The Pedagogy of Totality

Mas'ud Zavarzadeh


"One thing is clear; the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part".

Marx, Capital, 1

'abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely"

Lenin,  "Conspectus of Hegel's The Science of Logic"


One of the signs of the collapse of contemporary U.S. pedagogy is the interpretation the majority of Americans make of the "event" that is now marked by the cultural sign of "9/11".  To them, the "event" was (and remains) proof that "'they' hate 'us'". The only way, in other words, most Americans brought up in the U.S. educational system could make sense of the "event" was affective. Any attempt to introduce even a mildly analytical "why" ("Why do you think 'they' hate Americans?") was (and is) taken as the height of emotional crudeness and intellectual vulgarity if not outright anti-Americanism.

Having reduced the "event" to a "trauma", the reaction to the "trauma" was (and remains) also "traumatic".  In the days following the "event", waves of violence by ordinary people, the FBI, the police, the INS, the local militia and neighborhood vigilantes were unleashed towards the "other" and those who had the "same" look as the "other".  With a sentimental and equally violent patriotism the U.S. flag was (and is) used to more decisively sort the world out into lovers and haters of "our way of life".  U.S. pedagogy has so paralyzed people's critique-al consciousness, most are now helpless witnesses to the emergence of a national security state ("The Patriot Act") and the preemptive class aggressions of the empire.

The teach-ins and forums which were held about the "event" were only slightly more layered expressions of the affective. Most were sessions in talking trauma which, following the trauma theory now popular in many cultural circles, dissolved history into the unrepresentable affect (Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century; Lyotard, The Differed; Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma; Cathy Caruth, ed. Trauma: Exploration in Memory).  The teach-ins became occasions for displacing an analytical grasping of history by an ecumenical sentimentality for the suffering.

Michael Berube's essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education  (October 5, 2001, B-5) is exemplary of the lessons in empathy to avoid the analytical.  It is rhetorically a masterful lesson in the erasure of all traces of thinking about the "event" in part because it preemptively announces itself as an intervention in ignorance ("Ignorance Is a Luxury We Cannot Afford").  After describing how he had shelved "the course assignments" in his classes to devote "most of the rest of the week…to a discussion of [students's] reactions to the attack", he narrates a range of readings of the "event" and concludes that the "most troubling" analyses of the "event" were    

from the political left, some of which were coming uncomfortably close to justifying the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents.  Many students immediately connected the attack to various American operations in the Middle East, and I wanted them to be very careful about how they made those connections. Of course, I said, of course the attacks must be placed in the broader context of the history of U.S. foreign policy in Asia and the Middle East. But any analysis that did not start from a position of solidarity with, and compassion for, the victims, their families, and the extraordinary rescue workers in New York and Washington was an analysis not worth time and attention (B-5). 

What Berube's teaching seeks is moral clarity, which has become the conservative touchstone in reading the "event" (William J. Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism) not analytical critique. Berube moves quickly to block by "clarification" any attempt at such a critique by saturating the session with details (what he calls "background information"): "Very well, some students replied, but what does it mean to 'place the attacks in the broader context of U.S. foreign policy'? Here, not surprisingly, what my students wanted and needed most was basic background information" (B-5). 

What follows, in the name of curing ignorance, are stories about U.S. foreign policy but no conceptual analysis: 

Was it true, they asked, that the CIA once financed and trained bin Laden? Well, yes, I said, but at the time, in the 1980s, we financed just about anyone who showed up and offered to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. No, we didn't have the same kind of relationship to bin Laden that we had to Noriega or Pinochet or the Shah or Somoza or any of the other dictators we'd propped up in the course of waging the cold war. 

The "story" in contemporary pedagogy (which has opportunistically concluded that knowledge is a story and all concepts are tropes) performs an essential ideological task: it offers a non-explanatory explanation and thus constructs an "enlightened false consciousness" in the classroom (Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, 5-6). Teaching by stories produces knowingness not knowledge and consequently cultivates a savvy cynicism about ideas, analysis, and explanation. It rejects causal explanations (in fact it dismisses the very idea of "cause-effect") and puts in its place vaguely plotted details that hint at moving but have no analytical yield: the pleasures of stories replace the cognitive. 

