From Effigy to Empathy:

Teaching in an Age of Ahistorical Individualism

By Matt Godbey

Response to “Teaching Amid Terror: A Meditation on Whiteness

Beth Connors-Manke’s “Teaching Amid Terror” offers a profound and profoundly necessary reflection on the role of teachers and educators in a time of increased violence against black bodies by individuals and institutions tasked with protecting them. For all of us, it is a reminder that in America when we talk about race the past is never the past. For white educators, especially those like me who focus on and teach African-American literature, it reminds us as well that whiteness is an identity whose roots are grounded in racism and, though we abhor and reject racism and violence, we nonetheless have profited from our whiteness and owe it to our students to acknowledge such privilege. Further, as she writes, this has never been more true than it is now, when college campuses are increasingly corporatized and pledging fealty to the seductive allure of neoliberalism’s promise of profits and shiny new facilities.


Beth’s ideas about neoliberalism and race were a response to Jeff Gross’s earlier essay, “Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself,” in which Jeff raised serious concerns about how “neoliberalism and conservatism have aligned to attack liberal arts programs as well as programs specifically aimed at the studies of racism, sexism, ecology, and poverty.” As a result, he writes, universities are left in a “precarious” position that continually devalues the study of controversial or simply discomforting subject matter and, by extension, supporting a system that devalues and potentially ignores the lives of minorities and other marginalized citizens.

Reading Beth’s and Jeff’s essays, I was struck by how the issues they address–race, pedagogy, neoliberalism–read like a catalogue of concerns that have been at the forefront of my own career as an academic and teacher and my ongoing concerns about the state of contemporary higher education. Like Jeff, I struggle with the  values of the neoliberal university that seems to value the social and entertainment needs of its students over their academic growth.

At the University of Kentucky (where I teach), for instance, they recently unveiled the plans for a $175 million student center that will feature a gym, movie theater, and a three-story social staircase where students can gather and hang out. Additionally, all new residence hall construction has been privatized, and the dining landscape increasingly looks like the food court at your local mall, with Chic-fil-A, Panda Express, Subway, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Starbucks embedded in classroom buildings and libraries around the campus.1

And, as a white professor who teaches African-American literature at a predominantly-white university in a state where most residents self-identify as southern, I often find myself introducing white students to a critical study of black writers for the very first time. In building a historical context for these works, I stress to my students that America’s racial history is more complicated than the one glossed over by history books that provide a CliffsNotes summary: slavery and Frederick Douglass, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and post-racialism. And, as Beth acknowledges with her memory of teaching bell hooks, this is an act fraught with the potential for tension or, at the very least, discomfort given the sort of pervasive reticence that characterizes our culture’s attitude toward conversations about race.

Narrative Terror

And yet, while my efforts to teach black literature are complicated by teaching, as Beth writes, amid terror, I see a different source of that terror. For me, the terror has less to do with overt acts of violence, despicable and troubling though they may be, and is instead a product of another form of terror she mentions in her essay: the ongoing neoliberalization of American life and culture. As William Deresiewicz writes in “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market”:

[N]eoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace—in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending.

Deresiewicz isn’t the first, and nor will he be the last, to argue that the results of this ideology for humanities at the nation’s colleges and universities has been a disastrous weakening of public interest in programs of study that appear unprofitable in today’s economy.

Although I certainly share his concerns about the plight of the humanities in the university, my real concern about neoliberal ideology is the way it has infiltrated my students’ outlook on the world. And I’m not just bemoaning the fact that nobody wants to major in English anymore. When I first read the title of Beth’s essay, I thought of Don DeLillo, who, in his 1991 novel Mao II, defines terror as a narrative. The story of reclusive author Bill Gray, the novel grapples with the role of writers in a time of mass consumerism and the ascendancy of the image over substance. For Gray, seclusion was a revolutionary act that rejected what he saw as the commodification of authors by controlling the dissemination of his own image. He gives up his seclusion, though, when terrorists in Beirut kidnap a Swiss writer, and Gray decides to negotiate with them for the author’s release. This decision, in part, is motivated by Gray’s frustration with the waning role of writers in contemporary culture. Early in the novel, Gray laments the fact that terrorists had displaced novelists as the people most responsible for shaping public consciousness:

Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.”2

Gray is saying that, in the rush to commercialize, to capitalize on their brand in popular culture, writers have ceded their ability to shape public thought. Ten years later, DeLillo returns to this idea in “In the Ruins of the Future,” an essay written in the wake of 9/11, writing that “Today, again, the world narrative belongs to terrorists.”3

What I’m drawn to in DeLillo’s writing is the idea of terror as a narrative, as a story about the how the world works that has the power to shape our consciousness and dictate the individual’s relationship to the world at large. Further, this is a power that he argues was once the provenance of writers, who have now been marginalized. Although DeLillo’s ideas were written in the context of violent terrorism, the way they pit the forces of art and creativity against the forces of narrow worldviews and self-preservation seems to me a powerful metaphor for the struggle against neoliberalism that those of who teach in the humanities experience on a daily basis.

