Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Theory, Duende, Popular Education

(Written for the participants in Popular Education for Social Change - Fall 2015)

Theory is a pattern that explains a pattern. And for this to happen there needs to be some observational and/or experimental data of the pattern that is being theorized. Thus a theory is an explanation of a pattern that is based on all the available and relevant data. This means that if new data emerges (as a result of further observation and/or experimentation or through a critical assessment of existing but overlooked or otherwise excluded data) that the theory must change - from being scrapped to being further developed, from being tweaked to being radically changed. Thus, implicit in all theory is that there is some uncertainty that is part of the mix. If your goal is to develop a “perfect” theory then this uncertainty might feel rather annoying, to say the least. But if we see theory as itself a process, then uncertainty can be seen as a structural part of theory, a structure that actually represents entry points for critical, dialogical engagement, points for growth and change. But theory, especially dominant theory, tends to have, as Jane Gallop points out in Anecdotal Theory (2002, Duke University Press, p. 15), a “considerable will to power" which makes admitting uncertainty anathema. But i think theory-making would be more awesome if we required every theory paper or book to end with the phrase, “Of course, i could be wrong.” I daresay that this is already implicit in all theory.

Something that does make more room for uncertainty is storytelling (or narrative or even fiction, if you prefer). The “explanations” that story/narrative provide are qualitatively different from those of theory. Though they yet have much in common. Jerome Bruner in Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1990), describes two modes of making meaning or, in Bruner’s terms, “forms of discourse and other modes of organizing experience” (p.43): narrative and logic (also referred to as "logical-scientific reality construction" and discussed in subsequent work - in The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Inquiry 18, 1991, p.4). Storytelling/narrative (and, more broadly, all art) makes room for various kinds of uncertainty and contradiction. Logic, by contrast, is based on a principle of non-contradiction. Storytelling/narrative incorporates contradiction and uses it almost as an engine or perhaps an energy source. Logic uses contradiction as well but seeks to eliminate it. Storytelling loves contradiction, logic, not so much.

So where does duende come into all this?

The short answer
Duende reminds us that the cool, rational, scientific understanding of the world is not the whole of the truth. It is a call to remember and reconnect with passion and suffering and meaning-making. Duende is a reminder that we find profoundly beautiful those things that come from suffering: “sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.” Duende calls us to ask why we are doing what we are doing? In this case, to wonder about the blend of the cool rational and the fiery revolutionary (and the temperate spiritual) that constitutes our interest in popular education. Is there duende in your interest in popular education? Will there be duende in whatever you choose to apply of what you learn about popular education? Duende implies danger. What is the danger for people involved in popular education who come from many different positions of privilege, power, and resistance? It is common to assert an ethic of care and respect for human rights and a desire for “safety” in group processes (check your privilege, safe space, step up-step back, trigger warnings and so on, are all contemporary common tropes). But even while such ethics are important, they also bear a contradiction when wanting to learn about dangerous matters for they are about mitigating and/or regulating risk. The question to consider is whether or not one can learn dangerous truths without risk. As William James suggests, “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to the next that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.” (The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy by William James, 1896, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co., p.59. Emphasis in original.)

The not so short answer
Popular education, you might say, saved my life.  More specifically, however, I should say that Pedagogy of the Oppressed saved my life. Popular education soon followed. I found Freire and, through him, popular education at a moment when both my heart and mind had been cracked open (what I would much later learn was a profound disruption to my participation in the reigning hegemony - think Neo, freed from his nightmarish vat in The Matrix, though not the hero he would become but the enslaved, slime-covered "citizen" he is at the start). Popular education and Pedagogy of the Oppressed seized first my heart, then my mind, and, eventually, my body when I chose to put it on the line during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Being a relentless seeker of explanations rational and non-rational I have always engaged theory in order to develop the capacity to "see/hear/feel" in the myriad ways available to human cognition.  I burned with passion to understand the suffering that shaped me as a child. To that I added burning passion to understand the suffering of the world and quickly along with that a burning passion to act on the suffering of the world. Poetry was both guide and solace. I turned to the poets of both suffering and joy: Neruda, Hikmet, Lorca, Mistral, Machado, Gibran, Tagore, Alice Walker, Carolyn Forché, and many more.

These artists were my life-saving companions when there were few around me who shared my passions and far too many who feared them. Thus fortified, I have spent 35 years (thus far) exploring, studying, practicing and theorizing popular education. And, along with the many things about popular education that I have learned, I have learned that it is a radical expression of the human will to emancipation, justice, compassion. I've also learned that there is a powerful and complex liberalizing (or domesticating or hegemonizing) force at work on it all the time. A common misinterpretation of popular education is that it is about nothing more than better (more fun, even goofy) group process. Accusations of being "touchy-feely" are common. Popular education is seen by the dominating consciousness as a non-serious form of education. Something condescendingly to use to include the traditionally excluded, an approach that is "easier" to relate to for people who are oppressed. But when it comes to making the kind of knowledge that could truly transform the world ... well ... popular education is too much about fun and not enough about work.

