How to Learn Together, Apart

Ewan Jones

If, in years to come, an intrepid researcher writes a dissertation upon the history of technology-assisted synchronous learning, her first chapter may well find room for 7 January 1977. It was on this day that the Collège de France attempted what it didn’t yet call a simulcast of Roland Barthes’s inaugural lecture, Barthes having recently been elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire. The Collège live-broadcast the proceedings to the overspill of students unable to access the main lecture hall. Barthes’s performance uncannily anticipates the present order to which, with drastic quickness, we’ve become accustomed. Claude Coste notes that “the first session in particular suffered a number of interruptions: the retransmission not working, the irritated amusement of the students, having to send out for a technician, Barthes’s own embarrassment at the many technical failings.”[1] This anecdote reassures me whenever I loiter in the limbo of a Zoom waiting room.   


In addition to its means of delivery, the substance of Barthes’s lectures has much to say to our present selves. The first course of public talks and seminars that he delivered from January­–May 1977, under the nearly impossibly large title Comment vivre ensemble, parallels and prefigures our contemporary world so uncannily that at times I wonder whether it’s a trick of the lockdown-induced paranoid mind. Barthes surveys a wide variety of isolated, ascetic or otherwise self-distancing communities: the quotidian rituals of monastic life in Mount Athos; the sanatorium in which Hans Castorp intended only to spend days; the small room in which Blanche Monnier was sequestered for twenty-five years by parents disappointed by her refusal of an eligible marriage, and who later inspired André Gide’s “Confined Woman of Poitiers.” “What distance must I maintain between myself and others if we are to construct together a sociability without alienation, a solitude without exile?”[2] Barthes: as with much besides, the inadvertent prophet of COVID-19.


The laundry van that hit Barthes requires us to start thinking where his unfinished lectures left off. I’ve been using the hyphenated thoughts and trailing ellipses of Comment vivre ensemble as essential tools to help me make sense of and stay sane through the current times in which we live. Barely a half-day goes by without my being reminded of a concept that Barthes borrows from Jacques Lacarrière’s L’éte grec: “idiorrhythmy”—a constraining social space that nevertheless does not preclude individual freedom. Quotidian lockdown life is itself an idiorrhythmic case study. A conversation just the other day with a colleague, returned to care for her frail and elderly mother, Zooming her students as the distinguished academic that she is, from a childhood bedroom that reminds her of the child that she also still is. (She was shaken from her scholarly reflections when, through the window, she saw her mother, hanging laundry, fall.) My students, attempting as best they can to curate bare bookshelves in houses where reading was not encouraged. My own experience, stranded in an unfamiliar city, ordering cheap and pathetically small prints of artworks by Amy Sillman and Georges-Pierre Seurat, which I pin to the white walls of my unfamiliar apartment, just as when young I used to glue culture cut from newspapers (I was terrified that I would lose it). Art for art’s sake, revealed for what it always was: a means of getting through the day.

The pandemic has enabled an efflorescence of thoughts on the modalities of isolated thinking and feeling—to which the Critical Inquiry blog has provided signal contributions. As a means of opening up a dialogue with work that has sustained me, I want for the remainder of this disquisition-cum-diary-entry to pick up and carry further Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith’s discussion of lockdown distraction, which itself shares much in common with Barthes’s considerations of monastic cohabitation. What follows are flash reflections (half-cooled hot takes) on what the continuing pandemic might entail both for critical theory and applied pedagogy. I list these two aspects of life and thought as if they were separate, when what I really want is to heal their rift.


First, critical theory. COVID-19 doesn’t only append a further compelling case study to the several recent scholarly treatments of attention; it radically alters the position from which any theorist of distraction speaks. Much of the most distinguished work in this field has considered cultures of attentiveness (or inattentiveness) from a broadly Foucauldian or immanently critical perspective.[3] Yet such work often betrays a revealing tension, between a one-size-fits-all process of “subjectivation” through which societies trammel or compel or mutilate attention and the curious freedom of the critical theorist to (undistractedly) read artworks or conduct often brilliantly erudite ideology critique. The present pandemic disallows us that privileged freedom: if nothing else, COVID-19 might help us to acknowledge the cognitive distractions and corporeal fatigue that always operate but which are now raised to a new and possibly useful level. In so doing, we might undo the distance between subjects and objects of knowledge; we might view the many previous cultures of distraction (ranging from the religious communities that mortified the senses, to the manual workers who labor automatically or involuntarily, to the nineteenth-century psychophysiologists who willfully overextend cognitive reach) not merely as pathologies or casualties of society but also as prospective resources. Immanent critique might then finally assume the concrete form to which it more often than not only pays lip service.

