Whose Common Good? In Praise of the Irredeemable

David Collings
Bowdoin College Common Hour
November 3, 2000

It truly is an honor to be among the Encore Lecturers at this year’s Common Hour. I am grateful to this year’s senior class for choosing me to speak on this occasion. At first I was a little resentful that those of you who voted for me distracted me from my onerous duties teaching six hours a week, week in, week out, but I have since recovered, and promise that each of you who can repeat my talk today word for word will be invited for a sail on my modest yacht and a little champagne and caviar at my seaside mansion afterwards. The rest of you, I fear, will have to endure a prank perpetrated by the more sarcastic students among us, the same who at times give me fashion advice on color coordination or the length of my hair, or explain to me that they should have the right to smoke in my classes. It seems they have attempted to gain revenge on the impeccable refined taste familiar at this college by designating me as public speaker. I only hope I will measure up, or down, to their expectations of me, but I fear that those students, now sitting sideways and facing each other, will be more likely to be enchanted by each other’s fashion taste than the absence of my own.

As I considered what to say to you today, it did occur to me to remain faithful to the spirit of these seedy characters, to pull a prank of my own, or at least to praise the spirit of their folly. I contemplated giving you my own vision of intellectual life as serious play, as a sustained challenge to complacency, indifference, and, above all, certainty, and as the transfiguration of a disenchanted and all-too-familiar social world. Perhaps this talk will still give you some inkling of that vision. But the longer I thought about this occasion, the more it seduced me from such a path. Here I was, chosen to speak at something called Common Hour, at a college that makes much of something called the Common Good, in a town that still has a Town Commons: how could I, who teach something called The History of the Common Body, resist a subject like this?  Furthermore, I have often been enlightened and moved by the faculty members at Common Hour who have shared their visions of the college community with us; in the end I could not imagine speaking today without trying to respond to them. Thus my foolishness today will consist of various reflections on this curious thing, our common life. I should also add that, in contending with my friends who have spoken before me, I do so out of great respect for them and in the hope that I will be contributing to what is, or will become, a place for genuine interchange.

At first thought, what can there be to say about community? Isn’t it all obvious? Of course we want to foster a sense of community at the college, to give people a sense that they belong to a collective enterprise. Of course we hope that by fostering this sense of togetherness, the college will provide a small model of public life in America, making students aware of the promises and possibilities of the democratic experiment. Nearly all of us concur wholeheartedly with these aspirations and would support further attempts to realize them.

Yet community never comes without some cost. To give some people a sense of belonging is also to give others a sense that they do not belong. You cannot simultaneously give a place a distinctive tone and include everyone within it. When I was an undergraduate, I attended a college owned and operated by a specific religious group. The student body was far more diverse than at Bowdoin. People of various ages, races, ethnicities, and social classes enrolled there and came together in a genuine community. But the apparent inclusiveness and cohesiveness of that college was based on the fact it appealed primarily to people of a certain religious faith. The high threshold of exclusion imposed by that appeal made a strong sense of community possible. But as a result, it also made genuine intellectual exploration of the premises of that faith very difficult. Any member of that community was under great pressure not to question its foundations. There, as elsewhere, community not only excluded others but also imposed an unspoken obligation on its own members to quiet their doubts. The situation at that college was not unique; it merely exemplified a general rule.  Community is always exclusionary; it is always bound up with the attempt to cover up the most fundamental social fact of all, the necessity of disagreement, the fact that there never can be actual unanimity or even concord, that a full-fledged community is such simply because it has either denied or expelled the source of antagonism.

As you may guess, I eventually made my way out of that community through a long process of questioning, but that process has led me to do the same even here at Bowdoin, where I cannot help but question a certain patrician ethos that still permeates this institution. Bowdoin is certainly a different kind of college from the one I attended. But we cannot pretend that our doors are open to all. Our place in the US News and World Report college rankings depends partly on how small a percentage of those who apply receive permission to enroll here. Our prestige, in short, depends in part on how many people we turn away. Moreover, most people who might wish to come to Bowdoin simply won’t apply because it is so expensive. Even further, Bowdoin tends to appeal to students who would like to attend a small liberal arts college rather than a university, and to those who would enjoy living in coastal Maine. For all these reasons, Bowdoin retains a very distinctive flavor. The threshold of entry here is fairly high, and the similarity between those who enter is also fairly strong. The result is that the college has its own distinctive tone, a kind of unstated set of common assumptions that students typically share.  If we are a community, we are so in part because so many people have not been interested in coming here or have been excluded from the start.

