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Pedagogy and Foucault's 'Limit Experience'

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Pedagogy and Foucault's 'Limit Experience'
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  Education and/or Displacement?A Pedagogical Inquiry intoFoucault’s ‘Limit-Experience’ C   T  Department of Educational Science, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg  Abstract This paper is concerned with the educational-philosophical implications of Michel Foucault’swork: It poses the question whether Michel Foucault’s remarks surrounding ‘limit-experience’ can be placed in an educational context and provide an alternative view regarding therelationship that we maintain to ourselves. As a first step, the significance of ‘limit-experience’ for Foucault’s historicophilosophical investigations, his ‘critical ontology of the present’, is examined. Far from being an external marking point, it can be shown that limit-experience lies at the centre of Foucault’s approaches to the history of thought. As asecond step, the resistance of Foucault’s work against its integration into the educational realm is examined: Coming from Foucault’s ‘limit-experience’, it is possible to problematizea specific way we speak about learning and education. As a subsequent step, this resistanceis given a constructive turn: The practices of writing and reading (related to limit-experience) could provide a valuable irritation for philosophers of education by exposing them to the challenges of ‘singularity’ in education. It is argued that specifically the writing  practice could be helpful for educational studies in order to inquire into the complexrelationship of subject, power, and truth within the educational realm. Finally, the possibilities and difficulties of provoking such a writing practice are mentioned. Keywords: experience, Michel Foucault, pedagogical critique, writing asdesubjectivation, singularityIn his interview with Ducio Trombadori, Michel Foucault claims that what he issaying ‘has no objective value’ (Foucault, 2000, p. 257). Foucault is eager to pointout that his writings are not oriented toward the location of truth or a tenableaccount of the issues treated—they do not call for an author who takes respons-ibility with respect to the proposed theses. Instead of a vigorous engagement withthe validity and legitimacy of his findings, Foucault interprets his efforts as stand-ing for the spirit of change; predominantly changing Foucault himself, but also thereader—in an unpredictable way: ‘I write a book only because I still don’t exactlyknow what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that thebook transforms me and transforms what I think’ (ibid., pp. 239–40). Foucault Educational Philosophy and Theory,Vol. 42, No. 3, 2010  doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00373.x © 2007 The Author Journal compilation © 2007 Philosophy of Education Society of AustralasiaPublished by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA  distinguishes the books that are based on this kind of writing from those belongingto a scientific setting, i.e. to a setting where one has to argue for a position, ischallenged by others and possibly even defeated. The latter writing is called a ‘truthbook or a demonstration book’ (ibid., p. 246). Books of this kind maintain aspecific relation to understanding in that the writer submits herself to determinedstandards in order to justify and constitute knowledge. In contrast, the so-called‘experience books’ come as somewhat of a surprise: Methods are applied that havenot been determined prior to the event of writing, while the objects of investigationare represented following a manifold of threads. Foucault utilizes the term ‘experi-ence’ because the books are to bring about something ‘that one comes out of transformed. If I had to write a book to communicate what I’m already thinkingbefore I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin’ (ibid., p. 239).Foucault reclaims an open and uncontrolled practice of writing that could bringabout new perspectives for the writer and the readers.Foucault’s reference to experience and change, his understanding of the practicesof writing and reading are of interest to educational research: for ‘learning’ bearsstrong connections to the concept of transformation. In learning, the learner gainsa new perspective on the world as well as on herself. Learning means change andtransformation in that it implies an experience that is singular, determinative andirrevocable for the learner. Walter Benjamin once described this insight as follows:‘Now I can walk, but no longer can I learn to walk’ (Benjamin, 1992). Learningbrings the individual in contact with a different view of the world, and it is impos-sible for the learner to go back to the viewpoint as it was maintained before. Giventhe fact that the history of the philosophy of education has often seen a strongconnection between the concepts of experience and learning, 1 it does not seemfarfetched to ask whether Foucault’s remarks surrounding ‘experience’ do have aneducational bearing.With this idea in mind, it does not come as a surprise that Foucault’s referenceto experience has been taken up from a perspective indebted to the philosophy of education. 2  Jan Masschelein (2006) has recently dealt with Foucault’s concept of experience seeking to clarify the ‘limits of governmentality’. In his article, Mass-chelein attempts to make out a path between the naïve and romantic affirmationof ‘experience’ and its dogmatic rejection. According to Masschelein, Foucault’sremarks on experience as limit-experience go together with a critical endeavour, an‘attitude of ex-position, which allows to hear and see (i.e. to experience) somethingother and in this way enables to liberate the gaze and the thoughts, so that theauthor (and the reader of these books) can see not only something other, but alsocan see and think differently and transform herself’ (Masschelein, 2006, p. 568).In this context, Masschelein comes to interpret limit-experiences in terms of an‘e-ducative practice’ (in the sense of leading out, ibid.). Limit-experiences, asproposed by Foucault, do not hint at a specific body of knowledge or a determinateset of ideas or competences. Rather, they have to do with a break away fromourselves, and therefore, a change in our relationship to ourselves. Reaching theborders of subjectivity, Masschelein states, we come in touch with the limits of thegovernmental regime. For Masschelein, these thoughts end with the question362  Christiane Thompson © 2007 The Author Journal compilation © 2007 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia  regarding the status of ‘experience’: Is it a purely negative category or does itreceive a positive