This is important because no account of the "event" can forget the CIA. However, most accounts of the "event", evoke the CIA to obscure its role by telling CIA stories of high intrigue in exotic lands and thus divert attention from the other CIA whose role is crucial in understanding the "event". The CIA which is openly discussed and critiqued to obtain radical credentials for the story-teller is, as Berube's tale demonstrates, a political agency of the US Government. The other CIA—the one that is covered up by these narrative details—is only officially a political agency of the State. In practice, it is the gendarme of American capitalism: it is an economic not a political outfit. 

Berube's lesson obscures this CIA which is an extension of U.S. corporations and whose task is to wage a clandestine class war against the working people of the world to keep the world safe for U.S. investment. There is no hint in his teaching of the event that the CIA's actions might be symptoms of the systematic aggression of market forces against the workers and that the "event" might be an outcome of market forces. In his teaching, the CIA becomes a story machine producing absorbing stories that circle around personalities, places, and actions but lead nowhere. They build an illusion of knowing. Analysis of the economic role of the CIA (which produces material knowledge of global relations) is obstructed by details that have no analytical effect. Why, for instance, did the CIA fight to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan?  Berube's  "waging the cold war" seems to imply that the dynamics of the conflict is "ideology".  The U.S. and the Soviets simply had two different "political" systems and cultures. Thus, in Berube's version of history, it is natural that the CIA wanted to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and increase the U.S.'s sphere of political and cultural "power" in the region.  The conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States is, in other words, a clash of ideas.

Underling his pedagogy is, in other words a view of history as an expansionism of "power" (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire) and as conflicts of "ideologies" (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man). It is based on the notion that "discourse" and "ideas" shape the world since ultimately, history itself is the discursive journey of the Soul towards a cultural and spiritual resolution of material contradictions. This theory mystifies history by displacing "class" (labor) with "ideas" and "discourse" and consequently produces world history as a "clash of civilizations" (Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order) that re-writes the world in the interest of the Euroamerican capitalism. According to the clash theory (which is the most popular interpretive axis of "9/11"), people do what they do because of their "culture" not because they exploit the labor of others (and live in comfort), or their labor is exploited by others (and therefore they live in abject poverty).  "9/11", in other words, is an instance of the clash of civilization: culture ("values", "language", "religion", the "affective") did it. "They" hate "our" way of life ("Their 'values' clash with Our 'values'). Since "values" are transhistorical, the clash is spiritual, not material.  But culture, didn't do it. Contrary to contemporary dogma (Stuart Hall, "The Centrality of Culture: Notes on the Cultural Revolution of Our Time"), culture is not autonomous; it is the bearer of economic interests. Cultural "values" are, to be clear, inversive: they are a spiritualization of material interests. Culture cannot solve the contradictions that develop at the point of production; it merely suspends them.  Material contradictions can be solved only materially, namely by the class struggles that would end the global regime of wage labor. "9/11" is an unfolding of a material contradiction not a clash of civilizations. If teaching the "event" does not at least raise the possibility of a class understanding of it, the teaching is not pedagogy, it is ideology (as I outline it in part 5 of this essay).

To be more precise: the CIA fought the Soviets (and then the Taliban) because U.S. capitalism needs to turn Afghanistan into a "new silk road".  The conquest of Afghanistan, in other words, was planned long before the "event", and its goal was neither liberation of the Afghani people nor what the CIA calls "democratization".  It was simply aimed at turning the country into a huge pipeline station. In his testimony before the "House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific" on February 12, 1998 (three years before "9/11"), John J. Maresca, the Vice-President for International Relations of Unocal Corporation, stated that

The Caspian region contains tremendous untapped hydrocarbon reserves, much of them located in the Caspian Sea basin itself. Proven natural gas reserves within Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan equal more than 236 trillion cubic feet. The region's total oil reserves may reach more than 60 billion barrels of oil—enough to service Europe's oil needs for 11 years. Some estimates are as high as 200 billion barrels. In 1995, the region was producing only 870,000 barrels per day (44 million tons per year [Mt/y])" (Monthly Review, December 2001).

