13 SES 12 A, Political Politics, Biopolitics, and Dewey’s Pragmatism
In recent research within educational philosophy, the public/private aspects of teaching have been discussed. For example, Masschelein and Simon have argued in defence of the public school, and Bergdahl and Langmann have discussed how teaching can be regarded as a public as well as a private space. In this paper I will further discuss the common and shared world in teaching and in education by examining how different bodies as well as objects inhabit educational situations differently. I will do so both normatively and critically, and more specifically, by discussing the concept of profanation in relation to biopolitics, drawing on Giorgio Agamben.
The term “profanation” comes from religious language, in which one can be said to profane that which is sacred. Profanation means to treat something (or someone) as worldly and as something “that can be played with”. It is an act that separates the thing from its context and makes it free. For Agamben, this concept has religious implications but it also has implications for how to understand politics, capitalism and consumption, and it has something to say in relation to education. Through the act of profanation, that which is sacred becomes useable. For example, in the act of sacrifice there will be a part of the flesh that becomes free – free to use and free to eat. There is a line between using and profaning, Agamben writes. For example, one can regard a profane time or a profane thing as decoupled from its otherwise normal use. It is made available to those who would otherwise not usually have access to the thing. Profanation has a function in religious life, but as Agamben shows, it also has meaning in relation to such diverse topics as play, museums, and – Agamben’s area of interest – to (bio)politics. The connection is made by how profanation should be understood in relation to the common, to the public. Agamben reminds us how it was through the act of profanation that the “free man” in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds got access to that which was considered to be sacred. It was made free and available to be played with. Here, profanation and the common intersect, and this is where education also has a role. For example in how Masschelein and Simons write that the idea of the school is based on the idea of free time, which is the most common translation of the word Schole, namely, free time to study and to practise. It is in relation to this free separated time that the act of profanation also has a function. It is in this separated time that students, through the act of profanation, make objects and things available and public. They write that the idea of profanation stands in relation to what it means to make something available, to make it a public or common good, in teaching. The idea of profanation and the understanding of use stand in relation to the public school, and also to the idea of teaching. That is, how “to put something on the table”, in front of our gaze, our hearing and our hands, can be regarded as something central for teaching.
The act of profanation, has implications for the understanding of the common as well as for how objects that are “put on the table” can be regarded in teaching. These implications have educational possibilities, but – and this is the question that I will come back to throughout the article – how can the act of profanation in teaching be understood in relation to education as a part of the political, of biopolitics, and to social injustice and to representations of suffering? To answer this, I will make feminist readings of these concepts of profanation in relation to biopolitics and teaching, drawing on works by Giorgio Agamben, Sara Ahmed, Ken Chen and Alexander G. Weheliye, who have done some important work towards understanding power relations, biopolitics and social injustice. In the paper I will first introduce the term “profanation” and discuss it in relation to education and biopolitics and then come to some core questions where I no longer think the act of profanation is possible – or rather, I question it in relation to ideas of what it means to inhabit a place in the common and in relation to social justice. At the end of the article I will develop my critique by taking two different paths, first, referring to Weheliye’s black feminsim and critique of biopolitics, and second, referring to Chen and Ahmed’s understanding of poetry and representations of violence and suffering, as well as different ways to encounter these kinds of representations of suffering, through a reading that also include oneself. The article discusses the act of representing something (an object, a historical event, an educational matter or a text/picture in teaching) and, as well, it reflects on how bodies with flesh, bones and emotions – that is, students and teachers – take their place in educational institutions. At the end of the paper I will come back to what the act of profanation and what inhabiting a place in the public can include.
Through Ahmed I learn how there are other ways to encounter stories of suffering than through the idea that they can be used – or misused. Rather, the reading or the encounter of injustice can include knowledge of how I am in it, a part of it, of history, and at the same time, not ‘not’ in it. The reading, Ahmed writes, is not about her feelings, or about her, or how she can use it. Rather, the knowledge of this history is a form of involvement which is not easy or obvious knowledge, rather the opposite, since it also includes knowledge about oneself and one’s own history. These encounters, readings of representations of suffering, can also be a part of what it means to inhabit the public. Regarding the act of profanation through this lens, dealing with questions of social injustice, racism and representations of suffering, as with the examples that I in the paper have discussed (for example Brown’s autopsy protocol which was made in to conceptual poetry, and as with Fiona’s testimony and Ahmed’s reading of it), puts the understanding of use in another light. It puts it in a more ethical as well as political light. Educational institutions are a part of shaping students into social beings. Through the understanding of education in connection to biopolitics, I argue that bodies (with their different aspects of social class, gender, sexuality, ability, emotions and affects) do not exist beyond their own bodies, but through them and, perhaps, because of their own bodies. They do not enter school and teaching beyond the sociological, economic, familial and culture-related rules but rather live them, from within.
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 1998). Giorgio Agamben, Profanations (New York: Zone Books, 2007). Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004); Lovisa Bergdahl and Elisabet Langmann, “‘Where Are You?’ Giving Voice to the Teacher by Reclaiming the Private/Public Distinction,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 51, no. 2 (May 1, 2017): 461–75, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12244. Ken Chen, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show,” Asian American Writers’ Workshop, 2015, http://aaww.org/authenticity-obsession/. Jan Masschelein & Maarten Simons, In Defence of the School: A Public Issue Jan Masschelein & Maarten Simons, In Defence of the School: A Public Issue (Leuven: E-ducation, Culture & Society Publisher, 2013) Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus : Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham; Duke University Press, 2014);
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