Teaching Double Negatives

Disadvantage and Dissent at Community College

by Robert Cowan (Author)
©2018 Textbook XIV, 154 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 526


Teaching Double Negatives: Disadvantage and Dissent at Community College asks whether exploring narratives that subvert dominant Western paradigms of progress in classrooms enables students to re-narrate and represent their lives. In seven years of teaching literature and philosophy at Brooklyn’s only community college, Robert Cowan worked with many kinds of disadvantaged students—those on welfare or homeless, single moms and the formerly incarcerated, traumatized war veterans, and immigrants from over 140 countries. These students had many reasons for wanting to dissent from the social norms that sought to define and marginalize them. One might imagine that disadvantaged students would identify with texts that are subversive, challenge dominant race/class/gender paradigms, and try to interrogate the globalized systems in which we live. But do they? Do the philosophies of Debord and Heidegger, the novels of Christa Wolf and Jean Genet, contemporary slave narratives and Dead Kennedys lyrics, poetry by Aimé Césiare and Taliban fighters, actually speak to them? Can you teach dissent to the disadvantaged and produce a positive result?
Teaching Double Negatives explores the responses of students to texts from a variety of traditions and time-periods within the context of overarching theoretical debates about counter-enlightenment, globalization, multiculturalism, identification, recognition, and critical pedagogy. Teaching Double Negatives is an insightful collection that problematizes the assumptions of instructors and powerfully engages the intersectionality of students, appealing to readers across the educational spectrum.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Teaching Double Negatives
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Two Negatives
  • The Necessity to Negate
  • Multiple Negation Communities
  • Essay Outline
  • Teaching the Positive
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1. Attempted Darling Murders
  • Walking Psychological Neighborhoods
  • Sol’s Awareness of God
  • Puran’s Shortcomings
  • Munira’s Transvaluation of Values
  • Rezoning Psychological Neighborhoods
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2. Songs of Recognition
  • The Kali Yuga
  • Recognition Courses
  • Guidance from Hyperion
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3. Freedom from Skepticism
  • Judgment Suspension
  • Successful Characters
  • Flight Metaphors
  • Thralldom Abandoned
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4. The Mess at Academic Boot Camp
  • Gastronomically Slumming It
  • Critiques from Minamata to Mars
  • Acting with Our Minds Full
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Tolstoy at Rikers
  • Background Check
  • Trial
  • Sentence
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Transreading Women from the GDR to the PRC
  • Transreading Prompts
  • Transreading Christa Wolf
  • Transreading Chen Ran
  • Transreading Oneself
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 7. Neighborhood Slave Narratives
  • Freedom from Captivity, in Theory and Praxis
  • Encountering the Child Slave Narrative
  • Using New Knowledge to Raise Awareness
  • Intervention in the World
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 8. Threepenny Cynicism
  • Canine Units
  • Capitalist Imperatives
  • Hypocrisy Über Alles
  • Immaterial Evidence
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 9. Posthuman Optimism
  • Metaphysical Mutations
  • Nerds Dominate
  • Thus Spake
  • Luddites?
  • The Bright, Post-human Dawn
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 10. Taliban Poetry for Veterans
  • Students
  • Sources
  • Constructions
  • Needs
  • Actions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion: The Positive
  • Shifting Applications of Intersectionality
  • After Identity Politics, Before Global Citizenship?
  • Community Colleges as Counterpublics
  • Notes
  • References
  • Series index

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Profound thanks to Jessica Lustig of The New York Times, who first encouraged me to write about my teaching. To Jean Tamarin and David Wescott at The Chronicle of Higher Education and Dominic Preziosi at Commonweal, who published my first articles on the subject. To my teaching partners at Vassar College, Pinar Batur and Max Leeming; my research assistants at Kingsborough Community College, Arooj Alam and Anzhalika Shastapalova; the College Way team at Rikers Island: Wesley Williams, Jake Goldstein, Manuel Lugo, and Kathy Mora; and to Regina Peruggi, former President of Kingsborough, who supported this work intellectually and financially. Thank you to the organizers of conference panels on which I presented some of this material: Hans Adler and Rüdiger Campe, John Brenkman and Sorin Cucu, Jacqueline Loeb, Virgil Nemoianu, Kirk Wetters and Michiel Bot, Joanne Miyang Cho and Douglas McGetchin. To my colleagues at the Hunter College Senate and the Academic Center for Excellence in Research and Teaching: Sarah Chinn, Jessie Daniels, Thomas DeGloma, Philip Ewell, Paul McPherron, Calvin Smiley, and Debbie Sonu. As well as Peter Paik, Nicole Ridgway, and Caroline Rupprecht, who suggested sources to investigate. And to Ashna Ali, Yasha Klots, Lela Nargi, Janet Neary, and Huiwen Zhang for their valuable feedback on portions of this manuscript. ← xi | xii →

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the journals and anthologies in which the following pieces appeared, in slightly different form:

To the wonderful team at Peter Lang—Shirley Steinberg, Sarah Bode, Sara McBride, and Jennifer Beszley—with whom it has been a pleasure to work.

And, most importantly, thank you to my students, who continue to inspire me.

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Two Negatives

I believe with Schopenhauer: We can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must. Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.

