2021 February: Dwelling in the Unknown as a Day-to-day Matter of Course

My reading this month

Anomaline

The writing has curved itself finally down into an arc, a real story arc. This last third of the novel was the part I began to doubt if I would ever succeed in writing, but it turned out that the pact I made with myself over the Christmas holiday actually worked, and helped me regain a sense of joy in writing. Freewriting has helped banish some of the trepidations I’d usually feel around approaching the text, and it also brought into focus some of its most basic pleasures: the physical play of fingers across the keyboard, a mark of communion between myself and the nascent frontier of each new confrontation with narrative. This pact and daily practice was so successful that writing began to even feel quite speedy, in that I felt myself, after years of inertness, suddenly hurtling towards the final scene, a scene which in fact I had envisioned since the very beginning, I only struggled in getting to it. This was in part because I didn’t really know why it was to end that way, my attraction to it was due to its cinematic, panoramic beauty, but it had no particular narrative logic to it. If ever in doubt, I will probably choose to err on the side of beautiful imagery than narrative logic, but I do intend to make at least some sense of the ending scene for myself as I rework the whole thing.

I have spent this month awkwardly trying to shift gears from that speedy, exhilarating, hurtling-towards-the-end style of writing, which, in its preoccupation with uncharted territory, seemed to me to also be the scariest part of my journey; to a slower, more thoughtful kind of writing. I have had to come to terms with how to be satisfied with a day’s work in which little seems to have happened.

Technically, my aim this month has been to comb over the final 20, 000 words, roughly the last third of the novel, before going back and looking at it as a whole. This last third was written in this three-month period, since Christmas, and represents the part of the text which I feel most close to at the moment. So my aim has been to connect parts of this last third of the text where there are significant gaps, or to dwell on parts where there were conceptual problems to consider, but I tried to refrain from obsessing too much over details at this stage.

I have not yet finished with this ‘last third’ process, but when I do, I will go back and look at the novel as a whole, which is likely to cause me a bit of confusion because then I will be looking at bits of writing that have been written sporadically over a period of six years, writing which I am fond of but in which the style oscillates depending on the period in which the passage was written. It might be that these are things only I notice, so maybe it’s not worth getting too hung up on it either. In any case, once this stage of ‘combing’ has finished, my plan will be to try and pretend I am not the writer of this book, and read it once through without stopping, as a reader. If it makes sense, good! If it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll read it over as an editor and struggle my way through to some kind of resolution in the ordering of chapters, the connecting of dots, etc. My hope is to get the second draft, i.e. the most polished draft of the novel I am able to muster alone, by May.

Reading

I have neglected research in the form of reading, searching and learning over the past few months, in favour of an immersion in writing/practice. But in my leisure, I found myself picking up books lying around the flat and ended up reading two books on revolutionary praxis and critical pedagogy over the past month: the classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and the contemporary Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Learning by Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab. I am also currently reading the classic The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, which is the most stunning, in a literary sense, of the three, in addition to being socially and historically enlightening. I picked up these books mostly out of a curiosity that’s been developing in my pedagogy studies on the PG-Cert course. I caught ear of the phrase ‘critical pedagogy’ and some of its well-known proponents, to then start finding that some of the books my partner or I had bought recently happen to belong to this tradition. So I picked them up with the intention of doing some cursory browsing, but was surprised to find myself reading them all the way through quite quickly. I am not a very good reader in general, it takes me ages and usually I have to read aloud to steady my gaze on individual words. But I guess these books captured my attention, and drew my focus to the fact that teaching is always political, as is making art. It drew my attention to some of the ways my own artworks act politically, even if the final outcome or material intent behind them is often left intentionally ambiguous or open to speculation and further imagining.

Furthermore, these books lent me a sense of power and even optimism in a world where things don’t seem to be projecting to go that well at all for social justice and the health of the planet. It reminded me of the importance of doing education in a way that provides students with the tools to think critically about their everyday situation and challenge or shape the content of their own curriculum; and how learning is not taking place ‘outside’ of the theatre of life, but is actively embedded within the ongoing tumults of sociality and its material conditions. These books reminded me to practice critical thinking when I thought I was already practising it.

