Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Robin Williams, Dead Poets, and Symbolic Investments in the Virtual Classroom

Posted on | October 16, 2014 | No Comments

Like most of us, I was saddened by the loss of Emmy, Grammy, and Golden Globe winning actor Robin Williams. Here is an excerpt from one of my PhD essays, “Dead Poets and the Lawnmower Man,” that drew on the movie, The Dead Poets Society and his excellent performance to investigate virtual reality as an educational tool.[4]

In the movie The Dead Poets Society (1989), the stark contrasts between the closed moral community of the preparatory Welton Academy and the emotional and intellectual capers of John Keating, its new teacher played by Robin Williams, presents an opportunity to question the processes of signification (meaning-making) and energetic investments in modern educational environments.

The repressed libidinous and spiritual “economies” of the all-male boarding school invite a reading of The Dead Poets Society that focuses on its sociosignifying practices – how meaning is fixed and organized through processes like language, dress, and action. It is of particular interest in that it refigures the role of the teacher as what Jean-Joseph Goux referred to as a “symbolic third”.

Goux, in his quest for a general economics (beyond money), gives us a strategy to view the teacher as symbolically elevated figure operating as a type of currency. Using his Symbolic Economies, we can see the teacher as a condensation of values that respectively raises his position to that of privileged mediator and arbitrator of intellectual values, meaning and performance – as well as the construction of facts and “truth.”

In the Dead Poets Society, the teacher, played by Robin Williams, is a “media event” in the sense that, by elaborating a series of emotionally and intellectually rich forms of signification, he disrupts the school’s anti-erotic sovereignties and traditional forms of educational homage. John Keating is a carefully constructed teacher-character who maintains a credible front to his peers while engaging his students in a series of revaluing exercises. His invoking of the philosophy of “carpe diem” for example, disrupts the ascetic delays of pleasure and self-gratification that serve to channel emotional and intellectual investments into the student subjectivities prescribed by the school’s bourgeois “govern-mentality.”

His unusual behavior and pedagogy invoke a curiosity in his students that addresses their subjugated desires and self-construction. His former pact with an “ancient” secret society of self-proclaimed poets awakens their dormant dreams of social adventure and expressive identities. This secret knowledge, time-tested by the ancients of their alma mater, promises sexual conquest and alternative forms of imagination. “Spirits soared, women swooned, and gods were created.” By re-presenting literary classics of Shakespeare and Milton but with the voice of macho film star and arch-American John Wayne, he distorts the distinctions between “high” and “low” cultures and encourages the dissolution of aesthetic boundaries that work to solidify not only class distinctions but the socio-energetic rigidifications of emotional affect.

The members of the reincarnated club, “Dead Poets Society”, organized their meetings in a cave located in a nearby forest. There they read unauthorized poetry, smoked cigarettes, mixed with women – all the activities they are forbidden at the school. As Gebauer points out, the symbology of the cave has never been about the outside world, but about the inside one. “Our imagination remains captive in the cave. We do, in fact, repeatably seek out the cave in a different form.” Our ontology has its commencement in the topography of the cave, and he points out: “In one way or another, all our notions of paradise are linked with situations of the cave.”[3]

Keating’s enthusiastic ideations soon come into conflict with other domains of symbolic control however, including the potent Oedipal dynamics which have proved to rein too tight a grip on one of his students. In his quest to act in a community play, the student goes against his father’s demands to cut down on his extracurricular activities, forges a permission slip, and performs the main role of Buck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The father inadvertently discovers the disobedience and shows up at the play to observe. He fiercely pulls his son away from the backstage party despite the acclaim and obvious success. After a confrontation at home, where among other things, the mother’s disappointment is invoked to punish the son, he is forbidden to act again or at least until he goes on and finishes medical school. Faced with this paternal injunction, he takes his own life.

The death of a student presents a moral catastrophe that overpowers Keating’s privileged text of spontaneity and impunity. These are now recoded as degenerate improprieties, and their “unproductive” forms of expenditure are tallied against the teacher as infractions within the Calvinistic ledgers of the schoolmasters. The conflicting father is able to easily organize the dismissal of the teacher.

The students respond by pledging their allegiance at the resolution of the film, by standing on top of their class desks and citing the title of Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” acknowledging and respecting Keating’s role as their navigator through the uncharted course of adolescent squanderings and discoveries.

The Dead Poets Society reflects the profound symbolic and historic investments structuring traditional education and how the currency of the teacher can facilitate new types of energetic and intellective exchanges. If educational space is to become cyberspace in a socially and politically responsive way, than it behooves us to mark its inception with at least one strategy that is sensitive to the “economies” which mediate and control its energetic and symbolic investments.


[1] He played a teacher at a private boarding school. It was part of a section called “Dead Poets and the Lawnmower Man”, in Symbolic Economies and the Politics of Global Cyberspaces. (1993) about the possibilities of teaching eventually in virtual reality classrooms.
[2] Economie et symbolique, Ed. du Seuil, 1973.(Translation of these two books in one volume: Symbolic Economies, Cornell University Press, 1990.)
[3] Gebauer, G. (1989) “The Place of Beginning and End: Caves and Their Systems of Symbols,” In Kamper & Wulf (eds.) Looking Back on the End of the World. (NY: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series). p. 28.
[4] Adding a late note about the use of language as prescribed by one of my favorite mentors, Michael J. Shapiro who taught us that one objective of writing is to invoke “delirium” in the reader, as in taking them out of their normal channel (Latin: Lirium = canal) by exploring the edges of intelligibility on a subject.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. His first faculty position was at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.


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