Those of us who are here are not entirely comfortable with this state of affairs. Students often complain that they are too much alike. The college spends an enormous amount of money on financial aid and has a need-blind admissions policy in place. The Admissions office strives mightily to recruit a more diverse student body, and the faculty strive to hire people from an ever greater variety of backgrounds and to offer courses on more and more diverse subjects. It’s as if we have created an exclusive community that continually fights against the consequences of its exclusions. We don’t want to take down the barriers to admission, just help more people get over them. We are thus a very ambivalent community, at once hoping to come together more closely and horrified at the possibility we are already too unified for our own good.

Our collective unease with the college’s distinctiveness is a good thing. While having a sense of belonging is important, it can also encourage people to become complacent, to accept ideas or social practices uncritically, and prevent them from encountering the great challenges of life in their true and sometimes terrifying dimensions. Perhaps it takes someone with bad manners to say this at our Common Hour, but it strikes me that Bowdoin suffers from too much agreement. What we need is not more community, but more dissent, more open challenges to the received wisdom.

Such a challenge might as well begin with the college’s own version of its collective faith, its oft-repeated credo about the common good. I find this credo a bit strange. If the college gains its distinctiveness in part from how many people it turns away, how does it still benefit the general community? Apparently the logic is that the college chooses the best and the brightest, gives them a stellar education, and sends them forth into the world to make it a better place. Its notion of the common, then, harks back to the ideology of the old aristocracy: if you have been blessed with great wealth and great intelligence, you owe a great deal to those less fortunate. Of course, it might be even worse if elite groups felt no such obligation and simply hoarded their privileges for themselves. But the very premise of this obligation should give us pause. It turns out that the ‘common’ in the common good refers to other people, the common folk, the general public. We are not the common folk ourselves; on the contrary, we constitute a kind of elite. But then this credo intimates that the common good has been placed in our hands; our task is to ensure their future good, to supervise and instruct them, govern and lead them, in ways that only we can do. To state the obligation to the common good while keeping almost all of the common people away is to anoint ourselves their leaders.

Our credo of the common good, praiseworthy as it is, displays for all the world to see an unmistakable ideology of a ruling class, whose credentials are no longer given by class per se or mere wealth but by an excellent education. The common good is the good of a public whose interests we know. In that case, education provides us with the knowledge by which we can judge what is best for the public; those without such an education, presumably, are less qualified, or less likely, to judge those interests well. Ironically, according to this ideology, the precious future of democracy lies not with the many, but the few, those who are given this trust.  We can fulfill this trust, apparently, because we work not in our own interests but in the interest of the whole. Others will serve only their own private interests, but those who are educated have achieved a presumed disinterestedness, a capacity to judge what is best for all. It seems that the common good emerges, then, not out of the collective energy and advocacy of the common people, but out of an elite knowledge of how the common good should be defined. This idea of disinterestedness thus allows an educated few at once to substitute their own judgment for that of the public generally and then pretend that through the exercise of this judgment they serve others, rather than themselves. In this way, it allows a partial interest to disguise itself as the common interest and provides the perfect cover for the reproduction of privilege. In early modern England, this notion made it possible to deny most people the right to vote, since gentlemen already were looking out for the general public, and today it has a similarly antidemocratic edge.

Should Bowdoin thus give up its claim to serve the common good and hand the latter over to others? No, for those others would simply take over the same role Bowdoin had abandoned. It seems that as long as people believe there is a common good that can be known in advance, fostered from above, and managed by experts, this old ideology will remain in force.  The only way to challenge it, then, is to give up the very notion that the broader world is in some sense a community the shape of whose redemption we can know. Perhaps there is no common good, but only many different notions of possible futures, many competing agendas that will emerge best not through the exercise of any singular wisdom but the messy and unpredictable processes of democracy itself.

