Is it Safe?: Exposing the Ethical Dimensions in Combating Student Resistances

Review of Teaching the Rhetoric of Resistance: The Popular Holocaust and Social Change in a Post 9/11 World

by Robert Samuels
2007; Palgrave Macmillan's Psychoanalysis, Education and Social Transformation Series

Kelly A. Concannon Mannise, Nova Southeastern University

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/is-it-safe
(Published: September 16, 2012)

In Teaching the Rhetoric of Resistance, Robert Samuels exposes how instructors of writing can use both popular culture and students’ resistances to combat intolerance. Samuels fuses psychoanalytic and rhetorical theory to argue that students’ defenses are culturally informed rhetorical strategies. He maintains a commitment to the material realities of the classroom and the real world spaces that affect it, as many critical pedagogues like Friere and Giroux have discussed. Yet Samuels distinguishes his project by mobilizing our thinking about social justice pedagogy as he creates four psychoanalytic modes categorizing students’ defenses to learning. He uses these modes to identify students’ negative cultural attitudes and beliefs, and reveals that creating a safe environment through which students can work through resistances—resistances that are solidified through popular culture—can bring critical pedagogues closer to their intended outcomes.

Samuels creates alternative methods and theories to cultivate global citizenship in the context of a tenuous political climate (cf. Horowitz). He believes students have internalized these problematic ideologies, and this exigency motivates his desire to establish conditions for critical thinking in the classroom (2). Samuels argues for the cultivation of a safe and non-threatening learning environment where students do not feel discouraged or attacked (cf. Bracher; Tingle). In fact, Samuels indicates that confronting students’ beliefs in a non-divisive manner engages students, rather than directly demonizing and attacking them for their beliefs, a strategy Karen Kopelson and others have so adamantly argued for as they attempt to get students to examine their beliefs and values critically. Samuels draws from a series of literacy practices and finds hope in the ability of assignments like non-graded directed and non-directed writing assignments as well as larger group discussions to work through the risks involved in engaging students’ resistances (x).

Figure 1

Samuels’ philosophy extends outward—resisting self reflection on its own right—and works against psychoanalytic theories in education fostering relationships between teachers and students that replicate therapy sessions, a critique too often seen in discourses surrounding change, as scholars like Megan Boler and Marshall Alcorn have noted. His theoretical framework foregrounds psychoanalytic concepts that codify strategies of student resistance, and popular culture serves as a vehicle through which to examine these resistances in the writing classroom. Students and teachers have distinct roles in these examinations. Students question unconscious desires, fears, and attitudes that materialize through various forms of popular culture, while teachers are placed in the position to set in motion the very structures that students critique.

Unfortunately, Samuels runs the risk of reifying traditional relationships to power as he assumes a somewhat authoritative role in the writing classroom—a paradox that many well-intended critical pedagogues encounter. That is, even though Samuels argues that the classroom space should be devoid of particularly identifiable political alliances and beliefs, and instead should be a safe space through which students assess ideologies, it is not clear how traditional relationships to power and privilege are ruptured. In fact, Samuels’ project risks falling short as a result of somewhat simplistic binaries between us versus them, the good and ethical ontological stance, and the bad and unethical one. As Becky Flores argues in “Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: The Paradox of Critical Pedagogy,” pedagogues must be wary of their own ideological standpoint and how that standpoint affects the very reading and positioning of students in relationship to teachers who are positioned as the one who knows. A more thoughtful and self-critical account of students’ experiences, as well as substantial accounts from student perspectives, may have addressed this issue.

The book opens with a layout of Samuels’s theoretical groundwork. In Chapter 1, “Introduction: Psychoanalytic Pedagogy, Cultural Defense Mechanisms, and Social Change,” he identifies four main rhetorical defense mechanisms that shape the “reception and production” of the Holocaust, or other forms of trauma: idealization, identification, assimilation, and universalization (3). Samuels emphasizes the rhetorical nature of these defenses by replacing assumptions about individual psychology with a “shared mechanism of social psychology,” in which defense mechanisms are mediated by culture and language (4). This shift reorients conversations away from personalized opinions to a more normalized understanding of cultural attitudes and beliefs in an effort to destabilize oppressive cultural beliefs and attitudes. At the end of this chapter, Samuels outlines several pedagogical goals and practices—including the cultivation of media literacy—to address these defenses.

