The passion of ignorance: a psychoanalysis of listening education

Mira Schendel, 1960, oil on canvas, 74.60 cm x 74.60 cm, Photographic reproduction by Romulo Fialdini


Read the “Introduction” by the author of the recently released book, the first volume of the “Psicanálise e Educação” collection.


Listening is perhaps at the point of passage and articulation between two surfaces: formal education and informal education; educate and care, learn and teach. This point of subjective division of the educator is also his point of helplessness and emptiness. That's why I think that listening – which is not the prerogative or exclusivity of the psychoanalyst, the psychotherapist or the specialist in mental health – has become a fundamental part for the educator.

After generations formed to compete for speech, after years of assessing student participation based on their willingness to speak, we are realizing that the ability to listen should also be part of our curricula, objectives and skills. One of the mistakes in this phallicization of speech is thinking that the protagonist is the one who speaks and the subordinate is the one who listens. I think that the protagonist is the one who, as the term says in Greek, carries himself (proto) the conflict (Agon).

Just as the passion for speaking seems to accompany those who want to know, the passion for listening has to do with the experience of ignorance. This is not about ignorance as a mere lack of education or civility, but about ignorance as the starting point for the adventure of listening and openness to the other. Call it playful listening or empathetic listening, active or non-violent listening.

What this book argues most centrally is that listening is an ethic, not a technique or tool. There are tactics listening (according to the expression of Rubem Alves), just as there are oratory exercises. But the main thing is that listening is accompanied by a certain productive relationship with ignorance, a potent relationship with not-knowing, or with the not-yet-known. This was also Lacan's advice to young analysts: don't understand, don't understand so quickly what your analysands say, suspend the closing of the communication circuit. To do this, a passion must be produced, the passion to remain in relative ignorance of the meaning, intent, or meaning of what the other person says. Keep the other's saying as an enigma, even if it is an enigma for the one who speaks.

It does not seem like a point out of this curve the fact that the Ignorant Master, by Jacques Rancière[I], has become a paradigm for educators of the XNUMXst century, because here one sees the function of ignorance effecting a transformation in power relations. I wrote a book trying to show that psychoanalysis is heir to the tradition of self-care[ii]. I now realize that there is a parallel tradition, but no less important, which could be called self-education. It is in it that the character Joseph Jacotot of whom Rancière speaks is inscribed. Just as the ignorant master transmits what he ignores, through questions about what he sees, what he thinks and what he does in the face of something, the psychoanalyst transmits his desire to analyze from the passion of ignorance that inhabits him. .

In Brazil, a substantial milestone in the introduction of passion as an educational theme is Paulo Freire. Taken as a whole, the texts gathered here outline a return to Paulo Freire's thought, added to and combined with the Lacanian theory of language. Freire's concern with the social and political meaning of education, the importance given to affections in this process, the reflection on emancipation and the practical and theoretical problems of reading acquisition are represented here. But the most critical point of convergence between Lacan and Freire is perhaps to be found in the way in which both faced the subject of knowledge, with an ethical attitude that could be defined by the passion of ignorance.

Lacan inherited from Buddhism the theory that the passions of being are three: love, hate and ignorance. Passion here refers to the Greek radical pathos, that is, not just a form of suffering or passivity, but a capacity to be affected by and radical acceptance of experience. After this primary bifurcation, more linked to language and the body than to thought, the best-known opposition between reason and passion was formed.

One can then speak of a pathos boredom, as well as wandering or melancholy. But the idea that passion touches our being, unlike our affections or our emotions, invites even a precarious definition of what we mean by being. “Being is nowhere but in the intervals, there where it is the least signifier of signifiers, namely, the cut […] If we want to give being its minimal definition, we would say that it is the real, as this is inscribed in the symbolic”[iii].

The passion of ignorance is a kind of propaedeutic for action, a place or a position where one is in relation to the knowledge that allows one to produce effects. There, in the deepest abyss, the common man will respond with denial (Verneinung) or with repression (Verdrängung), that is, he will cover this emptiness with hate, which imagines the real, or the love that symbolizes the imaginary. Ignorance is the realization of the symbolic, and when the symbolic is realized we realize that it is composed of negativity and not positivity. Hence, the passion of ignorance represents the Socratic directive of “I only know that I know nothing”, but considering knowledge as a process. What distinguishes the psychoanalyst – and why not say that he can share this disposition with a certain type of educator – is that he opts for passion over ignorance. This means depriving the power that knowledge carries with it. By renouncing the exercise of power, perhaps this becomes transferential authority.

