Fall 2010

O Seminar!

Witz and Blitz in the classroom

Emily Apter

Michel Foucault at the University of California, Berkeley in October 1983, wearing a cowboy hat given to him by his students in a seminar on the arts of government. Courtesy David Horn.

I do not think I will give you my teaching in the form of a pill; I think that would be difficult.
—Jacques Lacan, “The Place, Origin and End of My Teaching”1

The “theory” seminar has become a ubiquitous feature of most humanities curricula in the United States since its emergence in the 1970s. A mixed form, its content is often grafted from translations of European philosophy and Critical Theory as well as (more recently) from the published records and audio/video transcripts of other seminars by leading figures, such as Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, among others. With composite origins, primarily American and European, the “theory” seminar has been relatively un-theorized as a form in its own right.

Ephemeral, and contingent on a given group of actors assembled at a specific time and place, the seminar may be seen as an elusive pedagogical medium conscripted by a host of disparate disciplines and practices to different ends. In the case of the “theory” seminar, the form itself is frequently the subject of the seminar (those of Lacan and Derrida are perhaps the most salient examples of this effect). This self-interrogatory mode echoes Pierre Bourdieu’s title “Leçon sur la leçon,” an inaugural lecture delivered at the Collège de France in 1982, where, in addition to taking aim at the “social functions and social fictions” of professional transference—at the “magisterial” imposition of the pedagogical habitus, and its consecration in France as an institutional mediator of power and class hierarchy—Bourdieu performs the paradoxical situation of a speaker in a position of authority talking with authority about what it means to speak with authority. His goal is to train a critical sociology on the self-perpetuating institutions of “universitas, collegium, societas, and consortium.”2 In adding seminarium to this list, we are interested first and foremost in a subset of institutional pedagogy, one particularly given over to self-interrogation as its distinguishing symptom.

Although one can trace distinct forms of the seminar to the Socratic dialogue staged in the Greek agora, to Talmudic group study of the Hebrew Torah, or to Koranic recitation in the madrassa, the term itself derives from the Latin seminarium, meaning seed bed, plot, place of work and cultivation (semino, “to sow,” whence semen, seed, etc.) These agronomic associations are fully tapped in Virgil’s Georgics, with references to semina (young vines) and, more metaphorically, to habits children form in the nursery (seminarium).3 The French word pépinière, the growing place for young plants and a term often used to describe the pipeline funneling France’s most gifted students into elite schools and publishing circles, carries this meaning forward. To grow a mind or to enable, through work and theological teaching, a spiritual, intellectual character to flower: these objectives are ensconced in the mission of the religious seminary, the earliest model of the modern western university. Marc Aymes notes that the Parisian École Normale Supérieure still reverts to its institutional origins in the religious seminary when it is referred to as a latter-day noviciat universitaire, cloître laïque, or monastère laïque. Its “seminar-like structures of research and teaching” he observes, are steeped in religious “symbols and ideas.”4

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