Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pedagogical Error: Autonomous U

This is a talk on pedagogy given on March 13th in Olympia, WA to David Wolach’s students at Evergreen State College.

Epigraph for the talk is a software error that occurred this week. Not easily debugged -- and the user couldn’t tell me what action led to the poetry:

Error: The object invoked has disconnected from its clients.

To begin I’ll read from a draft statement from about seven years ago, a project I was working on with Diana George and Nic Veroli of the Seattle Research Institute (“SRI”). SRI published a couple of interesting anthologies of writing, including Politics without the State; and Experimental Theology.

It’s a project called Autonomous University – or alternatively University in Exile. Unfortunately it failed to launch – the energy or timing wasn’t quite right. And shortly after this, SRI stopped doing things after Nic and then Diana left Seattle.

For me, it is still a good idea. It still needs to happen, though maybe with a different name. Last week in Mexico City at Colegio de San Ildefonso, I stumbled upon a plaque that said in effect that this beautiful building with many art galleries and Orozco murals was part of the National Autonomous University – founded in 1910 -- probably an attempt to be autonomous from the Roman Catholic church. It’s now about 7 or 8 times as big as University of Washington with more than 200K students.


The Autonomous University is a university without professors. It's an alternative institution for intellectual, political, and aesthetic reflection. Research inquiries at the Autonomous University usually begin as moderated discussion groups or reading groups focused on a particular problematic. These groups may aim for a public presentation of their results in public roundtables, dialogues, lectures, books, pamphlets, and/or

artistic works.

The Autonomous University ("AU") does not grant degrees or certificates, and never will. The Autonomous University has deserted the degree-granting institution, with its careerism, its bureaucratically defined disciplines, its publish-or-perish mode of production. Nor is the Autonomous University a place for the usual practical instruction or hobby instruction or edutainment of the hobbyist. The AU wants to give you a hammer with which to think, not a pillow.

The Autonomous University promotes:

Experimentation: the point is not to master a body of knowledge, but to pose new questions. Connections rather than maps, concepts rather than doctrines.

Collective production: not solitary genius but collective intelligence. What is produced is not always a book, an essay, or a lecture. The groups primarily produce reflection, a kind of fluid yet focused discourse that is hopefully as unpredictable as it is exciting. A moderator or moderators keep the group focused, but all members are fully active in determining the direction of thought.

New assemblages, both social and textual: what can a text do, what machines are operating in it? What kind of things can a group become, what can it invent when set in motion in this context? Ideas, too, are material things.

Immanence rather than transcendence: the European/American university course is founded on a master or a father. Without this transcendent founding figure, we're free to form a band or bands, a series of groupuscules, a fluid and changing crowd.

Affirmation rather than endless negativity: enough of the impossible, the unpresentable, the lack, the end, the nothing, death. Enough sad scholars. We want a knowledge that speaks to the power of life.

Constituent power/communism: Above all, Autonomous University is committed to collective self-activity in the broadest possible sense. AU is collective activity in motion.

Autonomous University opposes all the foundational institutions, including its own institutionalization. of capitalism: private property, racial hierarchy, patriarchy, prisons, states, armies, and Autonomous markets can all go to hell.

Someone wisely said that you shouldn’t allow school to interfere with education – in finding our own way. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, what’s of interest is creation not rectification. Becoming – rather than some refinement of being.

Perhaps the statement reads a bit too much like a manifesto, but it still largely agrees with me. To a certain extent there’s an idealism behind it that might have had something to do with its failure to launch. My perception – perhaps wrong – was that there were political preconceptions about the form which the research groups would take, or perhaps the issue was merely differences of opinion regarding which communities to reach out to – for seeding the initial groups.

To me, the idea is to foster collective thought – to demonstrate how collective thinking can make a difference – how we can become other than we are. Encouraging the risk - the unique risk that each participant has to bring into the collective “meeting & mutation.”

Today, I’d say that the functional purpose of AU would be to empower a situation that forces participants to think and invent -- that is, it’s not about empowering the participants, rather to empower the situation. Simply put, AU’s function would be to provide an external structure, a venue for presentations, deadline, introductions etc that would induce collective thought and action.

As the last line of the statement says “Autonomous markets can all go to hell.” So it was clear that the A-word cuts both ways and has some problematic implications.

