Reading the Difficult Text

By Brown, Matthew | Radical Teacher, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Reading the Difficult Text


Brown, Matthew, Radical Teacher


Can we convince our students that a part-time job at Wal-Mart or Barnes and Noble will help to create a global, collective democracy? It's doubtful: most of the students I have talked to about their jobs at mega corporations believe they are, and I quote exactly, "selling out to the Man." According to many globalization theorists, however, they may not be selling out at all--they may, in fact, be potential dissidents, even radical actors. To appreciate these almost counterintuitive claims, I recently asked one of my undergraduate classes to read several excerpts from two books about labor and radicalism: Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004), both written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I felt that these books would interest my students, mainly because most of them are full-time students who also work twenty to forty and even fifty hours a week to pay for their education. Empire suggests that we are living through a new order of global sovereignty, which the authors name "network power"--a system of nodes and networks that includes, as its primary nodes, the dominant nation-states, international institutions like the United Nations, and major capitalist corporations. No one entity rules Empire but, rather, Empire depends upon the circulation of power through this complex play of nodes and networks. If Empire seeks to describe, multitude aspires to mobilize. This second term, multitude, is a metaphor for the possibilities of a global, collective resistance to Empire. Simply put, multitude summons our "being in common" under the conditions of labor produced by Empire and, in so doing, recognizes these conditions as foremost sites of resistance. On this point, Hardt and Negri write:

   In today's productive matrix, the
   constituent power of labor can be
   expressed as self-valorization of the
   human (the equal right of citizenship
   for all over the entire sphere of
   the world market); as cooperation
   (the right to communicate, construct
   languages, and control communication
   networks); and as political
   power, or really as the constitution
   of a society in which the basis of
   power is defined by the expression
   of the needs of all. (1)

In short, the collective power of labor expresses and is directed by the need of the multitude and can develop, so Hardt and Negri claim, into "absolute democracy in action."

My students' primary response to Hardt and Negri was frustration: they felt their claims to be insightful but also abstract, written in gnarly, difficult prose, and hard to reconcile with their particular feelings about work. These two major terms, empire and multitude, persistently vexed the class. On the one hand, they remained compelling metaphors, especially useful for framing debates about power and opposition, situations of domination, and collective attitudes of dissent. On the other, the terms sparked discontent because they were perceived to be difficult, difficult in ways that were both compelling and enervating. In what follows, I want to offer a few observations about my experiences teaching students how to effectively read and respond to theorists like Hardt and Negri or novelists like Nuruddin Farah, writers who address the complex state of affairs created by Empire through work that might come off as unfamiliar, obscure, unnecessarily abstract, or estranging--quite simply, writing that is difficult, even frustrating. Because so many writers some of us teach are difficult for these reasons, we are right to wonder if this "absolute democracy in action" requires another kind of labor in the classroom. In this essay, I have a different form of labor in mind, labor that is also self-valorizing, cooperative, and political in the ways implied by Hardt and Negri: the labor of reading and critically responding to the difficult text. Two of my recent classes, both entitled Postcolonial Literary Studies, are the real subject of this essay, the first an undergraduate class with an enrollment of twenty-five students, the second a graduate seminar with nine. …

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