Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Politics of Becomings

On Snakes and Faces

Part I: The Snake

Today I spent time at a First Nation’s school where I work a couple of mornings most weeks of the school year. While there, I sat with one particular boy and we drew pictures. In order to be with him and to be able to draw together with him, I had to resist the solid, stratified, knowledgeable and confident; those places where institutions institute, where state-like structures and priest-like authorities situate things -- all things -- into fixed and proper locations. I had to put these locations aside, and the feelings, the thoughts, the instructions that so easily accompany these locations. Instead, I went with this boy to the most surprising places. Let me tell the tale.

I asked this young man to draw something for me, anything whatsoever. I gave him the drawing pad I carry with me. He quickly drew a pattern, then he stopped, looked at it, and was about to turn the page. He seemed to want to flee the page, as if a mistake had been made, as if another educational inadequacy had just been created by his hand. Probably one mistake in a long line, even for that very day. I stopped him and said that this was a beautiful pattern. I told him that I really liked it. He looked again at the image. Then he put his face down near the paper, as if breathing into the pencil marks, and he drew a small squiggle just beneath the larger, “beautiful” pattern. He looked at me with light beaming from his eyes, saying, while pointing at the little squiggle, “This is a snake,” then pointing to the larger pattern, “and he is breathing fire.” The squiggle became a snake, and the larger pattern above became fire breathed from the snake’s mouth.

This drawing was no longer a pattern and a squiggle, it became what Gilles Deleuze calls a becoming-animal, more specifically, a becoming-snake -- one that breathes beautiful patterns of fire.

Again, I had to put aside the defined movements that attend the professional’s work. I had to move beyond, to somewhere else. For, I asked nothing of meaning, nothing of hidden meanings, nothing of theories applied. I did not want to join in the throwing of some opaque paint upon the child, covering him up and making invisible any unique ways of seeing, hearing and moving in his world. I also asked nothing of metaphor, and nothing of the typical this-means-that.

Instead I entered with the boy into the becoming-snake that burst from the page, the becoming-snake slithering and constricting and breathing fire from within the boy’s most alive eye. And, the snake also became in my eye, and is still becoming, becoming with a determinist-destroying vengeance. Together we entered a world where snakes breathe fire, where enemies are in danger of catching ablaze, and the unsuspecting, who happen to be in the vicinity, might just become frightened right out of their skin. For, this snake breathes fire. Who would have thought?

That moment, has not left me, and I venture to guess it also has not left this boy. And, my own life is that much richer, because, before this day, I did not know that a fire-breathing snake would emerge, would become, out of a pattern and a squiggle. And, today, I saw it, with my own eyes. With my own eyes, and with the eyes of this boy, this snake appeared. It needed no mediation from film or book, it just appeared, in that moment, in that continuing moment, from a pattern and a squiggle. Yes, I am a richer man -- a bit singed and surprised, perhaps, but most certainly, richer man.

Part II: The Face

After the emergence of a fire breaking snake I suggested to the boy that I too would like to draw a picture, but, I needed his help. I told him I wanted to draw a face, but, it’s not so much me drawing the face, in a way we will do it together, under his direction. As I took the pencil into my hand, the conversation sounded like this:

“Do I draw a big nose or a little nose?”

“Um… A little nose, OK!

“Big eyes or little eyes?”

“Big eyes.”

“A smile or a frown?”

“A smile… No, no, no – make it a frown!”

“A little bit of hair, no hair at all, or a whole lot of hair?”

“A little bit of hair.”

Then, I placed eyebrows and a few other assorted lines upon the drawing. I turned the pad around and showed him the face that we created. Suddenly, looking at this face, his own countenance lighted up, he grabbed a hold of the drawing pad for a closer look, and then with eyes alive once again, he laughed out loud. Why? Because, before us both, a face became, and, in our continued talk of this face, it is still becoming. It is becoming, just like the fire-breathing snake became and is becoming.

The face, the snake, become, not into meanings and interpretations, but right into this face, this snake upon that particular piece of paper, within those precise eyes, in that continuing and boundary-less moment.

Part III: Education & Becomings

Why can it be so difficult for us to notice that education for such children repeatedly steals away their becomings? Not necessarily the movements of a specific teacher within a specific class, but Education with an upper-case “E.” I am not asking this question as a form of hyperbole or metaphor. No, I mean it much more straightforwardly -- Education steals away the becomings of these children, perhaps most of their becomings. For the world of education is not a place where snakes tend to appear from squiggles at the bottom of the pages. And, most of the time, these children know this, and many a spirit withers in retort.

The world of Education is, however, a place that will measure and judge squiggles and patterns. It will undoubtedly suggest appropriate and inappropriate sites for squiggles and patterns to be placed. I believe it is safe to say that squiggles and simple patterns do not add-up well in the educational realm – certainly not squiggles that become fire-breathing snakes. Now, in all fairness, fire-breathing snakes may indeed become visible in Education, but when they do, they tend to surface in well-placed categories such as fiction or make-believe or art. And, these are really the only places they belong. Interestingly, squiggles and patterns do seem to turn up in mathematics, but they appear not as lines of becoming, they appear as lines of representation, lines that stand in for other lines and types of lines, they are never lines that stand on their own, and certainly are not lines that can actually transform into something else.

While I have been moved today by simple squiggles and patterns, it is improbable that these lines would receive any value in modern Education. Even in those categories most favourable to squiggles and patterns and fire breathing snakes, such as the study of fiction or the practice of art, these specific lines, those drawn by this specific boy, and those drawn by my hand, would inevitably come up inadequate.

Those worlds where fire breathing snakes may come forth from squiggles and patterns are vigorously denied in favour of, not other worlds, but another World, a singular and divine World. This World is sometimes called reality, sometimes called God, sometimes called science, and can go by a long list of other names. Within this singular World, whatever warring version of it we find ourselves connected to, there are always categories, with places and assigned names, there are boundaries between things, clear boundaries that cannot and should not be crossed, and these things, these bounded things, all have their place within well-known, clearly-distinguished hierarchies. Tall and structured things like – a tree of life.

One of my nagging questions -- Why is this type of singular world not also seen as fictitious? Why is it not also seen as unreal, as removed from a sense of lived life? For, when one walks through the grass by the swamp, where we might have some hope of seeing a snake, we don’t see hierarchies and categories, institutionally marked boundaries and assigned names. No, we might, however, feel the soggy ground beneath our feet. We might sense the wetness of our socks and the heaviness of our running shoes. We may also get our pant legs damp from the morning dew on the grass. And, when we see a snake, if, coincidentally, we do see a snake, the chances are pretty good we won’t see something that intrinsically and obviously comes to us as a genus or a species. The chances are much higher, if we do catch a glimpse of a snake, we might, out of the corner of our eyes, see her lines as she disappears into places we cannot know. We see lines? Simple lines. Yes, lines that might just bear a close connection to the other lines we saw of pencil on paper.

For today, this boy and I actually saw a fire-breathing snake. It appeared from pencil lines on paper. We both saw this becoming-snake. We responded to, not a drawing, not a representation, but an actual becoming-snake. And, this difference -- between representation and becoming -- is, I believe, most significant.

We also both laughed. We laughed at faces that appeared before us. It was a laughter of recognition, of appreciation. We did not laugh because we recognized a similitude, a model, a copy, a likeness. No, we laughed because we saw faces, real faces. We saw the kind of faces that move people; that move people outside of any space of conscious purpose or intervention. For, today, this boy and I recognized faces, and they moved us, both of us together, in a pure communal moment, to an instant place of laughter.

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