Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The First Annual Michel Foucault/Carlos Fuentes Lecture on Cultural Studies | 25th Annual Commencement of the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences | Featuring Professor Paul Ryan Schneider, Purdue University

A transcript of Professor Ryan's talk for the MALAS graduates of 2013:

Madness and Delinquency. . . or, What Would You Do if Carlos Fuentes and Michel Foucault Showed Up at Your MALAS Graduation Party?

Ryan Schneider
Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
Department of English and Program in American Studies
Purdue University

A few years ago, I did some advising for undergraduates who had been chosen to give speeches at graduation.  I took over the job from a senior faculty member who was retiring after nearly 30 years.  When I got the assignment, I asked him if he might give me some advice—some tips for how to handle the students.  He told me that nearly every undergraduate who had been asked to speak had come to him with the same wish: they wanted their graduation speech to be “different.”  I told him that sounded reasonable.  He responded by saying that such a wish was not at all reasonable that that when I was approached by students who wanted to do something different with their speeches that I should do everything possible to talk them out of it. I asked him why. What was wrong with encouraging students to try something new or unexpected?  After all, isn’t that precisely the kind of original thinking we’re supposed to cultivate in our students?  Why compel them to follow a standard blueprint?  He sighed.  And smiled.  And he laughed. 

And then he told me about some of the students he had worked with over the years: the English major and budding poet who wanted to give a speech entirely in iambic pentameter; the Drama major who wanted to use her speech to do an improve comedy sketch; the Sci-Fi Fantasy lover who wanted to do use the speech to do a tribute to Joss Whedon; the Linguistics major who wanted to give his 15-minute address in Klingon; and, my personal favorite, the Film major who wished to give a speech comprised of exclusively of quotes from the movie “The Princess Bride” (to which, of course, the only response an advisor could ever give would be: “Inconceivable!”) 

And then he explained to me that graduation speakers need to be advised to do four things if they want to be successful: 1) thank the people who deserve be thanked; 2) offer advice to the people who deserve advice; 3) congratulate the people who deserve to be congratulated; and 4) never wait too long to give your audience that one magic phrase they most want to hear . . . “in conclusion.”

So after several years of doing my own advising of undergraduates who want to do something new and different with their graduation speeches, I am going to see if I can follow those same four pieces of advice myself here today.   Here goes:

Number 1: Thank the people who deserve to be thanked:

Bill, thank you very much for that kind and generous introduction. You have been a friend and mentor to me for more than a decade—since I arrived at San Diego State in the Fall of 1999 to begin my first job as an assistant professor, straight out of graduate school, and desperately in need of guidance and support in every regard. You were—and still are—an academic Godfather to me, just as I know you are for everyone involved with the MALAS program.  Indeed you are the best kind of Godfather any of us could ever hope to have: eminently wise, endlessly patient, unceasingly kind, preternaturally charming, highly efficient, and, always, always looking out for the people who matter.  (I’ve even heard it whispered that you are, like a young Marlon Brando in his prime, devastatingly handsome, but that is not for me to judge.) 

I will always be in your debt, intellectually and professionally, and, what’s more, I am thrilled to owe you everything that I do. Because I know that owing you means I have already received something worth far more than I can ever repay.  And I am quite sure—absolutely certain, in fact—that my feelings hold true for every student and every faculty member who has been—or ever will be—part of the MALAS program. 

Speaking of which. . .

It is most definitely my privilege and my pleasure to be here today to present the first annual Michel Foucault/Carlos Fuentes Commencement Lecture and to mark the 25th anniversary for the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences program here at San Diego State University.   And I want to underscore that privilege by thanking the College of Arts and Letters for its continued support of the MALAS program; it is a wonderful thing—and, I should add, a rather rare thing these days—for a university to demonstrate the institutional will and dedication to sustain and nurture a top-flight graduate program; to have that support from the College of Arts and Letters here at San Diego State is not a thing to be taken lightly, and never, ever a thing to be taken for granted.

Most important: I want to thank to all of you for allowing me to share this moment in time with you as a guest at your academic table of celebration.  It is all too easy to forget how truly special the concept of commencement is—as a ceremonial means of marking a point of achievement and as a kind of secular sacrament for re-affirming a sense of community.  Or, in the case of MALAS, something even more intimate and meaningful than community: a sense of family. 

Which brings me to Number 2: Offer advice to people who deserve advice:

MALAS graduates: it is crucial to bear in mind today that this commencement—your commencement—is not strictly about you.  And it’s not about your faculty either. Or even our amazing Godfather, Professor Nericcio. . . .

