The Immanent Savage: Residential Schools through Foucault, Deleuze, and Žižek

This short essay represents an extended tract based on an assignment for EDUC3400/FNDS3300 at York University. Here are the pertinent assignment details:

Find an image on the Ontario Archives website (see link below) that raises a problem or question for your affinity area. Post the image to your group discussion forum on Moodle and write a post that addresses the following:

  • Describe the image and the problem or question it raises in relation to your affinity theme;
  • Draw on the assigned readings to contextualize the image;
  • Share one or two questions you might pose to students to help them discuss this image and its significance for thinking about your affinity area in the history of education.

I chose to include this essay in my portfolio because it represents not only an assignment on which I went over and above research expectations, but also a time when my interest in education carried me away.


Education and Art [my “affinity group” as noted in the assignment details] has the unique opportunity (and challenge) of addressing those contextual aspects within photos that connect to our affinity theme, as well as the metanarratives surrounding chosen photographs. In other words, there are certain artistic signifiers that we can address within and without a photo: we can (and will) speak about the significance of the proliferation of Canadian memorabilia in the photograph above; we can (and will) consider the relationship between the children and the cultural signifiers and symbols that construct power relations in the photo; but, we can also discuss the literal production of the photo. The regulation of bodies above, for example, is purposeful not only because it depicts desirable interactions between children and nationalism, but also because the photograph represents the decision to depict those interactions. The photographer’s arbitration of the photograph—the angle at which the photo was taken, the organization of the children, the absence of the teacher—are all intentional signifiers that manipulate optics to provide a certain image of the residential system.

Within the photograph, ubiquitous Canadian symbols convey an overwhelming erasure of culture and a suppression of difference—what Helen Harper calls “aggressive assimilation”—mobilized with the intention of “civilizing” the savage (Harper 2). The children observe the Maple Leaf, presumably during the national anthem, with a kind of awkward reverence unique to children disconnected from two separate cultural paradigms: they are pulled away from their own culture and pushed towards (though never reaching) a new culture.

Lisa Delpit figures the classroom hierarchy as a “culture of power,” which contains five criteria. Of particular note here is the third criterion: “the rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power” (283). In other words, the in-power group configures the classroom to be conducive to those societal conditions that originally provided them power. Ironically, while the residential classroom clearly asserts Canadian, colonial dominance as the ‘culture of power,’ the proliferation of Canadian symbols does not accurately represent mainstream schools. Instead, aggressive symbolic domination through nationalist propaganda reinforces difference in the classroom—between teacher and students, between these students and their white counterparts—and concretizes the fact that these students are not Canadian, where “Canadian” here means (mostly) white European immigrants responsible for the colonization of the former Turtle Island. The students in this photograph are not Canadian precisely because the residential school constitutes an unnaturally hyper-nationalistic institution. Where traditional schools grant white children the privilege of being inherently Canadian, here Canadian markers, or reminders, surround the students, reinforcing the necessary cultural accretion—or smothering—this particular school facilitates.

Likewise, Slavoj Žižek notes in The Most Sublime Hysteric that within Hegelian dialectics, “one subverts a universal thesis in such a way as to show the subject who formulated it how, by his own formulation, he was saying something completely different from what he ‘wanted to say’” (13). In this case, the photographer intends to produce a classroom of successfully Canadianized students, free from White influence, celebrating their country’s heritage. Instead, the teacher’s absence draws attention to the pervasive White impetus for order. A present teacher might mark White control within the residential system (and is consequently omitted), but without a teacher we are even more attuned to the perverse nature of this photograph. A teacher must be responsible for the Canadian memorabilia and for the students chosen to hold the flag (to say nothing of the unseen influence driving all students to stand in the first place), but the insistence that these students display pride on their own volition elicits criticism and suspicion.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze elucidates Foucault’s discussion of institutionalized spatial constructions and their link to power:

Foucault located the disciplinary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they reach their height at the outset of the twentieth. They initiate the organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first, the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. (3)

In residential schools, these transitions, from family to school and school to prison, elide—residential schools were not only disciplinary societies with a set of rules and principles, but sites of moral reformation—breeding grounds for the noble savage and the “’poor redman’s redemption” (Milloy 6). Foucault figures these disciplinary societies as a succession of architecturally repressive institutions. In The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, he notes “the spaces for classes, the shape of the tables, the planning of the recreation lessons, the distribution of the dormitories […] all this referred, in the most prolix manner, to the sexuality of children” (28). In other words, these systems designed to obscure, contrary to their nature, actually expose undesirable realities.

Likewise, the spatial arrangement in the photographed classroom exudes administrative anxieties surrounding the failure to civilize savagery. The children face forward in isolated rows, subjugated to Canadian iconography and disconnected from their Native peers. Yet, again, this iconography suggests that the savage will never be erased, only conspicuously buried by anxious cultural Band-Aids. Besides, true reformation and assimilation meant integration into Canadian society, which, as Jean Barman notes, was itself undesirable:

the move away from assimilation would have less to do with the lifestyles of ex-pupils than with the inability of Sifton and, more generally, White Canadian society to accept Indians even at the bottom rung of the dominant socioeconomic order, much less as equal human beings. (120)

Thus, at the close of this assignment, I am left wondering to what degree the insistent immanence of the savage (manifest in my photograph by Canadian symbols), combined with the exacerbated menace inherent in integration, ultimately contributes to the dissolution of residential schools.

Works Cited

  • Barman, Jean. “Separate and Unequal: Indian and White Girls at All Hallows School, 1884 1920.” Indian Education in Canada. Ed. Don McCaskill and Yvonne Hébert. Vancouver: UBC: 1986. 119-139. Print.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October. Vol. 59. Winter 1992. Cambridge: MIT Press. Web. July 20, 2014.
  • Delpit, Lisa. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children”. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 53, No. 3. August 1988. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print
  • Harper, Helen. “Difference and Diversity.” Canadian Journal of Education. 22.2. Spring 1997. Web.
  • Milloy, John S., “A National Crime”: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999. Web. September             20, 2014.
  • Žižek, Slajov. The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan. Malden: Polity, 2014. Print.

The Immanent Savage (PDF)

Class Participation

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s