Conducive classroom conditions that allow for both “free expression and active individual engagement” are crucial in getting students to confront defenses (5). Therefore, Samuels argues for a non-threatening learning environment that “…engage[s] students without shutting them down or attacking their ‘bad’ habits” (6). He places value on interactive dialogue and collaboration, and positions non-graded (anonymous) writing assignments alongside critical media and self-critical analyses (7-8). Samuels reveals that these strategies resist direct confrontation with students and sets in motion a series of opportunities through which students can address their unconscious emotions, fears, and desires. To that end, students identify popular defenses; once these are established, students are asked to critically assess their individual defenses (7-8).

Samuels outlines a theory of defense mechanisms and assesses how these four devices can be both necessary and potentially self-destructive. Empathetic identification, for example, allows people to identify with the suffering of others; yet extreme identification can fix identities and lead to problematic consequences. An individual may be so deeply moved by encountering representations of trauma (like viewing representations of the Holocaust) that she or he may feel traumatized. This process is based on an individual’s desire to be like others and to share in their emotional experiences. Even as these acts appear benevolent, they foreground the individual’s understandings of trauma rather than the real, lived experiences of others; consequently, the suffering of others is eclipsed (10-11). Similarly, Samuels discusses how idealization of authority and aggression exhibits the subject’s ability to identify with authority. For Samuels, authority and aggression go hand in hand, as his examples reveal how individuals escape authority because they can identify with those in positions of power (13-15).

Samuels is aware of how defenses might manifest in a classroom, where students are well versed in the practice of adopting a teacher’s views in order to succeed. Therefore, he asks pedagogues to be attentive to the structures they set in motion and to be suspect of the ways in which students may immediately adhere to the teacher’s attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies. He suggests that teachers need to be critical of how they may award students who immediately adhere to their beliefs and attitudes. In addition, Samuels exposes how universalization can lead to both human rights and the denial of those rights (17-18). He turns towards popular response to the media and identifies how these representations produce a “culture of learning indifference”—where media representations are thought to be rendered meaningless (19). Finally, Samuels discusses how assimilation allows subjects to internalize negative images about others (and themselves) without a critical assessment of the structures that give these symbols meaning (20-21). Overall, these defenses function to resist a real loss of desired objects and identities—in other words, to resist the loss of an object, an idea, a way of knowing the world. Thus, teachers and students need to work through these four modes of learning (and defenses against learning) because these tensions help structure pedagogy, rhetoric, and contemporary culture.

Samuels applies these rhetorical defense mechanisms in Chapter 2, “What’s A Concentration Camp, Dad? Museums, Pedagogy, and the Rhetoric of Popular Culture,” where he explores the educational value of two museums: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California. Samuels assesses the educational value of these spaces by exposing popular responses. He begins this chapter by exploring how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum addresses multiple and oftentimes conflicting imperatives. Throughout this chapter, Samuels makes a case for the perspective of the “Average Joe, the non-expert” as crucial in filling in the blanks for educators. He argues that collecting real responses in real contexts provides pedagogues with a more accurate account of cultural ideas and values. For Samuels, these moves resist the impulse to follow a “pragmatic” approach to pedagogy, and, instead, offer a realistic rather than distorted representation of cultural attitudes and beliefs (30-33).

Samuels creates a tension between each of the museums. In his view, the United Holocaust Museum signals a more conservative approach to social change, while the Museum of Tolerance is its liberal counterpart. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he claims, inadvertently locks the subject into a position where learning occurs through the processes of identification and assimilation. Conversely, the Museum of Tolerance is more effective because it actively engages the viewer by including exhibits that ask individuals to critically assess their prejudices, bias, and preconceptions—the structure of the museum resists defensive mechanisms with its focus on words, choice, and responsibility (46-48). To support these claims, Samuels uses first-hand observations and assesses website responses to reveal how defenses materialize in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. However, this method is not replicated as he assesses the legitimacy of the Museum of Tolerance because he provides little to no perspectives from those who receive these messages (51-53). Although the support provided for the effectiveness of each museum is uneven because he provides little to no critique of the Museum of Tolerance (as in, for example, an individual’s willingness to critically assess their biases and experience a sense of destabilization), Samuels does an effective job in this chapter privileging spaces that oftentimes go without note in academic discourses regarding progressive change. He bridges the gap between popular culture and teaching and does so by providing space for educational sites outside of the classroom.

