Mediumism: A Philosophical Reconstruction of Modernism for Existential Learning

reviewed by Jim Garrison - April 21, 2010

coverTitle: Mediumism: A Philosophical Reconstruction of Modernism for Existential Learning
Author(s): Rene V. Arcilla
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438429258, Pages: 119, Year: 2010
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This is a demanding and difficult book. While expressing its intricate argument in sparse and precise prose, it overflows with surplus meaning. It is also idiosyncratic, untimely, and unwanted. The work is a singular achievement expressing universal existential themes regarding the unending quest for identity, creativity, and freedom. It rewards slow, careful readers while frustrating those wishing to consume it quickly. I cannot tell you the “truth” of this book; each will have a unique response.

Arcilla begins idiosyncratically by admitting that as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1970’s, he was attracted to both a “traditional high culture and an avant-garde populist one” (p. 1). He also acknowledges being possessed, as we all are, by an immensely powerful, informal and mainly unconscious socialization into subcultures of identity where he learned “what it means to be Asian American, masculine, heterosexual, and petty bourgeois in Chicago at this time” compared with his more conscious identification with high and counter culture (p. 2). However, Arcilla expresses strong reservations about cultures of identity, identity politics, and even multiculturalism (pp. 10-11). Worse, he emphasizes Freudian unheimlich and Sartrean “nothingness,” which are always unwanted. He wishes to “teach us to accept, rather than assume, our existence” (p. 12). Collectively and individually, there is no human essence. We are what, together, we make of ourselves. Supposedly, postmodernism with its nominalism, emphasis on individual singularity, fragmentation, and such passed that by decades ago. Arcilla defies his time by challenging the supposed postmodern synthesis that assumes “at least in the developed zones” that “the important transitions are over, we have basically reached an end state” (p. 81). Postmodern is the period that presumes “the faster, things change the more they stay the same” (p. 81). He asserts that “postmodernity is an experience of knowing ennui, ennui relieved by knowingness” (p. 81). Postmodernity teaches us to cleverly cope with events we cannot control. Arcilla’s untimely ruminations achieve something postmodernism struggles with, a meaningful politics that directly addresses the consumerist culture we live in by posing such existential questions as what is life, how should we live it, and what does it mean. Declaring culture “registers the community’s experience,” Arcilla’s aesthetics approaches self-creation as something achieved not in isolation, but by a community of learners (p. 3).

Those who would appear profound strive for obscurity; those who are profound seek perspicuity. While hardly a linear thinker, Arcilla expresses his ideas so straightforwardly that the reader may easily follow the development of his thought. Therefore, let us follow him chapter by chapter.

Chapter titles are descriptive of content. The first is, “Modernism: A Pedagogical Culture.” Starting here, the book eventually makes a compelling case that modernism may join high culture with counterculture. Arcilla shows that “high culture” is not necessarily elitist. Rather, it is any culture that protects us from the mindlessness of kitsch and the consumerism found in the greater part of pop culture by inducing intelligent, critical, and creative responses into our world. Any culture achieving these things expresses “high culture.” Pop culture serves the purposes of global business by, in part, providing commodified alternatives to traditional cultures of identity. Arcilla offers a more intelligent alternative not only to kitsch and popular culture, but to often-authoritarian local cultures of identity as well. His approach is capable of respecting and preserving the best in a given local culture by inducing thoughtful reflection upon its practices.

Arcilla wishes to show that modernism in the arts enables “existential learning.” It teaches the contingency of all social practices and essences along with the personal identities they assign. He appreciates the importance of self-creation as well as any postmodernist. However, his aesthetic theory of teaching and learning does not slight ethics and politics; rather, he puts them in a prominent place as aids to personal freedom projects.

Chapter two is entitled, “Existential Learning.” Here is how he explains the idea: “Existential learning would be the name for how we take responsibility for the fact that to exist at all is to be in question and that the learning that responds to this condition is not something we undertake to achieve an end . . . but the way we are ourselves” (p. 15). My philosophy of education students so often asked me what they can do with philosophy that I now put the following sentences in my syllabus: “You might ask: what would happen if philosophy does something to me? Remember, the practitioner is always the most important means to any ends she or he may choose.” I would make a similar reply to anyone who objects to what Arcilla calls “existential learning.”

Existential learning involves something beyond freedom as mere choice. If we always chose from the menu assigned to us by our consumerist global culture or even multicultural alternatives, then our freedom must remain confined. Arcilla seeks “absolute freedom” by which he means something beyond “free will” or even “primarily the power to choose” (p. 17). He seeks “reflective consciousness” that “constitutes” the very existential being of every unique human being” (p. 19). Existential learning arises when we realize we have no choice but to create our self-identity, or remain enslaved by those constructed for us.