value? Can it at all be transferred into a philosophical-educationalcontext, i.e. a classical truth book setting? (Masschelein, 2006, p. 573).Considering the present state of the discussion, a further investigation regardingthe relationship between Foucault’s concept of experience or ‘limit-experience,’ onthe one hand, and the educational realm or the educational category of learning,on the other, will have to deal with two tasks. Firstly, I think it is necessary toanalyze more closely the role that ‘limit-experience’ plays within Foucault’s work.Here, my statement is that, far from being only an external marking point forFoucault, ‘limit-experience’ is the necessary complement to his genealogical under-taking, i.e. to the specific historicophilosophical practice that Foucault undertakes.In the first part of my paper, I will, therefore, spell out this concept with referenceto what Foucault has called a ‘critical ontology of the present’ (Section 1). Thisintimate tie between ‘limit-experience’ and the ‘critical ontology of the present’ isimportant to us as philosophers of education because it allows us to demonstratethe  resistance  against the integration of Foucault’s thoughts into the philosophical-educational realm. In other words, coming from Foucault’s ‘critical ontology of thepresent,’ it seems possible to problematize a certain idea of education and learningas well as the way we speak about educational issues (Section 2).As a subsequent step, I would like to take up this resistance of Foucault’s workagainst educational theory by posing the question of whether the practices of writing and reading (related to limit-experience) might provide a  valuable irritation for us as philosophers of education and as teachers: In relation to the challengesthat  singularity  harbours for pedagogical thought and action, I would like to presenta different practice of writing within educational studies, a writing practice engagedin the complex relationship of subject, power, and truth within the educationalsetting and regarding our own engagement with theoretical frameworks (Section 3).Some preliminary remarks regarding the possibilities and difficulties of such awriting practice will be given. 1. ‘... Making Intelligible a Singular Positivity in that which is PreciselySingular’ 3 For a figure like Michel Foucault, it seems misplaced to offer an expression thatcould sum up his main idea or interest. Not only does Foucault present the devel-opment of his investigatory undertakings as an unpredictable and heterogeneousset of observations and findings; his point of departure is a radically historicalperspective, a perspective that calls into question the continuity of history througha sense-giving subject or (other) historically invariant structures. The significanceof this point for the human sciences is what Foucault attempts to bring to ourattention: It is, according to Foucault, impossible to determine finally humanbeings in their being, and therefore, it seems inadequate to encapsulate Foucault’swork in one phrase, such as that he is concerned with the ‘cultural invention of man’ or the impossibility of providing a ‘formula of genesis’ regarding man. Incontrast to a thinker like (the early) Heidegger who saw the essence of   Dasein  in Education and/or Displacement?  363 © 2007 The Author Journal compilation © 2007 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia  its existence (Heidegger, 1993, p. 42), Foucault distances himself from traditionalphilosophical categories even if they are said to  grasp  human being’s anthropological indeterminacy .Foucault goes one step further by clarifying what it is that motivates our con-ceptualizations of human being by engaging in an analysis regarding the historicalgenesis of these conceptualizations, be they scientifically motivated or not. Thegeneral leading question, here, is: How does knowledge (about man) becomeconstituted looking at it as an instant placed in historical and social contexts?Foucault puts the philosophical coherence of the human sciences and their knowl-edge regarding ourselves into a different light when locating the  contingency  of theirhistorical appearance: Human being as the subject and object of knowledge is e.g.a structure of experience that only emerged at the beginning of the 19th century(Foucault, 1994). The depth of this finding lies in the density of the given material,and is hardly appreciated when recapitulated in a general statement.However, in later interviews, Foucault himself generally characterized his histori-cophilosophical work as being concerned with the three axes of truth, power, andthe subject as well as their relation to one another (Foucault, 1990, pp. 51–2). Thethree axes intertwine and outline archaeological-genealogical projects. The archae-ology attempts to make knowledge graspable on the grounds of the structures andrules within discourses: Foucault once determined the archaeologist as an ethnol-ogist of the own culture in that she regards culture as something unfamiliar andstrange, and thereby starts to explicate the contingent but historically constitutivefactors of our experience (Foucault, 1981). In so doing, the borders of what weregard as ‘true’ are laid out.The archaeological analyses of the structure of discourses in their continuity anddiscontinuity, their manifestation as well as their ambivalences remained in a senseabstract because they refrained from the societal situatedness of discourses, andtreated their objects as merely historical appearances. Therefore, the archaeologypoints beyond itself: It suggests the question regarding the social structures inwhich knowledge is manufactured, thought to be valid and relevant. The conceptof power is thought to make this very strategic network accessible. 4 However,Foucault does not speak in the name of truth and modern science but—taking upNietzsche’s concept of ‘genealogy’ (Foucault, 1987)—intends to make visiblemultiple lines and networks regarding the relation of knowledge and power, e.g.the disciplinary formation of the self-observing and responsible individual(Foucault, 1977).Thus, the historicophilosophical procedure suggested by Foucault is concernedwith the positivity of knowledge elements and their relation to specific socialpractices:What one seeks then is not to know what is true or false, justified or notjustified, real or illusory, scientific or ideological, legitimate or abusive.One seeks to know what are the ties, what are the connections that can bemarked between mechanisms of coercion and elements of knowledge,what games of dismissal and support are developed from the one to the364  Christiane Thompson © 2007 The Author Journal compilation © 2007 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia

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