Fly on the Wall – The Chattering Class

While walking for a study break I looked up and noticed five squirrels silently scampering along a mesh of branches above my head. After hearing so much spring squirrel ruckus in recent weeks their stealthy passage came as a surprise. “Hmm,” I thought, “perhaps I’m seeing another side of squirrels.” Maybe all conflict contains more than mere repetitive argumentation; perhaps there is potential for the discovery of new joys within old preconceptions. It could be that litigious interactions contain possibilities for actual pleasure. Social media, at present, seems rife with strife as everyone within and without post-secondary education has an opinion on political events down south. Perhaps if we take a step back some more pleasant realities can emerge from fractious discourse.

Whether It’s nuts or numerology, the truth cannot be pinned down like a butterfly in an insect collection. And even if it could, would we want it to? “We murder to dissect” intoned the poet William Wordsworth (Wordsworth, online). In life, and learning, we seek to gather data that will bring us to certainty. Yet, as David Hume once stated, “knowledge resolves itself into probability” (Hume, online). That the sun will probably rise tomorrow is not the same as knowing with absolute conviction that it will. Hume also reminds us of something we know all too well when we furtively and with dismay read the comments in online discussion about political events of the day: “reason is, and ought only be, the slave of the passions” (Hume, online). Beneath the desire for truth lies a vigorous, yet perhaps unreasonable, desire for certainty. The silent troupe of squirrels reminded me that, although they are known most for there chatter, their essence is perhaps much more. Perhaps the essence of our studious inquiry into truth, and voracious desire to acquire knowledge, is based more on a joyous hope for a new mental intimacy than on a litigious impulse to quash all opposition.

Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, suggests a flirtatious approach to learning and conflict. Like wild animals tussling and testing their boundaries as they pursue potential mates, he asks us to consider how the space between obvious reference points drives us forward in our interactions. Arguments that devolve into mudslinging and personal attacks miss this point entirely. Barthes states that “the most erotic portion of a body is where the garment gapes” and suggests that “the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing” attracts us far more than the clothing itself (Barthes, 1973, p.9) Just as online litigants often appear similar to naked emperors waving sceptres to and fro, Barthes leads one to consider that beneath superficial differences may lay a similarity that actually binds combatants together. Backstage, as it were, we are all squirrels who run along in the same direction because we are share the same basic desires of body and mind.

Conflict, then, becomes a kaleidoscope of self-expression rather than a churning morass of clashing ideas. Barthes succinctly states that “conflict is nothing but the moral state of difference; whenever (and this is becoming frequent) conflict is not tactical (aimed at transforming a real situation), one can distinguish in it the failure-to-attain-bliss, the debacle of a perversion crushed by its own code and no longer able to invent itself: conflict is always coded, aggression is merely the most worn-out of languages.” (Barthes, 1973, p.15). As soon as we forget the playful nature of jousting with words, our interactions become animated tropes for which their is no referent in our shared natures as human beings. If opponents disrespect each other, as happens so often in social media, we become less than squirrels who, in the end, assert their differences along the same common denominator of acquiring the means to life. In as a backdrop to interactions, Barthes asks us to “let difference surreptitiously replace conflict.” (Barthes, 1973, p.15).

Besides asserting that within conflict we may discover shared terrain, Barthes also suggests that there is pleasure to be found in the struggle of learning itself. Who hasn’t battled with an essay and ended up hating it, at least for a time? Barthes firmly intones that we may achieve a kinder, gentler interaction with a text we are reading. He introduces a word: brio, meaning vigor and vivacity, and applies it in terms of Nietzsche’s conception of life as being based on a “will to power”. “The brio”, says Barthes in terms of a text, “is its will to bliss: just where it exceeds demand, transcends prattle, and whereby it attempts to overflow, to break through the constraint of adjectives?which are those doors of language through which the ideological and the imaginary come flowing in” (Barthes, 1973, p. 42). Texts don’t want us to hate them, they just want to be understood.

We may see shards of ourselves reflected in a text, even one so turbid that we just wish for the clarity of something we would prefer to read. Faced with a frustrating tome, Barthes asks us to don our Nietzschean animal suits and ask “always the same question: What is it for me?” (Barthes, 1973, p.13). Jurgen Habermas would here note that we each inhabit a personal ?”lifeworld” which imparts meaning to us according to our social conditions; It’s important to realize that each of our lifeworlds are different (Habermas, online). Whether It’s a difficult text or an adversarial person, we may find things to enjoy and relate to and maybe learn more about ourselves if we genuinely seek personal meanings.

To find pleasure in interaction with unwieldy course material or with prickly humans, we need only find a tiny fissure through may shine the light of commonality. Here Barthes introduces a term tmises which means ?to cut? as in, along a seam (Barthes, 1973, p.42). When faced with a monolithic opponent of any type, he asks us to find “the seam between them, the fault, the flaw … the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss.” (Barthes, 1973, p.41). There’s more to a squirrel than a woodland full of chattering and scrapping, and there can be more to challenging coursework or social media warriors than meets the eye.

Beneath preconceptions new truths may arise which bring us closer to a version of our selves we are proud of. And really isn’t that what education and self-development is all about? I can’t think of a better outcome from my AU experience than learning to see the world and everything within it as part of a whole. Instead of an insatiable desire to be right we perhaps need to consider the underlying substrate of life itself, which somehow finds room for all oppositions. Martin Heidegger, in his considerations of the primordial nature of our being, wonders if “the opposition of correctness and incorrectness, validity and invalidity, may very well exhaust the oppositional essence of truth for later thinking and above all for modern thinking” (Heidegger, 2009, p.26). Beyond probabilities and certainties, and the desire for absolution from the ambiguities of life itself, lies the potential for us to learn and grow by interacting in new ways with the people and ideas around us.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Barthes, R. (1973). Harper-Collins. The Pleasure of the Text.
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Habermas: Lifeworld and System. University of Calgary:
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Heidegger, M. (2009). Parmenides. Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Hume, D. Science Quotes by David Hume. Today in Science History.
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Wordsworth, W. The Tables Turned.
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Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

— Part of what makes The Voice Magazine different from many other student publications is that we’re able to go beyond just covering the events and issues relating to AU and do things like interviews with fellow students and sometimes more philosophical or perhaps even academic explorations, as students expand their own horizons through their learning. Jason Sullivan’s articles are along the latter variety, and I get a few votes for some of his articles each year. This time, it was this one from our March 25th issue that caught the attention of some. I think it’s the squirrel reference, personally.

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