I would suggest, then, that our ambivalence about community comes from a basic democratic impulse. Modern democracy is based not on the promise of community but on a certain resistance to its dangers. After all, older political formations typically did foster community but did not allow for open resistance. What makes democracy special is the way it respects such resistance. Where previous social formations valued unanimity, modern liberalism - by which I mean a tradition that values liberty - traces its genealogy back to movements that violate that unanimity. Instead of cherishing the universal mother church, or the national church, or the very idea of a church, democracy cherishes the dissenter who breaks up that universality, that national coherence, that belief. Liberalism’s cultural hero is the one who disbelieves, or believes ‘wrongly,’ or believes too intensely, or who defies belief, in any case shattering the solidarity of the blessed. Or, to take a more recent example, where previous social formations privileged the cohabiting, affective, nuclear family as the context for sexual activity and reproduction, progressive democracy values - or at least might value, in an eventual future - the drag queens of Stonewall, who defy good taste, gender norms, and the universe of heterosexual reproduction in the name of a pleasure and a style without any excuse outside of itself. These examples, from early and late in a genealogy of contemporary liberal democracy, suggest that what has produced us is not sympathy or concord but the very opposite, a series of falls, moments of destruction and loss, actions that resist the peace of community. Democracy relies upon the courage of those who openly choose not to be redeemed along with the others but to embrace and to celebrate their own seemingly outcast condition. We should value countless acts of resistance not as attempts to reshape community, to place it on a new foundation, but rather to undermine the idea that we need a secure foundation at all. The point is not to be at home, at rest, centered, enlightened, and whole, but to live joyously in the space of this loss, to float freely in uncertainty, to be bathed in the darkness that shines in from the gaps and the holes, and ultimately to take flight into the immensity of what is yet unthought and unknown.  Perhaps Emily Dickinson has captured the mode of liberal democracy best:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of Eye –
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Dickinson is writing about poetry here, but her words apply just as accurately to democracy, whose promise is always greater than its realization, whose possibilities always defeat the constraints of our perceptions, and whose paradise is always much vaster than our narrow hands.  For Dickinson, paradise is not elsewhere, awaiting us after an endless history of political battles, but is already here all about us. Yet it is here, and will always be here, not through any realized achievement but only as possibility, as the crack in our conceptions, as the doors and windows that open up into infinity. She thus beautifully captures how we might live in a domain we do not know and will never master but which for that reason will remain supremely enchanting.

If Dickinson doesn’t do it for you, perhaps I should turn to a less poetic way of describing this radical openness. I would argue that liberal democracy holds dissent sacred not only because it values individual rights but also because it holds that dissent has positive social effects for all. One does not merely resist community; that resistance might become the basis for a broad social transformation. But then further resistance might lead to further transformation. By cherishing those who break the peace, who destroy unanimity, who speak for the unredeemed or irredeemable, democratic society in effect chooses never to take a positive form; always in transition, being challenged from a hundred directions, it is up for grabs, turning into something it cannot foresee. If one must name it or capture its center in a single image, its essence turns out to be the ‘empty place of power,’ as Claude Lefort, the great French political theorist, has argued. Modern democracy is unified by what it is not; it coheres by its perpetual appeal to a collective good that never appears as such. But through the force of this empty core, democracy can reinvent itself continually and become something radically unlike what it thought itself to be. Democracy is thus ultimately anti-utopian; it looks not towards an ultimate redemption, which would once again impose closure and consensus, but rather towards a more and more expansive articulation of resistance, a vaster patience with the shapelessness of possibility as such. Where utopia excludes much from the start, democracy makes its business the redress of such exclusions, turning silent prohibitions into zones for open debate or political conflict, in this way dismantling old walls and old foundations and allowing itself to become ever less defined and less secure. Of course, this gradual opening is a long process; as it changes, democracy evolves new institutions and attitudes by which to carry out its new relation to possibility. And for many people, the empty place of power seems to be nothing other than the abyss, even if for other people, such as Dickinson, it seems to be Paradise itself.

