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Out To Lunch on Concepts of Elitism in Education Theory Today with Particular Reference to James Joyce

When someone called Len Platt posts you a hardback copy of their book (James Joyce and Education: Schooling and the Social Imaginary in the Modernist Novel), complete with an advertisement for AMM All-Stars in the acknowledgments, you feel obliged to respond in some way, so here was my response ... It began as an email to Len, but became a bit of a polemic ...

Your book is a contribution to education studies, Len, rather than to, say, Joyceana or Marxism, so I'm hardly your ideal reader. I won't say I'm not qualified to comment on what you say, since I believe an approach to education based on Marx and Volosinov (as opposed to Kant and Saussure) would avoid the tragic paradoxes ("antinomies") which are the bread and butter of liberalism, but I can imagine you brushing aside my complaints’n’accusations as irrelevant to the task you set yourself. I've had a difficult time with formal education myself. Despite the fact that a Cambridge degree (1st in History Part One; II-i in English Literature Part Two, 1977) is deemed an ineluctable mark of "privilege" these days, my particular mark was not sufficient to gain funding to pursue a PhD. On top of that, my combination of Marx and Adorno wasn't welcome in pop-studies publications dominated by the sociological investigations of Stuart Hall and Simon Frith, or in theory journals eagerly going structuralist, post-structuralist and then postmodern. As a member of the SWP 1979-99, I didn't think of the working-class as either an object of investigation or as scallywags in need of education, but as a class position I was thrust into by unemployment and menial jobs, an unfairness to be fought by every means at our disposal – via politics, meetings, paper selling, music, events, demos, leaflets, bulletins, whatever — including "educationals", although these meant sessions where the knowledgeable were quizzed as to the use value of their expertise rather than honoured as inductors into elite arcana. I discovered that the mass/elite couplet which you use throughout your book as a sociological term doesn't actually exist: every human being considers their own morality and tastes correct — and those of the rest inferior. Without this fillip, this bubble of vanity to live in, we feel dejected and depressed. According to Vico, Livy defined "to exist" as "to flourish and breed our kind", which implies aspiration to something higher as basic to human nature. So the woeful paradoxes of poststructuralism — Lacan's symbolic order we enter into only to become oppressors ourselves, Foucault's tragic view of power, Bourdieu's reduction of culture to snobbery — seem to me just a smokescreen for unfairness pooted forth by those who see money as the measure of all things: devote your life to climbing to the top of the heap, then weep tears for how cruel it all is. All those rich Italian colonialists who made their fortunes raping the world blubbering in their opera boxes over the fate of Madame Butterfly, bah, it makes me sick!

So, Len, when you say at the start that "made-up" language is automatically "elitist" (p. 4), I reply, Yes, but an elitism endemic to human nature, something costermongers, thieves and teenagers are all capable of, brillig and bodacious as I am to say it. I recoil from the quarantined life required to ensure such an accusation isn't greeted with indignation and scorn. For educationalists, "culture" is an attribute of a particular social layer in a static pyramid. For those who think of society as a lived — and livid — contradiction, the civil war between private gain and public good battling in our heads, culture is not a benefit requiring redistribution, it's something to be contested. Assigning mass and elite to sociological layers gilds impression with the allure of science, but it's bunk: as you will find as soon as two people start talking about music, every experience is unique, hence "elite", a distinction from the mass. No-one lives as a mass: “the masses” are objects of manipulation by Stalinists, marketeers and FB demographers. I blame Alexandre Kojeve for suppressing this truth – wrecking Hegel’s dialectic by making German philosophy safe for Cartesians. From the self/other of Sartre to Althusser's structuralism, Kojeve's legacy prevents people realising that everyone perceives themselves as an "elite" (unique) to be distinguished from the mass (oppression by concepts). Descartes smuggled the hierarchies of Roman Catholicism into experiemntal science; Hegel moved in the opposite direction, secularising the egalitarianism of Jesus. Kojeve prevented the latter reaching French Theory.

