Peter Babiak, “Manufactured Cynicism: A Review Interview of Against the New Authoritarianism” SubTerrain Magazine 5: 44 (2006), pp. 43-45
Below is the original interview only part of which appeared in SubTerrain Magazine
10 Questions for Henry Giroux/Against the New Authoritarianism: Politics After Abu Ghraib
1. I found myself wondering a few times while reading “Education after Abu Ghraib” about the occasional hedge of cynicism I face in my own teaching. For example, on a few occasions my students have indicated a disinterest, perhaps even a boredom, with the subject of terrorism/the war in Iraq. It’s almost as if they’ve been oversaturated by commentary on it. How do you propose we confront this apathy and cynicism? How does one engage students about a subject that they may be bored with?
HAG: I think you are quite right in recognizing this as a pedagogical problem, but we must also recognize it, as you suggest, as a political problem. I think that questions of motivation constitute one of the great challenges for any notion of critical pedagogy. Many young people today do not see a connection between their lives and what is taught in their classrooms, nor do they have a language for recognizing such connections. The problem we face as teachers is how do we make issues meaningful so as to make them critical in order to make them transformative. At one level, this suggests making sure that the knowledge we teach connects with the students’ different sense of location, history, language, experiences, and agency. We face the challenge of convincing them, for example, that what happens outside of the realm of their immediate experiences has relevance for how they understand their own lives. By linking their own concerns to what is happening in the world and to what it means to develop a sense of responsibility, not merely to themselves but to others, students can become responsible citizens and publicly engaged agents. Their boredom is not a personal problem; it is a political issue. Cynicism is manufactured; it is part of what it means both to translate public issues exclusively into private ones and to reduce politics, if not citizenship itself, to an utterly privatized experience—measured largely by the degree to which it titillates our desires and fulfills our consumer-driven fantasies.
2. Youth culture—perhaps even the broader mainstream culture—seems to have abdicated responsibility in the form of a big “whatever”. It’s not quite apathy, but rather a feeling that their thinking doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things, that ideas will not change anything so why bother trying?
HAG: If you mean commercial youth culture, you are probably right, but there is an oppositional youth culture that is rarely given a lot of play in the dominant media and that is doing all kinds of engaged political work, extending from the movement for environmental justice to getting corporations out of the public schools. For instance, the Free Child Project organizes and interfaces with youth groups all over North America and“seeks to advocate, inform, and celebrate social change led by and with young people around the world, particularly those who have been historically denied the right to participate.” Adam Fletcher started this group and it is only one of thousands of youth groups engaged in a range of political projects attempting to eliminate human suffering, massive inequality, and the destruction of the planet. Hence, I think that the perception that young people are docile, politically apathetic, and removed from any sense of ethical responsibility is quite false, although very useful to political conservatives, who, when they are not demonizing and criminalizing the behavior of youth, appear to delight in suggesting that they are morally irresponsible and political indifferent.
3. When you use the phrase “critical pedagogy,” are you advocating school protests and sit-ins, explaining to students the need to write letters to editors or participate in general strikes, or are you just promoting a different kind of discussion in the classroom?
HAG: I think that critical pedagogy is both a way of understanding education as well as a way of highlighting the performative nature of agency as an act of participating in shaping the world in which we live. But I think the best place to begin to answer this question is to recognize the distinction between a conservative notion of teaching and the more progressive meaning of critical pedagogy. Teaching for many conservatives is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, teaching becomes synonymous with a method, technique, or the practice of a craft—like skill training. On the other hand, critical pedagogy must be seen as a political and moral project and not a technique. Pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. As a political project, critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values, and skills, and it illuminates how knowledge, identities, and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations. Similarly, it draws attention to the fact that pedagogy is a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. Ethically, critical pedagogy stresses the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding what knowledge is of most worth, in what direction should one desire, and what it means to know something. Most importantly, it takes seriously what it means to understand the relationship between how we learn and how we act as individual and social agents; that is, it is concerned with teaching students how not only to think but to come to grips with a sense of individual and social responsibility, and what it means to be responsible for one’s actions as part of a broader attempt to be an engaged citizen who can expand and deepen the possibilities of democratic public life. Finally, what has to be acknowledged is that critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, available resources, the histories that students bring with them to the classroom, and the diverse experiences and identities they inhabit.