“The analyst must not ignore what I will call the power of access to the being of the dimension of ignorance, because he has to respond to the one who, throughout his discourse, interrogates him in this dimension. He doesn't have to guide the guy in a Knowledge, in knowledge, but in the access routes to this knowledge”[iv].

Alienation, represented in Lacan's discourse by the position of the slave, consists in obstructing the paths that lead to knowledge. This is also what defines repression and defense for Freud: I do not want to know. Suspending this type of ignorance, in which our symptoms are formed, has effects on our attitude towards knowledge in general, not just that which is structured by negation, the sexual and the infantile. Therefore, it is not just about the more or less direct effects of inhibition or refusal of the learning context, which we so often see in school pathways, but a global impediment, which makes the refusal to know a marriage between ignorance and lack of knowledge. .

“Psychoanalysis is a dialectic […] And this art is the same in Hegel. In other words, the analyst's position must be that of a docta ignorance, which does not mean wise, but formal, and which can be formative for the subject. The temptation is great, because it is in vogue, in this time of hatred, to transform docta ignorance in what I called, it's not from yesterday, a ignorantia teachers".[v]

Here Lacan connects the passion of ignorance, of Buddhist origin, with learned ignorance, an expression by the philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) who refers to the knowledge that involves the unity of opposites and that is expressed in the form of a desire: “ […] we wish to know that we do not know. If we achieve this, we will reach learned ignorance. Just as the infinite encompasses the finite, without therefore being finitized, so knowledge embraces not-knowing, without thereby becoming not-knowing [...][vi]

Assuming a negative perspective on knowledge, but without this being enshrined in skepticism, learned ignorance requires dedication to knowledge, but so that it realizes ignorance in a maximum way. From it arises curiosity, a form of infantile desire, which feeds on the recognition of the existence of what is ignored.

Paulo Freire and Lacan would thus be united in a homologous project of subversion of the use, possession and ownership of knowledge. It is possible that it is this project that bothers so much the obscurantist conservatives who today elect Paulo Freire as a public enemy of education. Synthesis of the school with a party and the ideological use of the State to pervert defenseless children, in fact like psychoanalysis that has always been accused of corrupting youth with its “mania” around sexuality.

When the crude morality that took over Brazilian education in 2018 criticizes Paulo Freire for being responsible for our problems, they correctly perceive the sense of unity that the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed[vii] reached with his work and with his practice. But, contrary to what such criticism suggests, Paulo Freire was never the synoptic point of convergence for education in Brazil. Perhaps the recipe is right despite the incorrect diagnosis.

Understanding the reasons that led to this, as well as pointing out the strategic place of education in the Brazilian political process, is the objective of this book. His working hypothesis resumes what I have done in previous works about the transformations in the status of malaise and in the grammar of suffering[viii] and listening[ix], in this case considering the context of the school. The conversion of suffering into a symptom, derived from changes in our ways of life, that is to say from our relationships between work, desire and language, demand an ethical and political response that I try to develop here with the notion of listening.

Foundation and principle of the power of psychoanalytical action, the very statute of the word underwent decisive transformations with the Brazilian version of neoliberalism, with the dissemination of digital culture and with the new forms of individuation, notably concerning the processes of autonomy and independence with their implications for the formation of desire. It is, therefore, the word in its listening, speaking and writing dimension that is questioned in this book.

In the first part, I present the community and institutional transformations that the Brazilian school has gone through in the last fifteen years, in view of the hypothesis of life in the form of condominiums. During this period, Brazilian schooling went through a double process: on the one hand, the condominium structures that were already available became intensified and generalized, on the other hand, we began to better understand the limits of this way of thinking about school in a country of such dimensions. and extensive inequalities like Brazil.

Schools with more walls, bilingual walls, class walls, walls and cameras, which ended up producing the ideological consensus that our children were in danger at the hands of Marxist educators, manipulators of souls who, with their sexual permissiveness and their incitement to human rights humans, were corrupting the family.

Schools with more liquidators, with their management and cognitive management processes, with their new thinking designs, knowledge handouts and preparation for a new world of work, now fully assimilated to the world of work.

Schools with students who suffer in a new way. More silent, more disruptive, more apathetic, more violent, with symptoms that unfolded in medicalization, criminalization and artificially induced performance on a mass scale. After thirty years of individualizing suffering, making it an individualized experience indifferent to speech and listening, secreted by neurotransmitters, we have arrived at a kind of discursive collapse of neoliberalism.

