More questions and themes of inquiry

A new list of questions and themes of inquiry, raised in discussion of Alice’s and Stephen’s work this evening, can be found here:

Additional themes that came up before these discussions included the role of ‘secrets’ in social life, as forms of knowledge that have the dual function of bonding and uniting people with, and excluding and dividing people from one another. This moved quickly into discussions of information, power and knowledge, power/knowledge (Foucault’s work), and ‘rules of engagement’. Interesting as well, as there was another discussion about access to resources and to the latest research and thinking on our matters of concern… Another question centred around the concept of ‘social science’. What is the link between the social and the scientific? Is there anything scientific about it, and if so, what? Should there be? How is this situated historically? How do we decide what constitutes a legitimate way of knowing? There seemed interest in exploring both themes at some point…might we also reflect upon them in the context of the SSC?

Some new thoughts on pedagogy from the group, as I remember (reconstruct). Continue exploring autobiographies together, discussing and raising questions. When we’re finished, we will sit down independently and together with these rich ideas, make sense of them, and make choices about what we wish/need to work on in more depth. This may or may not involve entirely common themes. We are working out the relationship between indepedent and collective work. It may well involve people developing their work individually or together and presenting things to the group along the way. We are not yet sure what the next phase of our work will look like, but I had a strong sense that there is confidence we are shaping it as we work. Very exciting. I have no idea if this paper will speak to me in any way at the moment, but I plan to read it and find out.

Other things to consider: access to libraries, resources (work now underway on open access, sharing, suggestions of British Library catalogue and reader’s pass); how we write, how we read, how we create bibliographies…

Thanks to Zoraida, Alice, Annie, Stephen and Vernon for an amazing class. I’m looking forward to having everyone else back soon!

Three notes on personal narratives and accounts

‘People organize and give meaning to their experiences and, thereby, their lives through the storying of experience: we live storied lives. Yet, our stories do not simply represent or reflect some inherent, pre-given, or incontestable meaning that exits. These stories do not, therefore, reflect a reality outside of the social meanings that we draw upon to make sense of our own experiences. Instead, socially mediated language ascribes meaning to our stories, and through language we reify social meaning, reconstituting our own lives, and often dominant social discourse. […] A dynamic process constitutes the way we participate in making sense of our lives. Individuals are active participants in the creation of their stories; however, these stories draw upon available social discourse and thus consist of both subjugated and dominant knowledge. As our lived experiences exist within a field or web of power and knowledge, no story is outside power. No telling or hearing of a story is outside of meaning and, therefore, neutrality is not possible.’ (Catrina Brown, ‘Anti-oppression through a postmodern lens: dismantling the Master’s conceptual tools in discursive social work practice’, Critical Social Work, 13, 1, pp. 45-46)

‘“Auto/biography” disrupts conventional taxonomies of life writing, disputing its divisions of self/other, public/private, and immediacy/memory. Relatedly, “the auto/biographical I” signals the active inquiring presence of sociologists in constructing, rather than discovering, knowledge.’ (Liz Stanley, ‘On auto/biography in sociology’, Sociology, 1993, 27, 1)

‘I would argue autobiography offers the same opportunity for twenty-first century women as well as in previous centuries. Henke continues to say, “Life-writing encourages the author/narrator to reassess the past and to reinterpret the intertextual codes inscribed on personal consciousness by society and culture…(autobiography) is an author attempting to fashion an enabling discourse of testimony and self-revelation, to establish a sense of agency” (Henke xv-xvi). At its core, autobiography is an attempt at agency through self-definition.’ (Tunisia Riley, From the Academy to the Streets: Documenting the Healing Power of Black Feminist Creative Expression, MA thesis, University of South Florida, 2009)

