Teaching Responsibility: Forging Citizenship

Dasa Duhaček, Belgrade Women’s Studies Center & University of Belgrade, Serbia

Keywords: identity, citizenship, responsibility

After ‘positioning’ ourselves within the broader research project of Travelling Concepts as well as in relation to each other, I have become aware that all the issues significant for my own research have in some way been voiced in the position papers I have read.

If required to classify our respective research preoccupations as represented by the position papers and translate them into (the constraints of) mainstream philosophy I would say that they fall into the two main (philosophical) disciplines: ontology and epistemology. This does not include the main concern that we all share, the concern that functions almost as a common denominator, and which is, of course, teaching. Happily, we do not have to abide by the constraints of the mainstream, and consequently we have either addressed the complex ontological issues of identities/differences through race, diaspora, resistance or recognition, to name only some issues, or we have reconceptualized knowledge through emerging epistemologies, importantly, establishing the ‘link between epistemological and ethical thinking’ (Eva Skaerbaek). The issue of citizenship I see as inextricably woven through with questions of identities and differences in its primary - if not the only - practico-political form, but in keeping with Hannah Arendt’s work definitely extending the concept of the political beyond the narrow format of political participation. I see my work – as explicated in the other position papers – relating to all these complex issues, just with a varying degree of emphasis.

Therefore, starting from what may present itself as an ontological - whereas it is an identity - issue, my concern is the content, the substance, and ultimately ‘the message’, which I convey to my students: that, for the most part, being a mosaic of the pieces from which they almost feverishly construct an answer to their passionate identity problems. Sadly, in Serbia there is no comprehension and therefore no public tolerance of flexible identities. Here identity as a firm, stable concept is very much alive and well; moreover it is associated with a prevailing and privileged prefix of the national and/or ethnic. These national and, oftentimes designated as ‘patriotic’, matrices are ‘blessed’ and in fact aggressively promoted by a revival of Orthodox religion. A generation is now coming of age, which neither has, nor for the most part could have had, while maturing in a closed off community, any recollection other than those produced by regime-controlled media, turbo folk music, nationalist history textbooks, and, therefore representation of other cultures grounded in prejudices and stereotypes. These systems are far from being dismantled in Serbia (1).

Another important issue that is prominent in many position papers is, pedagogically speaking, the importance of taking a step back from identity issues - and coming full circle, returning to them. One diagnosis is to identify the construction of knowledge and especially how the ‘trickle-down effects … play a part in sustaining … hierarchical structures’ (Code in Eva Skaerbaeck) and constantly raising the awareness of ‘situated knowledge’ (but also ‘situated self’, or ‘situatedness’ - Marina Calloni and Eva Skaerbaek’s emphasis on the feminist contributions of Haraway (1990), Braidotti (1994), Benhabib (1992), are what I see as therapeutic potentialities (2).

Finally, this dovetails into what I feel most compelled to pick up on: critical thinking, articulated so well, and in different ways, by a number of position papers, e.g. Veronica Vasterling, Saula Pavlidou, Clare Hemmings (as in critical pedagogy). For me the question is: where in our teaching is the fine line along which we play when we decide, not only about what is it that we teach, but also about how we perform it? That is why I think that we need not - or for that matter, actually cannot – distinctly opt for a single direction among the three Clare Hemmings mentions: revitalizing existing concepts, cultivating feminist ones, or developing the sites that will challenge the ‘ivory tower’ of the academy. It is the how that will make a difference and the particular choice is best made in response to a context.

And I believe that in our respective teaching experiences we cannot lose sight of the actual people we are facing. In the particular case of my current teaching position, this means exactly what I would like to emphasize: teaching today in Serbia means facing (3) a generation that matured under the onslaught of a devastating state propaganda; and teaching participants in that generation to accept, as a meaningful political act, a citizenship which will inevitably burden them with heavy responsibility. Teaching critical thinking to ‘wounded’ subjects (Elena Pulcini), bearing the burden of ‘wounded attachments’ (Brown, 1997: 52) is oftentimes a very painful process.

This is where I found the analogy with another teaching position, the one Karl Jaspers had to face in post WWII Germany, helpful: in 1945 Japers addressed his students in a text entitled The Question of German Guilt. The importance of the gesture and the text itself notwithstanding, it profits us more to look into the problems internal to this text . These problems are articulated most sharply by H. Blücher, both in respect of the level of disagreement, and in terms of clarity: guilt, stormed Blücher, ‘serves the purpose of extirpating responsibility. This has always been its function beginning with sin …’ clarifying, he further adds: ‘If Jaspers is searching for the nature of the true German, he will never find the true German conflict… Germany finally had the opportunity to make clear the fronts of the real civil war of our times, republicans against the Cossacks, in other words the battle of the Citoyen against the Barbarian… ‘(Arendt and Blücher, 2000: 85). Blücher’s comments here speak to many conflicts of our contemporary world, and could very well refer to the diagnosis of the recent ones in the Balkans.

