Posthuman Realness #TD16praxis

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 Image of brightly coloured stained glass in an abstract design, suggesting biological cellspropelled 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:

  1. Question everything.  Challenge everything you take for granted.
  2. 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). MiddleLeonardo's Vitruvian Man– 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.Anime of androgynous superhero

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.  

 

 

Image of yarn-bombed treesThinking 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.

 

 

Ego and The Swarm

“Everything, a bird, a tree, even a simple stone, and certainly a human being, is ultimately unknowable.  This because it has unfathomable depth.  All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip of an iceberg.” Eckhart Tolle
I’m finding it impossible to escape the thread of ‘ego’ running through the last ten days.  Much has been happening to disrupt my thinking, from countless conversations with critical friends to the discussions of the uncourse #rhizo14, which were characterised in week two by dissent and (polite) disagreement.  My question to myself as the mists clear on a rainy afternoon is this:  what am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
The week’s topic is ‘enforced independence’ and my mind shied away from the paradox whilst at the same time embracing its truth.  Independent learning is tough.  Independent thinking even tougher.  I believe in the revolutionary power of education, it’s my life’s work; I’m ambitious for my students to change the world.  I’m robust in my expression of that.  And I encounter resistance.   But I stubbornly plough on.
What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
I’ve thought a lot of late about dependency.  Big thinking about ideology and my own shifting politics and about the organisation I work for and the whole notion of ‘second chance’ education.  I’ve thought about ‘Benefits Street’ and victim identity and what diversity means and the way in which some people resist the Thinking Environment, try to subvert it, its promise of thinking for yourself – so intoxicating to me – feeling more like a threat to them.  I’ve thought about why students (and teachers) don’t make deadlines and the notion of the ‘silent runner’ (with thanks to Ros Ollin for that) – the one who just quietly disappears.  I’ve thought about what it is – and isn’t – to be an ‘academic’ and about the ever-present (for many of us) Impostor Syndrome.  I’ve thought about Tragic Life Stories (actually the name of a department in WH Smith) and the way in which they dominate not only TV and popular news media, but stories about adult learning too.
I’m not denying the strength of those who overcome sometimes eye-watering adversity to succeed and grow.  I have a mildly alarming back story myself – as have most adults – and I’ve the greatest respect for anyone who goes back into education and makes it work.  What concerns me is that some people become their back story and get stuck there; as my friend @lesleyawhiting says, they ‘dwell’. The education system creates aura and dependency around that, often unthinkingly, embodied for me in subtleties of articulation and the word, ‘learners’.  That is not, for me, empowerment.
A bee settling on a thistle
I’ve thought about how true encouragement means taking heart, (as Nancy Kline says) going beyond the cutting-edge of competition, letting go of the habit of comparing ourselves to others (toughest of all when we are reinforcing untrue limiting assumptions about ourselves).  I’ve reflected on the beauty and grace of people thinking together once that competitive edge is overcome:  community as curriculum, the ‘swarm’. Above all, at a time of pressing student deadlines, I’ve thought about excuses and lies – those that I tell and those that are told to me.
And I realise that I want to release my students from the pressure of having a tragic life event to tell me about when all they need is a little more time.  I want a dialogue that begins, “I can’t do this thing you asked me to do, in this timeframe,” and continues with, “What are you assuming, that is stopping you meeting the deadline?” – designed to search only for a strategy to get past whatever barrier has set itself in the way.  I want empathy and honesty.  No hinting or exaggeration.  I want to be liberated from the responsibility of making a judgement about the reasons people give; I want simply to trust them to tell me the truth.
I have finally realised that this means (both sides) getting beyond the ego.  Wow.  As easy as that.
So how is that done?
Well, I’m no expert.  But what I understand from my teacher in this, the fabulous Rachel Allwood, is that the ego is that part of us which makes us think we are separate from the whole (of humanity).  The less we’re aware of our ego, the more it pulls the strings of our thinking, so that we unwittingly allow it to dictate our actions, in the cause (of course) of ourselves, even when that means doing ourselves harm because we are holding onto our victim identity.  The power behind that Bernard Williams ‘fetish of assertion’ that I keep coming back to seems to be the unrecognised ego.  I do find myself thinking sometimes, “Why do I need to say that?” and I realise I am getting off on myself for some reason of self-aggrandisement or self-victimisation (“poor me”).   When I listen, generatively, with my full attention, the ego is present but settled, as sleek and well fed and self-ful as my cat.
Getting over the ego requires mental self-discipline.  And discipline can be practised.  It can be meditated away.  It can be grown.  It can be done.
When I talk about ‘the swarm’, when I long to belong, I’m not denying a power differential.  I will always have more power than my students.  Even in rhizomatic learning, where the community is the curriculum, someone needs to get the ball rolling.  My skills are honed over many years of reflexion and burnt-fingered messing-up.  I may have more knowledge too, if only because I spend 90% of my waking hours thinking about social purpose education (and the remaining 10% pondering Scandinavian TV or feeding the cat, naturally).    That doesn’t mean we can’t construct new knowledge, together.  Because in terms of what really matters – potential, thinking, diversity, transformational power – I’m an equal amongst equals.
I asked myself at the top of this blog, What am I assuming that makes me so sure that I’m right?
And I guess it’s a leap of faith.  Positive philosophical choice.  A sense of self-worth, tempered (I hope) with humility.  Values I believe in.  Something has to change in this world of ours and, together, we stand a better chance of figuring out what it is.  So, released from time to time from the imperative to obey my ego, I walk happily into the swarm.

