That was a thing that happened


Still haven’t written that review, still jammed up at the beginning of semester, so I guess I’ll do the same thing I did last time and blog about something I did in class.

So a while ago I wrote about a kind of art that turns performance into a “thing that happens.” I have taught a couple of classes on similar subjects — mostly to do with counterculture and the postwar avant-garde, for which these ideas contained in the previous post are particularly important. (You can read my book for a history of how these ideas play out in postwar American culture.) In these classes, I often end up saying, with respect to some class discussion or activity, “that was a thing that happened.”

Academics often take on some of the coloration of the ideas they study. At an AMS meeting, you can usually tell who are the plainchant scholars and who’s delivering a paper at the punk and metal session. So perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve sometimes found it useful to create event scores — instructions for things that happen — and use them in my classes. Not for every class, god forbid (this isn’t dinner theater), and I tend to write them for very particular situations and groups of students. And these kinds of . . . . what, games? pieces? rituals? can go badly wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing. (And you can’t always know what you’re doing.) They’re powerful tools and should be handled with respect. But used sparingly — at the right time, at the right place, and with the right people — they can change the game.

I wrote about some early experiments in this line back in the pre-hiatus days here, here, and here. (And I should probably mention the good old hand experiment again.) The most recent piece I did was the following, titled “Deus Absconditus,” which I deployed on my “Technologies of Experience” seminar from last year. In case you’re wondering, it worked a treat. The coin throws turned up in such a way that I basically could say nothing for two hours, and the students, unencumbered by the weight of my mansplaining, had a seminar discussion of such sustained intensity and brilliance I still can’t quite believe it happened. You’ll just have to take my word for it, I’m afraid. That’s the thing with things that happen: you had to be there.

Deus Absconditus

As a theological concept, the “God who left” (deus absconditus) is a kind of thought-experiment for action. The deus absconditus is not the God that died or even the God that failed, and it is certainly not what many think of as God—an omniscient and omnipotent father who cares for, instructs, judges, punishes, and rewards his children. The deus absconditus is more like the Dad who went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned. Once he existed and exerted his influence on those around him, but now he is gone and we don’t know why or where he went. He left a situation for us to deal with and, whether we like it or not, that’s what faces us now. But you never know, he might come back and tell us what to do. Or at least give us some idea. Maybe he’s still exerting his influence in some hidden way. Or maybe he’ll never come back. We act in the awareness that any of these possibilities might be the right one, and also in the awareness that we will never know, or at least if we might know at some future point, we cannot know now. The deus absconditus brings with it what Norman Mailer would have called an existential condition. We are challenged to act “in a situation where we cannot foretell the end.”

It is tolerably clear that classrooms model different kinds of power relations, and the typical power relation of the professor to his or her students is one of the boss to her workers, or the king to his subjects—or, lying at the back of all these pictures of social relations, the image of how God relates to suffering humanity.

So the point of this piece is to model one variant of the usual classroom relations. The professor is still God, but a defective and irresponsible one. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but he’s got some explaining to do. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Anyway, the process is this: the professor (me, in this case) chooses several passages of the writing under discussion that he deems especially significant, but does not explain what he takes to be their significance. He just reads them out loud, one by one, falling silent for a certain length of time after each one. The students must discuss each passage in turn and try to say what it means, why the professor thought it was important, whether they think it’s important, whether they think it matters at all, which passages it reminds them of, and so on. They make something of it.

The duration of each period of the professor’s silence will be generated, in proper Cagean style, by consulting the I Ching. The I Ching consists of sixty-four hexagrams (vertical arrays of lines, which may be broken or solid) chosen by a system of coin throws. The number of the hexagram will equal the number of minutes of silence the professor will observe. The professor will throw the coins before reading each new passage but will not tell the students which hexagram he has divined. This means that each period of student discussion might last anywhere from one to sixty-four minutes, but the students will never know how much time they have. The professor will keep careful track of the time and interrupt the discussion regardless of wherever it might happen to be.

In the I Ching, some of the lines generated by coin tosses are called “moving lines.” These obey the logic of enantiodromia:* they are solid lines in the process of breaking, or broken lines in the process of coming together. In the I Ching, particular pieces of advice are associated with each moving line. The professor will read these but not divulge them. He can choose to act on them in any way that seems fitting to the situation and the meaning of the text—even, in rare cases, overriding the rules of this process itself.

* See Phil Ford, Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 2013), 172-77.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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