The non-dialectician, devoid of democratic distrust of taught concepts, shovels all the data of the world into the assigned drawers, never allowing the data itself to dictate the categories. The game is the reiteration of the already known by providing new "examples". Only someone whose dialectical philosophy and natural commonsense have been bludgeoned by structuralist sociology could say as you do: "Here Joyce indicates how gender stereotypes and class stereotypes are overlaid with raciality ..." (p. 30). Nothing is being learned from Joyce here. It's an exercise in assuring teech I learned the rubric. Class. Race. Gender. Terms previously charged with politics are de-ionised (and de-ironised) to become mere demographics, terms for people management and marketing. The starting categories are found in the material with no bite back from the material at all.

Say-nothing phrases bulk up the text to make your denouement more impressive, pretending it's the fruit of strenuous labour: "Although some Joyceans have attempted to reconcile Joyce with such views [Irish nationalism], both the fictional representation and the biographia associated with it tell a very different and more complex story underpinned by deep social attitudes". I first encountered "to complexify" as something to be praised on the back of a book by Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick in 1985. I knew a hard rain was going to fall. And it did.

"Education in these texts — one fiction, the other biography — is bound up in complex ways with the modernization of education and social identities attached to its systematization". (p. 42) This is bullet-point management speak where the terms are so general and indisputable, and the concrete so postponed, nothing is being said but "-ations" on autodrive. Flourish a bunch of bogus terms — "modernization", "social identity", "systematization" at the reader — then tell them their interaction (not Joyce's!) is "complex". The complexities in question are the conceptual muddle brought on by this jargon, the horrible mess they've made of Prof Platt's head, and have nothing to do with the Ibsenite bite of Joyce's early stories. The equivalent jargon of this conceptual muddle in radical politics — confusion brought by combining insufficent ideas together, confusion which is the raison d'etre of those in the education market — is (of course) "intersectionality".

Platt's post-structuralist background means that — in accordance with Foucault's truly stupid interpretation of sado-masochism as an inevitable irony belonging to power, which must always hurt as much as it heals — Joyce's work becomes “problematic”. It is quite clear to me that, in common with progressive novelists from George Eliot to Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte to Hardy, Joyce was trying to tell the truth about his experience in order to improve the situation, but such old-fashioned Leavisism must be ditched in favour of: "There can be little doubt, however, that Joyce would have understood that, in writing a hyper-realistic narrative about an Iris boy in an elite school, he was simultaneously breaking stereotypes and running the risk of confirming them." (p. 70) Iain Sinclair has pointed out that biography is autobiography in drag, and here we have it in spades. Joyce has here become a vehicle for Platt's life guilt — he's in a job whose products and process he cannot explain to his working-class parents. But his social roots remain a card to play. Trotsky coined a phrase to criticise Stalinist tactics of defamation - "class passportism" — by which he meant praising or condemning someone for their class background, something they are powerless to change — rather than what they say or do. These Stalinist tactics are now ubiquitous, of course, but it's weird to find them in a book about Joyce whom the Stalinist hack Karl Radek attacked in 1934 when launching the doctrine of Socialist Realism: the duty of the artist is not to tell the truth as they see it, but to stoke the class struggle as conceived by the Party. The thing is, art is not simply a weapon in class struggle. If it is, it’s a very weak one. As Trotsky pointed out, it has its own rules. Joyce did not write A Portrait to make or break a stereotype of elitism, "elitism" was not a concept which troubled him, what he hated was sexual hypocrisy, injustice and lies: he told the truth about what he knew — himself — to make things better. Platt because thinks his own theorising is elitist because it's difficult to understand, and so only accessible to a few education specialists; actually it's difficult to understand because it's a muddle based on poor philosophy, while the real elites are busy making billions out of austerity and covid ... and killing the poor ... Platt wonders why people from working-class backgrounds do less well at university. Maybe it's because they find swallowing post-structuralist bullshit more difficult than the managerial class. Derrida provides a training for forked tongues. I know what I'm talking about, having worked for two Derridean editors.