In Chapter 3 “Remembering to Forget: Schindler’s List, Critical Pedagogy, and the Popular Holocaust” Samuels illustrates how the use of popular culture serves as a “non-threatening” method to make visible unconscious rhetorical defenses that arise through popular (and inaccurate) representations of the Holocaust. To Samuels, the critical use of popular movies serves to address resistances because it allows teachers to work with students to make conscious unconscious mechanisms of pop culture, as revealed through his exploration of Schindler’s List. Samuels plays on what he sees as inaccurate assumptions about pop culture and the idea that movies are just for entertainment. In fact, he argues that the process of watching a film is an ethical act (60-61); as such, he proposes a series of strategies intended to intervene into the processes of mindlessly consuming multiple forms of popular culture.

Samuels argues that teachers should resist the impulse to allow students to watch a film in its entirety, and instead argues that teachers should strategically break up the linear narrative of the film. This allows teachers to disrupt what he sees as the hypnotic state that is produced through common practices of viewing. He models strategies of how to move students from a hypnotic state, toward a position of power where they critically examine how these powerful representations structure historical memory (63). Thus, his energy in this chapter is directed towards de-idealizing popular culture while at the same time convincing students (and, arguably, teachers) that pop culture is not, in fact, meaningless. He illustrates these point through his examination of how defenses play out in the production and reception of Schindler’s List. Throughout this chapter Samuels relies heavily on his ostensible critique of the movie, where he applies how different rhetorical defenses could materialize as an audience passively watches the movie. Further, this chapter attempts to extend beyond merely a critique of the problematic nature of the movie, and students’ emotional responses (where Samuels pauses the movie and identifies particular defenses) are inextricably linked to his overall reading. Samuels mixes in a series of pauses in this chapter where he reveals just how to deal with the emotional and affective dimensions of confronting students’ resistances. These include the use of free-writes and anonymous written responses that foster free association and exploration. His work assumes that students will eventually move from anonymous free-writes (to address a fear of censorship) to more sustained research projects where students critique a movie and discuss how resistances materialize through both its construction and reception (85).

Samuels focuses on how the processes of universalization and assimilation play out in pop culture in general, but assesses how transference and countertransference particularly affect learning in Chapter 4, “Life is Beautiful, But for Whom?: Transference, Countertransference, and Student Responses to Teaching About the Holocaust.” He uses this chapter to make visible not only the role of popular responses to the film Life is Beautiful, but also how students’ responses to this film are shaped by institutional contexts. Although this chapter serves as yet another illustration of how to mobilize students’ ideas through an analysis of pop culture, the distinction here is the focus on how comedy factors into the audience’s inability to confront unsettling emotions pertaining to trauma and how the institutional context of the classroom matters (88).

The strength of this chapter lies in Samuel’s ability to argue for a pedagogy that includes multiple mechanisms through which students can explore rhetorical defenses. While these include anonymous responses and research based arguments that vacillate between the individual and the social (90-92), this chapter situates the teacher as integral to structuring emotional responses. Even as it is argued that authority is to be deferred, it is clear that the teacher’s role is to anticipate particular emotional response and to create sufficient outlets. Often, students may perform in ways that mimic the political ideologies of the teacher. In this process, they idealize the teacher as the one who knows; however, these moves block critical thinking and do not allow for transformation but merely performance. Samuels proposes a series of activities to counter these defenses—practices of de-idealization—which include asking students to anonymously critique and assess his writings as well as how he participates in teacher-student interactions. Further, he has students discuss their experiences with teachers in classes and critique these processes in general (105-106). Even if this safe learning environment may produce a feeling of uncertainty for teachers, these moves make visible the crucial role of affect in teaching and learning. For, as he observes, “if the only way to approach a state of scientific objectivity is to try to account for and control most subjective factors, the analysis of the unconscious subjectivity of the student and of the teacher becomes essential” (109). Significantly, however, Samuels walks a fine line between affording students with a sense of authority, and authoritatively providing students with particular ways of feeling.