Such questions are to my mind inseparable from our teaching practice. In his Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North proposes “radical pedagogy” as one means by which the humanities might heal its diremption from social praxis.[4] I could not agree more vehemently, while at the same time wishing for a clearer sense of what such practice might entail, beyond a charismatic reading that compels assent. I teach English at Downing College, where decades ago F. R. Leavis famously held court; returning alumnae often tell me how much his forcefulness depended upon the small-group supervision. We cannot now gather in such small rooms for the foreseeable future (on the morning that I write this, my university has just announced that all lectures for the 2020/21 academic year will be conducted online). Yet this sad eventuality might enable forms of pedagogy less dependent upon charisma: “perhaps the ideal lecture course would be one,” Barthes self-deflatingly declared, “where the professor—the locutor—is less interesting than his audience.”[5]

And yet even Barthes struggled, in this respect. He had intended the thirteenth and concluding lecture of Comment vivre ensemble to take up the varying responses of his audience and by so doing produce a practical instance of “Living Together.” As things transpired, however, the session did not take place, with Barthes retreating (with uncharacteristic bashfulness) behind the dialogical yet defiantly written form of A Lover’s Discourse (1977), on which he was concurrently engaged.[6] But I believe that spatial constraints and technological innovations, which COVID-19 has thrust upon us, can inspire us to recover Barthes’s cancelled utopia of pedagogical idiorrhythmy. Not, perhaps, by adopting the forms of instantaneous feedback that increasingly characterize digital life: I am not calling for students to annotate lectures as they can new music tracks via SoundCloud, or to “react,” live on YouTube, to literature or to taught content. (Though why not? Such experiments might prove valuable, particularly if they reconnect students to the immediacy and gesturality of aesthetic response.)        

Rather, I’ve been developing over the past weeks a range of technologically mediated pedagogical exercises that intend both to extend and to reorient the forms of close and slow looking and listening that have historically characterized our critical practices. They include: asking undergraduate students to curate their own bedrooms, by cutting out images from newspapers or printing photographs from the internet so as to produce an exhibition in which they live; “paraphrasing” the television or Netflix series upon which for excellent reasons they need to binge into a prosodic form (ottava rima, Spenserian stanzas, and others) that they choose or that is chosen for them—or the relating of a given poem to the texture of objects in their immediate environment, so as to focus attention upon the tactile experience that has not only been overlooked by so much art criticism but also prohibited by the pandemic.

Such exercises might provide means not only of reanimating our own pedagogical approaches but also of building tentative bridges to other forms of communal or institutional life with which higher education presently seems to hold little in common. I don’t know about you, but most days I spend some of the time feeling like the teacher of literature that I am, sometimes like a prisoner fortunate enough to have a stable internet connection, sometimes like an insatiably curious child, sometimes like a premature retiree person trying to stave off early-onset cognitive degeneration. We all are all these things. COVID-19 is not a crisis that we can afford to waste.  

12 June 2020

Ewan Jones is a lecturer in English at Cambridge and a fellow of Downing College. He has just finished a second book on the history of the concept of rhythm in the nineteenth century and is working on a series of oblique pedagogical strategies that seek to extend and to deform historical practices of close (or slow) reading, looking, and listening. 

[1] Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, trans. Kate Briggs (New York, 2013), p. xviii.

[2] Ibid., p. xxv.

[3] A representative instance is Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

[4] Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, Mass., 2017), p. 107.

[5] Barthes, How to Live Together, 133–34.

[6] Ibid., 130–31.

1 Comment

Filed under 2020 Pandemic

One response to “How to Learn Together, Apart

  1. Pingback: Posts from the Pandemic | In the Moment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.