There's a chapter in Ulysses where medical students banter in a bar. What does Platt find here? Wit? Vanity? Word play? Irish volubility? No, elitism. It's like Slavoy Zizek finding the object petit a in every film he sees, a stuck clock which only tells the right time twice a day. The theory talks to itself and never grapples with the stuff. But then, Platt thinks "He who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord" is Buck Mulligan mangling Proverbs, and doesn't get that he's actually quoting Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is an embarrassing blunder, because Platt's been learnedly discoursing on Nietzsche's aristocratic critique of modern education a few pages earlier. This is the sort of error a decent copywriter would save an author from, and you start to feel sorry for Len, saddled with his cheapskate, rip-off publishers. But since they're so cynical, and obviously care not a jot what the book contains, why doesn't he respond in kind, and write the kind of riproaring text he wrote as an introduction to Wordsworth's paperback edition of Finnegans Wake (and which, unlike this one, retailed at a very low price)? It was the reason Luke Davis and I took Len to the pub. Why is he writing this other stuff? Because he has to go through the motions of the pseudo-discipline of “education studies” which is his day job, which means rehearsing all this half-baked “theory”. Ach, the day job, the day job. I'd sooner be tossing horses' hooves into a vat at the glue factory!

I couldn't believe someone hip to Finnegans Wake, which is all about how sound carries many meanings, hence comprehensible to music heads but a puzzle for the literate ("But the majik wavus has elfun anon meshes" p. 203), should express the standard academic incomprehension of oral transmission and evolution as the life and soul of innovative language (read some Volosinov, Len!) as Platt does on pages 99-100. Life is forever "incorrect" in this parched and desolate neck of the woods, only the static and unchanging is true, bah, back to Plato, the ideological icon of today's Tories (the real “elite”, vicious and practising). Platt's account of Clangowes reduces it to Eton, utterly missing how Joyce's study of Aquinas under Jesuit instruction gave him an understanding of the progressive side of medieval thought (the "ascending" concept of power, to use Walter Ullman's terminology), and therefore enabled him to criticise the possessive individualism of the Protestant ethic and its banal, soulless positivism in a Viconian, proto-Marxist manner.

The French aren't always wrong (just mainly). La Theorie de Bloom (2010) by the Tiqqun Collective opened no new doors for me, but it understood the epochal shift when Joyce moved from Stephen to Bloom, pissing off Ezra Pound and delighting everyone who wakes up to the fact that their own lives are the wonder of the universe, not gods or heroes or artists or politicians or theorists. But Platt has sourced the factual stuff Bloom knows to a popular education magazine called Tit Bits (it's the one he wipes his arse with near the start, in the spirit of the Wake's "wipe your glosses with what you know" p. 304), and it's neither reliable nor systematic, nor even up-to-date: "Bloom, often idealized in Joyce criticism, is not so much a self-determined hero as a much-flawed product of his world. Ironically, it is precisely the cultural equipment which he thinks prepares him to operate in this world that renders him so much at sea." (p. 116) Ah, "ironically", here come the weasels! Autobiography in drag again ... After a life spent pursuing Truth via Joyce, Platt is disappointed the science all came out of Tit Bits! Of course Bloom's "at sea", Len, he's Ulysses innee, goddammit! But we're all at sea, information is not knowledge, fractional divisions of eternity cannot gauge the whole etc etc, but ... Platt doesn't half take the chuckle out of the laugh. Can't he see that Bloom's Tit Bits science is democratic corrective of Stephen's "over-educated shithead" alienation from the material world, that the Punch'n'Judy between them is BRILLIANT LOW COMEDY of clashing epistemologies? And I fail to see Bloom's expulsion from the bar in "Cyclops" as his "social failure". For me, the chapter's exposure of the racism at the pounding heart of nationalism simply puts Joyce in a league with Trotsky and Nancy Cunard and precious few anglophone writers in the pre-Nazi period.