If all this is so, then the college’s function changes dramatically. Rather than serving a common good whose general features are knowable, rather than throwing its support behind a consensus of progressive people, the college belongs to a collective whose purpose is ultimately unknowable. It best serves democracy, then, through the power of stubborn inquiry, through its orientation not to any agreement about what is true but rather to the truth no one has yet discovered. Any attempt to make higher learning serve the purposes of power, to subject intellectual inquiry to useful ends, is deeply anti-intellectual and ultimately diminishes the liveliness of democracy as well. Just as the demand that people do something useful has killed the career of many a fledgling painter, poet, and musician, devotees of apparently useless arts, making the world even more bland and predictable, the constant reminder that education should be conducted with good intentions or in the language of common sense fails to respect the art of critical intelligence and chooses the endless reproduction of the same rather than the emergence
of transformative ideas. By aiming beyond what is already known, intellectuals and artists help keep democracy alive; by the very nature of their vocations, they take over the role of the unredeemed contrarian, the one who, by blocking the onset of utopia, remains faithful to something even better. 

If all this is so, then perhaps we would be wise to adopt this same logic for life at this college and, by so doing, to transform Bowdoin. Like a democracy, a college should provide the space for passionate collective disagreement. Here, too, community should emerge not in its own right but in the absence of its proper form. Perhaps we should borrow from Lefort and describe Bowdoin not as any positive or knowable thing but as a possibility unrealized, a site for perpetual dispute and resistant conversation. What is Bowdoin? Who knows? We’re still making it up! And if someone should ask, what will I learn if I go there? We could reply, we promise you that you will be transformed in ways you can never predict, that you will encounter possibilities you can never foresee, that if all goes well, you will undergo something like a perpetual intellectual crisis, that you will find out how to experiment with your life and your possible future, and in the end will no longer accept life on safer terms. In short, we promise that Bowdoin will ruin your life in the best possible way. Several of my colleagues who have spoken at previous Common Hours have urged students to be more resistant, unusual, colorful, and contrarian in the classroom and out; I would add that this good advice might lead to real changes here only if everyone at the college conceives of it differently, as a community of perpetual mutual dissent, as a mode of collective self-estrangement. I would even go so far as to say that the college’s mission is not to serve the common good, but rather to be the thorn in the flesh of our contemporaries, to be a perpetual provocation, to unsettle what seems true, to challenge the bland platitudes that pass for right thinking, to disrupt the centrist consensus that has settled over our nation and the world like a toxic fog. Our goal is not to serve the common good as it is typically understood, an effort that all too often here has meant that we align ourselves with established political and financial power, but to challenge it, break it open again, and to gather with our own narrow hands an uncommon and unrealizable possibility.

Should we then follow the advice of Professor Denis Corish of the Philosophy department, who encourages each of us to pursue a unique path, to become a voice crying in the wilderness? But this contrary effort has value only if there is someone in the wilderness to hear, only if there is someone who can reply, in short, only if there is an ongoing conversation one can join. Should we perhaps follow Professor Pete Coviello, my dear colleague in the English department, who argued in praise of secret publics, those smaller communities of friends, whose passionate debates about the Clash or Britney Spears might prepare them for direct engagement in the broader life of the American community? But then they might not; as Pete argued, one can never tell in advance what political effect such bonding might eventually have. In Pete’s approach I hear a primal resistance to the coercions of community, a resistance that I, too, hold sacred. But the ultimate value of such resistance, I would argue, comes not only in its own right, in the subcultures that it fosters and the pleasures that it makes possible, but primarily when it encounters other forms of resistance, other subcultures of pleasure, in that zone where worlds collide, where the drag queens of Stonewall throw their platform pumps and high heels at the NYPD, where fans of Lawrence Welk and Marilyn Manson clash, where Greens contend with Republicans and atheists with believers. Without this confluence, the praise of secret publics ultimately sanctions a kind of broad social fragmentation, perhaps even segregation; it also allows people to channel their passions into a narrow range of questions and experiences. But when such secret publics take themselves into the broad public, speaking their passions to others, the entire college is enlivened, the comparatively narrow or private taste finds its match, and everyone gets to taste the superior pleasure of a real culture clash.