The problem for U.S. capital was how to get the energy to the market.  The safest and most profitable way to get the energy to the West was, Maresca testified, by building "A commercial corridor, a 'new' Silk Road" through Afghanistan. Developing "cost-effective, profitable and efficient export routes for Central Asia", according to Maresca, is the point of converging "U.S. commercial interests and U.S. foreign policy":  Afghanistan had to be liberated to build the "new" silk road not because of a "clash of civilizations".

Teaching that brings up the "event" in the classroom has a pedagogical responsibility to at least raise these issues: to limit "knowledge" to "background information" and then substitute CIA stories for conceptual analysis of material causes is not curing ignorance but legitimating it. Attributing the causes of the "event" to culture, therefore, is to obscure the world class relations and the fact that their "hatred" is not the effect of an immanent evil in their "religion" or "language" or "values" but the brutal exploitations of capital that has torn apart "their" way of life to build new "silk roads" all over "their" world. The silk road always and ultimately leads to "events".  To blame other "cultures" as Berube does when he refers to "searing images of cheering Palestinian children", is to let capitalism off the hook.  It is a practice that produces a "false consciousness" in students so that they make sense of the world through spiritualistic "values" that marginalize the actual struggles over the surplus labor of the "other"—which is, what makes their own life comfortable. This is not curing ignorance; it is the corporate pedagogy of a flag-waving nationalism.

The pedagogy of affect piles up details and warns students against attempting to relate them structurally because any structural analysis will be a causal explanation, and all causal explanations, students are told, are reductive. Teaching thus becomes a pursuit of floating details—a version of games in popular culture. Students "seem" to know but have no knowledge. This is exactly the kind of education capital requires for its "new" workforce: workers who are educated but nonthinking; skilled at detailed jobs but unable to grasp the totality of the system— energetic localists, ignorant globalists.

This pedagogy provides instruction not in knowledge but in savviness—a knowing that knows what it knows is an illusion but is undeluded about that illusion; it integrates the illusion, and thus makes itself immune to critique. Savviness is "enlightened false consciousness"—a consciousness that knows it is false but its "falseness is already reflexively buffered" (Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, 5). The effect of this reflexive falseness is that "one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of the particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but one still does not renounce it" (Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 29).

What a pedagogy of savviness teaches is knowing with a wink. In fact, the "wink" places such knowledge on the borderlines of what Sloterdijk calls "kynicism" (217-218)—absorbing the falseness by an ironic, tongue-in-cheek pedagogy that completely abolishes the conceptual for the pleasures of the story. The story is represented as liberating the concrete of daily life from the conceptual totalitarianism of abstractions. (I will use "totalitarian" and "totalitarianism" in their sanctioned "liberal" senses because I do not have the space for a critique of liberal vocabularies and their concealed economic assumptions). "Totalitarian" and its derivations, however, have always been used by liberals to guarantee "liberal-democratic hegemony, dismissing the leftist critique of liberal democracy as the obverse, the "twin" of the Right Fascist dictatorship" Slavoj Zizek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?). Story-pedagogy consequently becomes lessons in politics as desire, affect and unsurpassable experience as in the writings of Marjorie Garber (Symptoms of Culture), Elaine Showalter ("The Professor Wore Prada"), Nestor Garcia Canclini (Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multiculturalism), and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick  (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity).

These pedagogues theorize desire, the affective, trauma, feelings, and experience, which are all effects of class relations, as spontaneous reality and deploy them in teaching to outlaw lessons in conceptual analysis of the social totality—which is aimed at producing class consciousness in the student (the future worker). The classroom is then constituted as the scene of desire where the student is interpellated as the subject of his affects, which, in their assumed inimitability, ascribe to him an imaginary, matchless individuality. The un-said exceptionality of affect in the classroom of desire becomes an ideological alibi for the negation of collectivity grounded in objective class interests, and the student is taught to "wage a war on totality" by activating "the differences", and in "the honor of the name" identify with himself as an unsurpassable singularity that exceeds all representations  (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, 82).  The pedagogy of totality is the negation of the negation.

Berube's stories of a political CIA are narratives of capitalist desire aimed at fragmenting the internationalism of class connectedness among working people by dehistoricizing and localizing affects (suffering of the same and cheering of the other). However, the "event" has a history and, as an objective materiality, cannot be understood without placing it in the world-historical class struggles. But in the classroom of  "enlightened false consciousness" constituted by desire, class has no place. Any explanations of the "event" as a moment in the unfolding of the international class struggles; as a moment in which "two great classes" (the rich and the poor) are finally  "directly facing each other" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 41) is suspended in silence.