In Chapter 5, “Freud Goes to South Park: Teaching Against Postmodern Prejudices and Equal Opportunity Hatred,” Samuels applies the rhetorical defense of assimilation to illuminate how popular culture circulates “an unconscious mode of internalized racism” through the rhetoric of universal intolerance and political incorrectness. He highlights what he sees as a dangerous binary where pop culture is viewed as a release from a strict political correctness mandated in academe (111). This chapter follows a similar method as the previous one, yet Samuels further complicates the role of humor by arguing that shows like South Park participate in “equal opportunity hatred” because individuals can direct prejudices towards everyone, thereby creating an equal playing ground for all marginalized groups (111). However, this chapter reveals how making this hatred explicit denies individual’s responsibilities to be conscious of their language and attitudes towards others, but rather these “rhetorical reversals” reinforce and re-circulate stereotypes. Further, the circulation of these values globalizes hatred, thereby shirking the responsibility to combat intolerances and dismissing the complexities of political correctness: “In this upside down rhetorical world, minorities are now seen as victimizers and abusers of the welfare system, while the wealthy majority is positioned to be the victim of excessive taxes and reversed racism” (112). Samuels demonstrates how “rhetorical reversals” function, as definitions of prejudice and intolerance have been manipulated for conservative purposes. Throughout the chapter he highlights how different areas of popular culture are able to manipulate progressive outcomes and devoid them of their intended goals, as characters in the popular movie South Park reveal how everyone is made fun of equally. Consequently, the historical significance ad weight of racist and/or ethnocentric jokes and attitudes are devoid of their oppressive and harmful power, and contested histories remain invisible (116).

This chapter makes visible the role of affect in the construction of knowledge, as students and teachers are encouraged to reflect on the relationships between a universalizing global economy (global capitalism) and assimilation. Samuels provides readers with a series of examples that work within a psychoanalytic definition of humor that challenges universalization and claims to freedom of speech. Students are asked to reflect on the role of humor and its relationship to prejudice through discussion, role play, and written exploration. Students are asked to re-enact and discuss how humor and prejudice materialize in their everyday lives, and discuss the implication of these processes with their peers (117-118). The focus on writing assignments in this chapter is linked to personal self-reflection and analysis of values on the web, as students apply rhetorical defenses to their own lives and assess the lives of others (127-129). These opportunities provide students with effective critical tools to examine not only these stereotypes, but, additionally, to dislodge the conservative ideologies that underwrite them. Further, the power of this chapter resides in Samuels’s ability to create an ominous warning that the repetition and recirculation of language, values, and ideas (similar to those expressed by Judith Butler), reinvigorates stereotypical attitudes rather than loosening or desensitizing individuals from them. This process positions individuals within a complex web of assimilation and hatred—attitudes and beliefs that are unconscious but part of an individual’s way of viewing the world.

Samuels uses Chapter 6, “Teaching Against Binaries: Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the Culture of Rhetorical Reversals,” to outline strategies to navigate the “cultural wars.” He identifies teaching strategies that rely on rhetorical analysis to produce opportunities where students are able to engage in the process of a “non-binary mode of analysis.” Samuels argues for this process because he finds that evoking political positions often set in opposition to one another elicits emotional responses that disallow a more critical rhetorical analysis. Further, he posits that this political climate reveals that rhetorical reversals—processes where those in positions of power and privilege often claim victimhood—present a polarized version of difference, skew claims to “freedom of speech,” and vilify those who do not support conservative ideology, especially in the academy. Therefore, Samuels argues that students should identify their rhetorical defenses and then move to examine how individual and social defenses help shape arguments in historically significant ways. These strategies are intended to work against self-justified beliefs and extend into a more critical exploration of political affiliations, even as they are left unnamed but critically examined in the classroom. Thus, rhetoric becomes the driving force to understand people’s commitment to one position over another (132-134). To this end, Samuels attempts to resist a binary of political affiliations, but does in fact run the risk of creating a binary between what he might see as the right or wrong attitudes and beliefs to espouse in his writing classroom. In fact, he argues that “we need to affirm that although there is not always a single right answer to a social problem. There are many wrong answers. In other words, we must develop a pedagogy that affirms multiple causes of a social issue and is still able to reject wrong or misleading solutions” (133). Thus, in the process, Samuels creates a binary between the wrong and right way of being in the world—his value system that clearly infiltrates the ways he structures multiple literacy practices in the classroom.

