Writing what I like

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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;

Subjectivity as an ongoing event

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In this blog post, I am in discussion with Gert Biesta.

OfSTED, University and school mission statements love creativity. Unanimously accepted as a Good Thing, creative teachers are excellent teachers. Is there a connection between the highly constrictive, almost scripted pedagogies associated with OfSTED and their apparent liking for the creativity that their quality regime seems to annihilate? It is surely noteworthy that an institution that induces rigid conformity seems to value creativity? So widely used and so magnificently varied is the notion of creativity, that it might easily be framed as an essentially contested concept, like justice, truth, peace and love. It’s meaning is in perpetual motion as warring groups of professional academics argue the toss to ensure their version is in the ascendancy. Temporary settlement (this is what the concept means for now) is followed by contestation and yet another temporary settlement.

What, then, does Biesta mean then when he refers to education as a creative act? What is implied by his assertion of education as a process which in some way contributes to the creation of human subjectivity?

His notion of creativity is weak. That is rather than creation as connected to production, a strong metaphysical notion of creativity that refers to causes and effects; the notion he works with is a weak – existential one – it is understood in terms of encounters and events. Education as an ‘act of creation’ insists on a connection between what educators do to an ethics of subjectivity. The human subjectivity referred to here is not a neutral essence, it is rather a quality of our relationships with what or who is Other. In many ways I think creativity is similar to the notion of intelligence. I can’t particularly explore or justify this way of thinking for now but they are often treated in similar terms as something that some individuals are in natural possession of and others not. Creativity – often seen as the transition from nothing to something, when argued by Biesta becomes instead ‘bringing being to life by affirming its goodness’.

Education as a creative process and practice contributes towards the emergence of human subjectivity. The ‘human subject’ he refers to (based on Levinas) is not one that rests on a newly articulated theory. Instead, one ethical category – responsibility – is singled out as fundamental to the structure of subjectivity. Instead of the subject as the centre of meaning and initiative, prior to the ego, behind knowledge or will is an ethical relationship of infinite and unconditional responsibility for the Other. This does not imply a theory of subjectivity, its essential qualities, capacities or responsibilities. Instead what he offers is an ‘ethics of subjectivity’. The question of subjectivity is approached in ethical terms.

Subjectivity is not an attribute, it is an event; it can occur from time to time but is not constantly there, as a reified thing that we have, possess and secure.

This suggests an approach to education that is inescapably risky. And the risk it implies is both necessary and desirable. The creativity of education is not a movement from non-being into being (a being which we watch vigilantly to ensure what is brought into behaves in scripted ways) it is a movement from being to the good. What is already there, the elements – are given significance and meaning (not a cause or metaphysical explanation).

This is not particularly to assert a new notion of creativity; it does not imply the need to look again at existing notions of creativity and re-frame what they do. It implies a pedagogy (an empty handed one) and requires risk.

I did say I was in discussion with… but this is really a cautious and protective qualification that I will from now in use. In much the same way that in everyday conversation we tend to adopt the accent of whoever we are speaking to (it builds rapport and implies empathy); when reading I am aware of morphing, chameleon like into whoever I am reading. So much so, that only when writing formally does the clear process of separation and referencing really take place.

Creativity is interesting and important and widely used. In chatting with EdD students this weekend, many of us talked about writing as a creative enterprise even though we are writing what many (outside the academy) might consider to be rather dry, turgid texts. In part what matters is how what we read is orchestrated – made to work along side our own ideas and experiences, and the other texts that we read. This reading provides material that feeds our creativity and allows us to generate new understanding. It is not – something from nothing – but something new and good from that which already exists. The subjectivity brought into being through this creative enterprise – is not a subject crafted by the skilful manipulative has of the expert pedagogic artisan. It is a subject being, brought into a new set of relationships, assuming an ethical stance of responsibility towards those encounters. An infinite and unconditional responsibility towards the Other.