Dissed: What’s Necessary

Dissed are excerpts from the dissertation that have been cut, killed, excised, burned on the altar of common sense and distance before being left here to not die…

This one hurt to cut. 
I remember thinking how clever I was and how it
"Explained Everything. Duh." 
And, certainly, in looking back I can see the early versions of 
what I was just really starting to grasp. I did bring 
a good chunk of this up in the epilogue, but it took some reshaping. 
I like having an original (albeit excerpted) version of it here 
as part of this archive.  

After all, Sally and this comic were integral parts of the dissertation,
 critical actants that sat in my eye-line (tacked above the computer) 
the entire time I wrote and reminded me

--without a word, with just a glance, without even really realizing it, 
in fact I'm only really realizing it right now as I type these very words--

why I was still sitting in my office chair, still looking for answers. 
Touchstone is too mild a word for that level of presence and pull in the
 overall phenomenon.  

But my true love didn't make it into the final draft:
 the incomplete tracing of the other actants at the end. 
I read that list and that timespace snaps into place around me. 
Fig. 1.1: In this Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, Sally Brown (Charlie Brown’s little sister), attends her elementary school. Originally published March 29, 1971 by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.  Reprinted on page 84 in Peanuts: A Golden Celebration (Larkin 1999).

From an early version of the Introduction:

For the Peanuts, a group of kids in Charles M. Schulz’s famous comic strip of the same name, going to school is less about learning and more about delivering humorous zingers and surprisingly philosophical (for children) statements about life against an always-sparse backdrop meant to read “traditional American public schoolroom.” The focus is always the child, the materiality of the classroom stripped down to carefully chosen objects that can immediately evoke “school”: student desks, chalkboard, the corner of teacher’s desk, sometimes a playground and, here and there, school supplies. But it isn’t just the classroom that is boiled down in Schulz’s oeuvre. Whitespace and clean, spare lines are the hallmark of Peanuts, Schulz’s work “a beacon of simplicity and economy” that “transformed people’s understanding of what comics could be” when it debuted in 1950 amid comics that were still “densely drawn, dialogue-heavy creations” (Kinney 14). As his wife said of his work and its resonance with readers, “it wasn’t necessary to draw every little detail because each reader’s imagination automatically fills in what’s needed” (Schulz 17). Schulz, Jeff Kinney argues, “understood how to make every line count: Nothing extraneous, no waste. Only what’s necessary” (15).

In this particular strip, Sally Brown walks to and arrives at her elementary school. She sits in one of the signature desks—most often in a column—that are usually the setting for the antics between Marcie, the consummate nerd, and Peppermint Patty, the eternal D+ athlete. But over the strip’s fifty year run, no matter which of the characters a particular strip stars, these desks hold the children face-forward in a chain of humans (though oftentimes, as in this strip with Sally, only one student is visible), isolated (though their conversation bubbles often show their interaction with the other humans in the column) and waiting to learn from teachers who are never shown or heard. Knowing that his style was purposefully sparse, we can read Figure 1.1 as an example of what Schulz felt was necessary to invoke reader experiences and imaginations of American public education: only a student and a desk.

And so Sally passively sits, her movement forward through the rest of the strip now arrested by the desk that, as it’s done for countless other students, holds her separate from others and ready for some unknown one or thing or way to offer knowledge.

“Here I am again,” she muses, “…still looking for the answers.”

Drawn as she is, Sally is a visual expression of the autonomous, thinking-I subject at the center of an Enlightenment humanism that still drives how the majority of American education systems (and, arguably, other countries driven largely by Western humanism) approach educating our students: dehumanize in order to humanize (Freire 2000, Snaza 2015). Though the desk is there to keep her in place, it has nothing to teach her (Cartesian humanism would argue) other than how to sit (and that she should). She’s the mind/body split made into a cartoon where nothing else is necessary, where her mind can work to find the answers, to be, against a blank canvas on which each reader can project a different scene or array of objects without changing “the” answer—that objective truth out there—that Sally’s mind searches for.

In taking the question of the nonhuman world seriously, posthumanism argues that the particular classroom (the entirety of actors both human and nonhuman) that Sally intra-acts with (the assemblage that was erased so our minds might project meaning upon it) matters. There isn’t one answer, but answers. And one classroom (assemblage, phenomenon) will create different answers with Sally than another. Whatever is “in” that room that Schulz’s style and his frames filter out, it is necessary because it is the very “stuff” (Alaimo “Thinking as”) she makes meaning and becomes with (indeed, is a part of).