In the second part, I tried to show how listening can help us make a diagnosis and intervene in the regressive crisis we are going through, but also how it occupies a strategic place in facing and transforming the new school suffering. The concept and practice of listening are neither a privilege nor a prerogative of psychoanalysts. As I tried to show in previous works[X], listening is a form of generic antidote to the new school suffering. As a whole, this means that at the same time the process of co-ownership of schools has become more acute, but so has the awareness of its effects and harm. It is for no other reason that the political polarization that has characterized the years 2016/2018 has placed the status of schools at the center of the debate.

At a time when education begins to reach an unprecedented number of students, with a substantial reduction in children out of school and a drop in dropout rates, at a time when, for the first time, we have more black students than whites in education university, as an effect of the system of quotas and public funding of access to college, at this time there is a calculated demonization of public universities, public education policies, intellectuals and professors, the universe of books and writing.

The emergence of an obscurantist discourse cannot be confused or reduced to the blow of conservatism. Conservatism is a legitimate and defensible attitude in the history of culture. Retaining, conserving and maintaining values, whether in the form of works, ideas or authors, according to a perspective of their decline over time is not a problem in itself. The conservative tradition in modernity, from Burkhardt to Gabriel Tarde, passing through the French anti-philosophers and arriving at TS Eliot, has left us with indisputable fruits. But this is profoundly different from the anti-intellectual movement of democratic narrowing, tending to the silencing and exclusion of values ​​that are not their own, that we observe in contemporary critics of Paulo Freire.

In this regard, we have to understand what would have happened to the best of our conservative thinking, of liberal extraction, which never managed to establish itself as a truly civilizing platform in Brazil. There is, as I have argued elsewhere, a chronic difficulty in sustaining, beyond declaratory bravado and misplaced ideas, an individualism capable of trusting institutions, separating public and private, or believing in the enlightening or civilizing force of reason as a mediating ideal. and emancipatory. As shown by Maria Helena Patto[xi], the liberal ideals in the field of education, once inoculated on national soil, were successively appropriated as a form of segregation, naturalization of differences and confirmation of prejudices.

But it is in this conservative void that we can detect the emergence of a regressive, pre-liberal discourse that, deep down, does not accept elementary rules of the education game, such as renouncing the power of families and transferring it to the domain of secular knowledge, managed by the state and make private education an accountable concession to the public interest. Instead, we have the return to a disciplinary education with a militaristic veneer, the rise of moral education, neo-Pentecostal implantation and the degradation of our scientific ambitions to a resigned and ideological format.

Against this regressive trajectory, it is important to return to the elementary function of the word, the raw material of psychoanalysis, but also the starting point of democracy and the condition for the possibility of the educational experience.

This book is an attempt to retake the word not only from the side of those who own and dominate it, from those who dispute their place of speech and produce their voice, but also through listening and reading, as a transformative act. Here, it is not just about handling the word as an exclusive prerogative of psychoanalysts or clinicians, but as a cultural means for the production of the common. In the third part, I suggest how listening can redefine processes of authority and critique of ideology, as well as participating in the context of institutional and community redefinition that crosses schools, more specifically with regard to the new grammars of the struggle for recognition.

The School, as we know it, is a relatively recent invention. Although it goes back to the Greek experiences through which knowledge was transmitted according to a precise ethical form, whether in the Garden of Epicurus, in the Academy of Plato, in the Lyceum of Aristotle or in the Stoa of Chrysippus, it was only in the XNUMXth century that it became integrated to the formation project of national States, which needed to homogenize their languages, their history and their mentalities with a view to institutionalizing society. It is good to remember, therefore, that school becomes a compulsory and universal experience, subsequently a right.

Its evolution as an institution parallels the process of disenchantment of the world, with its progressive rationalization. In this process, we should not forget that the school, whether private or state, always serves the public interest. It is a constitutive part of the public space and contributes to its structure of knowledge. The use of reason in public space, which is where the teacher's speech is placed, is a condition in which we reach our majority or also what Kant called emancipation or enlightenment.

But the school is also a community. As a matter of fact, they are particular in this regard, as some reflect national destination communities, such as German, French or American schools; others derive from religious communities such as Jesuits, Adventists or Marians; communities defined by class division, by geographic extraction, by worldviews, such as the so-called progressive or experimental. There are communities defined by philosophical positions, by models of teaching and learning, all of them exploring solutions to the generic problem of how a community can become an institution and a company and still remain a community.