Night reading: notes on the ‘dialogical method’ of teaching

From a dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, Journal of Education, 1987, 169(3), discussing the politics and aesthetics of dialogic teaching.
The ‘right to dialogue’. Why? Is dialogue essential for recognition? Freire argues that it is ‘part of our historical progress in becoming human beings’; that it is a humanising process and relationship; that it is an act against domination, fixation, finishing; that it is an epistemological relationship which necessitates reflection. Shor argues that it ‘confirms the relationship between the people communicating’. In all cases, there is an assumption that the term refers to genuine, communicative dialogue – not a ‘free-for-all’, not imposed and not manipulation.
What are the conditions (material, social, intellectual, affective) for such humanising and transformative dialogue, in concrete circumstances? Is it actually possible to ‘start with reality to overcome it’? Is it possible not to?
Dialogue as both means and end. The ‘texture of voices’ in a classroom as part of this process; the aesthetics of learning. Speaking and silences as scripts – we can read or rewrite them.
‘“Situated pedagogy” as one route to student participation’. What we continue to discover, and continue to ignore, repress or find too difficult: that learning makes most sense and happens most successfully when it is an integral part of life. Three paths along the route:
(A) Discovering with students ‘the themes most problematic to their perception’, not in order to affirm or valorise common sense or to manipulate ‘motivation’ but to introduce material and raise questions that ‘open an investigating dialogue through which we re-examine the subject, until it is no longer the routine matter which absorbed uncritical attention before’. The approach promises potentially productive and transformative tensions, if it enables ‘advanced reflections’.
(B) ‘Studying academic or formal subjects in a situated manner…that is, inserting biology or history or nursing into their social contexts’. Research, on any scale, educates autonomy – an autonomy that Freire argues is necessary, but not sufficient, for engaging in autonomous social and political action.
(C) ‘Researching my students’ cognitive and political levels at the course’s opening, to see what kinds of critical thinking, literacy and political ideas are operating’, to understand better what is needed. Perhaps in some contexts, but in others, this surely needs to be democratised…
Liberatory dialogics rather than lecture-Socratic methods. For when we don’t presume to know what people can or should know at the start, as if we could determine the creation of knowledge itself. Broadly agreed, although I think this is a weak interpretation of Socratic pedagogies… Better maybe here. Liberatory learning as not individualised ‘self-directed’ learning, as so often presumed. ‘Liberation is a social act. Liberating education is a social process of illumination’, not an individual one. Nice.
‘The concepts that we study in the university can work to amputate us from the concrete reality they are supposedly referring to’. And yet, the desire for ‘concreteness’ does not necessitate or justify a flight from the conceptual. Distinguishing between a curriculum and programme, on the one hand, and the organisation of studies, on the other. It is possible to critique power in the latter without rejecting the potential usefulness of the former.
How is teaching an art? Both are creative practices. They shape worlds. But Shor’s description of codification as artistic, in so far as it ‘uncovers key themes and access points to consciousness, and then recomposing them into an unsettling critical investigation, orchestrating them into a prolonged study’, sits uncomfortably in my mind; it is far too orchestrated. I am more interested in his argument that critical education is an ‘aesthetic moment as well as a political one, because it asks the students to reperceive their prior understandings and to practice new perceptions as creative learners’.
‘Another point that makes education once more an artistic event is precisely when education is also an act of knowing. For me, knowing is something beautiful! To the extent that knowing is unveiling an object, the unveiling gives the object “life”, calls it into “life”, even gives it a new “life”. This is an artistic task because our knowing has a life-giving quality, creating and animating objects as we study them.’ Irritated by the grounding in subject-object relations; there is an interesting and sympathetic discussion about this in footnote 4 here.
Planning to read Tyson Lewis’s The Aesthetics of Education next, just after Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero, which has just arrived.

Alternative imaginaries of knowledge

Alan writes that ‘if publics continue to focus on problems of capital rather than lessons from history humanity’s survival is doubtful. On this final point, I think Higher Education should be an aim for all, the focal point of communities. For finding solutions we need to dispense with the notion of academic and vocational, supremacy of the intellectual over the practical.’

I think this is such an important point. I just today finished reading an inspirational piece by Sara Motta (NotesTowardsPrefigurative) about why this is so important…and how it has been possible (from p. 186 especially for anyone especially interested in how social movements and communities construct knowledge and challenge categories of ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ knowledge). Thinking more about this in our work and relationships…

Why imagine what?

My notes and other reports from the first meeting of the Social Science Imagination course are available elsewhere. These are my reflections.

