Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Joining the post-honours programme by René Gabriëls
“My mother had to sit with both hands on her desk in primary school. When I was at school we had to wait in the courtyard, standing in a row, before we could go – in complete silence – to our classes. We call it disciplining: it’s a subtle, ongoing process, a machinery, to create, in the end, more productive people. People who comply with the standard. Who are ‘normal’. And if you don’t comply, they exclude you”, says philosopher René Gabriëls.
Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la Prison by the French philosopher Michel Foucault lies in French, German, English and Dutch on the table in the cosy coffee corner Bandito Expresso of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. About ten students gather around René Gabriëls: “Please, come a bit closer, it’s noisy in here.” Today they will discuss several sections of the fourth chapter of Foucault’s book.
Last December Gabriëls started Weird practices and critical theories, his so called ‘post-honours programme’ for interested students and staff members. It is intended as a protest against “unjustified elitism, such as the honours programmes. Only a small number of students – those with the best marks – are able to get a real academic education”, said Gabriëls in a December issue of Observant. Now, every Wednesday afternoon – from 17:00 until 19:00 and followed by a beer in a local pub – ten to twenty students come to discuss and (re)think Foucault’s theory.
Shaun Matsheva, born in Zimbabwe, is one of them. A graduate of the University College Maastricht, he is now a master’s student in Media Culture and tutor at UCM. “You find people here who really love philosophy. They come for their own personal growth, not for the credits. That gives a totally different vibe than in a ‘normal’ tutorial group. The atmosphere is friendly: you can ask any question; no question is stupid. And of course there’s the whole idea of reading an entire book: In every course I did there was never time to go into all the texts. I was dissatisfied about that. I could have applied for a post-honours programme; my marks were good enough. But people there aren’t as highly motivated as the ones who join René’s programme.” He smiles: “I think more students should read Foucault. It changes your way of looking at society. It may even change society.”
A light went on
It’s around 17:30. “A good democracy gives people the opportunity to express their differences”, Gabriëls says. “Democracy is about equality. Not in the sense that we’re all the same, but that we have the same rights”, remarks Eva Tanz, a third-year student of Arts and Culture from Germany. She cites Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher: “Democracy is about plurality.” Tanz likes Foucault very much, she explains afterwards. “In my first course in Maastricht I got to know his work. It was as if a light went on. He shows how society works. For me this post honours programma is a chance to discuss with others. It doesn't feel like being in class, it’s more like free time.”
How can we resist the “positive power” Foucault describes, one of the students asks? “Very good question”, Gabriëls replies. “When you have power you always have resistance.” Student Maria Lohbeck nods: “You have to act outside the norm; that will weaken the power.” Gabriëls agrees: “Foucault’s way of resisting was to create subcultures. He himself went at the end of his life – he died of AIDS – to California and delved into the gay scene. He believed in the ancient Greek concept of parrèsia: have the courage to say ‘no’ when everybody says yes. Speak openly and frankly. Our goal is to figure out the truth, according to Foucault.” He’s getting enthusiastic now: “Think about the lie of the UM slogan ‘Leading in learning’. This has to do with academic capitalism. If you want to emphasise this, then you should have done research on it. To see if it’s true that UM is the best in this field. Twenty years ago we would have called it propaganda. Now it’s called public relations.”
We have do de-mask the lies, one of the student says. But how? “Herbert Marcuse [member of the famous Frankfurt School –Ed.] says you can only act outside the system”, Lohbeck adds. Gabriëls takes the opportunity to explain Marcuse’s famous concept of repressive tolerance. “When I was a teenager, my school gave rebels a certain playground within the school system. They boxed them in, and then the threat was gone. I often said: this is repressive tolerance. For a lot of thinkers only students and artists give any hope for change.”
Later on, in the pub, Lohbeck explains why she joined the programme. “I like the idea of reading an entire book. In my courses in Arts and Culture we only touch on things. That’s also good but this is a different concept.” Fellow student Julia Maria Merten says: “Here we have time to really discus the theory in depth. You can also criticise it, see the limits, investigate, analyse.” A student from UCM, Dirk Janssen, notes something else: “Nowadays everybody just runs and runs without asking questions. René stops and starts asking. I think that’s courageous, powerful and necessary to think about which direction we should go. For me it’s the first time I’ve read such famous authors that really learn me to look differently at the world. It’s striking that in economics tutorials you hear mostly about profit maximisation, while it’s precisely now that we need a critical view of economics.”
“This is what I hoped it would be”, says Gabriëls, drinking a glass of beer. “Everybody feels free to associate and to link the theory to their own experiences. A good book makes you look at the world in a different way. Maybe we’ll read a novel when we’ve finished this book. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, for example. And by the way: people can always join us. Everybody is still welcome.”
The post-honours programme Weird practices and critical theories is held every Wednesday at 17:00 in the Bandito Expresso coffee corner of the Faculty Arts and Social Sciences.