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Title: The show of childhood. Agamben and Cavell on education and transformation
Authors: Vlieghe, Joris ×
Ramaekers, Stefan #
Issue Date: 2016
Publisher: Philosophy of Education Society
Series Title: Philosophy of Education vol:2014 pages:49-57
Abstract: We begin this paper with a scene taken from a 1950’s musical. Fred Astaire, playing an aging musical star in search for a second career, enters a shopping-mall, called ‘Arcade’. He stumbles over the feet of a shoeshine ‘boy’, a black adult person who is portrayed in a very stereotypical way: shabby, goofy and cack-handed. Their gazes meet and Astaire starts a song, apparently forgetting the nagging doubts he had concerning his future career. While getting his shoes polished – Astaire sitting comfortably in a high chair and the black man kneeling in front of him – the big star continues singing, demonstrating his skills as one of the world’s best tap-dancers. All this causes an atmosphere of cheerfulness. As the scene develops this particular mood only increases, as Astaire seems to become literally overpowered by an urge to move about the place, tapping heel and toe to the floor in an ever increasing frenzy, which – so it seems – is unstoppable. The fast and syncopating rhythm of his over-excited moves is echoed by the words he sings: the song, which started as a mere poetical comment on a very banal event (‘When there is a shine on your shoes, there is a melody in your heart. What a wonderful way to start the day’), becomes itself prone to a rhythmical frenzy. Astaire isn't able to stop the flow of his words, which at a certain moment consists in nothing but the endless repetition of the same words: ‘shoeshine, shoeshine’. And so the scene comes to a climax where Astaire drags along the shoeshine boy in a shared dance. When their dance is over the black servant is sitting on his knees again, left to stay in the Arcade, whilst the star of the movie, still standing upright, leaves the Arcade, brightly smiling.
In this paper we will defend that this scene, taken from Minnelli’s film The Band Wagon (1953), deserves the attention of philosophers of education because it exemplifies an educational moment par excellence. We are prompted to this reading by some ideas of Stanley Cavell which we will develop further here in dialogue with another philosopher, Giorgio Agamben . The ideas we develop here go against the grain of much educational thought on this kind of outright western-centered and racist cinema. Nonetheless, we will argue for a view that takes this scene in and of itself as educational: without wanting to deny what is plainly and painfully visible – a reaffirmation of the white man’s superiority and a legitimization of a structural form of injustice –, we argue that the way in which words and movements in this scene function are expressive of an event that can be read as a (temporary) liberation from existing power structures. With Agamben and Cavell, we will describe this scene through the figure of the child and conceive of what happens here as a new beginning.
ISSN: 8756-6575
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IT
Appears in Collections:Education and Society
× corresponding author
# (joint) last author

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