To put "class" back into teaching of the "event" is to move beyond dissipating history through "trauma" and anecdotes of affect and thus put an end to the teaching of savviness, which masquerades as a curing of ignorance.  The task of the pedagogy of totality is to teach the abstract relations that structure the concrete material reality and not be distracted by the details of appearance because "abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely" and bring the student closer to grasping social totality: "the relations of production in their totality" (Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital, 29), which is constituted by class antagonism, and therefore its unity is a "unity of opposites" (Lenin, "On the Question of Dialectics", 358). The hostility to conceptual analysis and particularly to class critique in contemporary pedagogy goes well beyond the teach-ins on the "event". It is the fundamental dogma of "radical" bourgeois pedagogy. Henry Giroux, for example, wipes out class from pedagogy on the grounds that "class" is part of what he calls "totalizing" politics (Impure Acts 25-26). To be so totally opposed to totalizing is, of course, itself a totalization. But totalizing in opposing totalization does not seem to bother Giroux and other anti-totalizing pedagogues because the issue, ultimately, is really not epistemological ("totalizing") but economic (class). In contemporary pedagogy "totalizing" is an epistemological cover for the class cleansing of pedagogy.


Pedagogy is most effective when its lessons are situated in the conceptual analysis of objective social totality and grounded in historical materialist critique. Totalization is essential to transformative pedagogy because it is through totalization that the student—the future worker—is enabled to "see society from the center, as a coherent whole" and therefore "act in such a way as to change reality" (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, 69). Changing reality in a sustained way, requires knowing it historically and objectively, that is, conceptually as a totality in structure and not simply reacting to it as a galaxy of signifiers (as textualists have done); as the working of power in networks of discourses (Foucault), or as a spontaneous reality that is available to us in its full immediacy (as activists have done with eclecticism and sentimentality). Pedagogy, in other words, is always partisan and the only question is whose side (in the great class struggles) it takes and why: "Who does not know that talk about this or that institution being non-partisan is generally nothing but the humbug of the ruling classes, who want to gloss over the fact that existing institutions are already imbued, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, with a very definite political spirit?" (Lenin, "The Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth").

Criticism of totality as a closural space that excludes "difference" and thus leads to "totalitarianism" is based on an anti-materialist reading of difference as "contingency"  (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 3-69); as "hybridity" (Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture); as "differance"—the play of  "traces" in the differing and deferral of the sign (Derrida, "Differance"); or the performativity of identity (Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex").  These and other versions of difference (Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives) in contemporary pedagogy, are based on cultural heterogeneities that deflect the difference that makes all the differences: the social division of labor under capitalism.  The pedagogy of totality writes the foundational difference of class, which explains all these differences, back into teaching and foregrounds it not as aleatory signs (which is the epistemology of all these differences) but as a historical necessity for capital, which divides people with rigid clarity in the regime of wage labor (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 40-60). Social totality, as I have suggested, is a totality with a materialist (class) difference. It is a resistance against the ferocity of "contingency", "performativity", "hybridity", and  "differance" which, with the spiritual aroma of religion, have re-written the world in cynicism, in pathos, and ironically but always in the interest of the transnational bourgeoisie.


A pedagogy that understand class—as an objectivity—will be able to contribute to its transformation.  Without teaching for ending class, which is possible only through understanding it as objective, all acts of pedagogy become acts of cultural adjustment to the dominant social conditions—acts of learning "how power works" (Giroux, Impure Acts, 139) in order to manipulate it and make it work for them. Giroux calls the arts and crafts of manipulating power, "critical pedagogy" and call its manipulators "critical citizens". This is a citizenry, however, that is always concerned with how power works on "them", through "them" and for "them" (not the collective).  It is obsessed with "power" and never concerned with "exploitation". It is, in the language of bourgeois stratification, an "upper middle class" citizenry for whom the question of poverty (exploitation) is non-existent, and the only question is the question of personal liberty (power), as Giroux makes even more clear in his stories in Breaking into the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics; Public Spaces, Private Lives.

