On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.
Headlines suggest vaccines are approaching readiness. I’m hopeful on that front — though I dread the winter ahead. We wish to travel north to visit family over break. We wish to gather to celebrate Frankie’s birthday and the holidays: Christmas and New Year’s. We also wish to raise and decorate a Christmas tree here in our home in the weeks ahead, like the one we kept in our apartment last winter before and after Frankie’s birth. When time allows, I bundle up in a hoodie and jacket to gather up bundles of sticks, like that figure from the Tarot. I sit at the picnic table in the yard on a cold afternoon, enjoying a calm moment: light Doppler effect coupled with birdsong. Wind rustles leaves, gathers occasionally for light gusts.
The Friday of the craziest week of my teaching career greets me with news of allowances, reason for happiness, a promotion. Friends and family email, text, and call to congratulate me, even as the local bakery announces temporary suspension of operations following state-wide “shelter in place” orders, community in a kind of lockdown of unspecified duration. Time to try one’s hand at a loaf of Pain au Levain.
What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.
Aloha, fellow islands in the net. This social distancing thing is weird, y’all. Takes some getting used to — even as that is exactly what we don’t want to happen. We go on walks amid flowers and vegetables. What will it be like when we move to a new home on the far edge of the city? We will walk amid our garden. The song on the soundtrack is a sad one, Link Wray’s “Ice People.” But then ESG comes to the rescue with their song “Come Away,” and all is better.
We’ve begun purchase on a home. A Craftsman bungalow fixer-upper on a decent-size piece of land. And I’ve drafted my job talk amid the disruptions of a pandemic. Big changes ahead, but also “continuity of instruction.” Despite the pandemic, I remain oriented toward hope. “Social distancing” is necessary for the time being, but no need to be excessive about it. We’ll grill, we’ll cook, we’ll garden, we’ll grow. By these means, we build the Oikos of our dreams.