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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 19-35

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Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English

The only genuine teaching is one which succeeds in awakening an insistence in those who are listening, this desire to know which can only emerge when they themselves have taken the measure of ignorance as such—in so far as it is, as such, fruitful—and no less so on the part of the one who teaches.
—Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II
For something new to come into existence, ignorance must exist. That is the position we are in, and that is why we must conceive, in the full sense. When we know something, we are already not conceiving anything any longer.
—Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II
If you are not coming to put into question everything you do, I don't see why you're here.
—Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I

I would like to begin with an assertion that you will perhaps find baffling, which is that you must not know what you're doing, or else you wouldn't be doing it. By "you" I mean you who are graduate students in English, and by "doing it" I mean doing graduate studies in English.1 But by referring to nonknowledge, to not knowing what you're doing, I mean something other than [End Page 19] stupidity, incompetence, disorientation, or confusion about motivation, to be sure. I mean not that you should be befuddled about why you pursue graduate studies in English, but that, if you are now engaged in that pursuit, you must not know what you're doing, or else you wouldn't be doing it. In saying this I mean, or think I mean—with Lacan I can never be sure—to illuminate something like the "fruitful" ignorance, the insistence, the desire to which we find Lacan referring in the epigraphs above: a fruitful ignorance, or, to intentionally misappropriate Gayatri Spivak's (1999: 273) words, a "productive bafflement," a bafflement productive of desire itself.2

So let me rephrase the assertion, make it perhaps more complimentary, if initially no less baffling, and say that you must not know what you're doing, or else you wouldn't be doing it so well. At the same time, let me insist that I desire the word must in my comment to be taken as an imperative: you must not know what you are doing, it is imperative that you not know what you are doing, that you never know what you are doing, or else you will never do it well. Not that you may not be successful—that is, conclude your graduate studies in English, finish your coursework, pass your exams, defend your dissertation, snatch your tenure-track job the first year you're on the market, publish your book, get your tenure and promotion, and your next promotion, and even, who knows, your chaired professorship, and so on—but if you are not even now, perhaps especially now, engaged with graduate studies in English at the level of what I'm here calling productive bafflement and don't continue to be so engaged throughout your career, you are in my estimation not doing your job well, however successfully you may otherwise be doing it.

Since I take the words productive bafflement from Gayatri Spivak, and since I borrow the term nonknowledge from the title of a book by Georges Bataille, and since I have already quoted the notorious Jacques Lacan, you are justified in suspecting that the point of my telling you that you must not know what you're doing or else you wouldn't be doing it somehow relates to my so-called field of expertise, which is literary theory. But I will here defer the theoretical points I want to make about productive bafflement and first offer some practical advice. By way of introducing this practical advice, I will say not only that you must not know what you're...


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