The erotics of the teaching relationship

1Professor: You have argued that there is an intrinsic and intimate relationship between Eros and teaching. A kind of “eroticization” of the teaching relationship, as one might understand. “You only learn from whom you love”, you bluntly posited. It seemed rather light during these times of lifting of silence on the sexual, psychological, and emotional harassment that takes place in higher education, where tongues are finally being liberated.

2She: That the vow of silence be lifted on a subject as compromising as sexual and emotional harassment, I could ask for no better.

3Professor: I thought as much, actually.

4She: Still, I maintain that it is imprudent – to say the least – to extend the #MeToo opinion movement, as it is, to higher education without any form of precaution. Considering the always-hasty and often-hysterized controversies in the media and the so-called “social networks”, it must be recognized that the problem of “harassment” remains very poorly posed. As a rule, we do not take the time to address and really question, first of all what “sexual” means, as if it were something that goes without saying… Whereas history and the theory of sexuality show that it is not quite what one may think. As for my argument…

5Professor: The fact remains that there is sexual harassment and it is spreading in the academic environment; you yourself are a witness. Let’s return to what is more current and more pressing. Right now it is #SupToo or whatever you have. We urgently need an academic ethics in this matter.

6She: Still, I insist: transposing #MeToo as it is in the University leaves me perplexed and worried. We had every right to hope that the problem of “harassment” would gain in clarification and in nuance, moving from media haste to time for reflection, which was still supposed to be the prerogative of academics, who in principle are well-versed in the art of reading, questioning, thinking, and analyzing discourses – as well as in the art of teaching this art (we will come back to this, since we are talking about the art of the teaching relationship!). But it is true that for quite some time now, the University has tended to speak more and more the language of instant-thought of the media…

7Professor: I do not see how your reservations contribute to meeting the urgency of our need.

8She: As you know, the media always operate in all haste, with opinion, misconception, and prejudice. By bringing their language, with #SupToo, within itself and without questioning it, doesn’t the University capitulate to its responsibility, which is to have to flush out the prejudices and the “evident facts” that circulate in society, and subject them to severe scouring work?

9Professor: What evident facts are you talking about?

10She: The false evidence of what “the sexual” is, of what equality is, what symmetry is… Is there equality when it comes to sexuality? What is consent in this case, the right of the other to say yes or no? Where does asymmetry begin and where does it end? Why did the author of the four volumes of The History of Sexuality maintain in principle that “sexuality is by no means a matter of any legislation whatsoever”? Héloïse will always speak up against Abelard’s punishment.

11All of this is all the more complex and delicate as higher education is not part of the star system milieu, nor quite that of businesses (not yet completely, in any case); the relationships mediated by knowledge that take place there constitute a very particular world, with the eros specific to intelligence that this implies. By ignoring this difference, your “ethical” remedy runs the risk of being just as bad, if not worse, than the evil. Take a look at the witch-hunt sparked by American-style “sexual harassment” on college campuses.

12Professor: Let’s look at what is new and important in the French affair! Colleagues and students are rallying today to denounce the ravages of psychological and sexual harassment in higher education. Harassment lurks there under the exercise of well-established hierarchical power relations: teacher and student, thesis advisor and PhD candidate, full professor and associate professor – against the backdrop of unbridled competition, sometimes in exchange for a few favors, a recommendation or a promotion. As if the feudal primae noctis right was quite simply perpetuated there! Hence the need for an academic ethics which (and I quote our code) “aligns the university disciplinary regime with that adopted, in good sense, by physicians in the doctor-patient relationship”. In plain language, this amounts to saying (again, I quote) an “ethical prohibition in principle of any romantic, sexual, emotional relationship […] between teachers and students”.

13She: Which is to say, to strip the teaching relationship of any affective dimension…

14Professor: To ensure healthy working conditions.

15She: That is where the problem lies.

16Professor: How so?

17She: In the hurry to pursue #MeToo under the watchword #SupToo, we “only” forget, there too, to ask ourselves what a teaching relationship is… In particular in the Humanities. And consequently, from where the energy that animates it and makes it possible comes. Another “evident fact” played out, presupposed. And we simply crush this relationship, under the “good sense” of a medical-academic ethical discipline. What was once a powerful pedagogical lever – emotional investment – training for the “profession of being human”, is now becoming the object of “disciplinary procedure”! Good health from now on is the “disaffected” teaching relationship. We might as well forbid transferential investment in the analytical relationship! Well, what do you know! This is already happening today: it’s called psychotherapy.

