Aesthetic Education (or, On Learning How to Swim)

toe and hand

The Umpire Whispers, “Please Play” documents the encounter between a swimming coach and his student, a former competitive swimmer. As an artist, the ex-swimmer returns to visit her coach, and requests to recreate a massaging situation in which both coach and swimmer used to be involved. The film raises some questions about the coach’s relation to the children whom he is teaching. It also raises questions, however, about the importance of such teaching in our societies in general.

Such questions belong, Marcel Mauss notes, to an “ill-demarcated” domain of science that nevertheless confronts extremely “urgent problems.” What can the ethnologist derive from the fact that “my generation does not swim as the present generation does”? Mauss writes: “Previously, we were taught to dive after having learned to swim. And when we were learning to dive, we were taught to close our eyes and then to open them underwater. Today, the technique is the other way around. The whole training begins by getting the children accustomed to keeping their eyes open underwater. Thus, even before they can swim, particular care is taken to get the children to control their dangerous but instinctive ocular reflexes; before all else they are familiarized with the water, their fears are suppressed, a certain confidence is created, suspensions and movements are selected. Hence, there is a technique of diving and a technique of education in diving that have been discovered in my day.”

The passage links techniques of diving to techniques of education, suggesting that the history of diving might reveal something about the history of education. Do you learn to dive before you learn to swim, or the other way round? Do you dive with your eyes open or closed? And how may the difference between these two modes of diving reflect two different modes of subjectification–blind yourself to your reflexes/ control your reflexes (clearly, these are two very different modes of mastery)? One wonders also, given Mauss’ insistence on technique, on a “technè” or “art” of the body, to what extent the questions that are raised here relate to those of an aesthetic education.

In a recent interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on “Aesthetic Education and Globalization,” the image of swimming and of training to swim reappears in a fascinating way. “For an aesthetic education,” Spivak says, “it is better to do as we often used to do, to wander in the library stacks, because you would see things that you hadn’t thought about before. … The important thing is to welcome the loss of control.” Because of this, her formula for aesthetic education is “training the imagination for epistemological performance.” This means to go (to swim?) “upstream from content,” into the aesthetic realm where the “object to know” is constructed. Spivak insists that this is also a political move. “Without aesthetic education … there is only stupid politics.”

References: Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body [1934].” In: Crary, Jonathan and Sanford Kwinter, eds. Incorporations. New York: Zone, 1992; Cathy Caruth, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Aesthetic Education and Globalization.” PMLA 125.4 (2010). Image: Jumana Manna, The Umpire Whispers “Please Play”, Double Channel HD video, 22:00 min, 2010.


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