—Albert Einstein, “What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck,” The Saturday Evening Post (October 26, 1929)

The Necessity to Negate

The advent of globalization, the Internet, smartphones, and social media has brought about another reconsideration of the legacy of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, causing scholars and critics to question the meaning of terms like enlightenment, faith, humanism, and progress. Such discussions have generally criticized the Enlightenment legacy’s supposed logic and, while many criticisms of its mechanisms and purported outcomes may be valid, they have, with a few exceptions, failed to adequately consider the post-Enlightenment period’s ethical dimensions. Indeed, many social advances have been made since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in such areas as workers’ rights, for example. But in the post-World War II era, and particularly since the 1970s, the West ← 1 | 2 → has devised naïvely optimistic responses to the socio-political problems most people face, further entrenching social inequality.

The Enlightenment’s “optimistic” ethics are founded on ideas of infinite growth, of progress as continual increase—in speed, in efficiency, in the further production of more material goods. The net result is that we now face many problems that have grown out of this industrialization, which has by now become our corporatization: corporate food, corporate medicine, corporate education, corporate incarceration, corporate war. Many have argued that ideals that foster this corporatization have roots in the philosophies of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, Kant, Hegel. The critics of these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers, however, beginning with the French anti-philosophes themselves, argued that religion—Catholicism in particular—was necessary to hold society together. They felt that the so-called âge des lumières could never shine as brightly as the light of Christ.1 A century and half after these Catholic defenders, writers like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche warned that the decline of religion would leave an ethical gap that science could not adequately fill.2 This may be so, but one also wonders what the utility is of such stark contrasts between the holy and the secular, industry and equality, enlightenment and counter-enlightenment.

English poet and critic Matthew Arnold argued in “The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) that “the critical faculty is lower than the inventive,” but wondered whether “it is true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment,” indicating that it shouldn’t be.3 Queries and assertions about the nature of criticism similar to those Arnold makes have been posited by thinkers from Socrates to Averroes to Adorno to Spivak. Criticism is based on ideals against which an issue, idea, or work is judged. Far from striving to be merely non-injurious, though, criticism serves a vital role in steering us back to modes of thought that are often more ethically grounded than the modes we were in. Criticism serves a negating function in that it emphasizes lacks, deficiencies, lacunae, and cognizance of these absences is necessary for the development and improvement of works of art, for new philosophies, for new social mores. Hence the commonly accepted notion that criticism can, and ultimately should, be constructive.

Political theorist Joshua Foa Dienstag has argued that the widespread idea of progress as something modern would not have come about without the foundation laid by Europe’s overall change in time-consciousness—from a cyclical ideal to a more linear one—that occurred in the late medieval/early modern period with the use of mechanical clocks and the Gregorian calendar, which ← 2 | 3 → made calculable, measurable time into a commodity. He goes on to assert that the “hidden twin (or perhaps doppelgänger) of progress” is philosophical pessimism, which finds such a commodified conception of time suspect.4 I would seek to extend this argument to include other philosophies of negation—such as skepticism, cynicism, posthumanism—for, although they are all progeny of linear conceptions of time, they are all similarly critical of the idea that “progress” indicates material, technological, and economic growth. In exploring this line of inquiry, Dienstag considers the work of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a key figure in the history of modern pessimism. Part of the impetus for my earlier scholarly work stemmed from attempting to understand the influence of South Asian thought on Schopenhauer and his role in the German Indo-mania of the nineteenth century. Teaching Double Negatives also began with Schopenhauer, but in this instance, I wondered why his philosophy of pessimism has had such a profoundly positive influence on so many writers, composers, and artists—from Melville to Rimsky-Korsakov to Banksy. As we see with Schopenhauer’s influence, negative philosophical tendencies have had a profound impact on what Arnold calls “the inventive.” But negation forms the very basis of criticism itself and, at its most useful and responsible, has an ethical base.

Philosophical movements that negate present ethical challenges to accepted norms: norms, for example, of gender inequality, or the influence of corporations, or the role of the media. Whether the method of criticism is indirect, like the fiction of humanist Sir Thomas More, or direct, like the lyrics of hip hop pioneers Public Enemy, negation must be based on ethics in order to be truly useful. Negative ideologies are necessary to maintain ethical equilibrium because they are often more realistic than the “positive” ideologies they critique, for criticism must not bring us back into our naïvely optimistic paradigm of endless growth, but re-ground ethics that are realistic about the conditions that human beings actually deal with. Thus, negative philosophies help balance reason and imagination, since, not only does ethical production thrive on negative ideas, its very existence is dependent on them. Some of these negative ideas, such as Schopenhauer’s pessimism, have been cast as merely forms of realism; others, such as nihilism, as supra-rational developments that take humanity into realms of experience far beyond what we have known. But negation lies in between such extremes. It is neither a knee-jerk response, a reaction rather than an action, nor is it simply the necessary counterpart to any proposed thesis, for the history of ideas is not reducible to a simple thesis-antithesis-synthesis schema. Negation is, ultimately, ← 3 | 4 → an aspirational mode of being, one that involves the struggle for honesty, and thus identity, and then hopefully takes us beyond the potential reductivism of identity politics.


XIV, 154
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 154 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert Cowan (Author)

Robert Cowan, Ph.D., Comparative Literature, The City University of New York, is Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College and Assistant Dean at Hunter College, both of CUNY. He is the author of The Indo-German Identification: Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies, 1765-1885 and Close Apart: Poems.


Title: Teaching Double Negatives
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