18Professor: Freud had a very strict ethics of the transferential relationship. He held that transference love is part of the patient’s symptoms; any acting out would therefore amount to sustaining the symptom and was strictly prohibited.

19She: That is what I am saying. It is quite another thing to want to proscribe the transferential dimension. On the contrary, Freud made it the resource par excellence of the analytic relationship, and this was its strength, in contrast to the so-called “ethics” of a Breuer. Well, the same goes for the teaching relationship: the affective dimension is consubstantial with it. Even if it means working it out and working through it. All things being equal, this is the stake of the Socratic erotic, at least according to Plato: to convert the love of bodies into the love of truth, erôs sôphrôn. The analogy with the function of the Freudian transference is evident, including its functioning on the teaching scene. Still, it will need to be explained to us what “truth” means, which always arises where we do not expect it… In short, wanting to purify the teaching relationship of this affective function, to “cleanse” it as your medical and academic good sense advocates it, would be to liquidate it purely and simply. Ultimately, this means playing into the hands of the techno-managerial and authoritarian system in place, including “pedagogical management”, with its arsenal of instruments to manage and evaluate human “resources”.

20Professor: Assuming that your charge is admitted, the fact remains that it is not an answer to the initial question, not to say the suspicion: the one we may have with regard to your arguments on teaching Eros. You have gone so far as to unearth the anachronistic definition of pederasty as a pedagogical method.

21She: Our contemporaries believe that “Eros”, “erotic”, simply boils down to the sexual act, to coitus. They do not imagine that one can postulate an eroticism of reading, for example. In any case, they do not believe that the man in love, erôtikos anèr, can be an essential determination of the philosopher, and that between spiritual desire and sexual love there can be anything other than a gap.

22And yet, the stigmatized arguments are inseparable from the very origins of philosophy and constitute the principle, arkhè, governing it. It is symptomatic of the zeitgeist that university professors take offense, including philosophy professors, isn’t it? The love of young people, paid-erastia, is paidagôgos, guide of young people, educator in essence, initiating them to a tekhnè of life, an art of existence (I almost blush at having to recall this). What is there to say against that? You only have to think of Socrates-Eros, whose two Banquets that have come down to us, that of Plato and that of Xenophon, have drawn a famous portrait, so vivid that it ended up erecting the great initiator as a model of loved objects, a living embodiment of the unity of teaching, paidagôgia, and of love, érôs.

23And do not forget, dear professor, that if Socrates could profess to know nothing, “other than matters of love, ta érôtika”, it is because according to Plato’s account, the initiator had himself been initiated into the mysteries of Eros by a woman – foreigner and priestess to boot. Which, under the auspices of a female figure, originally binds philosophical teaching to initiation, télétè, and to érôtika. Far from any conception of teaching as “filling a vase”, pure and simple impersonal transmission of accepted knowledge.

24Professor: Come to your senses, my dear. The University – nor even its Humanities – is by no means this place of initiation with an “erotic” dimension, or better said: transferential, that you imagine, within which the student would be led to work on themself and on self-transformation and to learn an art of living. This is from another age. Besides, you do not hide that your model is that of the schools of wisdom of Antiquity, where a strong loving relationship between master and disciple actually took shape – a relationship that was both intellectual and existential, in which women – and I grant you that – the Hipparchias, the Aspasias, the Artemis, not to speak of Diotima, also took part; the issue being just as much that of knowledge as that of the choice of lifestyle. Well, all of that, dear friend, is the culture of the past.

25She: And yet, from Shakespeare and Goethe to Freud and Lacan, including W. Jensen, S. Zweig, D. de Rougemont to R. Barthes and beyond (I quote almost at random), countless are the modern works that have not finished meditating on this strange intrinsic link between love and initiation, even love and cure, desire and knowledge, the spiritual and the sexual, passion and thought. That’s my point!

26Professor: But as soon as we look at things from the point of view of the modern University, we quickly realize that the essential is elsewhere: from now on, it is a matter of transmitting proven knowledge, imparting operative skills, and ensuring through evaluation procedures that their acquisition has taken place, sanctioning it with credits and diplomas that their holder will in turn cash in on the job market, at the University or otherwise. All of this in as objective, formal, and impersonal a way as possible, oh yes, whether it is a question of the relationship to knowledge and its object or the relationship between teacher and students.