More recently, schools have emerged that define themselves as an international community based on language. Bilingual or multiculturalist schools realize the importance of diversity in a rapidly expanding world of difference. On the other hand, militarized schools, which thrive across the country, seem to fear this diversity and interpret it as a source of disorder and misdirection of authority. At the same time, the school, especially when it begins to advance earlier and earlier in the process of individualization, inherits its sense of community from the family.

In the family, we are always in a position of minority, because no matter how equitable or dialogical it may be, positions cannot be substituted in it. And it is this irreplaceable character that makes it a formative matrix of our primary amorous grammar. In the family we begin by being loved for who we are, not for what we do. Gradually this changes, to the point where we move from being cared for to being polite. However, the sense of possession arising from this first experience will profoundly mark our private sphere and the way we understand its translation as desires and demands.

The school as an institution as such wants to “stand up” and perpetuate itself in its purpose, by force of law and by prerogative of the State and, when applicable, by prerogative of performance or business effectiveness. At school, the contradiction between institution and community is never properly overcome. But what is relatively new in our situation is the emergence of a double intermediate space between the two spheres, public and private.

This is the space of intimacy when one thinks of the vector of private space, but it is also the common space when one thinks of public space. The common and the intimate both involve an indeterminacy of possession and ownership. The common and the intimate are problematic situations for the spheres of being and having. Therefore, it would be more correct to understand that the relationship between the public and the private may not be the equivalent of two spheres, but perhaps a structure where the outside and the inside admit spaces of transition.

This would have important consequences for our own understanding of the individual, which we tend to represent, since Leibniz, as a ball or as a monad. There is the inside and the outside of the body, just as there is the house and the street, the private and the public. The psychoanalytical critique of modernity refuses to think of public and private space as spheres, instead proposing a double zone of interpenetration, which will profoundly affect the understanding of what is meant by knowledge and recognition.

Sharing the common is also the institutionalization of a way of doing things, of managing, of acting together. The sharing of the intimate is a communal way of being, of sharing uncertainties and promises. We can think of this common as a common origin, but also as a common to come, a common to build. Such zones of indetermination that constitute the common and the intimate can be defined by a kind of hole or incompleteness of the spheres. In this hole there is a very specific experience concerning our relationship with knowledge, because in this hole is our experience of ignorance.

If community is a concept that imposes a geography of coastlines and indeterminations, always open to inclusion and reference to the family as the original community, the experience of institutionalization introduces an unprecedented and civilizing sense of school. From the point of view of institutionality, school is the place where we learn that the law was not made in a whimsical way by heirs or the like of our relatives. At school we discover that we can be replaced by anyone else and that we can be compared with others.

At school, the law becomes impersonal, it applies to everyone, it is not applied according to the taste or predilection of the teacher, coordinator or management. The school brings us a simulation and a rehearsal of what a public space is and the teacher's word is the first and fundamental representation necessary for this passage. In this, a decisive term is introduced to speak of the school as an institution that serves and is created as part of the public interest: representation. Whether managed by foundations, by the State or by the private sector, the school is always of public interest and purpose and, therefore, subject to a logic of power transfer by representation.

Freud created psychoanalysis assuming a seemingly simple concept: representation, or Vortellung. A key term in modern thought because, among other things, it allows it to be taken as an epistemic concept when we think that to know is to correctly represent phenomena and objects, but it is also a political notion when we think that our parliamentary democracies rely mainly on systems of representation district, federal and state. Finally, if we remember that an actor represents a role in a play or that a painter builds representations with images, we see that representation was a key term for aesthetic theory.

In the recent Brazilian political crisis, it was often heard that it was a crisis of representativeness of institutions, characters and confidence in the authority of reason or in the reliability of information, which would have shaken even more confidence in science, schools and universities . In arts and culture, there is an increasing effort to return to the correct way of representing, as well as a return of suspicion and indignation with certain themes that should not be represented in museums and exhibitions. Still in this context, there is a growing awareness that certain groups such as women, blacks, LGBTs and the poor are overrepresented in instances of power and decision-making, whether in the public sphere or in companies.

Community and institutionality, recognition for love and recognition for laws, coexist in a tense, contradictory and sometimes collapsing way, in each of the school experiences we know. However, in Brazil after 2013 this opposition reached such an intensification and intersected with the political process in such a way that a true regressive mutation seems to have emerged. Instead of the passion for ignorance, we find the stultification of those who want to practice cultural pedagogy based on the coercion of themes and values.

A transformation of the sense of community seems to have reinforced the modified community spirit, through which families came to understand themselves as owners or shareholders of the school. On the other hand, institutional transformations suggest that schools must become, more and more, disciplinary and impersonally ruled spaces.

