Deus Absconditus: Teaching from the Rostrum, Language and the Teaching Situation
December 3, 2010
“The ideal lecture theatre is vast, truly vast. It is very sombre, very old amphitheatre, and very uncomfortable. The professor is lodged in his chair, which is raised high enough for everyone to see him; there is no question that he might get down and pester you. You can hear him quite well, because he doesn’t move. Only his mouth moves. Preferably he has white hair, a stiff neck and a Protestant air about him. There are a great many students, and each one is perfectly anonymous. To reach the amphitheatre, you have to climb some stairs, and then, with the leather-lined doors closed behind, the silence is absolute, every sound stifled; the walls rise very high, daubed with rough paintings in half tones in which silhouettes of monsters can be detected. Everything adds to the impression of being in another world. So one works religiously. (History student, female, aged 25 – cited by Bourdieu and Passeron 1994:1)”
Bourdieu used this student’s description of the ideal lecture theatre to illustrate his theme of the French professor in his rostrum as deus absconditus  (Bourdieu and Passeron 1994a:11)
This Adobe Photoshop layered image or digitage reflects Bourdieu’s student’s ideal lecture theatre but was also informed by my teaching, learning and research with urban Inuit, First Nations and African Canadians. The intimidating architecture and décor of the ideal lecture room and gallery served to inspire awe and an almost sacred respect. Starting from the student’s description of the ideal lecture theatre I created this layered digitage in Adobe Photoshop using borrowed images of tourists in the Pantheon in Rome (including an Inuit student wearing her amautik), the Quesnay Theatre (1788), Raphael’s School of Athens with Aristotle and Plato in the centre; a generic business meeting, McGill University’s MacDonald-Stewart Physics building with pillars on which the words Power and Knowledge were engraved; a white-haired immobile male professor at his rostrum, a Roman Marble Rostrum. A relief of Triton illustrates the mythical monster-like creatures depicted on the walls of the theatre. The amphitheatre with leather-backed chairs was designed to silence students whose focus was entirely centred on the soft-spoken professor at his rostrum.
Bourdieu (1994) used his concept of Deus Absconditus in his critical examination of the role of academics in the French tradition based on a 1960s study in French universities which he claimed was still relevant in the 1990s, who claim knowledge and power from the safe distance of the rostrum (Bourdieu and Passeron 1994:11).
“It is in all its peculiarities in which the academic institution locates the teacher–the rostrum, the chair from which a French professor holds forth, his position at the point where all attention converges–that he finds the material conditions to keep his students at a distance, to require and enforce respect, even when, left to himself, we would decline it. Physically elevated and enclosed within the magistral chair which consecrates him, he is separated from his audience by a few empty rows. These physically mark off the distance which the profane crowd, silent before the mana of the word, timorously respects and abandons to the most well-trained zealots, pious lesser priests of the professorial word. Deus absconditus, remote and untouchable, protected by obscure and alarming spiritual ‘authorities’ (so many mythologies to him), the professor is in fact condemned by an objective situation more coercive than the most imperious regulation to dramatic monologue and virtuoso exhibition (Bourdieu, 1994, p. 10).”
He explored how academics use language and linguistic misunderstanding in the educational process. Academics maintain an ontological, epistemological, pedagogical and embodied distance through the use of text which serves as a tool of distantiation filtering out all but those who are best suited to become their progeniture.
1. Deus Absconditus according to Plotinus (204-270 CE) refers to a transcendent God who is also the Primal Will with its inherent concepts of creation as emanation and the eternity of the world, and the great chain of being, which has influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith (Mautner 1997). Plotinus (204-270 CE) organized Platonic philosophy (427-347 BC) into a system referred to as neo-Platonism (a term coined by Thomas Taylor 1800s) which had a profound influence on late classical, medieval Christian, Islamic and Renaissance thought. Plotinus (250) argued that all modes of being emanate from the Platonic concepts of the “One (Plato’s Parmenides)” and “the Good (Plato’s Republic) which, according to Plotinus, is the entity deus absconditus which has influenced Judaism, Christianity and Islam since the time of Plotinus and is referred to a transcendental Godhead, the Great Chain of Being and the Primal Will. There has been a revival in interest in the writings of Plotinus (Mautner 1997).
Derrida leaves room for the possibility of the existence of the Primal Will without granting human capacity to transcendence.
Pierre Bourdieu used the term deus absconditus to critically examine the role of academics who claim knowledge and power from the safe distance of a rostrum (Bourdieu and Passeron 1994:11). Donna Haraway also referred indirectly to the way in which scientists claim a superior perspective through a god’s-eye-view.
Bourdieu, Pierre; Passeron, Jean-Claude. 1994a. “Introduction: Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation.” in Bourdieu, Pierre; Passeron, Jean-Claude; de Saint Martin, Monique. 1994. Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Pp. 1-34.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Trans. Richard Nice. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. (1989). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Trans. Richard Nice. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford U. Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre; Passeron, Jean-Claude; de Saint Martin, Monique. Trans. Richard Teese. (1994). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Stanford: Stanford U. Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre, Jean-Claude Passeron, de Saint Martin, Monique. 1994b. Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Translated by R. Teese. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Timeline of hermeneutics