Platt's elitism mantra doesn't cease: Joyce wrote "a highly mediated version of literature, one entirely implicated with the learning of elites" (p. 136). What, pray, might be the learning of non-elites? It doesn't exist in Platt's purview. It's worthless, shabby, unsystematic, Tit Bits. There's something duplicitous going on when distinctions are being made which exclude their opposites. From my experience of working-class politics, I'd say non-elite learning does exist: in left organisations, in trade-union educationals, or when a thousand nurses take up the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung's offer of a day school in how to win strikes. Also in arguments about popular music in magazines, books, and social media. And in readers of Joyce, Shakespeare, Hegel, Marx — you name it. But it’s not a separate entity, it’s often the same thing viewed from a different angle. Like language, education doesn't come in two packages, one elite and one non-elite, it's one thing being pulled and used in different directions (Volosinov!). So, read Plato, but also read Martin Bernal's Black Athena ... "With the oil of Afro-dytee and the dust of the Grand Wazoo/You won't believe this, Platt Professor, but it'll cure your asthma too!" (Zappa, “Mystery Man”, Apostrophe(‘)). No line can be drawn between mass and elite — or black and white — when it comes to sound ... but Platt's restricted view of education as literacy, publishing and academic employment keeps his definition of learning as hierarchical as the Roman Church.

In telling the absurd story of nineteenth-century grammarian Lindley Murray and his failed attempt to establish grammatical "correctness" for "the educated" (Volosinov would scoff), one wonders if Platt's educational theory — simultaneously with and against the "difficulty" of theory, a paradoxically elite theory of anti-elitism — isn't a similar absurdity destined for the rubbish dump. So, towards the end — before the book’s dive into Finnegans Wake, which alters the rules of the game by constructing a work no-one can master (and therefore resembles the infinite universe talked about by Hsia Ko in Shang China and by Giordano Bruno in Renaissance Italy), but which everyone can enjoy for its syntactical velocity and perpetually anti-authoritarian word-mangling — we get a final word on Stephen. As usual with undialectical analysis, the conclusion says the same thing as the beginning (but without the accretion of knowledge of the world that is evidenced each time we go round the Wake's circle, stuff we've taught ourselves by using its words as points of investigation and discussion): "the contradictions of the public school identity, a figure who is not just both a conformist and a rebel but a conformist whose rebellion is a product of the social fantasies which lie behind elite schooling" (p. 168) This is Le Monde on the rebels of 1968 — or The Sun on Stop the City protestors, or Lindsay Anderson’s If…, or a Verso board meeting) — a rightwing slur transmitted via "Theory" to Goldsmiths in New Cross. Workers are produced by capitalism but they can bury it ... Platt's poststructuralism — this "irony" — was invented to deny that fact.

Now, I read James Joyce and Education because I liked Platt's introduction to the Wake and his other writings on Joyce. In a sense, despite this polemic, I also kind-of agree with him on the early work, because it was always the Wake for me, not the straight novelistic stuff. Wakese — this "made-up language" — solved a personal problem: my bilingually-brought-up dad (Portuguese and English) learned new languages before breakfast, whereas I found them hard work (Latin still gives me nightmares!). My dad insisted on correctness, whereas I was forever making mistakes; he was brilliant, whereas I was slow. But here was a book composed entirely of garble and mistakes! A screaming fucking bloody mess that was also writhing with vitality, obscenity and the best puns since The Beano! So maybe the early writing was just a necessary demonstration of chops rather than the True Effective Contribution to the Revolution which was Finnegans Wake. Platt sees parts of Ulysses as tending this way: "'Oxen of the Sun', for all the work ethic that goes into it, is not so much a prize-winning essay as a badly blotted illustration of learning going to the dogs." (p. 138) Fans of J. H. Prynne ("rubbish is pertinent") and Frank Zappa (“junk sculpture”) will have no problem with appreciating this! Platt interprets the last chapter of Ulysses as revenge of real life on letters, an interpretation I find highly sympathetic.

Platt is correct to point out that the narratives the “genetic” critics excavate from the Wake by studying early drafts, and deem a "solution" to the puzzle, are irrelevant to the actual experience of reading it. The Wake arrives at iridescent all-embracing psychedelic free-jazz monotone. Like all great writers, from Henry James to Theodor Adorno, Joyce says the same thing in every sentence, so plot and scene are bourgeois diversions. Platt's final chapter on Finnegans Wake is a joy, and for my money helps me to understand why I've always liked it so much: it democratises knowledge, smashes hierarchies and removes fear from learning. Bless your hopes for its future, Len! You've played your part in creating it …

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