Monday 12 November 2012

Body, Society and Learning: from Positivism to Negativity in educational theory

Sometimes I have to get a little bit drunk to absorb anything new, to think, to solve a problem. The bodily change brought on by a little alcohol (but not too much, because getting too drunk is no good either), somehow puts me in a state where I become more receptive... maybe less fearful. I've also noted that difficult texts are often best read sitting on the loo, or in the bath. It may be a similar mechanism. Certainly, I think the bowels are a fundamental component of our intellectual apparatus and unrepresented in the literature on learning. More importantly, unlike alcohol, bowel movements and learning is an association that goes back to early childhood.

Music can sometimes help in a similar way. Distraction in some ways can be emancipatory and entirely efficacious with regard to learning. Physical exertions in the form of playing the piano, from walking, wriggling, fiddling through to sexual behaviour and other forms of physical exuberance are so fundamental to the way we are, the way we learn. There's so much that's off-limits in the educational discourse. Not just because it's embarrassing (there are papers on music and physical activity and learning, but little on bowel movements or masturbation), but I suspect more deeply because we simply cannot explain it. These things do not fit our somewhat positivistic ideas about what learning might be.

I want to say something about what I believe positivism is. It is much misunderstood, particularly by constructivists and postmodernists who fail to see their own positivistic tendencies.

Positivism is about reducing the world to things that can be said to actually exist. Not necessarily just things which are identified through experiments (which is the conventional understanding of positivism), but asserting the existence of structures and mechanisms (eg. Social mechanisms), which are asserted to be actual. Positivism has no interest in anything other than the actual. Because of this reductionist and actualist focus, positivism lends itself to dogmatism.

Constructivism lends itself to positivism because it asserts the actual existence of mechanisms of construction, and articulates an ontology based on this. This is a totalising philosophy based on a mechanistic foundation.

The problem is that experience shows through the cracks in these explanations. It shows itself through things like the coincidence of sexual behaviour or bodily functions and cognition and learning. It shows itself through the apprehension of the transcendent, or the inflections of intuition. Actualised mechanisms may brush these aside as epiphenomena of individual (rarely social) biological processes, but somehow we always suspect that the sky is being untuned when pious mechanicism pours cold water over our passions.

What I believe this shows is that absence is real and causal. This is really a logical assertion, which I have little interest in proving other than by assuming it as an axiom and seeing what it does to our thinking. It is a bit like assuming the existence of negative numbers.

What does it show us?

In my work on Nigel Howard's theory (see I have suggested that our decision-making - within which we can consider the decisions that are made in learning processes - are dependent on what we don't think rather than what we do. It is absences that determine equilibrium points.

Fundamental to any learning is the identification of concepts. These, according to this theory, must be identified socially through a recognition of shared absence. This is because the game of thinking is inextricably linked to the game of communication. A new concept clarifies decision-making, but does so because it is efficacious in clarifying the decisions of the group with whom that concept is communicated. There are no private concepts, just as there is no private language. Thinking, not just learning, is social.

How is a walk, a bowel movement, physical exuberance, etc the identification of shared absence? Consider the composer who knows that their chord, the artist their blob of paint  or the poet their phrase is a question. That question draws attention to an absence which is real and apprehensible by more than just the artist. Indeed, the identification of it as a question is itself an identification of the anticipated reaction of others. That the anticipation is accurate is testified by the capacity of artistic endeavour to connect with an audience. That it does is the reason why we identify this as art.

In the same way, a bowel movement, a bit of alcohol, a walk or physical exuberance is also a question - a disruption to the equilibrium. The otherness of the body draws attention to the otherness of others' bodies. The otherness of the body and the otherness of others' bodies is shared. In this way, the physical life of the body may be a conduit to shared experience, the determination of absences, and the identification of new concepts. Body, society and thought can in this way become structured.

It is interesting to think that only a bit of alcohol and not too much is needed for thinking. Get too drunk and the capacity to coordinate any kind of reflexive process is impaired. Just drunk enough and the question can be asked, and the absence it raises identified. But it may not be the alcohol which does the trick here, but the gut...

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