While in fact autonomy is the goal of creation, i.e., to create something that has a life of its own (in Greek it means “having its own laws”), once autonomy occurs, this initial event of constituting is difficult to keep from stultifying into hardened rules and norms.

And this “new living thing” can’t really be completely autonomous. It is always part of an ecology, upon which it depends.

The University or universal is all one, and in that sense impractical -- how can a problem matter for everyone? Universal notions usually do everything to destroy anything that challenges their authority. It sets up a world view or model, in the faith that the Truth will set us free -- while it denies the validity of other theories and practices outside its own practice or discipline. Constituting rules is ok -- but these harden into stolid rules and norms.

I lot of my remarks are influenced by Isabelle Stengers, who I’ve been reading lately, and how her ideas about an ecology of practices relate to these pedagogical questions.

Stengers is against the capital-T Truth I just mentioned. She says: “what is true is what succeeds in producing a communication between diverging parties -- without anything in common being discovered or advanced.”

Stengers has a reputation of a philosopher of science (having worked with Ilya Prigogine - a Nobel prize winning physicist/chemical engineer). She lives in Belgium, and was influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, and more recently Whitehead, on whom she’s written a massive book that has not yet been translated into English.

One key to ecological thinking is that coherence is not logical -- it is eco-logical, always in relation to its environs. “We are not alone in the world,” says Stengers. Thus we can never be fully autonomous. The new creation is a sort of hinge picture -- it has its own life and is in and of the world. I should note that “coherence” was really Whitehead’s problem. He was trying to find coherence in the incoherent so-called “modern” world.

Here’s an overview of a symposium on Stengers from something that happened in Australia in 2003. Probably written by Brian Massumi, another wonderful philosopher, whose book Parables of the Virtual is well worth reading.

Bruno Latour has argued that the world is populated by “hybrid objects” [-- objects] at the hinge between nature and culture. Rather than policing that old humanist divide [ie, between human culture and nature], re-purifying those tired generalities, [Latour] suggests fashioning concepts and pragmatic procedures respectful of the singularity of each such intersection [that is, respectful of these hybrid individuals -- not negatively criticizing or tearing down] -- understood as a collective form of life…

Isabelle Stengers takes this perspective a step further, suggesting that there is a politics of respect for collective forms of life: a political ecology based on an ethics of intersection. Its concern would not be to judge or to discipline but to foster and to challenge. To foster the maximum expression of each form’s singularity; and to challenge that expression to expose itself to others, accepting the risk of being fundamentally changed by the encounter. Meeting and mutation.

Mutual, asymmetrical capture, guaranteeing nothing, authorizing nothing, incapable of being stabilized by any manner of constraint, and by which both sides are subjected to the “frightening” test of the third term: “We are not alone in the world.” -Stengers

The third term, between one and each other: cohabitation; relation. A political ecology would be a social technology of belonging, assuming coexistence and co-becoming as the habitat of practices…

OK so I’m going to eventually get to how this connects or doesn’t connect to my own writing practice. I want to find things that make me think, or that intensify my capacity to affect or be affected. To figure out how I’m attached and obligated to the practice of writing and whatever else it is that I do.

A couple more things from Stengers directly on pedagogy. She says that wars are pedagogical operations – enforcing peace. Teaching how to behave. Teaching an ethos.

She talks about thought as a collective stammering. Thinking is never divorced from feeling. Thinking and feeling require each other – there has to be a lure, a bit of romance. If one knows what one thinks, there might be a problem. If you know your opinions, do you own them or do they own you.

I figure it’s much better to be forming opinions rather than to simply have them.

We have to remember to acknowledge that feeling is the basis of experience. Aesthetics precedes ethics. What is it to not know what you think? Maybe that’s a process that can’t be too fast. We need to learn to hesitate.

If after Stengers, the goal is to “wake us from our torpor” -- to begin to experience and take small steps, then to adopt Whiteheadian terms, one needs an appetite towards a difference. This would be the germ of free imagination.

Question: what’s the difference between continuity and creation?

The political implication that pulls me to this question is trying to imagine how capitalism could end. For this to occur, it would need to become other than it is, that is it’s clearly mastered continuity, and seems to thrive on antagonism, almost obsessively in need of opposition to feed itself.

It seems impossible to imagine anything "crushing" or "smashing" capitalism -- short of an apocalypse. In a poem that I’ll read, Diseconomy of Scale, I was thinking about how it can fall under it’s own massive weight. But as we’ve recently seen, the notion of “too big to fail” was invented to prevent this.