I have struggled to theorize against these misinterpretations. I have resisted what i see as domesticating pressures designed to ensure that not only does popular education not challenge the current hegemonic routines of our "democratic" capitalist world but that popular education be made to serve those routines. Such domesticating pressures are pernicious in that while there are the obvious opponents of popular education (and any radical pedagogies, for that matter) it is the not-so-obvious theorists and practitioners who are the key to understanding the complex and tricky processes of co-optation. One type of not-so-obvious actor is the theorist who seeks to demonstrate that popular education is most accurately described as a rational discourse and practice that grows out of the Enlightenment and modernist notions of social justice. Now that doesn't sound so bad, does it? Aren't those the very traditions that give rise to the modern welfare state, notions of individual liberty, and the codifying of things like universal human rights? Granted, this is certainly part of the truth. But to suggest that it is the whole of the truth - which some of the not-so-obvious actors do - is to put chains around popular education that keep it leashed to the current constellation of hegemonic routines (to apply gramscian thinking), or discursive practices (to use Foucault), or the reigning habitus and doxa (for you sociologists who might be Bourdieu fans).

I am fond of summarizing popular education as a praxis that is about resisting unjust uses of power. This is quippy and short and accurate, as far as it goes. But it leaves out a great deal, of course. I see popular education as emerging out of the same forces that created post-structural and post-colonial theory. And none of these are immune to being co-opted into the dominant hegemonic routines. Which is why it is crucial to create alliances across these domains of theory and praxis. Thus this modest course seeks to make a modest contribution. Better than my pithy one-liner about popular education, is Chela Sandoval’s case for what she calls a “methodology of the oppressed.” She is worth quoting at length. Her work

“demonstrates how so-called poststructuralist theory is de-colonizing in nature, prepared during a decolonizing Western cultural breach, developed by those with a stake in increasing that breach - Eastern empires, third world exiles, lesbian and gay theorists, the alienated, the marginalized, the disenfranchised: Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Fanon, Lorde, Goek-Lim, Lipsitz, Haraway, hooks, Moraga, Gunn Allen, Butler, Alarcón, Pérez-Torres, Yarbro-Bejarano, West, the list increases. It is imperative that we see their work in this de-colonial light - only then can we unsettle the apartheid that threatens vocabulary, language, connection, and hope under late-capitalist, postmodern, neocolonial, global systems of exchange.” (Methodology of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval, 2000, University of Minnesota Press, p.11)

Out of the “decolonizing Western cultural breach” that Sandoval names here, also came popular education. While scholars waged their struggles in the academy, down amongst the grassroots, people struggled also to make sense of the 20th Century world and some were able to do so through struggles to learn - sometimes basic literacy, or primary health care, or how to cope with homelessness, violence against women, racism, and so on. Popular education took shape out of these struggles but has gone largely ignored by the “stubborn apartheid of theoretical domains” (p.10) that Sandoval is challenging. There is a powerful intersection in the person and work of Paulo Freire whose name i would add to Sandoval’s impressive list. But Freire’s theoretical work seems to fail to inspire theorists to take up the pedagogical praxis of popular education which is also a direct outgrowth of Freire’s work. Thus i see a failure (or perhaps simply an as-yet-to-be-realized potential) for poststructural/postcolonial theory to radicalize popular education praxis (or perhaps just keep it radical) as well as popular education radicalizing how theory is made and taught. Thus i see in this next quote from Sandoval a virtual manifesto for popular education:

“Western colonial exploration opened up other world geopolitical regions, making available vastly different languages, cultures and riches for Western consumption.These new terrains of language possibility enflamed transformative scholarship by dominant philosophers whom we can perhaps no longer identify as “Western.” The twentieth-century season of de-coloniality thus was introjected inside the most solid ranks of Western being from where - during the century’s latter half - it was to emerge as passionate renunciation. It is important to discern how theorists such as Roland Barthes, Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault align with each other and in their desires to defy and remake the most traditional and sacred forms of Western thought and organization. But it is even more crucial to understand how their thinking also aligns  with that of de-colonial theorists such as Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Eldridge Cleaver, Gloria Anzalduá, Haunani-Kay Trask, Merle Woo, Donna Haraway, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Audre Lorde, thinkers who rose from myriad populations but who similarly survived conquest, colonization, and slavery in order to develop insurgent theories and methods for outlasting domination. Recognizing the alignments between these ideational forces becomes critical to the project of identifying citizen-subjects and collectivities able to negotiate the globalizing operations of the twenty-first century. There is a juncture where the thinking of these philosophers aligns, and from where a decolonizing theory and method accelerates.” (p.7)