27She: Oh! I am in a good position to know that! In the end, we are only concerned with the management of the university machine, and with the reproduction of knowledge serving as a productive commodity. And may the factory run, leaving everything as it is: may the students get their credits, teachers get their pay and promotions, and may the civil servants continue to train other civil servants.

28Professor: No matter what you say, the fact remains that there are no longer masters and disciples, only teachers and students, and increasingly, information providers (or service providers), and student-clients. It is less a “relationship” as such than a contract of exchange between partners, the object of which is knowledge, which in fact has itself become a commodity. Besides, we hardly teach anymore, we just pretend to; rather, we are obliged to think about our books, for the advancement of our careers – as the Bologna process requires. We do not care about emotional, love or any other bonds. We just need equality in respect, which means: distance, so that the students can study and conduct their research work in good conditions.

29She: Of course! And that is precisely why I care about the apparatus of the teaching relationship as if it were the apple of my eye. Because, from the very inside of the ordinary university routine, it still traces one last line of resistance to this state of affairs.

30And as for the rest, it would be necessary that all those who at the University, and in particular in the Humanities, recognize themselves in your rather cynical picture of the university drudge… they should nevertheless stop pretending to consistently speak there of “emancipation”, “concern for oneself and others”, “solicitude”, “new subjectivation”, “courage of the truth”, etc., under penalty of falling definitively into academic rascality: the one that consists in merely discoursing on the criticism of the state of affairs, on the ethical imperative, by making them a simple object of discourse, of autonymic representation, and thereby neutralizing their practical enforceability. Thus, reassuring the establishment that academic discourse does no harm to anyone (as Nietzsche used to say): it still does not have the slightest implication on the êthos of the subjects, nor a fortiori on the zeitgeist or the aforementioned “reality”.

31Professor: Still, your “initiation apparatus” raises yet another question.

32She: Well!

33Professor: By placing emphasis on the teaching relationship and circulation and the work of affects, you seem to neglect the “contents”. I mean: training in technical, philological aspects, methods of approach, relating to the study of texts or objects, which provide the material for the conversation we have with each other and with ourselves on such theme or such problem. The teacher relationship nevertheless takes place on the occasion of these skills. A fragment of Antisthenes’s, for example, the Latin poem by Lucretius, or even Descartes’ Meditations, or Critique of Judgment, or even Philosophical Investigations, cannot be read just like that, intentionio recta. They pose problems of exegesis, require a critical apparatus, a reading protocol, an interminable work of deciphering their machinery, their presuppositions and their innuendos.

34She: It goes without saying that this is the daily bread of the modern scholiast – the academic. Whether he is a “transmitter” (of content) or an “initiator” (of subjects). What you want to point out corresponds to one of the dimensions of my apparatus. This one articulates and originally links three of them, namely: 1) the “erotic” dimension, in the said sense; 2) the “epistemic” dimension of knowledge or of thought; 3) the “psychagogic” dimension of the care or concern for the self.

35The two protagonists in relation are situated, respectively: in 1) as érastès, the lover, and éroménôs, the beloved; in 2) as master and disciple; in 3) as therapeutès (the one who excels in the relation to the self, the sapiens in Latin) and anoetos (the one who defines themself by the non-relation to the self, the insane, the stultus).

36All this will lead Lacan to say that Socrates announces in a sense the figure of the psychoanalyst. I would like to say today: the talking cure must be understood as cura sui (no offense to Foucault’s theory of confession, but we can explain it).

37Professor: The comparison between the classroom and the iatreion, the clinic of the soul, was indeed a recurring theme in Antiquity that Epictetus insisted on in the 1st century.

38She: Well, precisely, there is the unconscious in the classroom. And it is better to count on it than to have to suffer it. That said, from the structure of my apparatus it follows that dimension 2, of knowledge, that you questioned, remains inextricably linked to the other two: to the dimension of érôs and to the psychagogical dimension – which implies that the problem must be posited again differently. Roland’s initiation into Zweig’s Confusion, for example, is naturally inseparable from the philological competence of his master, a profound connoisseur of the Elizabethans, Shakespeare and Shakespearians, as well as from his resolutely “vitalist” approach to literature. Thus he spoke to his audience: “I ask you to put yourselves in unison with this supreme zeal for life [which the Elizabethans are and express]. For there is no philological intelligence possible, if one does not penetrate life itself”. Nietzsche is not far off, of course, but neither is the Aristophanian flame.

