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March 22, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Learning to think

Tony Schirato, an Associate Professor in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria, talks to Salient Editor Sarah Robson about his upcoming lecture entitled ‘Foucault, Ethics and Fearless Speech’.

What are you going to be talking about at the lecture on Tuesday?

It’s tied up with two books I’m doing. One is a book that Anita Brady and I are doing on the American gender theorist Judith Butler. The other is a complete rewrite of a book with some other people on Foucault. The departure point is a group of lectures Foucault gave—a lot of Foucault’s lectures have now come out as books in the last ten years or so. They’re really interesting things, because they talk about a whole lot of stuff about questions of ethics, about questions of political action and that kind of thing…

Butler uses a lot of Foucault and one of the books is a really interesting book called Fearless Speech, which is about a Greek concept called parrhesia. It’s about fearless speech, or what it translates to, free speech. It’s about two things, one is that one should speak, or be in a position where one speaks, fairly fearlessly about the situation. At the same time it’s a kind of an ethic. There is an ethos here, there’s the ethical imperative—one is pretty much required to speak the truth about things. It’s really an interesting topic for me because we’re living in a time where a whole lot of things are happening in the contemporary public sphere—and I’m using that in the wide sense of the West, and in New Zealand too.

[It] is clearly dominated by the media, where I think there is very little possibility of truth telling. More specifically there are a whole series of events: Afghanistan, Iraq, the war on terror, post-September 11—this is the stuff that Butler writes about, Butler is increasingly devoting her books to how the frig do you talk about these things in an honest way, when in fact there are all sorts of serious [consequences] if you do. It strikes me that this is a question for our time, a very serious, serious question for our time.

Of what relevance is this to students at Vic?

[It is of] very, very significant relevance. In a sense students have been seriously misserved by the media as public sphere…Students should know what’s going on around them, they should be able to make informed decisions about what’s going on around them. They should be knowledgeable and should be able to contribute. That sort of thing doesn’t happen. I think the opposite’s happening, whether it’s from the media, or the way they’re treated as students by the wider kind of institutional frame, I think in a sense they are being treated in a way that is not to their advantage.

Things have happened to them, you only need to mention huge student debt—that clearly constitutes a form of violence in all sorts of ways. There are different forms of violence: invading Afghanistan or Iraq and killing 500,000 people, or basically saddling people with enough debt so they can never jump over it. These both constitute forms of violence and it’s important if students are going to—if anybody’s going to—do something about it and challenge these different forms of violence, then it’s important that students be literate about what’s happening and be knowledgeable and be able to do something about it. Even understanding the situation and understanding how it came about is really important.

Do you think student media can play a better role informing students?

You’re a student, and you identify with other students. You’re a community, you’re part of a community and you’d like these people to be treated in a way that you’d like yourself to be treated. I think being part of student media sort of helps do that. Lots of things are happening, [but] student media can’t actually have an effect. If only students knew they could actually influence things, if they got pissed off about certain things they wouldn’t happen, or rather if they articulated and manifested their pissed-offedness, the university wouldn’t do them. If you are more than self-interested, then yeah, I think you can make a difference, and that’s kind of useful.

What do you think is the role of academics and the university in wider society?

Theoretically the university is meant to take on a number of roles. One is a critical role, it’s meant to be the voice that asks questions, that queries why we are doing this, says “is this really a good thing to do? Are we thinking about this? Is this really what we want to do? Are we doing bad things here?”

Also it takes on a role to inform and to help people learn to think. Learning to think—I’m talking about the wider community—and teaching ourselves to think… Thinking is something that as a task is a remarkably difficult thing to do, most people simply cannot think, most people haven’t been trained to think. You can’t simply say go and play squash and pick up a racket and a ball and you hit yourself on the head. It won’t work, you have to be trained to do it.

Unless you’re trained to think you won’t, and if you can’t think you’re in trouble. The university and academics have a wider critical function, but the other thing is they have a remarkably important function, and that is to teach students and the wider community, to think or help them think. Or maybe teach themselves to think through that process itself… It’s a really important function and students are part of that.

What’s your response to the title of the lecture series?

Basically a student body is something which, I don’t know whether it needs organs, but I think it does need to take itself seriously. It needs to laugh at itself first and it needs to laugh at all sorts of things and then [say], well fuck I’ve laughed at that, now I’m going to take it seriously. The student body needs to take itself seriously. It needs to take itself seriously, first of all as being a very privileged group that’s been put in a position where it’s been taught to think, and there comes a certain responsibility with that. I think it’s a group that learns to think, and it’s a group that learns to take its responsibility seriously.

Tony will be speaking as part of Victoria Student Media’s lecture series ‘How do we make ourselves a student body without organs?’ on Tuesday 23 March at 5pm at the Adam Art Gallery. Refreshments provided!


About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (2)

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  1. ema says:

    looks like it will be a good lecture!

  2. Gerald says:

    Thumbs up for this. Looks good.

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