Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Ministerial Message



After Franz Kafka*

From her political deathbed**, the Secretary of State has sent you a message; you, the least assuming teacher of the least assessed year group of the most rural school. Barely graced as you are by the light of the imperial sun (which, in hushed tones, all those around you say hangs lower in the sky than it used to), the shadows around you are long, but your eye is still trained daily on the glory of an incandescent firmament, and this alone makes you worthy of the ailing minister's epistle.

Distrustful of the written form, which has failed emperors and her alike before, the Secretary has not dispatched a missive but recorded a video message. It is scripted of course, but with the addition of her earnest facial expressions and firm, friendly tone, how could you fail to understand her? Neither is this her first attempt to correspond with teachers, so gone now is the black background, ingenuously and erroneously designed to remove distractions from her previous, sombre communiqué.  Lessons have been learned, and this message is recorded in a bright, middle-class home office. What could be more familiar and reassuring to you than that?


The message is recorded, and the Secretary on her political deathbed is initially pleased with it. There is a look on the media management intern's face as he publishes the video that troubles her, but nothing is said between them (as how could it be?), and it is posted. Her unease will soon lift. Death's proximity makes all things lighter.

In an instant, the Secretary of State is speaking to you. Her digital facsimile stares you in the eye and you hear, but cannot understand, the message. For how could you? You know it is there, but it struggles to connect in your mind with the right meanings.

Powerful words though they are, bearing the ministerial seal as they do, they fight in your mind through a throng of parliamentary secretaries and press advisers who you know vetted and approved them. They are the grey-clad ceremonial guard of all political deaths, and as you imagine them, the Secretary's words lose some of their motive power.

Having made it past this first hurdle, they have yet to push past an army of spads, wonks, think tanks and focus groups that you know helped to forge them into weapons. The army is not large, but it is armed and well organised, and as you hear their secret strategising, the message loses some of its voice.

Should the words be as indefatigable as the Secretary herself, having made it this far, they will yet have to compete for your attention with the amassed media messages that besiege your mind. As you think of those, you almost forget there was a message, and find yourself fascinated by her clothes, by the ornaments on the window-sill behind her. (Why two clocks?)

If they could break that siege (but that could never happen!) how fast those words would fly, and soon you would know with certainty the Secretary's dying wish, but you sit before your screen remembering only vaguely that she has invited you to ask her a question.

You think wryly that there is no question you could ask that she might understand, and dream instead of dancing together.

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* This story is inspired by Franz Kafka's An Imperial Message, available to read here.
** We are given to understand that every politician is perennially on his or her political deathbed, prey each passing second to the ardours of public opinion and shifting sands of accountability. The life political, by this token, is the most existential there is, and most painful. Whether this is a myth concocted by politicians to dissimulate the trappings of power, or a rightful balance our ancestors imbued democracy with, is hotly debated in certain esoteric societies. 


Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Academy Of Babel


"Perhaps knowledge succeeds in engendering knowledge, ideas in transforming themselves and modifying one another (but how? - historians have not yet enlightened us on this point)."
Michel Foucault, The Order Of Things


"Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.
Finally but why?
To learn to live: a strange watchword. [...] Will we ever know how to live and first 
of all what "to learn to live" means? And why finally?"
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

A spectre haunts the Academy
I cling yet to a memory of his face. My teacher. My mentor. My guide to the learned mysteries and invented masteries of the Academy. Yet it is like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea; Each new discovery threatens to erase him. The infinite nature of the Academy makes a mockery of my capacity to learn, but I know that this fading face and I are bound by an ineffable logic. Without me, he will cease to be. As will I without him. 

My epistème, the Academy is the licensor of all that I know, and emancipator of all that I have forgotten. Such mocking forgetfulness, I am certain my master knew intimately, but he omitted to acquaint me with its ways. Wasn't I worthy of such initiation? Or have I forgotten it? My lifetime has been spent wandering the hexagonal classrooms that make up the Academy's mystical architecture. Now, in the twilight imposed by my waning sight, I am forced to stop in this darkened classroom, and reflect.

I am uncertain how I came to be in the Academy, whether I was born in it or brought to it. It seems that any answer I might give to that question would be tantamount to a myth of origins, and I am the least worthy subject for such a grand narrative. Far more worthy of the little time I have left is the story of the Academy itself, were it possible to tell it. The proliferation of such epics testifies to the value of the endeavour: They are to be found in many a hexagon, pored over by zealous disciples, transcribed by dutiful scholars, and glanced at with or without reverence by lost souls like myself.

Some surmise from such volumes that the Academy is infinite in space, and has neither beginning nor end in time. Others, from sources just as credible, infer that it was created and awaits its destruction. It is measurable, with enough determination and discipline. Those of the first persuasion compete feverishly for classrooms within which to trade new, ephemeral and disruptive ideas. Those who adhere to the latter dogma purge the Academy of heresies and with missionary zeal ensure their canonical texts make their way to every hexagon. To the Disruptors, the future of the Academy is a beautiful blank page, and the past a foreign country. To the Gideons, the future is an evil imminent, and only the lessons of golden ages past can prepare us for it.

A mystical architecture
Among the teachers and students of the Academy (where everyone is both a teacher and a student), the Wanderers outnumber the warrior philosophers of these eternal clans. Among them, some have formed alliances: to arbitrate truces, to sue for truth and reconciliation, to care for the casualties of the conflict, even to codify the rules of engagement. My master was a Wanderer. Long after the abrupt end of my apprenticeship, I too committed to the undecided life. With and without him, like most Wanderers, I have fought for the Gideons, stood up for the Disruptors, and aided and abated a myriad of mediations. Not all my efforts have been in vain.

In my senectitude, through classroom after classroom, I have felt a spectre haunting the Academy. Not the spectral architect, article of faith of the Gideons, nor the spectral whiteness of the Disruptors' unwritten futures, but the spectre of a secret, hidden in plain sight. Having but little of that sense left, I can barely grasp at its portent: Only now at the end of my wandering have my steps felt as the result of my own agency, and a great laughter has seized my breast.

Some believe that among all the hexagons, somewhere is to be found the hexagon, the first and last classroom, the alpha and the omega, in which is contained the source code of all the teachings of all the classrooms of the Academy. As I write these words in perceptibly growing darkness, I fancy that I have found it. It resembles a cave, and shadows dance upon its walls. My teacher is gone, and I know that I will never leave this classroom.

Rest, rest perturbed Spirit! Finally, I have learned to live.

The Academy is unlimited, and cyclical.