How might we best bring this condition about? Some of you who heard Professor Eddie Glaude of the Religion department at the college’s first Common Hour might remember that he too argued for a much more open and passionate debate. Let’s examine his proposals for a moment. He suggested that we use Common Hour and indeed many other venues at the college to foster debates over issues of urgent contemporary political concern. Obviously, I find much that is appealing in this proposal. This mission can indeed provide the basis for a wide array of public conversations across many of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the natural sciences. Biologists, for example, could participate in a discussion of the emerging problems in bioethics, and computer scientists examine the social effects of information technology. But the mission of Common Hour as Eddie describes it is so clearly focused on the present that it cannot easily include those who study family life in ancient Rome or sexuality in the English Renaissance; similarly, it is so focused on the American scene that it provides little space for those who study the contemporary indigenous cultures of Peru or the dissident minorities of Japan. We should never forget that students and faculty here come from many nations, not just the U S of A. Furthermore, a college should allow for public exchanges that do not appeal to a general audience; a truly inclusive discussion should make space for encounters between people in adjacent fields whose viewpoints might not interest everyone. Ideally, the college could become the scene for conversations large and small, with broad and narrow appeal. I would like to remain true to Eddie’s original vision, then, but enlarge its scope and include even more voices in our public conversation.

But to fulfill this vision, we will need to use Common Hour in a new way in the future.  So far, the Common Hour has been conceived as a way for administrators, students, faculty, staff, and alumni to come together and share a common experience. It has also been conceived as a way to make us at the college aware of the need to contribute to the broader communities of which we are a part. Former presidential candidates, business executives, visiting dignitaries, and activist alumni have shared their unique perspectives about participation in public life. In its current design, the Common Hour builds in part on the assumption that intellectual inquiry is best fulfilled in public service; our sense of community is found, not in the open contention between ourselves, but in our being reminded of the objective of our work. But this assumption fails on two counts. It reinforces the notion that Bowdoin trains students to take leadership roles in the public sphere, thereby underlining a ruling class ideology, as I have argued; it also expresses the attitude that intellectual inquiry must be practically useful and thus encourages a subtle form of anti-intellectualism. Can we truly reduce intellectual life to its instrumental function? If so, then I have found myself, despite the enormous distance I have travelled, back at a school pretty much like the one I graduated from. Perhaps it is no accident that Common Hour began here in this building, symbol of the college’s generally Christian leanings and the site for decades of required attendance at chapel; perhaps these gatherings are held in the same spirit of semi-religious instruction, as if it is enough that we gather together in the same place to renew our commitment to the common good.

Don’t get me wrong: in taking up the question of Common Hour, I mean no criticism of the people who are charged with running it. They are impeccably professional and continue to do a great job at the task they have been assigned. Nor do I wish to malign the idea of bringing together all constituencies on campus into a common space. This remains a worthy goal for any future version of Common Hour. I speak of something more fundamental: the need to see the college and the Common Hour as something to be managed by the college community itself for its own ends, as a way for us to take up our most crucial questions. Something is still lacking on this campus; there still is no place for a genuine exchange between people around areas of common intellectual concern. If you will permit me to do so on this occasion, I propose that we democratize the Common Hour, make it our own; through this and other occasions, we should make it clear that the college is a place for pathbreaking discussions and for the messiness of genuine learning. We would best use this common time not to pay homage to a collective purpose but rather to contest our understanding of that purpose, to gather in honor of what we do not know and never will know, to think of this as a time to challenge and transform each other and thus to bring about mutual transformation.  In this way, the college might make good on its own academic mission, demonstrating that it actually believes that intellectual inquiry has great value in its own right, that this value supersedes any particular social function that it might serve, and that the power of critical intellect, like the core of resistance, makes a genuinely open democracy possible.

