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Is there a significant difference in making an ontological statement and an epistemological statement. Susan Buck-Morss (2003) presents the following examples of the problem raised. Consider the following statements:

  1. Because the United States does not violate human rights, it is a civilized nation.
  2. Because the United States is a civilized nation, it does not violate human rights.

Statement 1. is an epistemological description allowing for critical judgments about relative truth or falsity. Statement 2. on the other hand, is an ontological description establishing by definition the fact that the United States is civilized. This is not a judgment but, rather, a statement of truth. There is no room for judgment in the predicate because civilized nations do not violate human rights. Since, as a matter of fact, the US is defined as civilized, anything it does is, therefore, the act of a civilized nation.

The epistemological opens the door to critical debate. Stated in another way, Because the US does (or does not) violate human rights, it is not (or is) a civilized nation. Here the relative truth values can be weighed, discussed, debated, or otherwise set to a test to determine the truth or falsity of the statement or its converse or any shaded, nuanced levels in between. Not so with the ontological. The ontological statement is one meant to justify a position, to close, even usurp, debate. By defining the conditions of being as a fact, there is no possibility of refutation. To do so is to be unpatriotic.

The US is not the only nation or group to engage in ontological justification. Here are a few other examples of ontological statements that are meant at their core to justify behavior without substantive debate or discussion :

  1. As a Muslim my struggle is Jihad, a holy struggle; therefore whatever violence I employ must also be holy.
  2. Imperialism is undemocratic however, Israel is a democracy; therefore Israeli occupation of Palestine is not imperialistic but a defense of democracy.
  3. Because I am an American (Iraqi, Israeli, Egyptian, _____________) I am prepared to die for my country (religion, ethnicity, gender, _____________). You can fill in the blanks for whatever requires an ontological justification.

While the change from epistemological to ontological appears to be small—a mere shifting of the subject and predicate of a statement—the result is one that is open to or closed to critical thinking and debate.

My point here is really quite simple. Reasoned discussion always stems from knowing and not from being. Ontological statements define being in terms of a truth statement that is not subject to debate while epistemological statements embrace notions of debate, the weight of evidence, and otherwise thinking about interests being served. Ontological debate is, and can only be, a shouting match. Perhaps it is time to stop shouting.

References

Buck-Morss, S. (2003). Thinking past terror: Islamism and critical theory on the left. London, UK: Verso.

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In a stunning article in Educational Theory, Tyson E. Lewis (2006) argues that contemporary schooling in the United States, through policies of zero-tolerance, lockdown, and No Child Left Behind policies, separates and isolates students from the body politic by creating ambiguities that emerge from the complexities of disciplinary procedures and high-stakes assessment policies prevalent in inner-city schools that serve low-income, minority students. Lewis relies on arguments made by Italian political philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, and Critical Theorist, Theodor Adorno to make his case.

According to Lewis, Adorno makes the case that schooling creates the precondition for fascism to take hold due primarily to the undemocratic nature of the classroom. In Western education the classroom is often understood as a place of discipline and punishment, of separation and separating, of execution and executioner that is implicit in the student-teacher dialectic of power and passivity. School is not understood, in the main, as a place for developing autonomy, critical decision making, or self- and communal-response-ability; this in spite of rhetoric to the contrary. Lewis seems to understand the difference between language and the Real (Žižek, 2002).

Agamben, according to Lewis, presents a case for the Nazi death camp as the paradigmatic case of the creation of exceptional space, space removed from the principal political space of the community yet existing within that space without visibility or recognition. This form of exceptional space extends to many institutions found in the Western idea of Global Capitalism such as airports, hospitals, and credit bureaus. Lewis argues convincingly that schools must be included in this exceptionality as well. When such exceptional space is created “life is held in suspension, neither inside nor outside the polis, neither fully alive or dead. Stated differently, life is made to survive in legal limbo” (Lewis, 2006, p 161). Schools, create space that is inherently undemocratic. Student’s lives are suspended while dependent upon the whims and fancies of outsiders, political and administrative demands, that place their lives in suspension where survival in legal limbo is, perhaps, all that can be expected.

What is destroyed in the process is not dignity, rather it is control or the illusion of control. When placed in survival mode, life is reduced to the bare necessities, to what Agamben (1998) has labeled homo sacer, literally, sacred life, but in Agamben’s terms is defined more metaphorically as bare life. In the paradigmatic exceptional space, the Nazi Death Camps, homo sacer collides with the ordinary citizen, one surviving in limbo, outside of the borders of the political system and one entrenched within the borders of that system; one powerless, the other holding the key to ultimate power—life and death.

The United States is not exempt from creating borderless states of isolation. Native American people have lived in isolation on reservations for a hundred years or so, isolated as sovereign nations within a sovereign nation, a euphemism that is intended to hide the source of Real power. During World War II, Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, isolated in the California desert and the Great Basin where they could be separated from Real Americans. More recently, the detention camp at Guantanamo place the lives of enemy combatants in limbo under the watchful eye of the military. Each of these instances, including the paradigmatic case, fall into what Agamben (1998) calls biopolitics.

Lewis extends this argument to schools, labeling the activity of schools and schooling as biopedagogy. Students are placed in a position of being homo sacer in the sense that because they are subject to nothing but external rules, to not being able participants in the decisions that directly and indirectly impact their lives, schools are places where students necessarily collide with those that choose to control them. Schools isolate, separate, and punish sometimes just because they can. The real tragedy is that this all appears to be normal to the rest of us.

 References

Agamben, G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.). Sanford, CA: Sanford University Press.

Lewis, T. E. (2006). The school as an exceptional space: Rethinking education from the perspective of the biopedagogical. Educational Theory, 56(2), 159-176.

Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.

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