“And You will Play the Trouble Maker”

| May 29, 2010

I’ve been reading Eyal Weizman’s excellent book Hollow Land recently, recommended to me by a colleague. It is a quite striking analysis of what Weizman calls “Israel’s Architecture of Occupation,” a fluid set of territorial and architectural strategies that effectively constitute a working, material, politics. Architecture as one of the many speeds and faces of war, if you will.

I want to carefully defer on the political position of his work, knowing full well that elision is an inadequate response. But also having been trained well to know that treading casually on such terrain is dangerous. Weizman, however, makes a compelling argument for this training-in-caution itself as a politico-territorial strategy: reinforcing the notion that things are hopelessly and dangerously complex, not to be solved by the outsider or those whose very existence seems to stand for the complexity. So I will press on.

In fact, I want to touch on one particular strategy Weizman details, one which struck chords of recognition: I’ve seen this before, and in Education.

Let us call it the politics of shit.

In every day parlance, we know politicians are bullshitters and muckrakers, and we can easily imagine the knee-deep shit-slinging in which no party is left above the fray. But Weizman hones in on a much more sophisticated analysis of the differential working of sewage. And in it, I think we can see a much more general strategy that is not restricted to the overtly geo-political domain.

Sewage

In a brilliant analysis of the topography of the area—and how despite the cordoning off of geo-political areas, water still tends to flow downhill—Weizman shows how these conditions entail both a liability and working strategy around the issue of sewage.

The topography of the West Bank guarantees that all raw sewage from hilltop settlements will pass down a valley next to a Palestinian town or village and that, mixing with Palestinian sewage, traveling along the same open valleys, it will eventually end up in Israeli territory. […] The closures and barriers of the recent Intifada thus created the very condition against which they sought to fortify. The accumulated dirt within the walled-off Palestinian areas confirmed the hygienic phobia of Zionism. Blurring the literal with the metaphorical, the piles of dirt and sewage affirmed a common national-territorial imagination that sees the presence of Palestinians as a ‘defiled’ substance within the ‘Israeli’ landscape. (20)

One creates the very condition one abhors, linking it to one group, while not acknowledging one’s own participation in creating the conditions. But it goes even further.

By inducing dirt and raw sewage, Israel could go on demanding the further application of its hygienic practices of separation and segregation. The legitimacy of these acts is defined as an immediate reaction to its own violation. The result is an ever-radicalizing feedback loop…. (20)

Questions for the Classroom

Turning to education, I can only think of the all too typical lament of in-service teachers: “why do you make me yell at you?!” The implementation of “discipline” creating the very conditions that generate the behavior that then validates the sanctions in turn. And around and around we go.

It is not, of course, restricted to yelling. Quite the opposite. The scenario of the imperturbably rational, well-meaning teacher, bracketing out and bringing a student to an angry fit, while asking why they are behaving that way, is equally relevant.

To be sure, the teachers themselves are subject to forces all too often hidden or poorly understood. And it may be that this political operation thrives under a kind of strategic bewilderment rather than outright Machiavellian precision. By its nature its workings hide themselves, even in plain sight. The structures of time and space at work in a school, working in lockstep with curriculum, recede into the background, while the discourse of ADD, “special needs,” or classroom management come to the fore, focusing on the students who react to the structures. One does not have to look to long before one finds these distinctions following traditional racial lines as well.

Of course, these racial workings go underground. And likewise it is somehow clearly dangerous to speak of hygienics openly as part of the educational discourse any longer (although it comes up surprisingly often in the day to day frustrations of teachers.) And in the democratic vision of contemporary American education, the language of exclusionary warfare and rhetoric of us vs. them goes underground. But the idea that education fights a battle of inclusion within is strong. The message seems to be “do you see that we are trying to save you, and that you resist?” Played out day by day, minute by minute, these roles are quickly entrenched. A stalemate ensues in which both sides wind up banking on a strategy of simply getting through it.

Do schools exist and educate despite these appalling conditions, or do they in some way function specifically as the theater for this narrative? At the very least we can see that the architectural and systemic conditions are not as neutral as they feign. And the solutions themselves must be carefully examined for the ways in which they may perpetuate the very conditions they deplore. No doubt an uneasy task.