Without mistakes, we’d still be amoebas…and there would be no music

…or something like that.  I’m misquoting from the biologist Lewis Thomas, talking about DNA changes and how they create the richness and diversity all around us on this planet. Yesterday was the first of the Diversity Programme study days, a strand of our EDIFund action research project.  Fifteen educators, drawn from all manner of backgrounds, joined me at The Northern College to explore new models of diversity and differentiation, and how we could strengthen our practice as educators.

Image of DNA
Image of DNA

It was an education in humility.

Much of the past three months has been spent planning, discussing and thinking about this piece of work.  Not alone – I blogged recently about how joyous it’s been to think and plan online with collegiate friends.  But yesterday proved that, despite all of this rigorous brainwork, I was still making some significant pedagogical assumptions which did not, in fact, hold true.

Assumption One That I could not have as high an expectation of self-directed learning, with a group of students who came together for just one day, as I could of longer-term students.  Well, “Da doi!“, as Britta would say to Jeff on ‘Community’, the adult-ed based comedy show which, just sometimes, has a flavour of Northern College.  Despite riding a wave of adrenaline for several days, my energy seeped away at lunchtime, simply because my plan for the afternoon was downright dull. Luckily, a group of strong-minded individuals had the measure of my lack of ambition and the response when I suggested a nice bit of action planning told me we needed to go in a different direction, I was just at a loss to figure out where.  I was rescued by a plea for more time to talk (and why not?) and within ten minutes we had begun two hours of critical friendship groups, fuelled by Open Space questions, in the squashy Blue Room Cafe chairs. By the evidence of the closing round, this fulfilled everything participants had wanted to get from the day.  And good coffee too!

Learning Curve:  don’t underestimate your students.

Assumption Two That I couldn’t trust my instincts.   When do I ever not trust my pedagogical instincts?!  I’m virtually famous for it, in my own head at least.  But something about this day caused me to veer from my original thinking which had, in fact, been to have critical friendship groups in the afternoon.  Afterwards, I apologised to the group for my lack of conviction and was blown away by a comment from @jfletchersaxon, who with kindness and great grace pointed out that I hadn’t been true to the Be Yourself model.  I hadn’t, in fact, been true to myself.  Wow.  And what was I assuming that stopped me being myself?  Ridiculously, it came back to that old chestnut, Impostor Syndrome, suddenly rearing its head…

Learning Curve:  if you want your students to be themselves, you have to be yourself too.

Assumption Three  That I am an Impostor and I am going to be found out.  Oh please.  I thought I’d dealt with all of this years ago.  Something about yesterday brought it all back again and led to my temporary loss of faith.  As I write this, I’m still in two minds about whether the trigger was the external funding context (some internalised capitalist tosh about providing value for money leading to me focusing on teaching, rather than learning), or whether I still feel unstable around the subject of diversity.  A mini-Thinking session suggests that it’s the former.  That, despite clear evidence that the Community of Praxis approach works, I took refuge in teacher education hegemony, that educators would rather be given ‘stuff’ than discuss pedagogy.  No doubt that’s sometimes true (though luckily yesterday it wasn’t).  But it’s not like me to buy into it.

Learning Curve:  CPD is about creating the right conditions for educators to explore pedagogy for themselves.  Believe it.

And what are the right conditions?  Yesterday reminded me that these could well be the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment.  We experienced EASE once we were discussing pedagogical questions in the squashy chairs, and PLACE too.  We gave one another ATTENTION and built APPRECIATION into the day.  We provided INFORMATION as stimulus, without letting it dominate.  We built a manifesto based on values, to allow FEELINGS to be safely expressed.  We created ENCOURAGEMENT for one another.  We discussed DIVERSITY and allowed one another to be ourselves.  We preserved EQUALITY in our respect for one another’s right to air time.  And we unlocked all of this via a series of INCISIVE QUESTIONS, the most implicitly central of all being this:

If you knew that being here today would make a difference, what would change for you?  And what would change for the world?