39Professor: I find it difficult, however, to fend off the impression that your initiate, Roland, is very likely to be doomed to imitate his master, to be ventriloquized by him for life. Forced to repeat, to what Proust called the involuntary pastiche. His confession at the end of the story remains very disconcerting: “All this is forty years ago [meeting with the master], yet still today, when I am in the middle of a lecture and what I am saying breaks free from me and spreads its wings, I am suddenly, self-consciously aware that it is not I myself speaking, but someone else, as it were, out of my mouth. Then I recognize the voice of the beloved dead, who now has breath only on my lips; when enthusiasm comes over me, he and I are one. And I know that those hours [the hours of the initial meeting] formed me.”

40She: There is a surprising transferential power of speeches, of tones, of gestures, which communicates with the unfathomable unconscious life of the soul. So much so that until the 19th century, Bernheim’s notion of suggestion, which Freud would take up again, was impregnated with connotations of magic, witchcraft, demonic practices… Examples of transference mimicry abound. Wittgenstein told in his “non-courses” that he had noticed one day that he himself was walking like Russell; we have seen passionate young scientists trying to imitate Oppenheimer; and we all know disciples of this or that contemporary French thinker taking on the accent of the master’s voice, even their physiognomic traits, including their stylistic tics.

41But taken as it is, it remains anecdotal; here is the important thing. From his first encounter with the master, Roland, on his way home, takes out of the trunk a volume of Shakespeare and begins to read it, he confides, “I had never had such an experience before.” “I heard my voice unconsciously imitating his, the sentences raced on in the same headlong rhythm, my hands felt impelled to move, arching in the air like his own”. And he concludes: “as if by magic, in a single hour, I had broken through the wall which previously stood between me and the world of the intellect, and passionate as I was by nature, I had discovered a new passion […]”.

42In short: this accent, the voice, the right tone “caught”, has a hermeneutical scope, so to speak: it magically allows meaning to appear (Wittgenstein wrote to a friend: “When the poem is read according to this tone, everything becomes clear!”). And it also has heuristic significance: as soon as you hold air, Proust said, thoughts and words quickly come together on their own.

43Professor: Are you saying that this would be it then – a tone – which would ultimately be transmitted in this case, let’s say by contagion, contracted by the initiator, rather than what the linguist calls a content of signification?

44She: Absolutely! A gesture of intonation, a singular breath, with a power of inspiration, of its own, capable at the very least of inciting minds to research and experimentation. What shall I say? Capable of teaching inspiration itself – the unteachable, par excellence. Which is therefore, once again, quite another thing than the simple transmission of stocks of ready-made knowledge and conventional syntactic turns, which one would have to repeat all one’s life.

45We should move resolutely towards a musical conception of teaching. The course as a vibratory field, matter in movement, flow of tonal, conceptual, and emotional matter. Deleuze’s Sprechgesang.

46It is on this condition that the paradox of teaching, its stake, is possible: to teach others to stand on their own two feet. That is to say, to do without the master-teacher. According to the model of the paradoxical injunction: “Have the courage to think for yourself”. Here again, the analogy with the analyst is essential.

47Professor: This reminds me of the final words of The Fruits of the Earth [Nourritures terrestres], addressed to the reader for whom the book is nevertheless intended: “Nathaniel, throw away my book.”

48She: The teacher is only there to make a difference in the life of the other, to initiate or to convert them, as we say since Socrates, and then to step aside; to let this other be, according to their becoming. This is the teacher’s raison d’être. Someone has formulated it with rare accuracy, extending it to human relationships in general: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”.

49Professor: It sounds like Socrates’s plea in The Apology.

50She: That is Nelson Mandela. In his address to his fellow ANC fighter, Walter Sisulu, at his 90th birthday celebration. It is significant that this is not an academic philosopher speaking here, but an avid fighter for freedom, and for an indivisible freedom (“the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me”).

51And to make a difference in a life, to change it (precisely in the sense in which it is said in The Apology that a life that does not question itself is not worth living), here it means: to transform a frightened young man into someone daring, a lawyer abiding by formal laws into an insurgent, a husband and father into a wandering rebel, or even forcing a lover of life to live as an ascetic monk.