It’s doubtful that Schulz sat down at his desk in 1970 to pen to life a visual embodiment (or I’d say critique) of Western humanist[1] education. He’s saying something through this image of school. Perhaps, considering the overall tone of his fifty-some-odd years of work, something a little more entertaining and relatable, a wink-nudge (such is life: who isn’t still looking for the answers?) with a side of hopeful (but hey: we keep showing up!). It’s also doubtful that when his wife remarked that his style invites readers to use their imaginations that she anticipated a reader like me, whose imagination fills in the blank with: “Look! Sally is the Cartesian-I.” But as postmodern and poststructural theory have taught us over the last decades of the twentieth century into this one, those crisply inked borders Schulz drew around his images don’t keep his intention or the comic’s meaning in and they don’t keep me out. As a text, the comic’s borders don’t begin and end on the page but stretch and accommodate past, present, and future texts that all feed into and from its “meaning” (via intertextuality). As a reader, I create meaning by crossing the text’s borders and bringing all my ideologically, culturally, historically constructed positions with me along with my own intentions.

And here is where posthumanism (in this case, informed by Karen Barad’s agential realism) pushes us from these questions of language and the discursive into the material↔discursive. With posthumanism in the mix, the crossing of predetermined borders becomes a negotiation where the human (me) and the non-human (the comic strip) are now entangled in an intra-active phenomenon (each being their own phenomenon as well and not the only two actors in this phenomenon besides). Here, boundaries do not preexist our encounter, but instead, via discursive practices—not, in this theory necessarily language, but instead “boundary-drawing practices” that diffract (Barad Meeting 375)—make each of the actors in this phenomenon intelligible to the other in a determinate, impermanent, particular, negotiated-between-us mattering. Where, matter “is not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency” (Barad “Posthuman” 139) and agency is not an “attribute” that one or more of us has but “dynamism” (or the “ongoing reconfigurings of the world”) (Barad Meeting 141). Entangled as I am in this now-materialized phenomenon (you’re reading an artifact of its materialization now which is not to be confused with the materialization itself), to speak objectively is not to pass off the meaning made between all the actors in this phenomenon as a discovered truth (or stable knowledge) out in the world or as “the” answer found by my detached observations (made, much like Sally, from a desk). Instead, it is to speak from an “ethic of mutual relation” (Taylor “Edu-crafting” 8)(my emphasis), an ethics grounded in responsibility to the cuts we make (Barad 2007), where I acknowledge that, as a writer (much like a scientist or teacher), I purposefully curated this particular comic into the apparatus I used to approach the question “How do I introduce my project?” And that my choice in constructing my apparatus made particular agential cuts that, in deciding what matters (i.e. using this comic instead of another or pairing it with the particular epigraphs before it and not other quotes), created meaning and articulated it in a way another cut might not have. And to acknowledge that, as such, the making of meaning (or in this case answering a specific question) needed more than my self and a desk.

And though the words that express those answers are indeed written across a vast whitespace much like Sally is drawn against, the exact words (much like Schulz’s exact lines) didn’t come from my brain alone and out through a singular technology but are one articulation of a vast entanglement of actors: a copy of the comic taped above my computer and pasted at the top of this document, the cheeseballs fueling this writing session, the movie Clue running continuously in the background to keep me focused, the pain in my recently-fractured wrist and the Advil that makes it possible to keep typing, the keyboard that got drowned in tea yesterday but is still ticking today, the epigraphs, everything on the Works Cited page and dozens of other texts littered across my workspace, the drafts of future chapters that are shaping where I go with the line of thought in this introduction, my own memories of being a student in public education, the desks I sat in then (and hated) and the one I work at (and adore) now, my new puppy literally laying across my office threshold in a rare nap which I will not (even wanting to stop working today) disturb by getting up, the comfy chair that makes that decision bearable and, consequently, determines that the words on this page are today’s words instead of how I might word it another day… the list goes on and is, likely, incalculable. But the point is that meaning is contingent, emergent, situated, etc. and not just because of the slippery nature of language as a human construct but because reality itself is emergent and language and humans are only two of the vast and myriad material↔discursive phenomena participating in the world’s continual (and differential) becoming (Barad Meeting). I do not end at my skin (Haraway “A Manifesto”) and any answers I find along the way are found with the larger non-human world. And while Schulz (on purpose or not) depicts Sally as looking for answers as a bounded, autonomous self, his choice to draw her that way was the result of his own varied yet particular intra-actions with a vibrant (Bennett 2010) and trans-corporeal (Alaimo “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms”) human and nonhuman world.

In taking the material turn, posthumanism as characterized above and which I calibrate my teaching and work to doesn’t abandon the work done in the linguistic turn or through social constructivism, feminism, or post-colonialism, but takes the theories already working through the posts and (re)calibrates them to the more-than-human (Alaimo “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms”). The decentering of the human in both posthumanism and its application to education, then, is not a symbolic move (Pedersen “Is the ‘Posthuman’ Educable?”), but an actual (re)calibration of the way we understand our relation with the world, a (re)calibration that understands human skin as porous, as permeable a boundary (Alaimo) as the one Schulz penned in ink.

[1] Just as there are varying forms of posthumanism, there are different forms of humanism. I am critiquing, in particular, a Cartesian humanism that depends on the mind/body split. But, even in the more critical humanisms, as I’ll argue, the lingering human/nonhuman binary that stems from that original split is still problematic.

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