Opening Words – The Posthuman Now (Lou Mycroft) (1)
Today I have the privilege of meeting with some amazing thinkers at Northern College, for the fourth annual TeachDifferent conference. We are hoping that the essentials of posthuman theory will provoke us into new horizons of thinking. We are unashamedly Utopian; our country has never needed fresh thinking so desperately.
These chaotic times are when we most need ‘theory’. Along with art (in any form), theory offers us chance to reimagine new futures, as long as we create spaces to think. I am propelled into tomorrow by the (partial) ‘unconference’ construction of yesterday’s #ReImagineFE conference at Birmingham City University which confirmed what I’d suspected: there is an appetite for change and in the broken ground of post-Brexit Britain, there is opportunity too.
A couple of years ago, I had the sense that conventional further education was in its death spasm. It’s a graphic metaphor, but the prospect of demise is often accompanied by a desperate, febrile energy and that’s how our sector has felt for some time now. I noticed it in the response to 2014’s #FELTAG report: panic at the thought of change, followed by a sign of relief and the toughening of resistance to any sort of innovation. Creativity receded and it was hard to do transformational work in the months that followed. But the rhizome is tough, and it’s endlessly patient. We kept on keeping on and we worked the ground from underneath, subverting where we could. Now is the time – in Rania Hafez’s words (2) – to storm the castle.
Rania’s argument is that as long as we subvert, we collude. As a natural subversive, that was hard for me to digest and I resisted her analysis for the longest time. I have never wanted to ‘sit round the table’ with people who are unable to think Utopian thoughts. I have always wanted to imagine new futures and I believed that was my strength. But Rania is right. In Dancing Princesses, she writes:
“It is time we restore our autonomy and voice, rather than persisting in living this double life that is keeping us under the metaphorical lock and key, and eroding our professionalism.”
The mood of the meeting at #ReImagineFE would agree. In the leadership, professionalism and teacher education strands there was a new sense of agency. Right here, right now, doom seems inevitable. So let’s find our inner Blitz Spirit and fight to reclaim our professional self-esteem. Let’s build our own future, instead of waiting for power brokers to decide it for us.
During periods of profound historical change, there are no certainties. As Rosi Braidotti, philosopher of the posthuman, says, “These are strange times.” And the very fact that nothing can stay the same should give us hope of a different future.
Today is all about reimagining that future. It’s about thinking the unthinkable. What we ask of you today is to keep in mind these two principles:
- Question everything. Challenge everything you take for granted.
- Focus on praxis. Turn thinking to activism. Plan resources: money, people, time.
What we are offering you is space to think and posthuman theory to frame your thinking. Imagine spring cleaning your brain! We figure that if we can shake out the dust from old certainties, new stuff can emerge.
Three centuries ago, certainties were fixed that we still take for granted today. These certainties came out of the Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that they were created in the image of Enlightenment thinkers: white, European, relatively privileged men. They are of their times and they were important at the time, not least for recognising the importance of education. But they are not fit for now, and they leave a disturbing legacy.
This is Vitruvian Man; the image, of course, from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch. He is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). Middle– or upper-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.
But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.
Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding ‘othering‘. It’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. It follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time. It also refers to the anthropocene time – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done. Posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and also animal rights, as well as human welfare. It is also concerned with breaking down those categories of ‘life’ that we take for granted. Who said sociology is sociology? When is it not anthropology? Why did geology have to be invented? Possibly because geography did not admit the possibility of studying a history of the world. If political thinkers had listened to historians more, we might not have seen racism becoming a significant political force again in parts of the UK. Posthumanism welcomes interdisciplinary enquiry, which takes a complex issue and brings whatever thinking is needed to bear on it, until something new is created.
Posthumanism challenges the way we use the word ‘humanity’. We persist in seeing humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the face of the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does: Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.
What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race in favour of some robot uprising. On the contrary, it forces us to face that we are already technologically mediated. ‘Technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for granted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses? We are posthuman. We are already there.
If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our frames of reference are desperately out of date, based as they are on the Vitruvian model. That’s why education is not keeping up with what the world needs, why our political systems are in crisis. Posthuman thinking is about facing up to the here and now.
The here and now is, put simply, the death of capitalism. For more than a century capitalism and Marxism (in its many forms) were locked in a battle to the death. For 30 years, capitalism has been the victor but with the global economy in freefall, political thinkers such as Paul Mason are beginning to suggest that this is the endgame for neoliberalism, the ideology underpinning capitalism which forces us to view everything in terms of ‘us and them’: you’ll come to recognise this as a form of Vitruvian ‘othering’. It gets quite addictive watching for these binaries: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Leave vs. Remain, Winner vs. Loser. We take it for granted that the hierarchies of capitalism are the way of the world, that they are they only way. Posthuman thinking tries to imagine new, differently constructed futures.
It does this by moving away from the politics of identity; posthuman thinkers try to not to operate from their places of pain. It uses affirmative action and active language to transform cultures of negativity and challenge that binary thinking that keeps us trapped in the trousers, no matter what leg we inhabit. Posthuman actions operate rhizomatically – that metaphor again – people gathering through the recognition of mutual energies, not because they are trapped in a structure together. Activists form, leave and reform assemblages based on this activist energy, which Rosi Braidotti names, pleasingly, as ‘zoe‘, a Greek word meaning active and vigorous life.
Today’s gathering is not a conference, but an assemblage. You are here through rhizomatic means, to gather with others and create something new. In the workshops that follow, you will have the opportunity to identify your/our next affirmative activist step.
Thinking together, using our friend Posthuman thinking as a lens is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place – the media, political structures, the arms trade, Labour ‘rebels’, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But thinking together connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.
So in the spirit of hopefulness, which today is all about, I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti, talking about the sixteenth century philosopher from whose well she drinks:
“Once a year have your dose of Spinoza’s champagne. He just makes me rock.”
Closing Words – Posthuman Demos (Lou Mycroft)
Demos – the people or, more precisely, the common people, have spoken loud and clear in the recent Referendum on EU Membership and ‘we’ don’t like it. In the hidden assumptions and unseen binaries of current media discourse we see all of today’s concepts played out and fuelled by the kerosene of both wilful and ignorant misinformation.
As we have heard from Mole Chapman today, the language we use forms the thinking we do, and all the more so if we are not aware of the untrue limiting assumptions we carry with us about how the world works. Others know this too, of course, the political spin doctors who have helped make ‘hard working families’ buy into the politics of envy – and who have rendered apologies meaningless.
So what does this mean for us as activists? As educators, we frame our professionalism through three lenses – you’ll have seen the refraction of this in the workshop themes today:
Digital Professionalism – educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.
Dialogic Professionalism – educators who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.
Democratic Professionalism – educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the profession.
It requires only a small twist to see how this approach could work for a more strategic activism too:
Digital Activism – activists who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.
Dialogic Activism – activists who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.
Democratic Activism – activists who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the demos as a whole.
The very best activism – whether words, art, physical protest, campaigning – is effective because it is eye-catching, often even newsworthy, memorable. We can’t download amazing activist ideas into anyone’s brain, or we’d be out there doing them for ourselves. What we hoped for from today was that you might find the posthuman lens and thinking spaces effective sparks to kindle your own thinking. We look forward to seeing the changes you make ripple out into the world.
Let’s finish with a a 21st century addition to the activist’s toolkit. It’s time to consign the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ to the history books and move forward as a civilisation, one meme at a time. Thank you for coming here today.
(1) Some words were first published on http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com (Lou Mycroft’s EdD blog).
(2) Hafez, R. (2015) Beyond the Metaphor: time to take over the castle. In Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.