart from television and school lessons. The dream of capitalism is not only to push back the territory of merchandise to the limits of the earth (on which it is on course under the name globalization), where everything becomes merchandisable (water rights, the genome, living space, buying and selling of children, organs ╔), but also to restore the old private affairs, left up until now to the disposition of each person (subjectivity, sexuality ╔) to the context of merchandise.


╔ if this form of subject is attained, it will not only be the institutions we have in common which will be in danger, but also we ourselves. Nothing more can hold back a total capitalism where everything, without exception, will become part of the market universe: nature, life, and the imaginary.

[1] See "Les dÄsarrois de l'individu-sujet," Le Monde diplomatique, Feb. 2001. Modernity, according to the great historian Ferdinand Braudel, was born "in part between 1400 and 1800": it is therefore contemporary with capitalism.

[2] [trans. Laminage refers to laminating, industrial rolling, and drawing out of synthetic yarn.]

[3] See Dufour, The Mysteries of the Trinity (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).

[4] The film by Michael Haneke, Benny's Video, 1993, gives an idea, sufficiently probable and sufficiently terrifying, which causes this confusion. One sees an adolescent who does not converse with his parents, whose rapport is purely functional, and whose contact with the world is through the intermediary of a video screen. In this way, when a little portion of the world presents itself to him (a young woman), he reacts in a totally displaced fashion (through a crime during the event[??]).

[5] See Adrien Barrot, L'Enseignement mis à mort (Paris: Librio, 2000).

[6] [trans. Fil means both fiber and connection]

[7] [trans. Peine also means affliction, misery, anxiety, grief, and punishment.]

[8] Cf. The numerous cases of "depressed instruction" which ex-Minister Claude AllĆgre disallowed on account of the abuse of medical leave.

[9] In Le Monde, 24 Nov. 1999. [trans. The incomprehensible jargon is also in the French.]