Arcilla launches his quest for existential learning by drawing on the political theorist Michael Oakeshott’s thinking about liberal education. According to Arcilla, Oakeshott’s “liberal learner does not know who she is or what she wants” (p. 19). Such a learner is already beyond the narrow confines of cultural determination, including that of the liberal political culture that expects her to develop autonomy. Oakeshott’s liberal learner has learned to question even the foundations of liberal culture. Nonetheless, such liberal education requires a community of continuous conversation.

Accepting the burden of absolute freedom, Arcilla goes beyond Oakeshott to Jean Paul Sartre. While Oakeshott asserts that no self-understanding is destiny, he Arcilla calls attention to Sartre’s famous phrase, “we are condemned to be free” (p. 20). No matter what story we wish to tell of our lives, there is always the permanent possibility that, perhaps on our deathbed, we will revise it. Arcilla criticizes Oakeshott for overemphasizing the subject of understanding. He insists that understanding is “equally nourished by . . . things and their world by virtue of their questionableness” (p. 22). This fundamental questionableness goes beyond the fact that supposedly self-evident objects may surprise us, but the fact that they, and we, exist at all. At such moments, we may renounce “the quest for identity” and simply experience the wonder of existing. Arcilla thinks such occasions enable existential learning by allowing us to creatively live out the mystery of existence. We are now beyond not only traditional theories of liberal learning, but the bounds of cultures of identity, much less consumerist cultures. Nonetheless, many diverse cultures may participate in a culture of existential learning. Arcilla is especially interested in the mediumism of modernist artistic culture. Arcilla defies postmodern nominalism by asserting that existential experience, freedom, and learning are permanent, universal aspects of the human condition.

Chapter three, “Strangerhood,” explores the effects of nonrepresentational modernist art. Chief among these effects being that it is “self-representational;” it emphasizes the medium itself. This practice undermines the Western tradition of rendering the medium so invisible it does not interfere with representation. The mediumism of modern art reverses the function of the medium by calling attention to itself. Arcilla thinks modernism “is responding to . . . a feature of our universal nature that is nonetheless also . . . political” (p. 35). He relies on Sartre’s dualistic ontology (“being-for-itself” and “being-in-itself”) to get at that feature by showing that consciousness (the “for-itself”) resembles the medium of the artistic “in-itself.” We are not the objects of our consciousness. Indeed, we are not objects at all. We are “nothingness,” or what we might call no-thing-ness. Analogous with the medium of art, our consciousness enables objects to appear by subjecting them to the conditions of a process that produces them. Arcilla demonstrates that in mediumism, the medium shows it is not a determinate thing: “The signifier signifies that it is a signifier and not what it signifies” (p. 40). Not being a thing, the medium itself may reflexively signify our very no-thing-ness. Hence, we may see ourselves, our nothingness, in modern art.

Here I will register my only idiosyncratic complaint. When Arcilla says, “I follow Sartre in wanting to register as well the part of ourselves that is out of this world,” he goes too far for my taste (p. 41). As a naturalist, I cannot depart this world with Arcilla or embrace Sartrean dualism. However, when he suggests that our consciousness extends beyond our animal natures by possessing more of “what John Dewey calls intelligence,” I can easily follow him (pp. 43-44). I am no stranger to “strangerhood” and unheimlich. My reflective, questioning, and responsive intelligence naturally takes me there. I too know my world may melt at any moment never to return. That I find it easy to appreciate Arcilla’s project of building a liberal theory of education based on existential learning confirms that those committed to such learning may readily form liberal educational communities engaged in continuous conversation. This book will appeal to idiosyncratic learners aware of their dependency upon others.

The next chapter, “Presentmindedness,” addresses critics of Arcilla’s interpretation of strangerhood and modernism. It is an example of how instead of confronting and refuting alternative readings, he embraces them to create a more nuanced reading of modernism, one that yields an ethics capable of overcoming the threat that strangeness will alienate and estrange us from others by rendering us self-absorbed and unresponsive. The critical distinction working in this chapter is between “presentness,” which is instantaneous, all absorbing in its aesthetic beauty, and fully convincing beyond question. The presentness of a work seizes us and draws us out of our subjectivity into aesthetic otherness. It allows us to compare its qualities, at least contingently, with other works to make aesthetic evaluations. The work also draws us out of ourselves that we may experience grace and redemption. Presentness tends toward the object pole of unified experience. By contrast, “presence” involves duration while eschewing aesthetic judgment and evaluation. “I do not lose myself in the artwork,” Arcilla declares, “but I become conscious of myself standing apart from the object” (p. 53). Presence tends toward the subject pole of integral experience. It is another name for “strangerhood.” Since it turns us from the other, presence and strangeness are morally suspect. Arcilla works beyond the confines of this either/or to an original position on modernism that allows him to affirm a strong ethical, but not moralizing, stance. He treats presence as an “offering of existence;” a gift which, if we accept it, involves affirming existence. Our proper attitude is one of “gratitude,” of “thankful recognition” calling out a response “not of duty but love.” In some ways it resembles the “I must” that precedes the “I ought” in Nel Noddings’s ethics of care. It is primordial ethics arising before judgment and duty. “Our condition as existential strangers makes it possible for us to love the miracle of existence,” Arcilla affirms, “and to commit ourselves to a way of life guided by that love” (p. 62).