Popular education is multivalent and therefore simultaneously a history, a pedagogy, a social movement, a toolkit, an anthology of stories and poems and songs, a discourse, and a dialogue. It is this last that, for me, makes popular education most radical. For as dialogue, popular education is forever an unfinished project, it is perpetually open to negotiation and change. And thus have i created space to put popular education in dialogue with numerous pedagogical and social change movements and discourses. Popular education's roots are in 20th Century revolutionary movements, first in Latin America, later in former Portuguese colonies in Africa, and, later still, in many other countries around the world. It was this revoutionary context that was picked up on by educators and activists in the United States and Canada. But "the revolutionary" was quickly quelled. Thus have i sought to keep those fires lit. As well as force popular education into dialogue with indigenous pedagogies, anti-colonial pedagogies, and more. Within such dialogue are negotiated and forged new practices and theories that may or may not call themselves popular education. But it is something new. It is praxis.

"All the arts are capable of duende,” writes Lorca. And thus popular education can be seen as not only including art that is inspired by (if not filled with) duende, it is an art itself. And thus can be influenced by duende, informed by duende, filled by duende.

Comparing how death is engaged by muse, angel, and duende, Lorca writes, “The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation."

Thus a popular education praxis that includes duende is one that knows and remembers that many lives have been lost to create the space for popular education (and allied practices) and that for many people who dare to embrace popular education it is a matter of life and death. Popular education knows always that there is the “possibility of death.” Which is part of why participants of popular education are the oppressed. But such a statement creates profound consternation for many people - oppressed and oppressors alike. People with a great amount of privilege but who are yet interested in engaging this knowledge (i’ve witnessed many people come to this knowledge through Pedagogy of the Oppressed) will agonize over where they fit in this formulation - some are offended at the implication that they are oppressors, others express concern and seek to fit themselves in the category of “oppressed.” Which leads to a dangerous - and false - political algebra: we are all oppressed and oppressors alike. The temptation to apply a liberalizing equal sign here is strong for some. Here we are trapped to some extent by language which renders this analysis of power-resistance-oppression with nouns when we should be using verbs: oppressing and resisting. Oppression/resistance is a dynamic process applied and reconstituted in every living moment. Sure, depending on the context (which, of course, is always shifting) we can be oppressed or oppressor (consider the Statistics Canada report released in January 2014 which reported that one-third of Canadians were victims of family violence where “family violence” had been, in my opinion, rather narrowly defined to include sexual abuse, physical abuse, or witnessing of sexual or physical abuse. I grant that one-third is a staggering number for such a phenomenon. But what of non-physical violence? I think it fair to extrapolate the data to include at least another third of Canadians who are survivors of various forms of non-physical violence. And i think one-third is conservative. Consider that the Canadian hegemonic status quo is built upon no less than 70% of our population being survivors of family violence. Too extreme for you? Not for me.).

But i think that regardless of context it is true that we are each always oppressing and resisting in various ways. This is much harder to talk about, much harder to capture for scholarly research. Some of the tools that do so are concepts such as “hidden transcripts” and “infrapolitics” (from James C. Scott’s work), horizontal (or lateral) violence, microaggression, foucauldian “discipline.” To answer questions such as “who is oppressed?” and “who is oppressor?” requires freezing a situation, putting boundaries around it, and even theorizing a situation.

Or, another way to think about that volatile combo of oppressor/oppressed and avoid the liberal equalizing of power is to consider the consequences of this dynamic: dehumanization. As Freire writes in Education for Critical Consciousnessdominator and dominated alike are reduced to things - the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by lack of it. And things cannot love."
(Continuum, 1973, pp. 10-11). In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire goes on to write: “Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress, it is the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle.” (p.47) It is important to be critical of what is meant by “dehumanize/humanize” and to resist the naive reproduction of a universalization of human existence at the expense of all other beings. Nonetheless, applying some combination of these various forms of thinking can give us insight in theory and action to change the world. Any conclusions drawn would be necessarily provisional and subject to change - even while some relations are relatively stable - i.e. changing only slowly.

The very trickiness of speaking/writing about this brings me back to duende and art more broadly.

We need art - and poetry, in particular, i feel - in order to engage these knowledges. We are all so deeply bound into the history of relations of oppressing and resisting that we should all be somewhat suspicious about the world(s) we imagine our revolutionary imaginations and praxis might bring into existence. If “suspicious” seems too strong, perhaps “humble” is a better description of the necessary disposition. But if part of our strategy of struggle is to include the uncertainty implied by humility then how do we imagine that future for which we are struggling. A clue, perhaps, is Lorca’s concluding thought: “Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things."

Popular education  - drawing on (or in alliance with?) duende - is about creating the conditions for these “freshly created things."