I think critical pedagogy is basically “educational mindfulness,” bound with a kind of rigour motivated by the aim of uprooting social habits, functions and systems that harm people, single entire groups out as inferior, or simply don’t work anymore because the historical moment is different. Promoting critical thinking as a cultural norm embeds a means of checking in with ourselves on matters of tradition and habit (of both thought and practice) which will just replicate themselves rampantly without reflection and maybe harm us without us even realising it. Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves covers some of Dawkins’ meme theory and reminds us that memes don’t exist out there for us, we exist for memes. Just as we exist as vehicles of replication for genes, memes (in the broader sense of “a unit of cultural inheritance”) hitchhike on us in the exact same way as viruses, and a successful meme is merely a meme which successfully replicates itself in many people, regardless of whether it’s good for people or not. So we need a kind of immune system against memes that end up damaging society, and that’s probably education, but only education harnessed in the service of making critical thinking and intellectual rigour available to all people, not education employed in the service of replicating the status quo. This is the difference between making education a memetic virus factory, or an immune system against malignant meme viruses – these are exact opposites. Sadly, the UK government’s decision in the past year to ban ‘extremist’ teaching content in England’s schools, including banning the use of materials from groups that ‘criticise capitalism’ in teaching, provides the literal basis for non-critical learning, and in turn renders education as merely a meme factory. Carpenter & Mojab stress this point and make an interesting case study on learning materials developed by governments to promote democracy (in the US and Iran), finding much to criticise in these materials.

I was really glad to read these books, and think it’s about time I read/learn/research more, not only within pedagogy, but also within areas relevant to my own research project, as I finalise my novel. My plan is to write in the mornings and read in the afternoons, as much as I can considering such a plan will be punctuated by my day job and other matters. But hopefully, with this dual commitment I can start building up a better understanding of the currents of thought in my field, as well as what my field actually is. At the same time, I will be slowly finalising my most ambitious practice-based project of the phd. That will put me in a good place to spend the rest of my phd picking up on some new threads of experimental performance that I started in my first year.

I am starting off my reading programme with Non-representational Methodologies ed. by Phillip Vannini, keen on trying to see if my performance experiments in character bear something of a resemblance to what could be meant by ‘non-representational methodology’. For example, my ‘acting’ in my performances might differ to traditional acting precisely on this point of ‘representation’; I am not representing anybody when I act, my performances are not portraits. Non-representational theory also has a connection with actor network theory which I don’t know anything about but which I’ve been advised to look at.

I am also going to be reading Hans Jorg Rheinberger on ‘experiment’ and also learning more about how to use the Open AI API. A while ago, I applied to be involved in the interdisciplinary community given access to experiment with the API, but have not enough knowledge yet to know what to do with it. Within machine learning/ AI I will also eventually want to learn more about ‘attractor landscapes’, particularly in theorising about what my character performance experiments might be “doing to me.”

Teaching

The ‘Reading’ section above already touches on my areas of interest within pedagogy. But in slowly thinking about developing a teaching/learning activity that I am being asked to design for the PG-Cert course, I only recently had an idea about what I would like to teach in this instance.

My attitude with regards to these PG-Cert tasks is to try to develop something I might really use, since I am already working on it for the course. It was really rewarding to have written a lecture as part of last year’s training, and then actually share the lecture with students at Wimbledon & Camberwell. In the design of that activity, I was trying to argue that a lecture need not take on the form of what Freire would call the ‘banking’ form of education, whereby knowledge is unidirectionally deposited on the student, who is expected to unreflectively and passively absorb it. The lecture is often criticised as having this old-fashioned educational mindset underpin it, but I have a very different experience with lectures (not all, of course, I mean to say that there are good lectures, lectures that do enable critical thinking in the listener). Not all listening is adequately described as ‘passive’. And with regards to art practice in particular, I actually felt throughout my own education that sometimes, retreating into the anonymous zone of the lecture theatre was a comfort, and having the space and time to take something in privately was refreshing in comparison to the studio where I spent most of my time, and where I was always on display and expected to explain or justify my work, which everyone could see, mid-progress, on my studio walls and desk. It’s great to share studio space and the sociality of it is enlivening, but it can also be quite exposing.

Anyway, this time I thought I’d try do the opposite, and think of a more interactive teaching/learning activity. I am being asked to incorporate technology/ online tools in the design of the activity, which might provide interesting formats for interactivity.

But the thing I want to teach, or the subject of the lesson in whatever form it takes, will I think be: “Dwelling in the Unknown as a Day-to-day Matter of Course”. I don’t recall anyone teaching me about the attitudinal possibilities of relating myself to my day to day work, when considering that an artist spends almost all their time in the space of something that is not yet realised, and is often not known in its entirety by the artist themselves. I am not yet sure of the details, but I am pretty sure that understanding one’s role as an artist as intrinsically linked with spending a lot of time in a state of not knowing, would be very useful, especially because it’s such an exceptional state of working that is also so fundamental to being an artist.

For one thing, one must learn how to bear being with something unknowable for extended periods of time. Then, how to go beyond bearing it, and making something not in spite of but because of that growing expertise in working within the space of not knowing. This, I am pretty sure, is a topic worth addressing in an arts education, and addressing deeply and in conjunction with the student’s own existing experience and expertise. The details of how to teach such a thing (that is, getting really good at not knowing and working within in that state for an extended time) is what I will try to figure out next, though I suspect that students will have their own contribution to that process already at the start, since they have come to the course not out of nowhere, but out of having already established a way of treating unknown things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s