It was the idea of the ‘sociological imagination’ that initially inspired my passion for social science, and when I was younger, C. Wright Mills’ work that served as one route into critical social theory and political thought and activity. His piece on ‘intellectual craftsmanship’ was my first introduction to any sort of ‘scholarly literacy’. It was not for some time that I began to understand for myself the specificities of the historical moment in and against which he was writing. And it was not until very recently that I have really begun to appreciate the political, personal and theoretical significance of the imagination as a concept, capability and practice. When I was younger, I saw only the ‘sociological’ in this work. Now I find it difficult to discipline the ‘imagination’ into this frame, I find the professionalisation of sociology intolerable, and can’t really bring myself to draw any lines between this discipline, philosophy, political theory, ethics, and increasingly creative practice. But I was reminded on Thursday of how this influenced the way I understand and live in the world, and the trajectory of my work. It is good to have a reason to connect with the newer debates about Mills’ work.

I was interested in other people’s response to Mills’ writing as condescending and frustrating. I hadn’t realised until then how invested I was in my own memories of being enlightened by his observations, even at a distance of then forty years, and with the limits of the masculinist, academic, modernist writing that it is. I had established some vague understanding of how my early readings were classed and geopolitically situated, but as I continued my journey away from the American liberal-critical tradition he wrote within, I hadn’t given it much further thought. I discovered the Sociological Imagination at a time in my life where it spoke to me as I did feel trapped – not as an individual in my own life, but as a human being seeking to act justifiably and ethically in a world where I could not seem to affect things that mattered to me, and could not understand why. It was a time when I discovered that forces and mechanisms of power in society were opaque not because they were mysterious but because they were too complex to make sense of with the existing knowledges I had built in order to live well in my everyday life. It was a time when, after having experienced a certain type of class and race privilege, I was confronted with multiple realities of inequality, injustice and domination. It was a time when few people really wanted to talk about the depth of these seriously, rather preferring to accept, ignore, adapt to or find justifications for them. It was a time when I began to understand the narrowness of my own horizons of awareness, in a global and political sense, and the limitations of much of the education which had, to that point, been effective in enabling me to reproduce the privileges, prejudices and dysfunctions that I had inherited. It wasn’t that I didn’t think critically, widely or reflexively about my life. I had a broad, liberal education – which, incidentally, I will be paying a high price for until I am in my mid-60s. But it was very clear to me when I began studying the social sciences, the critical disciplines, and moving outside of my habits and worlds into others’, that I confused critique with criticism, did not think sociologically about myself or the world and did not in fact even know what those types of questions would be that might enable me to make sense of the complexities of power and possibilities of freedom or to make some informed judgments about my own subjectivity and being in the world. I suppose that I had all this time naively decided that this would be a common experience, or rather, forgot to think sociologically about the relationship to ideas at all. This is disturbing for me as recognising the social basis of knowledge is something that has been absolutely fundamental in my teaching, research and politics. But environments and selves need to be cultivated to make space for this in a regular way.

However, I also remember that when writing in 1959, Mills hoped for the proliferation and democratisation of a ‘quality of mind’ that he called the sociological imagination, and that I would probably now call other things. A quality of mind that was neither detached philosophising nor abstract empirical research, both of which are detached from and careless about human experience and suffering. I thus wondered if perhaps there has been a process of criticalisation in culture and knowledge that he anticipated. Have the proliferation of media and social media, the critique of expertise and the rise of do-it-yourself society, the collapse of official ideology to make way for much more blatant and unapologetic displays of the mechanisms of economic and state power, the expansion of compulsory schooling and higher education created a society that is infused with, oriented by and dedicated to the projects of autonomy, humane reason, freedom and justice which, for Mills, necessitated a sociological imagination? Do so many people in this or any society today organise their lives in any way around questions about the structure of this particular society, ‘its essential components, and how they are related to one another’; how it ‘differs from other varieties of social order’; and the ‘meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and change’? Or about where ‘this society stands in human history…the mechanics by which it is changing…its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole…its characteristic ways of history-making’? Or ‘what varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period, and what varieties are coming to prevail…in what ways they are selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted’; or what ‘types of human nature are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society and this period’? And do so many people now work to shift from one form of thought and level to another, from the micro to the macro, the self to society, past to present, in an on-going attempt to make sense of their lives and the present and future of the worlds in which they live? (Mills 1959: 7)