52Professor: I understand that you have been firmly standing by your point since the beginning of our interview, namely the imperative that “we must change life”. Hence the conversion and the initiation. Even if we are treading initially unexpected paths, as with this anti-apartheid struggle, where we go beyond the University, in the strict sense, and where initiation is no longer, or no longer only, a revolution in the second person singular.

53She: A vast subject, in the era of “networks” and the wiring of the planet: where does the University begin and where does it end?… What about, from now on, its so-called inside and its outside?

54Professor: You will grant me in any case that, within the agreed-upon limits of the University today, one cannot imagine that its horizon would be to train insurgents, say, Michael Kohlhaas, or if you prefer, the Yellow Vests, who seem to me, in a sense, to be the Kohlhaas of today; or even what we call climate activists.

55She: Of course, the Freie Universität Berlin of the fifties and the sixties or the Centre universitaire expérimental de Vincennes, are from another age, as you would say. And that does say something about your University’s relationship to honor: its intrinsic rascality, which we were talking about.

56Professor: But since we only have this one, let us return to your apparatus of the teaching relationship. I still do not see how one could, under these conditions, found a “line of resistance” on an apparatus that, I repeat, is outdated. Look at your examples: from Socrates to Freud… They hardly refer to university professors as such. The only ones in your pantheon that one would think could be counted as such – Nietzsche or Wittgenstein – are in fact in deep conflict with the University. Nietzsche left it in its 35th year. And Wittgenstein went so far as to call Cambridge “an English civilization in the process of disintegrating and putrefaction”. As important as their work may be, they are basically anti-academics, to use an epithet that was applied to Lacan.

57She: And that the latter willingly claimed, moreover. But then look at Confusion. The “Socratic” teaching relationship, the originary ancient scene of the typical initiatory encounter, resurfaces in the midst of modern university: in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century.

58Professor: A beautiful work of literary fiction.

59She: It could not have found its strength of veracity if it had not been able to grasp and elaborate the material of a real experience, which was that of the writer and his time. Its literary veracity is the guarantee of its historical possibility. This is obvious when you read Zweig’s short story together with the author’s posthumous autobiography, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European. Well, read the chapter called “Universitas vitae”.

60Professor: But precisely, it is entirely dedicated to what the narrator-hero does outside the University!

61She: The narrator was then in search of the “University of life”, especially on the side of literary experimentation, “the most austere school of life”. But the great discovery will be made by Roland, the hero of Confusion: it is the revelation that the “University of life”, which Zweig sought, can take place within the University itself! And this revelation is Roland’s own initiation. It takes place on the occasion of the improbable meeting with a professor, in fact a true master, certainly lost in the modern unheimlich university, with whom an intense vital, intellectual, and existential relationship could nevertheless be established.

62Professor: It was the world of yesterday… Or if you prefer, the world of yesterday’s University. Zweig wrote about it in his last book as a farewell. It means something. As soon as the manuscript was sent to the publisher, he and his partner took their own lives.

63She: However, beyond the universe of Zweig’s short story, we can observe that the “noncourses” of a Wittgenstein in Cambridge, for example, in the thirties, the scene of his dictations to his students, that anticipate, as if in a strange premonitory vision, the startling pages of Confusion; or even the teaching of a Heidegger in Marburg, inspiring the passion of his Jewish disciples, Strauss, Löwith, Jonas, Anders, which was also the place of his meeting with the young Hannah Arendt – all of these resurgences of the teaching relationship that I am talking about, and many others, less famous perhaps but just as exemplary, do indeed belong to the modern, university space. Where the originary scene of the initiatory encounter can nevertheless always be opened or reopened. A scene in which the writing of Confusion masterfully exposes the axiomatic, if I may say so.

64And as it is to be expected, these are always teachers whose essential person and thought are merged with their teaching. All that precisely, exemplarily, Roland’s unnamed master embodies. In short, we always come back to the so-called Aristophanian model. For the hundredth time: teaching is not filling a vase, it is lighting a fire. And it is precisely to this extent that the teaching relationship can still constitute a last line of resistance in the University – including to the University. It opens up and spawns a kind of external zone inside. Unheimliche, like that famous strangeness that squats the intimate. The extimate thing is always already forgotten and unforgettable.