In the name of a "pedagogy without guarantees" (Impure Acts, 12)—which legitimates the right-wing ideology of "equality of opportunity" but not outcome and the bourgeois obsession with "self-definition and social responsibility" (12) as if these were simply matters of "contingency and contextuality" (12)—Giroux opposes a pedagogy of totality and rejects class as "the totalizing politics of class struggle" (Impure Acts, 25). Indeterminate, non-totalizing cultural interpretations ("producing a language", 12) in pedagogy displace explanatory class critique, and consequently all structural material contradictions are re-written as contingent cultural excess that surpasses all structures.  Consequently, racism, in Giroux's contingent pedagogy of adjustment is not the effect of structural economic compulsion  (Marx, Capital, 1, 899)  but a cultural oppression: the "legacy of white supremacy" (Impure Acts, 66).

Giroux and other critical pedagogues always criticize capitalism and regard their pedagogy to be a resistance against it. Their criticism, however, is, in practice a radical complicity with capital because it always erases the fundamental material contradiction of capitalism (the appropriation of products from its producers) and instead focuses on such matters as race, sexuality, gender, and the environment as autonomous sites of the exercise of power. When their teacherly criticism approaches capitalism as an economic system, it is finance capital that is their object of attention. Focusing on finance capital, however, represents money itself ("interest") as the source of wealth. In doing so, it marginalizes labor as the source of value and class as the marker of relations of property and exploitation. Replacing capitalism as wage labor with capitalism as finance capital has been the political goal in the writings of such post-al writers as Derrida (Specters of Marx), Deleuze and Guattari (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia) and Bataille, The Accursed Share.  "In a sense", write Deleuze and Guattari,

"[I]t is the bank that controls the whole system and the investment of desire. One of Keynes's contributions was the reintroduction of desire into the problem of money; it is this that must be subject to the requirements of Marxist analysis. That is why it is unfortunate that Marxist economics too often dwell on considerations concerning the mode of production, and on the theory of money as the general equivalent as found in the first section of Capital, without attaching enough importance to banking practice, to financial operations, and to specific circulation of credit money—which would be the meaning of a return to Marixst theory of money". (Anti-Oedipus 230).

Focusing on banking effectively diverts attention away from how "money" is obtained at the point of production and instead focuses on the institutions of its distribution, as in Fredric Jameson's "Culture and Finance Capital". In the manner in which Felski and others substitute class affect for class economics, in the left discussion of capitalism, the conceptual analysis of labor as the source of wealth and wage labor as the structure of exploitation are displaced by empathy for those who suffer at the hands of financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, as in Amitava Kumar's World Bank Literature—a book of pedagogical mourning and melancholia. The grounding premise of  "Culture and Finance Capital", World Bank Literature and other contemporary left writings on capitalism is that it is possible to have capitalism without oppression, namely capitalism as a compassionate exploitation of people by people. Capitalism is for them always and ultimately cultural.  It is, as Kumar writes, a web of  "power relations" and "cultural practices".  In Kumar's affective politics, banks are criticized in order to reform capitalism not to overthrow it.  The popularity of "bank writing" in bourgeois left circles now is, in part, grounded in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu who theorizes "capital" as a form of wealth—a resource—which produces power (The Field of Cultural Production, 74-141). Capital is, of course, not a thing but rather a social relation (Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital, 28-30; Capital, 3, 953-0954) that is clearly recognized as such in revolutionary writings on banks  (Fidel Castro "Abolish The IMF" (Capitalism in Crisis 288-292). Capitalism is not about "money", it is about the social relations of property: class. Class is not lifestyle, income or job. Nor is it life-chances in the market (Weber), a state of mind or a matter of social prestige or status.

Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy. (Lenin, "A Great Beginning: Heroism of the Workers in the Rear. 'Communist Subbotniks'" 421).

Class is, fundamentally, the relation of the subject of labor to ownership of the means of production; it is the objective social relations of property, not a story of desire, affect or power.


This is a short excerpt from Mas'ud  Zavarzadeh's essay, "The Pedagogy of Totality" which appears in full in the Journal of Advanced Composition Theory (JAC) (23.1-2003).


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THE RED CRITIQUE 9 (Fall/Winter 2003)