It’s about your relation to something that is far, far larger than all of that—and yet extremely intimate at the same time.  Yes, this commencement, like any good community send-off, is a means for signaling your accomplishments as an individual.  But it is also a way of dramatizing the meaning of those accomplishments, a way of illuminating them by placing them within a broader context. In this case, that context is your MALAS family: a family that has sustained you and will continue to sustain you in ways that you will not fully realize or appreciate until long after this day is done and you’ve moved on, literally or figuratively, towards yet another new horizon and a fresh set of experiences, people, places, and ideas.

So how should you approach this commencement?  This celebration of You and your connections to those with whom you’ve traveled this path?  What to do?  How to act?  What to say? What to Think? How to Feel?  Have you been wondering about such questions?  Perhaps you’ve even figured out some of your own answers.  And perhaps some of those answers might even be right. . . .

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Remember the key to successful research: always consult the best sources first.  Find out what wisdom they offer, and then make your decisions accordingly.  We know our sources: Michel Foucault, one of the most talented and accomplished thinkers of our time Even now, almost 30 years after his death, he remains the most cited of all scholars in the humanities, by far.  And Carlos Fuentes, one of the most talented and accomplished writers of our time: now, almost exactly one year removed from his death, he remains a most powerful touchstone and inspiration for those of us who conceive of our work scholars and teachers as a form of creative expression: as a form of art that inextricably links imagination and pedagogy, aesthetics and scholarship.

What they would tell you, I think, if they happened to make an appearance at your MALAS graduation party, is that you cannot lead your life—you cannot do the work you wish to do—without a little bit of madness and a little bit of delinquency.  Because if you have just a little bit of madness about you, now and then, and you are a little bit delinquent, from time to time, then you are not leading your life in accordance with the normal expectations for how one should think, feel, and act.  You are, in other words, deviating from the standard course that most people would call the right way to go.

Foucault spoke of this in an interview he gave just a few months before his death.  He reminded us that madness is its own form of knowledge, its own means of asking and answering questions that others might not otherwise pursue. And that the same is true for delinquency: t means not always following the blueprint that is handed to you.  In fact, he called himself a kind of delinquent because he chose not to be “encased in ideology”—meaning he chose not to be defined entirely by the norms and conventions that he himself did not have the chance to interrogate, analyze, and accept or reject.  To be clear: Foucault is not talking about pointless rebellion or resistance solely for the sake of resistance.  What he wants is a serious interplay of questions and answers in which you have a right to “remain unconvinced” “to perceive a contradiction”  “to require more information” “to point out faulty reasoning” and to recognize yourself as both possessing authority yet never become subservient to authority itself.  (references and quotes from “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault” conducted by Paul Rabinow, 1984;  See Essential Works of Foucault, vol. 1 “Ethics”, trans. Lydia Davis, The New Press, 1998)

In this sense, Foucault is on precisely the same page, literally and figuratively, as our other source of wisdom: Carlos Fuentes.  Here is a brief quote from Fuentes’ autobiographical philosophical collection of essays entitled: This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life:  Fuentes writes, “"In the university, everyone can be right, but nobody has the power to be right by force, and nobody has the force to insist upon one single way of perceiving what is or is not right."

There is a certain elegance and economy to Fuentes’s assertion: he suggests that you must be just a little bit mad and a little bit delinquent to insist that everyone can be right, but that there is no single way of perceiving what does or does not count as right. 

What matters most for both Foucault and Fuentes is not the knowledge or the art or the truth in and of themselves but rather the way in which knowledge or art or truth are determined and re-determined by individual perception. 

Which brings me to Number 3: Congratulate the people who deserve to be congratulated:

So congratulations and thanks to each of you—students, family, friends, professors, each of you has already shown yourself to be possessed of just a touch of madness and just a dollop of delinquency—else you would not be part of the MALAS family.

Congratulations in particular to: Sean, Trevor, Stephanie, Jennifer, Victor, Yadira, Leticia, Malinda, Allison, Diane, Sophia, Jim, Marla, Francisco, Richard, Sharon, Caleb, Tashi, Jonathan, Jenny, Siobhan, and Richard. 

Now, for Rule Number Four: the phrase you’ve all been waiting so patiently to hear. . . “in conclusion.”  And in conclusion, I’m going to leave you with a quote that I think epitomizes the wonderful spirit of the MALAS program.  So if Foucault and Fuentes should happen to put in a supernatural appearance at your graduation party, you’ll have something to offer them (in addition to a nice cold drink!).  The quote is from T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and it is part of a scene in which the wizard Merlin is advising the young Arthur about how to overcome his melancholy:

“’The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it them—to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.  Look at what a lot of things there are to learn—pure science, the only purity there is.  You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics.’”  (from Book 1, Chapt. 1)

And, after learning all of that, MALAS graduates, the pay-off is not only a recipe for happiness. . . but also the fact that you can then start all over again.  For there is always more you’ll want to learn.    

Thank you. 

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