4. Much of the opposition to the war on terror comes from comedy and factually-based entertainment media—like The Daily Show, Radio America, Michael Moore and Al Franken books—in which it is a foregone conclusion that Bush is wrong. Does not the fact that these voices of opposition and dissent are framed in humour and laughter reduce their political impact? Is the comedy not also a strategy of containment?
HAG: I don’t think that humor undercuts the possibility either for political awareness or for political involvement. As a cultural practice, it can be very effective, or it can simply be banal or worse. The Right seems to have been very effective in using humor to shape a certain type of public ideology—talk radio is just one example. The larger question is to what degree does the celebrity culture taint every aspect of social life that it touches by either depoliticizing, privatizing, or simply undercutting it. The key issue here is how can the Left and other progressives appropriate pedagogically and politically a range of genres to connect politics to everyday life in ways that both inform and motivate. I also think there is another issue beneath the surface of this question. That is, where are the public spaces that enable people to develop a sense of critique, opposition, and possibility? In a world in which public space becomes commercial space, and the venues for dissent, debate, and dialogue are shrinking, it becomes more difficult for people even to imagine themselves as critical agents. What I am suggesting here is that the idea of critical citizenship cannot exist without the spaces that make it possible. This is a current problem we face in terms educating people to be actively engaged in democratic public life.
5. Mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners has likely happened before and since Abu Ghraib—in Haditha for example—but the response in the West has been, I think, muted. Do you think that, realistically, people care, or even have time to care, about these crimes?
HAG: The issue is not whether people care about these crimes. Of course, they do, though I am not quite sure how to judge this. North Americans are very generous in the face of human suffering, outspoken in the face of human rights abuses, and more than willing to stand up for what it means to protect their rights. But, in many cases, they simply don’t have access to the kinds of news, stories, and analysis that allow them to put such events in a context that would arouse both their sense of political and moral indignation and their sense of collective resistance. If people are all that indifferent, how does one explain the popularity of films produced by people like Michael Moore, Al Gore, and others? Unfortunately, the events surrounding Abu Ghraib and Haditha have had a very short life indeed. Cynicism breeds apathy–not the reverse. The current depressing state of our politics and the bankruptcy of our political language issues a challenge to us to formulate a new language and vision that can reframe questions of agency, ethics, and meaning for a substantive democracy.
6. You’ve been accused of jargon and criticised for speaking in a kind of convoluted academic postmodernese, which is a common enough complaint aimed at “progressive” writing from those on the Left. How do you respond to such criticisms, given that you place a huge emphasis on the potential of “language” in your book?
HAG: During the last 30 years, I have been criticized both for being either too public in my language or for being too obtuse. I do think my very early work was a bit too jargonistic, and I have tried in the last decade to make my writing accessible to a broader public while not compromising its theoretical rigor. After all, I write for a variety of sources, some very public ones such as the magazine Tikkun and some more theoretical and academically oriented ones such as the journal Cultural Studies. The public writing seems to present a lot of problems for those academics whose discourse is largely impenetrable, highly specialized, and plugged into narrow definitions of careerism. Academics, especially on the Left in the United States, are generally very bad writers, a problem connected less to matters of skill than to an arcane notion of professionalism. Many live in “theory world” and generally address very specialized audiences. Similarly, much of their work is indebted to a kind of postmodern irony or cleverness, or is so pedantic that it lacks either any political integrity or passion. But I have also been criticized by people who would seem to think that if one does not write like a newspaper journalist then the writing can be condemned as utterly complex and worthless. This strikes me as a very bad form of insularity and anti-intellectualism, and should be dismissed as such. The bar has been set so low in the United States around matters of clarity and style that it is always difficult to reach a broader public if conventional matters of style and language are challenged, as they are in my work. Of course, the grumbling about my work is not merely about style; it is also because I often make the political primary to my work in a way that makes the project I am working out of quite clear. The backlash against committed writing, if not engaged politics, is so strong in universities, the media, and other established sites of public pedagogy that asserting the importance of politics as a crucial aspect of everyday life and learning is an incredibly difficult but absolutely necessary fight to wage. The issue here is to recognize that there are multiple audiences to write for and hence multiple forms of intervention, but at the same time, if writing is to have any effect, public intellectuals have to write in a way that can be understood without being reduced to simplistic babble.