If we made changes like this, we might also make a dent in another deeply entrenched atttitude: that out there somewhere, beyond the gates, is something called ‘the real world.’  Apparently people think that what happens here is unreal, that it is a kind of hiatus in the trajectory of the individual life, that people get to come here and play for a few years and then go forth and do their real work. But this attitude denigrates learning just as ruthlessly as a functionalist theory of education. It is wrong on several counts. For one thing, if critical intellect has value in its own right, then the experience of becoming more critical, of thinking more forcefully for yourself, has value whether you make much use of this faculty in later years or not. These years are important not simply because of what they might lead to; they might remain central to your sense of life even if you end up in a fairly mundane career, reminding you of what is possible for you to achieve and of those dimensions of your personality that the world in which you later live may not otherwise value. For another thing, the transformative possibilities of these years can easily alter your sense of what counts as important, what matters in the ‘world itself, and how deeply you can contest the reality of the world as it is given.  In short, we need not imagine our collective life here only in terms brought to us by politicians, executives, and activists from ‘out there,’although their perspectives will remain valuable; we can also learn much just by talking to each other, by using the resources that are available to us almost by the mere fact we find ourselves in each other’s company. I doubt it will be necessary to change Common Hour entirely. The college might still use some Fridays in the way it has so far. But I propose that at least once or twice a month, the college use the available time on Fridays for other purposes. On those occasions, we could all meet together in common, as now, or perhaps hold several forums on widely divergent topics in smaller gatherings around campus. Faculty within specific departments could hold public forums; those in different disciplines could discuss divergent approaches to similar subjects; and students groups could hold open sessions. Just as the college is slowly moving towards offering more team-taught courses, we could make the public discourse on this campus much more cooperative and adventuresome. Imagine discussions between cultural critics and scientists, empirical psychologists and Freudians, sociologists of law and experts in constitutional or criminal law, creative writers and literary critics, neuroscientists and philosophers of mind, economists and feminists, and nationalists and postnationalists. Imagine sessions that are intended to present provocative or unusual new developments in knowledge, perhaps including several faculty who can share their differing take on the value of such a new approach. Or imagine public discussions between students about the educational value of their participation in team sports, the significance of their experiences studying away, and the relations of social class, race, gender, or sexuality on campus. The possibilities are limitless. At the moment, if faculty wish to create such a forum at this hour, they simply cannot do so, since they are not allowed to reserve space at the college during this time. They must do so at times when students inevitably have other obligations. Since only this hour on Fridays is truly free of such conflicts, we should use it wisely. And for this kind of effort to succeed, it should be organized by the campus constituencies involved. Faculty and students, for example, might be the best people to put together the faculty and student forums.

Some might argue that by making this change, the college will have reneged on its obligation to foster a sense of a community beyond its academic mission. But if any group feels slighted, I propose that it use the same model. I would be fascinated by a serious public discussion between several members of the college staff about some aspect of their work or interests, or between several alumni regarding the value of their education for how they now live and work. In effect, I am advocating for a shift in the design of these public occasions: rather than listening to a distinguished guest or a popular professor, we might all be better served by a model of real dialogue between people who bring different perspectives to the same question.

Whatever the ultimate shape of Common Hour, it will not truly make a difference unless it demonstrates from the start that it values the unknown, the unrealizable, and the irredeemable as the most precious elements of education, as permanent challenges to the illusion of mastery.  But as I have argued today, this allegiance also demands that the resistant make good on its opposition, that it bring its contrarian perspective into play, defend it publicly, and make it credible for others. To some extent, this is what students have already been doing in their votes for faculty speakers on these occasions: you have tended to choose faculty who are passionate, brash, eccentric, or otherwise unusual, showing that you find a little strangeness refreshing, that you love teachers who are silly or difficult. We should honor this preference and make it possible for a general flowering of these qualities in everyone at the college; as my dear friend Professor Louisa Slowiaczek of the Psychology department said to you in her inimitable way last year, ‘Be yourself!’

Since we obviously crave at least slight departures from the norm, let’s give ourselves collective permission to cultivate those elements in us that are just a little bizarre.  Perhaps we will discover that a truly dynamic collective life requires the open expression not only of resistant critical intellect but also of stylistic aberration - that learning is secretly affiliated with laughter, danger, loss, beauty, disaster, and play. Perhaps education is not about assimilation into a given order, but more about diseducation, the relinquishment of the habits that keep us safe, the codes that keep us from straying off the path. Perhaps life and death are a form of self-transformation, a way of playing with the unknown. If, as I proposed earlier, Bowdoin should promise students that they will experience a perpetual crisis here, it should also make it possible for them to be traumatized in style, to converse with the abyss with immeasurable patience, and to respond to the shaking of the foundations with a marvellous and graceful dance.