For real change to occur -- becoming other -- there needs to be an exposure, a risk. And one hopes for an event -- a meeting where mutation may occur.

There are different theories of how change happens. Some have more of an appetite for self-preservation or continuity than others. [This follows a discussion in Steve Shaviro’s brilliant Without Criteria.]

1. Autopoiesis. Like automatic writing or a kind of a self-replicating mindless virus.

2. Conatus. This is Spinoza’s idea of striving to persist in being– equilibrium is what must be maintained. “Each thing in so far that it is itself, endeavors to persist…” This striving is the essence, the basic principle of conatus.

In the realm of continuity, innovation can only occur when one is absolutely compelled. It’s like the US Congress. One affects and is affected, a dual or doubled movement. For both Nietzsche and Spinoza, power is the capacity to be affected and to affect.

Perhaps the problem is how to imagine a self-organization that is not self-preservative, self-reproductive, that is not merely emerging?

‘Becoming other’ more closely resembles:

3. Individuation. Gilbert Simonden’s notion of a continual reconstitution via actualization of potentials.

4. Concrescence. Whiteheads notion where an entity constitutes itself as something new -- re-combining elements from pre-existing entities.

Yet another tangential perspective on these differences relates to a basic problem of philosophy. How to explain the existence of mind or mentality or inwardness, without which we would have no inner experience? Why this is important is that it is close to the notion of the autonomous life, at least human life. Must life that is self-constituting, that makes its own laws, have an element of mentality?

If you reject the Cartesian mind/body split as I do (I think they’re co-extensive), and if you don’t accept a divine explanation, then you’re looking for a realist one.

Shaviro outlines three possible realist (and secular) ways to address the issue

a) Eliminativist position. There is no free will -- it's all in the neuropaths. It’s a pure autopoiesis. We’re just automatons living under the illusion that we’re making decisions. The free will that we think we have is an illusion.

b) Emergent explanation – where we look for asymmetrical surprises. Shit does happen, doesn't it? This is clearly the normative position. And it is interesting and provocative that this self-organizing ideal is so important to both neo-liberal capitalism and left wing political activists, including anarchists.

c) Pan-Psychism. This involves the idea that all living things are mental (in part). It’s not anthropocentric. All living things have a mental pole and a physical pole. Against the eliminativists, it insists that mental objects are real. Against the emergent position, “mentality doesn’t just come into being out of nothing; it is always already there, no matter where you look.”

This mentality is a feature – not a bug that inadvertently emerged. Mentality is transhistoric. And it is co-extensive with physicality -- not separate. Mentality is decisional in the way that bacteria make decisions -- that is, way below the threshold of cognition or consciousness. There is a vast realm of feeling that we do not and cannot understand.

Sorry if that’s gone far a field. Without tying this into any neat conclusions, I’ll abruptly return to how poetry might be discussed vis-à-vis Stenger’s notion of ecology of practices.

Poetry seems like the obverse of science.

Science demands answers that can be detached from human interests -- that are not artifacts of the experimental apparatus. But poetry demands answers that are attached to human interests. That is, poetry is attached to human interests and its practitioners attempt to create alluring artifacts.

I recently wront a bit about an essay of Robert Kelly’s where he talks about listening out loud to his own incomprehensibility -- as a definition of poetry. “The incomprehensible is the only thing that makes sense. That is, it creates sense -- the sense of something happening to you as you read.” This is sort of the poetic muse. Kelly says provocatively: “Most poets are too smart to believe in their own intelligence.”

This is very seductive to me.

But about a week ago I found a short statement of Stengers that suggests that maybe it’s not going nearly far enough.

"It is much more comfortable to produce deep, beautiful meditations about an author not being an author of what he or she writes than reaching this point of nonstyle when you simply affirm that writing is not a spontaneous activity of human goodwill but puts the writer in debt to what makes him or her write." (Stengers, Last Enigmatic Message, 64)

One can easily imagine someone repurposing this for a manifesto for conceptual poetry and/or flarf. I’m afraid most poetry may not be up to this point of non-style.

Elsewhere Stengers says that what makes us human is NOT ours. What makes us human is the relation we are able to entertain with something that is not our creation. That’s a speculative definition of the human v non-human distinction. Stengers asks what the role of the non-human is in politics. This is also an interesting question for poetry.