Ahistorical Individualism

The terror of neoliberalism is the fear of living in what Vaughn Rasberry calls “a social order defined by the reign of free markets and the pursuit of private interests.”4 Narratives, like the social order evoked by Rasberry, have the power to shape what is and is not possible in a given culture. They tell stories about the way the world works, and, more importantly, about how we as individuals fit into that world. This latter idea has tremendous implications for our students who were born into a world where neoliberalism has already decided that individuals are consumers and producers, and that our greatest product is our selves.5

What does this have to do with race? As David Harvey has noted, “Values of individual freedom and social justice are not…necessarily compatible.”6 Indeed, to speak of race today, to broach the subject in a literature classroom, is to ask students to look at the intersection of individual stories and structural racism at a time when neoliberal thought has taught our students that the individual is sacrosanct and the structural is a myth, a crutch for people who can’t hack it or who make poor decisions.

The size of this gap between individual freedoms and social justice was revealed to me at a moment when America’s post-racial future seemed well within our grasp. During the 2008 presidential election, a current student at the University of Kentucky and a former student from the local community college hung Obama in effigy on UK’s campus. To anyone with knowledge of the life in the Jim Crow South, a history that includes the state where I was born, raised, and now live and work, the image of a black presidential candidate hanging from a tree should evoke troubling associations with lynching. At the time, I was teaching Obama’s Dreams of My Father as an example of the long history of black autobiography that stretches all the way back to the slave narratives, and so Obama the candidate was a part of our classroom conversations. When I asked the class what they thought about the hanging, my students were surprised by the local and national outrage at the incident. More, they were unwilling to connect it to the history of lynching and argued any attempt to do so was unfounded and overreaching.

Arboretum Tower
“Arboretum Tower” by Brian Connors Manke

What I’ve come to understand about that moment is that it’s not just a lack of knowledge that prohibits our students from understanding and reacting to the violence we see on the news. Rather, the problem is that neoliberalism is an ethos that actively works against the sort of collective identity that is necessary to see the problems in Ferguson, or New York, or anywhere racial violence happens as a problem that affects and involves me. In light of DeLillo’s definition of terror as a narrative, it makes sense to look at the recent outbreak of racial violence as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen a narrative of white power and state-sponsored racism. At the same time, though, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that most of the people responsible for such acts go to great pains to assure the public that they are not, in fact, racist.7

When it comes to race, students today live in a confusing time. On the one hand, there is the rhetoric of post-racialism and the neoliberal insistence on looking at the world through the lens of individual autonomy. Today in America, such rhetoric preaches, we have transcended race and arrived at a meritocratic point in history when the old barriers to blacks and other minorities have been swept away. Now, everything that happens to me is because of me. I make my own opportunities and sow the seeds of my own discord. To say otherwise, to point the finger at structural, systemic problems such as institutionalized racism, is to shirk responsibility for myself.

For much of my class on the day when we discussed the effigy, this was a story of a couple of misguided individuals who made a stupid decision. When we discussed it as a symbolic lynching, the response was that the students who hung Obama in effigy were simply, though perhaps stupidly, exercising their rights as citizens. To dredge up racism, to understand it as part of a long history of lynchings and of playing out entrenched racism on the bodies of black men, as I suggested, was to read too much into it.

Radical Empathy

Then, and now, a perspective like this raises important questions about how to best combat the neoliberal insistence on a type of ahistorical individualism. What can I, as an instructor of literature, do to reach these students and to help foster a perspective that acknowledges and understands racism’s lingering stain on American society? Is it enough to read books and articles that point out that we live in a world where police violence is disproportionately meted out to black men? Do I simply expose them to the mounting evidence that we live in a carceral state where more young black men are, or have been, imprisoned than have graduated from college? Do I show them that blacks are imprisoned at percentages that far outweigh the number of whites, emphasizing that all of this is a direct result of the criminalization of blackness that was a direct result of emancipation and Jim Crow?8

Increasingly, I don’t think it’s enough. Given the tenacity with which certain segments of the population fight to promote ideas of individual responsibility and American exceptionalism in the face of all the evidence that suggests otherwise, is it any wonder that race as a topic has become so difficult in the classroom? And yet, it is exactly in the classroom, particularly in the literature classroom, where such conversations should and must be had. Through fiction, I can try to achieve what Colum McCann calls “radical empathy.” For McCann, stories have the power to reach across divides, to connect individuals no matter how diverse their backgrounds. More importantly, they have power to combat the cynicism and despair that is all too common in today’s neoliberal world where everyone and everything is worth only what the market says they are.

As a lover and instructor of literature, I am encouraged by McCann’s words and with the idea of radical empathy. Certainly, I struggle with the waning power of literature as a cultural force that encourages students to read, to think critically, to experience what Deresiewicz calls the moral impact of reading good books. And yet, I am inspired to teach stories, especially those by black writers who connect the individual to the systemic and, by proxy, ask readers to do so as well. Despite a climate of neoliberalism that terrorizes our students with its narrative about individualism, we can encourage students to see themselves as having something at stake in a world bigger than themselves.


Editor: Jeff Gross

Copyediting by Beth Connors-Manke

Featured Image: “The Inner-Inner Circle” by Brian Connors Manke