This chapter provides access to students’ processes in developing a firm position and makes visible tensions between intellectual and emotional processes involved in the construction of knowledge. Samuels emphasizes the learning process, as he moves back and forth between assessing rhetorical positions and developing rhetorical positions in ways that are responsible and attentive to the workings of history. Samuels indicates just how significant a safe learning environment is within these processes: “Thus, instead of simply telling our students what the correct information is, it is often more effective to have them research the missing historical context themselves because students may simply memorize or reject the information that comes from teachers, especially when the information deals with contentious political issues” (146). This angle allows students a sense of agency because they are creating knowledge through their research processes and strategies. Samuels presents methods and assignments for students to assess how a universalized rhetoric factors into popular arguments, and, further, to understand how rhetorical strategies and defenses shape political identifications in spaces like radio broadcasts and online forums. Assignments discussed in this chapter include editorials and reflective pieces that allow students to reflect on difficulties encountered in the process.

In the conclusion, “From the Holocaust to the Global War on Terror,” Samuels illustrates how these rhetorical defenses play out in the media. He draws parallels between the role of Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and evaluates how these attitudes help shape representations of the “Global War on Terror” (149). Additionally, Samuels reveals how a “globalized entertainment” functions to distort trauma. Samuels argues that popular culture turns events like the Holocaust into an object that is manipulated and divorced from its original historical context. Thus, the real lived violence of the event is not including through the media’s representation and viewers are desensitized. This process creates a myriad of problems, many of which should, as Samuels argues throughout this project, be addressed in a carefully constructed classroom that resists direct confrontation and allows for multiple subjectivities (150-151). “In fact, by making our media more interactive and by giving up the easy notion of universal toleration, people may be able to come to terms with the conflicted nature of all identity systems. Part of this educational and cultural process will require a confrontation with the internalized Anti-Semitism and racism circulating in popular culture” (151). Thus, he argues for more interactive media—ones that resist manipulation, binaries, and polarized knowledges—and classroom conditions that allow students the ability to become more socially responsible (152).

The book attempts to equip students and teachers with the tools to conduct efficient rhetorical analyses of how culture shapes individuals to participate in the world. Samuels successfully acknowledges the role of institutional structures in setting in motion particular relationships between teachers, students, and knowledges. Even though this book consistently moves between theory and practice, and Samuels presents writing assignments in almost all of the chapters, he leaves room for pedagogues to continue this work. He is committed to the rhetorical components of these processes, and acknowledges the complexities of all subjects (and their histories, experiences, insights) in the process. At times, however, the book represents a distorted power relationship between teachers and students as Samuels himself relies heavily on his insight, observations, and desires as evidence for both the need for and the solution to issues related to cultural sensitivity, apathy, and social justice. This oversight creates a problematic dynamic that is not sufficiently accounted for (either qualitatively or quantitatively). However, the ramifications of cultural intolerance remain ethical issues—many of which demand careful attention by committed rhetoricians who certainly can leave their mark on initiates invested in eradicating injustices.

Works Consulted

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Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham, MD:
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Giroux, Henry A., and Kostas Myrsiades. Beyond the Corporate University: Culture and
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Horowitz, David. The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Washington, DC:
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Kopelson, Karen. "Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality
(Re)Considered As a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance." College Composition and Communication. 55.1 (2003): 115-146. Print.

Tingle, Nick. Self-Development and College Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,
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