I am left with two immediate thoughts: first, if this sort of project has actually succeeded, so that we do not need to learn to think in these particular ways (if indeed these are the sorts of questions that interest us), then we should stop teaching social science in any of its traditional forms and start doing something else, the next needed thing. There is some element of truth in this, and much work has already being been done to reimagine the project and the promise of critical social science. However, in my experience this is not at all how most people think (or how I am able to think within the institutional contexts of my labour or intimate life). On the contrary, in the spaces I inhabit, there is often an increasing hostility to critical thought and a cultivated ethics of adaptation (on the one hand) or individualised survival (on the other), combined with a powerful fatalism (the sense that nothing could or should be otherwise than it is, on the one hand) and voluntarism (endless ‘entrepreneurial’ projects and ‘innovations’ to make minor improvements in the system, on the other) – not to mention the tendencies of neoliberal anti-ethics. It is difficult for me to accept that we have adequate concepts or languages for thinking and speaking about the actual conditions of our lives that open up possibilities for being well in or transforming them.

Before this seminar, I had not read Mills for a very long time. I am working on things now that are so deeply steeped in and yet so far removed from the project of the ‘sociological imagination’ that it is difficult to trace my path back clearly enough to discuss it intelligibly, and I am glad for the task. But in reading back through the book itself, there are a couple of concrete points that I would like to think through again, as I realise that they have been enduring concerns even if in changing forms, and have become more so in the intervening years. And I wonder how they will be read or disrupted by others.

One is the concept of the ‘cheerful robot’ (p. 171). This is unfortunate language; there is obviously no way in which human beings can actually be robots (although it is also the case that our lives in this society are increasingly shaped by technology). What interests me is how and why we want to conform, consent to working as functionaries for power, find ways to reconcile or desire the reconciliation of contradictions that should explode what is, lose interest in our freedom or anyone else’s, lose interest in truth or reason, lose interest in justice, or care. It is the enduring question through Adorno’s and Marcuse’s work – in Walter Benjamin’s question to Adorno about whether there were really enough torturers to carry out the Nazi project; through Foucault’s concern about the way in which we learn to dominate ourselves with pleasure; through various readings of the particular forms of power in neoliberal regimes. As Mills asked, ‘under what conditions do men (sic) not want to be free or capable of acting freely’, and ‘under what conditions are they willing and able to bear the burdens freedom does impose and to see these as less as burdens than as gladly undertaken self-transformations’? My concern now is with the combination of institutional, bureaucratic, cultural, subjective and affective forms of power that are working so well to create docile, disempowered bodies today – and what knowledge, practices, relationships, languages, spaces and capabilities allow us to be otherwise.

Another is Mills’ articulation of the idea of freedom as ‘not merely the chance to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them – and then, the opportunity to choose’. This requires a ‘just machinery of decision’, an ethic of political responsibility, and an intellectual capacity and desire to imagine ‘the possible futures of human affairs’ (p. 174). This is of course not an adequate definition of freedom, as it is so individualistic and does not recognise the economic and cultural politics of such ‘choices’. But I remember it being clarifying when I first discovered it, as a license to begin thinking much further outside the boxes of liberal democracy and things-as-they-appear-to-be than had previously been possible.

This one text from Mills’ much larger body of work is a frame to think with. It is important that we understand it as such, and not as the frame (heads up to Vernon here). Within the two hours we met, it was clear that our frames inspire much, but also that the names of other thinkers and frames of reference mentioned were almost entirely those of men, almost exclusively white. As this is still the dominant frame in a larger sense of social scientific knowledge, it is not surprising, but it’s also not an accident, not right and not helpful for building critical understandings of the world. From a feminist frame, for example, dichotomies betweeen individual and society, reason and emotion, self and other or theory and practice don’t even make sense and are themselves products of certain positions in social life. This doesn’t mean Mills ideas don’t work; only that we need to engage with them thoughtfully and in relation to others.

So at the moment, I am asking myself why I am thinking about the sociological imagination again, what it means to me now, how it might relate to notions of the radical imagination, what it could possibly mean to teach with or for it, for whom, and what it might offer to the work of the SSC.


I am trying to figure out how this works.

Having just spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to get the Sustaining Alternative Universities website organised and feeling increasingly anxious that the work I really want to be doing is not being done.

Now, to categorise…