John Cowper Powys’ classic novel A Glastonbury Romance illustrates how, with a little effort and some natural inclination, we can come to understand the perspective of someone else and, for a time, walk the same path with them. At AU, that means that we need to translate our course material into digestible morsels for the consumption of interested interlocutors. To use our learning in conversation means pulling on our best pedagogical pedal-pushers and learning to relate to others by explaining our course material in understandable terms. Less jargon from us means others can enter our garden of understanding. Yet when it comes to really getting what it is to walk in another’s shoes and think along another’s mental trail, it requires as much empathy as it does understanding.
Powys writes: “Mary’s ecstasy of mood increased rather than diminished as she walked by John’s side, following his step with her step and even picking up a stick from the ground as she went along. This she did with the conscious desire to have some sensation of her own exactly parallel to that which her cousin enjoyed as he pressed the end of his stick into the ground. Mary felt that everything she looked at was bathed in a liquid mist and yet was seen by her for the first time in it’s real essence” (Powys, 33). Worth noting here is that Mary’s feelings are hers and hers alone; no matter the love they share they each receive its joys in their own way. Otherwise, sincere imitation (her picking up a stick) would be unnecessary. She can never become who he is and ascertain precisely how he feels, but, with empathy, she can map an approximation. And, ironically, if the two ever really became one there would no longer be either of them!
That the basis of our consciousness is one of this essential isolation means that, at some level, we are always distance students in life. Classrooms provide spatial proximity but are no guarantee of intellectual, felt affinity. Even when academic relations draw us close to others, this closeness inevitably contains a fleeting sensation because we know that life will draw us apart once again. Even when considering our own selves, we find that we are not quite who we were before or will become in the future. Our unity of identity rests on precarious metaphysical foundations.
Our Selves as Objects to Our Selves
Jacques Derrida notes that when considering ourselves we have to beware of the pitfalls implicit in taking our being as an object to our own subjectivity. To know thyself is perhaps to interrogate who we are in the wrong way. Each instant and each self, not to mention each encounter with others of our academic ilk, is unique: “The absolute alterity of each instant, without which there would be no time, cannot be produced-constituted within the identity of the subject or the existent. It comes into time through the Other” (Derrida, 91). In other words, we’re never alone because to feel something is to feel it in relation to something else even if that else is within ourselves. When considering ourselves, whether in a mirror or within our minds’ eye, this act is of a nature and flavour that is unique and independent of any other consideration. Each moment is timeless and yet abstracted from a flow. This is especially true when considering the vibe of another person and how to explain our learning to them.
Power and our Selves
We can’t know all of an Other but we can consider the parts we relate to; expecting to bring the light of truth to someone is as asinine as a door to door salesman thinking that all the world requires his wares. Derrida sees this simplistic approach to truth and identity as rooted in ancient Greece with Plato: “The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and technico-political possession” limits our acceptance of, or adaption to, different points of view (Derrida 91). Assuming a unitary standpoint on an issue not only makes an ass of you and me but also illustrates a learned narcissism; Emmanual Levinas stated that “solipsism is neither observation nor sophism; it is the very structure of reason” (Levinas in Derrida, 91). In other words, no argument or illustration is full and complete, and if we cannot account for other viewpoints, we are simply lowing pathetically, like a moon-struck calf .
Derrida writes that, when considering the miraculous phenomenon of our being as an awareness capable of considering itself in Rodan-like reverie, we must recall our cultural inheritance that conjures a faith that somewhere, somehow, absolute totalizing truth is about to shine through the murk of real reality. “More than any other philosophy, phenomenology, in the wake of Plato, was to be struck with light. Unable to reduce the last naivete, the naivete of the glance, it predetermined Being as object” (Derrida, 85).
Often, consensus rests more on violence than upon evidence. Minority views risk becoming roadkill. And worse still, truths and paradigms change over time depending on methodological expectations. Newton’s clockwork universe was swamped by Einstein’s theory of relativity (to name a common example). Philosophies of identity are not immune to blind spots and false visions that no fog light can pierce. We cannot even look at ourselves without the baggage of our beliefs and, even when unpacking those, we are left with the belief that we can divest ourselves of our ideological impediments. For real? Perhaps we’re all emperors without our clothes and perhaps this is what education teaches us most of all.
Lest we become psychological roadkill in our desire for certainty, the truth of how we feel or cognate in any given instance may best be understood in terms of shadows and mezzotints rather than in hard facts and cold calculations. The finality of our learning, simplified in a letter grade, only hints at the many metmorphoses we undergo at AU. We are never distant from our studies as new versions of ourselves are called forth. That we are not even alone within ourselves, given our many facets, flaws, and feelings, opens us to the boundlessness of our essence as human beings.
Foraging Forth in Discourse
To unify our learning into a whole that we can share with others means that we must contend with chaotic contradictions. Many views arise from within a singular academic discipline just as many interpretations of events allow for stimulating conversation. Discourse depends on difference and, especially in the social sciences, our learning is ripe for translation into dialogue that transcends differences of demography. To the extent that we adopt an independent—that is, personal—perspective, we inhabit a building forged from the shifting sands of our own isolated reality. But that’s only a jumping off point for interaction. For instance, whereas my Intro to Women’s Studies course led me to study with Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, later social relations with friends who loved to watch Orange is the New Black and read Fifty Shades of Grey led me to reconsider people’s enjoyment and abhorrence towards themes of being locked up, restrained, cared for or contained. That’s a lot of ambivalence and ambiguity to unpack and AU provided the gateway to just such a discursive journey. Remembering that we and others each embody multiple selves means that we don’t have to feel alone in our learning and that we can always accomplish the happy discovery of affinity with others . AU allows us to maximize our mental independence while also forging confidence to engage with the world and put our learning into practice.