Blücher’s explosion of anger and vitriolic remarks about Jaspers’ text claims that Jaspers is seeking a pitiful way out by creating confusion as to the purpose – that of being ‘the true German’ - as well as the means of achieving it, which are ‘Christian/ pietistic/hypocritical nationalistic’ (Arendt and Blücher, 2000: 84). Leaving ‘the inner cleansing’ to Jaspers, Blücher, who is nota bene: a German, announces the politically relevant principle: ‘For me the outer cleansing is more important. The Germans [should be] prepared to do something to dry the tears of the degraded and the humiliated… Then we could at least say that we have accepted responsibility…’ (86)

It appears that Blücher has reached the core of the matter: responsibility needs to be materialized as an issue of citizenship, whereas Jaspers is making a continuous effort to define ‘what we are and should be – what is really German …?’ (1947) and is thereby keeping open a Pandora’s box of nationalism. The parameters for establishing the format for responsibility are here graphically formulated by Blücher, as they are present throughout Arendt’s theory: potently, they are designated as the urgent need to recognize the option of ‘citoyen’, citizenship.

While I am not claiming that this step will by any means resolve the issue, I do think that this is undoubtedly the point of departure; this is what Jaspers’ students needed to learn in 1945, and is even more what the students in Serbia need to learn now. This option for them will not be an easy one, however, since it comes - as it only can - as a burden. But I believe that the upcoming generation can take up and hold this burden of responsibility (‘The heavier it is to carry the better please I shall be: for that burden is my freedom’ Sartre, 1943). It is my contention that this is the only way they can forge their own citizenship.

How do we, as teachers, aid this process? Which approach to the multifaceted presentations of identity issues should we take, so as to bring out complexity and differences as Liana Borghi and Biljana Kasic respectively suggest? The approach of ‘deception’ in terms of playing into one’s identity that Kierkegaard so seductively used, and passionately recommended as a legitimate teaching tool in this case may prove to be too dangerous (though it is not to be ruled out as a principle).

Perhaps it would be useful to return to the storytelling that Hannah Arendt believed in; and some of the stories we need to tell most certainly come from the history of feminist theory, such as texts referred to as mea culpa statements (See e.g. Barrett and Mc Intosh, 1985). However I am more persuaded by the text of Adrienne Rich, who perceived her text ‘Notes Towards Politics of Location’ as a struggle for accountability; while noting the ‘…difficulty of saying “we”, ‘ she inverts Virginia Woolf’s statement ‘as a woman I have no country…’ by insisting that, ‘as a woman I have a country; as a woman I cannot divest myself of that country … I need to understand how a place on the map is also a place …within which I am created and trying to create’ (1986: 211) An especially abundant source is post-colonial writing, and in particular that of Gayatri Spivak (1999) and Chandra Mohanty (1991). I find Chandra Mohanty’s recycling of the concept of imagined communities very inspiring, since these are formed by ‘the political links we choose to make’ (Mohanty, 1991: 4), in line with my own focus on responsibility, here.

However, to date, in the current higher education system in Serbia the only programs that have included - and loudly voiced - the concerns otherwise not addressed - such as war, nationalism, rights of the Roma, lesbian and gay issues, sexuality, the body, citizenship, civic responsibility, and individual accountability - are the alternative educational spaces offered by the hitherto unaccredited programs of the Belgrade Women’s Studies Center, Peace Studies, Alternative Academic Educational Network (AAEN) and the like. Since compulsory coursework still makes up 95% of every student’s program (4) any student writing from for example, a gender perspective would have a very limited number of choices: only two programs of the Belgrade University have, during the last decade, been offering elective courses from either this field of study or had any gender awareness (5).

Sartre once stated the only relevant reading is the one that changes us (see Sartre, 1960). By rereading the texts of the position papers for Travelling Concepts I have somewhat revised my position: I now think that, besides tending to the specific, contextual concerns of the students in Serbia, they need to be exposed even more urgently to the world of differences which has been denied to them for such a long time. Of course this is a slight shift, from being overly concerned with identities to recognizing that perhaps their own painful issues may be eased by opening up to others and activating differences, a crucial task, a critical tool, that I still think is mostly about the how of our teaching.


(1) The troubled context of the Balkans has found its articulation directly or indirectly in Melita Richter’s position paper, I can also relate to the array of painful identity issues addressed through race (inspiringly unfolded by Giovanna Covi, here), diaspora or any other concepts, since they all point to equally sad models. Significantly the issues of resistance/s to these models have a prominent place on our agenda (one approach being offered by Marina Calloni ‘s concluding remarks and others lying in the myriad of teaching practices mentioned by, e.g., Liana Borghi, Eva Skaerbaek and Clare Hemmings, ).
(2) Another therapeutic potential lies in the concepts of ‘ethics of ambiguity’, reintroduced to me by Biljana Kasic and Eva Skaerbaek, who through this revived the notion of finding ‘ways to prevent war in the future’ (Skaerbaek) ‘enting the wars in the future’.
(3) In the extended sense that Emanuel Levinas (1997) developed in terms of focused upon a face.
(4) This is just one of the many problems with the higher education system in Serbia; for further stated in most of the evaluation reports of the European University Commission
(5) First, Department of Sociology, Philosophical Faculty, and second, Political Science Faculty, both within Belgrade University. Happily these initiatives are expanding: the University of Novi Sad has recently approved a Gender Studies Program.

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