In the fourth part, I present a punctual contribution, from the psychoanalytic concept of letter, to the theory of children's literacy. I tried to present a conjecture about Paulo Freire's generic hypothesis about the fact that, before coming into contact with formal and codified knowledge, institutionally represented by the school, the illiterate child or adult is already a reader of the world. The idea that where there are no letters, there is only a void to be filled by a banking education, like a blank canvas, is an idea that ignores the broader and more universalist understanding of language.

This Freirean idea combines with Lacan's hypothesis that we arrive in the world in a certain family constellation, in a family mythology that precedes us with its network of expectations and overdeterminations. The desires that anticipate the arrival of a child are also the symbolic coordinates in which the child is born. Therefore, it is not a white canvas. We learned that when parents understand that their children are just an imaginary extension of their plans and their way of seeing the world, serious problems will arise for this child. The child is not a plastic mass to be molded by the narcissism of the parents. This happens because the network of expectations that fall on someone's arrival in the world is, to a large extent, unconscious. Therefore, many children, when fulfilling the denied wishes of their parents, are the object of the most severe criticism and repudiation.

But the child is not a blank canvas, just because it anticipates unknown desires and demands, but also because he is an active being and a subject in his relationship with language, from the beginning. It is spoken by the familiar myth of the neurotic at the same time that it speaks from the place of truth suppressed by this same system. And she speaks, simply because she reads the world, like a set of strokes that fall over her body. A set of mnemonic marks, that is, as memory inscriptions, produced by touches, by caresses, but also by the absences and deprivations that the Other's time imposes on him.

This idea that the subject depends on a kind of wager or anticipatory assumption leads us to a theory of writing acquisition capable of incorporating the social bond within which we relearn to read and write.

In the fifth and last part, I present some observations about psychoanalysis at the university. They are texts that try to reinterpret the questions bequeathed by Freud about the teaching of psychoanalysis in the light of Lacanian developments about the university discourse. I understand that research in psychoanalysis would be a fourth element in relation to the psychoanalyst's training tripod, based on his personal analysis, on the continuous supervision of the cases he deals with and on the study of the concepts that underlie and generalize the practice of the investigation method and the treatment method.

In this sense, research in psychoanalysis is an additional dimension of training. This means that it can be added to the tripod without its absence meaning any loss or minority. Let us remember that teaching and training in psychoanalysis at the university, particularly in psychology courses, are no more than a propaedeutic or preparatory function. Therefore, psychoanalysis brings to the university an ethical commitment that is not always obtained when considering the strict register of professionalization. On the other hand, the university is a place of convergence for what psychoanalysis presents as a symptom in relation to the original Freudian project, namely, a field that is organized according to the opposition, criticism and secularity that is expected from science.

In this, no conclusions are anticipated about the scientific nature of psychoanalysis, according to its demarcation criteria, but only the idea is reserved that psychoanalysis is transmitted and addressed according to public criteria of universal aspiration, therefore refractory to the particularisms of schools and policies of neighborhoods that unfortunately cause the displeasure of many people in relation to the Freudian invention.

*Christian Dunker He is a professor at the Institute of Psychology at USP. Author, among other books, of pathological coastlines (Nverses).



Christian Dunker. The passion of ignorance: a psychoanalysis of listening education. São Paulo, Countercurrent, 2020.



[I] RANCIÈRE, J. The Ignorant Master. Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2015.

[ii] DUNKER, CIL Structure and Constitution of the Psychoanalytic Clinic: an archeology of healing, treatment and therapy practices. São Paulo: Annablume, 2013.

[iii] LACAN, J. The Seminar Book I The Technical Writings of Freud. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1988, [1953], p. 254.

[iv] LACAN, J. The Seminar Book I: Freud's Technical Writings. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1988, [1953], p. 317.

[v] LACAN, J. The Seminar Book I: Freud's Technical Writings. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1988, [1953], p. 317.

[vi] CUSA, N. The Learned Ignorance. Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2002, [1440], p. 43-44.

[vii] FREIRE, p. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2005.

[viii] DUNKER, CIL Malaise, Suffering and Symptom: a psychopathology of Brazil between walls. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2015.

[ix] DUNKER, CIL; THEBAS, C. The Clown and the Psychoanalyst: how to listen to people and transform lives. São Paulo: Planeta, 2018.

[X] DUNKER, CIL & THEBAS, C. The Clown and the Psychoanalyst: listening to people and transforming lives. São Paulo: Planeta, 2018.

[xi] PATTO, MHS The Production of School Failure. São Paulo: Queiroz, 1987.

See this link for all articles