Monday, September 26, 2011

I've been reading an interesting book: "The Art of Cruelty" by Maggie Nelson, a poet and academic who lives in Los Angeles. It's a book about cruelty in the arts, beginning with Artaud's call (you know Artaud!) for a "theater of cruelty" about the need for audiences to be violently pulled from their passive spectator-ness. The book goes about exploring the idea of cruelty in everything from movies to books to performance art, how the avant-garde has run with the idea of using violence to shock, and now, how much a part of the main stream Artaud's idea has become. The book is not about the good or bad of cruelty, but where these specific pieces of art lead us and leave us. So it's nuanced and not really didactic at all, which is a little frustrating as two thirds of the way through it still hasn't really arrived anywhere. Instead it's explored different sub-genres, ideas, and trends with a poet's rhythm; one that has a pace and a way unto itself, and it's beginning to dawn on me that this pace, this way of looking at cruelty is, in fact, the argument.

Which might be kind of frustrating to some readers or radio interviewers who want a straight answer/judgment as to is this particular kind of cruelty good, or bad. But it's made me think about my own work, including writing and teaching and being with other people, some of the habits I have such as "brutal honestly" perhaps aren't as blameless as I've believed. I wonder if I subject my students to forms of cruelty, making them read out loud or answering questions on the spot (short answer: no). Over the summer a student came in an hour late on a day we were work-shopping in small groups. Since all the groups had been formed, to add this student would be to create more work for one of the groups. Pissed as I was, I assigned the student to a group and made the late student distribute the extra work, thereby instead of me giving the group extra work, the late student was the one who did. I felt it was a just penalty, a kind of humiliation with the intent to make the student see how their lateness causes problems. This punishment came from an angry place and in retrospect, I think it was cruel.

My action was intended to teach (as well as harm) and this student did not come late to class again. It worked. But this student also did not participate much in the class discussion, and did not seem to invest much in the class or in their class work. Of course I don't know what this student was thinking, and can't know what motivated them, but my action did close some doors on any opportunities I may have had to get the student more engaged. The lesson for me: that when I lose control, it opens the door on choices governed by emotion. Which, in this case, I feel did more harm than good. In a larger sense, this example also sheds light on the dangers of increasing class sizes and overwhelmed teachers. That cruelty is a kind of tool we teach others how to use. And when times are tough, it can be a fast and easy solution to problems. But in the long run in creates a world we might not be too happy living in (fascism?). All that said, I'm lucky to have choices in the first place, to know that there are alternatives to cruelty.