Chapter five starts with a useful reprise of the book's argument thus far before returning to the project announced earlier of pursing a politics committed to defeating consumerism. He acknowledges his commitment to the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which I characterize as the realization that the deep dark secret of humankind is that there is no deep dark secret. Contra, Marx, Freud, and the Critical Theorists, there is no ultimate, fixed, and final antecedently existing hidden truth or essence of the self. Or, as Arcilla paradoxically puts it, “I am essentially an enigma to myself” (p. 69). There is freedom here, for those that want it. It is a call to co-create our selves in community with others. Consumerism avoids such absolute freedom by urging us to exercise our freewill by choosing among economic products. We “brand” ourselves like cattle on a ranch by the clothes we choose to wear, the car we choose to drive, and our choice of cologne. Kitsch and consumerism are self-oppression. So, why do we submit? Arcilla explores two reasons. First, we wish to avoid existential anxiety, which is why I predict few will read his book. The second reason is that Marx is not all wrong. Workers have become alienated from what they produce. We find no artistic creativity or aesthetic satisfaction in the products of our labor, so we seek extrinsic reward, diversion, and amusement. Arcilla’s way of dealing with the hermeneutics of suspicion consciously avoids the assumption that “sheer imaginative ingenuity and far-outness can obviate the need to detail the concrete benefits of an alternative view to our everyday lives” (p. 67). Such insight avoids postmodern self-absorption.


Arcilla seeks to unite the cultivation of sensibility and response to beauty associated with conservative aesthetics and the ruling class exemplified by those such as T. S. Eliot with the needs of the masses represented by such figures as Leo Tolstoy. He wants to rethink the meaning of high culture and low culture in the way we have already discussed. He wishes to promote existential learning for all. Anyone, anytime, and anywhere can learn from immediate encounters with existence that awaken her or him to strangeness and the gift of grace. Indeed, because modernism defines an epoch, Arcilla prefers “mediumism” precisely because it is a permanent possibility for all humanity regardless of time or place. It is just that the periods we call modern, and perhaps even postmodern, seem “self-consciously caught up in a time of transition” (p. 81).

At this point, the thoughtful teacher would like some practical examples about how to extend pedagogical grace to their students, and themselves. The next chapter, “Examples,” provides them. Having hitherto relied largely on the visual arts, Arcilla draws his four examples from the cinema. For this review, I only watched one of them, Rosetta, by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I can say that Arcilla’s prose provides a good portrayal of this work and that the film has precisely the effects he claims. It secures the desired affect of strangeness that calls for an ethical response. It is surely capable of sustaining a classroom conversation among those seeking a liberal, and liberating, education. Others will not like it. The remaining three are: Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière, and Ulysses’ Gaze by Theo Angelopoulos.

The last chapter, “Who Is a Mediumist Educator?,” draws on the work of Christopher R. Higgins (1998) to answer the question posed by its title. Higgins develops three formal conditions for activities that we may at least consider educative. They are: “The thing must explicitly or implicitly address the questions of what it means to be human, what it means for human beings to flourish, and what it means for something to facilitate or move us closer to this state of human flourishing” (pp. 99-100). To me these conditions imply that the mediumist educator is some kind of existential humanist. According to Arcilla, the following three theses govern mediumist pedagogy: “[W]e are intrinsically strangers to all that exists, including ourselves; that the highest good for strangers like ourselves is presentmindedness; and that the best way to move us toward presentmindedness is to study and converse about mediumist works that proceed from a variety of experience to discourse our nature and its good” (p. 101). This statement sums matters up well.

I enthusiastically recommend this idiosyncratic, untimely, and unwanted book to you. You may not share the experience of strangeness I found here, but it will most assuredly call out a strong response of approval or disapproval in the responsible reader. Many will soon put it down for something more easily consumed and amusing. Something more comfortably clichéd, sought after, and apposite. Perhaps the sort of thing you can do something with, rather than it doing something to you.


Higgins, C. R. (1998). Practical wisdom: Educational philosophy as liberal teacher education (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 21, 2010 ID Number: 15952, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:37:56 PM

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