Education of the Senses
“Our frantic heaves and throbs were received and returned with equally voluptuous and pleasure-conferring shoves and wriggles, which gradually increased in force and intensity, until the final crisis again overtook us, and we all melted away in the glorious excess of rapture.” (The Adventures of a School-Boy 162)
The anonymously-written narrative The Adventures of a School-Boy or, the Freaks of Youthful Passion (1866) details the education of a group of four young companions (Frank, George, Eliza, and Maria) as they develop sexual knowledge. Adventures can be read as participating in a contemporary discourse on education that problematizes the role and developmental effect of reading on a burgeoning Victorian reading public and, in the face of moral and cultural authorities’ repudiation (detailed, among other places, in tracts on onanism and cultural commentaries on sensationalism that emphasized the dangers of knowledge derived from sensational literature), promoting an education of the senses that resonates with Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of learning in Difference and Repetition. The composition of Adventures prefigures late nineteenth-century institutional and moral reform movements, but the narrative offers an emphatic critique of one method of pedagogical instruction and promotes the democratization of sensual knowledge through reading.
Adventures commences by quickly marking and dismissing an ineffective system of learning in order to develop a model of education based on the senses and engaged performance. The narrator, Frank, presents an account of his incipient friendship with George in which he sharply criticizes and rejects the pedagogical practice that had previously informed George. Frank describes George:
He was clever and quick and had a most excellent memory, but unfortunately the school he had been at formerly was not well conducted and his teachers had been quite satisfied that he could repeat the lesson set him, without taking the trouble to ascertain whether he understood it or not. His natural cleverness enabled him to keep his place with most of his school-fellows at the Doctor’s, but it was not long before I discovered my own superiority. (101-102)
In his previous educational system, George’s teachers merely asked him to reproduce the gestures of knowledge, rote lessons that they set on him, rather than engage him in a pedagogical process that disturbed and moved him to learn. Frank challenges the limitations of such instruction by appealing emotionally to his friend and establishing an intimate educational experience with George. The two work together closely, and Frank describes how George eventually “began to have a glimpse of what [Frank] wanted to impress upon him, and thenceforward [George] was as anxious as [Frank] could be to prosecute [their] private studies. It seemed to come upon him like a flash of lightning, and he could not imagine, when he first began to see the light, how it was that he had remained so long in the dark” (103). This alternative pedagogical practice is twinly marked by the anxiety and desire to learn, and this sensational practice contrasts the passionless and ventriloquistic reproduction of a teacher’s knowledge that had previously trained George. Frank incites George to participate enthusiastically with him in this new learning process, and the success of the performance produces in George an affective excess, like a flash of lightning, that engenders intimacy between the boys and further propels them in the adventures of their sensational education.
The contrast between modes of educational instruction that Adventures illustrates seems to resonate with Deleuze’s consideration of the question of how one learns. Deleuze writes:
It is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous—but also something fatal—about all education. We learn nothing from those who say: “Do as I do.” Our only teachers are those who tell us to “do with me,” and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce. (23)
Recalling Frank’s emphasis on desire and anxiety, Deleuze argues that the ambivalent nature of education is amorous and fatal, and he proceeds to emphasize that students do not learn from teachers who set knowledge on them or propose education as a process of empty mimicry. Deleuze instead asserts that our only teachers are those who establish education as a relationship that maintains the difference or heterogeneity of participants, and this seems to be the learning process that the youths in Adventures develop.
Deleuze continues to explicate the nature of this educational process. He notes, “[T]o learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other and repetition takes shape while disguising itself” (23). The encounter between the teacher and the student is one of mutual engagement and participation. Because the teacher does not say to the student, “Do as I do,” the process of learning is not based on simple imitation. That which is taught, the actions that are repeated in the course of learning, takes on a shape other than repetition in the encounter’s exchange. Repetition disguises itself because it produces a new sensation and acts upon a sensibly altered subject in each instance of this encounter. The apprentice who learns, Deleuze writes, “raises each faculty to the level of its transcendent exercise. With regard to sensibility, he attempts to give birth to that power which grasps that which can only be sensed. This is the education of the senses. From one faculty to another is communicated a violence which nevertheless always understands the Other through the perfection of each” (165). The education of the senses is a disturbing or disorienting exercise of moving the body into a new position, and learning is a process of “violent training” (165) where violence denotes an affective force and intensity. This is the impassioned learning to which Frank introduces George and his companions, and it is also the sensationally violent training that pornography can perform with its readers.
The Adventures of a School-Boy or, the Freaks of Youthful Passion. The New Epicurean and The Adventures of a School-Boy: Two Tales from the Victorian Underground. New York: Grove, 1969. 97-219. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.