Writing what I like

Sutupa Biswas, ‘Housewives with Steak-Knives’ imperialism, anger and love

I’d like to think that a book consisting of about 150 pages could be read in an afternoon, or at least a few days. But the Beautiful Risk is not a quick read. And in reading it I am reminded of what reading is like. I wrestle with this text. I have to stop frequently to check I understand the language Biesta uses. After a short while, I read something else (a pallet cleanser) and then return a few days later.

Some things – ideas – need time to settle. They need time to sit uncomfortable on your cognitive map until – without realising it,  without you self-consciously doing anything, they seem to take shape and fit into place. Often, in my experience, this happens when writing. Idea takes shape when I write, but not always.

In summary, Biesta’s chapter on Communication is a slow and not always comfortable read. It requires repetition. This is not because he uses deliberately obscure language but is because I struggle to get to grips with key concepts in philosophy that I do not use on a daily basis. But this is normal. Developing expertise implies a willingness to remain uncomfortably at the edge of your own capability.

To try out a summary in a few sentences: In a chapter that sees Biesta ‘in discussion’ with Dewey and Derrida, he outlines a philosophy of communicative action which implies common understanding as an outcome of human cooperation. We learn from the practices within which we participant. More than this, participative learning generates a particular sort of learning. Learning that leads to the transformation of ideas, emotions and understanding leading to a shared outlook through participation in an activity. Given that communications always open, undetermined, generative ad creative – there is always a risk that things might not go the way we planned. Derrida enters the conversation at the point where Dewey’s philosophical framework becomes problematic. Having identified the circumstances within which transformative learning becomes possible, there is a danger that the theory becomes a template, losing its open generative potential. Deconstruction – the impossibility of deconstruction – precludes this possibility.

‘…the point of deconstruction is an affirmation of what is wholly other, of what is unforeseeable from the present. It is, as Derrida puts it, an affirmation of an otherness that is always to come, as an event, that as ‘an event, exceeds calculation, rules, programmes, intimations’. In this sense it is not simply an affirmation of who or what is other, but  rather the otherness of who or what is other.’ (Biesta 2013, p.38)

I’m not sure how this new understanding will shape what I do next – I am developing a research project about ‘The Role of Standards in Professional Life’. I suspect what will happen is what usually happens, while writing and struggling to shape an idea, develop an argument,  built a connection or distinction, it’ll become evident precisely where and how this idea fits. Or perhaps what’s wrong with it.

But that’s not entirely the point. Amidst an increasingly performative culture in HE, what counts is what can be counted. Little value is placed on anything else. This culture superimposes academic game playing on what would otherwise be an academic career. There is something slightly uncomfortable about all of this. There are too many lines of digression to explore and explain. What matters though is while the culture in HE sets up its own hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion,  conferring value and status and here, replicating otherness there, evaluating the same piece of work as one star when written by you, three start when written by me, the rest of us, do our jobs. We research, we write and we publish.

  • The bit that counts is published in the high impact journal.
  • The bit that matters is published elsewhere.

After all, who wants a career in performative cynicism and game playing?

I have resolved this dilemma. Last year’s publishing was about what mattered, this year it’s all about what counts.

The bits that matter will still be written and published (I write what I like) because:

Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.  [There is] a multiplicity of points of resistance: these play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations. These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.

In discussion with: 

Biesta, G. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Paradigm.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality Vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990) 95-6;


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