7. When you say that we need a “new language for theorizing politics in the twenty-first century” what exactly do you mean? Can you give an example or some parameters for this claim? What would this language look like or perform?
HAG: I think in the most general sense we need a language of both criticism and possibility, one that makes the workings of power visible while at the same time provides a sense of vision, a movement towards a more democratic future. I also think we need a language that allows individuals, groups, and social movements to be able to translate individual problems into public concerns. Such a challenge must be central to any progressive politics of hope and meaning. Under the reign of a market fundamentalism, we lack the vocabulary for understanding how individual misery could be translated into public concerns and collective action, just as we lack a vocabulary for understanding how public problems translate into private woes. What we have at the moment is merely the language of privatization, one which reduces poverty and homelessness, for instance, into the discourse of character—merely a personality flaw. We also need a new language for connecting the local and the global. We live in a world that is utterly interconnected, and we need to find ways to talk about the global and local outside, for example, the language of nationalism, the nation-state, or state sovereignty. And while it is impossible to answer this question with any degree of specificity, we need a language for examining the meaning and possibility for global democracy. Crucial to creating a new language will require what I call “educated hope.” Hope is the precondition for individual and social struggle. In this view, hope makes the leap for us between critical education, which tells us what must be change and political agency, which gives us the means to make change. Rather than viewing social problems as an individual affair, hope illuminates the need for a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual, and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible; hope offers the belief that different futures are possible.
8. How do you respond to the arguments that say the war on terror, though very real in consequence, is fundamentally surreal, to the extent that what is “true” and what is “false”—as in the weapons of mass destruction business—doesn’ t really matter, and that we live in what Zizek calls “a topsy-turvy” world defined by paradox and contradiction and that the general public is “ok” with it? Is the public ok with the lying and deception, which seem to be out in the open now?
HAG: To suggest that lying and deception is fundamentally surreal runs the risk of not recognising the degree to which dominant power is increasingly defined by its attempts to evade any sense of responsibility for the consequences of its actions. What is at stake here is the way in which the terrain of culture, especially the educational force of the culture, has been taken over by an assemblage of corporate, religious, and political extremists and that mass deception is one of the ongoing means through which such groups attempt to both cover up their actions and at the same time stay in power. The issue is not that we live in a postmodern world defined by paradox and ambivalence but that one mark of an authoritarian society is its willingness to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing dissent. That is not an aesthetic question but a political one. Moreover, to suggest that such power exists and simultaneously to imply that people are more than happy to put up with it strikes me as recipe for cynicism, not for political resistance.
9. Why the choice of Gormly’s 1995 sculpture “Critical Mass”—which looks very much like an Abu Ghraib photo—on the cover of your book? [the editor at my magazine initially thought that it is one of the AG photos].
HAG: I use a lot of Gormly’s images for covers because they open up a space in which the intersection of art and politics speaks to both the language of critique and the language of possibility. And, in this particular case, Gormly provides a representation that resonates powerfully with the images we have seen coming out of Abu Ghraib.
10. Many books, on both sides of the debate, have turned on the enabling concept of the civilisational war, books like Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. Huntington’s name appears once in your book, and he’s the guy who seems to have ushered this concept into the field, but do you see this war more as a war against a civilisation or a war for the material advancement of one civilisation (America)?
HAG: Unless the concept is taken up critically, the notion of a “clash of civilizations” is an absurd racist term that is utterly reductionistic and politically convenient for theorists and pundits who are comfortable with both moral certainties and dividing the world between good and evil. The struggle we face in the world today is not between civilizations; it is between those who believe in rigid moral absolutes, fundamentalists, if you will, and those who believe that moral and political claims are open to examination and critique.