SPILL STINGS 4: A dialogue on infection (part 1)

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Over the festival, Mary Paterson and Theron Schmidt are writing to each other about the theme of infection, in relation to wider contexts of cultural politics, pedagogy, and economics.  This is the first exchange.

Theron, I wanted to send you a collection of ideas around different models of infection and different ways of thinking about it – infection as a political tool, as a disease, as a carrier, a cause, a way of spreading change. But tonight, perhaps I only have time for this: misrecognition and disguise.

I was talking to a neuroscientist friend of mine who told me that there was a high incidence of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in the remote Orkney Islands after the second World War. MS is an auto-immune disease, in which your body starts to attack itself, and it’s not contagious. So why was it spreading? One of the reasons is because Orcadians are genetically predisposed to MS (because of their Viking heritage – in fact, a world map of Viking invasions is also a map of MS prevalence). Another reason is because a different virus was being spread among the islands. This different virus appears to be so similar to the body it’s infecting, that the body starts to attack its own healthy cells as well as the virus-infected ones. The virus tells the body to misrecognise itself – but this misrecognition is not the virus. The misrecognition is the non-contagious disease, MS.

Because I find it hard to think about the body on a cellular level, I always think of biology inside a metaphor of the social organism. So this got me thinking about civil disobedience, which is a way of misrecognising social norms, or suggesting that they have been misrecognised elsewhere. Someone suggested to me recently that, if constituents in the UK are given the right to recall their MPs, then we should all just recall our MPs, constantly, until the voting system or the social system changes enough for our thoughts and opinions to be reflected in government policy. Civil disobedience is a type of action that is similar to normative social action, but which can cause the larger social body to self-destruct. In order to address the action, the body has to change its own structure and that (depending on your perspective) is terminal.

What I’m interested in here are the differences between actions, causes, symptoms and intent. I wanted to ask you a question about pedagogy – how can you teach without imparting knowledge? It seems like too crude a metaphor to say that teaching is like infecting the mind, but the way someone is taught influences the way they think and communicate. (In this country, the differences in education are manifest in social class, and a certain type of communication is routinely misrecognised as intelligence.)

Anyway, enough for now – I’m too tired to carry on tonight. There was a question in there somewhere!

x M


Dear Mary, I’m going to start by replying to your last question, because it’s a problem that presented itself in a very self-referential way in my own teaching recently.  But I also think there’s a lot more to say about your ideas about misrecognition and appropriation, and about the relativity of perspective in defining what is damage and what is repair. I hope we come back to these!

You asked: how can you teach without imparting knowledge?  This question is at the heart of an influential lecture (and now book) by the philosopher Jacques Rancière on ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ that has been much in discussion in performance circles – and which also was a text that I set for my final year Performance Philosophy class at King’s where I teach.  Rancière makes an analogy between the way that spectators are positioned by would-be reformers of the theatre, who set out to help the spectators to escape their passivity or alienation, and the situation of the student with regard to the teacher.  The problem with this desire to emancipate the spectator from her own alienation is that it must begin by placing the spectator in the role of the one in need of salvation, the one in the place of ignorance.  This is similar to most education, for which the first lesson that the student must learn is the fact of his or her own ignorance and the mastery of the teacher.

In contrast, Rancière refers to the approach to teaching advocated by the late-18th century educationalist Joseph Jacotot, who began with the assumption that everyone (pupil and teacher) has equal intelligence, and equal capacity to make sense of the world,  though we all bring different experiences.  Another way of thinking about this equality is that we are all equally ignorant; knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing.  Rancière applies this to the theatre by arguing that a theatre that sets out to emancipate its spectators is already on the wrong path, because it has already reproduced a set of inequalities between looking and acting, between activity and passivity.  Instead, theatre should not assign different value to these different roles, nor indeed should it assume that these roles are distinguishable. This is part of an ongoing theme in Rancière’s thinking in which politics is considered as the partitioning and distribution of roles that takes place prior to any of the activity that we might typically think of as political, and which largely predetermines what it is possible to see and to hear in that activity. Okay: that’s the theory.  But in teaching it to my class – and in explaining it here! – I am nevertheless playing the role of the expert – the one who has the knowledge to impart.  I am the one who knows that there are ways of getting Rancière wrong – as indeed I have  seen some other performance scholars do – by glossing his title as a call to ‘emancipate the spectators’.  And so I want to make sure that my students get the theory right!  But this was a lesson in which I was very aware of the disjunction between the content of what I was teaching and the way that the teaching took place.  It is, ultimately, one of the problems with any theory that advocates a practice that it itself does not follow.  And this is why, in a class called ‘Performance Philosophy’, it feels important that the two terms be equally valued: performance can be capable of philosophising what philosophy cannot perform.  In particular, one of the things performance has to ‘teach’ us is our own ignorance (which is not the same as stupidity!).

I know a little bit about the work in the SPILL Festival that we will see next week, particularly about the four UK commissions, and I’ll be interested to see how some of these ideas play themselves out in the situations that they create.  For Simon Bowes and Kings of England, for example, I know how much it matters to them that there be a genuine equality between audience and performers – not that they are the same, but that they have parity.  He describes this in terms of ‘hospitality’, which also has interesting connotations in relation to the idea of infection and the role of the host.  Sylvia Rimat’s subject is very much communication itself: the way that neural pathways are built and shaped in the exchange.  Rajni Shah began her work from an exploration of ‘not knowing’ as a shared (if generally undesirable) cultural state, and as a condition that might be re-valued for its understated political value in the face of experts and leaders seeking to persuade us of their mastery.  And Harminder Judgecreates a spectacular image that may be simple in its form, but does not have any simple explanation or lesson to teach – I think it intends us all to be stupefied by it, such that we make of it what we wilt.

But I feel I’ve strayed somewhat from the question of infection, and of systems and intention.  I wonder if we might find our way back by returning to this idea that you raised, that of the ‘cultural capital’ that accrues with education.  This is another concept that presents a paradox when I try to explain it in teaching, as when I illustrate it by saying, ‘I, right now, am helping you to be better agents of class-based capitalism!’  Is it worth thinking about the kinds of cultural capital that are accumulated and awarded by an institution like the Barbican?

x theron.