Ragged University as a Mode of Practice: Filter Bubbles and Distinguishing the Intellectual from the Political
The idea of education which I am examining in the model of Ragged University is in part an incidentalist one, in the meeting of the world. I am fiercely aware of the Filter Bubbles which structure our encounters with the world and others, particularly when we are acting in the digital realm which constitutes one of the main mediums of communication and organising.
Filter Bubbles, early on described by Eli Pariser, are situations where we only meet with ideas and opinions with which we already agree.
‘How does one escape the propensity to only associate with viewpoints of the world which we hold’ is one of the key questions which I examined when thinking about how to construct a means of learning and education which leads to complex understandings relevant in the world we encounter ?
Significant in this is a deep listening exercise whereby as a coordinator and a person at the centre of a process of self appropriated learning, organises events whereby everyone can share their thoughts, thinking and ideas to form the basis of various dialogues. In these dialogical spaces a relationship is discovered in the interpersonal whereby thoughts are compared and meanings discussed, such that through the interactions new thoughts might occur to all the parties.
The mechanism which was decided upon in organising social events was to allow everyone to speak based on aims to embody openness, eclecticism, agnosticism and friendly criticality. The notions of ‘quality control‘ and ‘authority‘ standardly rear their heads around anything which is of great import. These expressions have a great capacity to harbour various types of solipsistic managerialism.
Control, Power and Satire
A reading of quality control implies that there are standards which people must meet prior to being allowed to engage with a community of peers. Who is allowed to say what and make which meaning ? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is a famous Latin phrase which translates as “Who will guard the guards themselves?”
Originally popularised by the Roman poet Juvenal in his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–348); the satire was called The Decay of Feminine Virtue and there is debate over what he was sending up due to misogyny which seems perennial. Many have suggested it as arguing proofs of female immorality in an attempt to dissuade his friend from marriage…
… I am aware
of whatever counsels you old friends warn,
i.e. “throw the bolt and lock her in.” But who is going to guard the
guards themselves, who now keep silent the lapses of the loose
girl – paid off in the same coin? The common crime keeps its silence.
A prudent wife looks ahead and starts with them.
In her paper ‘Juvenal–Misogynist or Misogamist?’ (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 82 (1992), pp. 71-86), Susanna H. Braund argues that what we find is in fact a “poetic version of a standard rhetorical set-piece on the theme of whether or not a man should marry”. She brings together a number of evidences and thinkers which can be used to see the work as an example of satire utilising pretentious rhetorical display.
According to Braund it is typical of satire to examine issues in apparently black and white ways using as a comedy vehicle an extremist character making declamations before undermining them without taking sides. Juvenal’s protagonist in this satire is thus posed as a moralist however “is reduced from his lofty position by the attack upon his hubristic hypocrisy”.
Commonly, “Who guards the guards ?” has become used to reference the problem of controlling the actions of people in positions of power over others. Taking into mind the famous quote of John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”.
Acton wrote this in a dialogue with Mandell Creighton who was an Archbishop that objected to what he felt was a modern tendency to be unnecessarily critical of authority figures. Creighton took a position of moral relativism glossing over the corruption, abuse and indiscretion of previous pontiffs. Lord Acton took the view that there should be universal standards to which everyone is held.
In educational and intellectual terms there are significant dangers associated with the controling of who gets to take part in discussions and the creation of an exclusive and authorised elite. It considerably narrows both the stock of ideas on which we can collectively draw and develop from as well as creates power differentials which corrupt the aggrandised.
Humour has an important history to tell about the concept of authority. Aristotle’s work came to have great influence in the Western world. His philosophy and thinking was taken up and adapted by the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Medieval period. When in a later period they became available through translation the church became alarmed as then people were in a position to see both the influence this Greek outside of their tradition had on the Latin European world of the church as well as read the original sources to create their own thoughts. This troubled the institution as authorship could not be simply put down to what had established itself as a singular authority.
In his book The Name of The Rose, Eco develops a meta narrative on this struggle within the institution of the church with a focus on humour and censorship. According to Umberto Eco, the work most disturbing to the church was Aristotle’s writing on laughter and comedy. Originally it was a part of the work on poetics that was divided in two books – that which concerned drama and that which concerned comedy. The book which focused on comedy was deemed to be poisonous to the authority of the church and is reputed to have been suppressed having become lost to time as far as we know.
Aristotle’s work, through the qualities it holds, has shaped the way that we apprehend the world. Authority is often used in exclusive terms – terms where one perspective is set into a hierarchy of legitimacy in relation to others. It is a common habit of mind for people to immediately attempt to ascertain which is the best, the correct and/or the favoured when analysing something.
Aristotle argued that everything has a singular essence and it is through this essence we know things. This ‘essential’ way of perceiving the world has been given prominence for millennia considering how Aristotle’s work came to inform the philosophy of the western Judaeo-Christian Church and the societies guided by these ways of thinking.
A danger of this way of apprehending the world is that a monoculture of thought is formed through a series of processes designed to select out the singular forms of ‘truth’. Human cultures constantly codify, compare their encounters, and file thought into various categories and hierarchies. Whilst this is very helpful in many instances it carries with it significant limitations when phenomena, ideas and understandings are not mutually exclusive. This is a categorical way of organising knowledge precisely because the less agreed upon is discarded or left in omission.
The notion of a singular authority is implied in categorical statements. The notion that someone who has expertise (which commonly is writ as those who are paid in a public office) should preside over all incidences of discussion and analysis moves once again to the idea of a hierarchy of legitimacy rather than an open scheme of social exploration.
Drives for singular authority insist on binary appreciations of non-binary phenomena and as a result shift attention away from examining first principles to examining the popular status of the idea instead of the content.
Is this to mean that people who are not paid and in public office are not capable of understanding the issues ? No – we must actively resist the convenience of thinking in either/or terms but in ways which allow for plurality and discussion in that plurality. Any instatement of a totalitarian view of knowledge is dangerous due to the opportunities such views in action close down. There are a range of perspectives in Feminism, Post Colonial, LGBTQ and Pedagogy that appreciate that there is another view of knowledge which values the capacity of understandings which come from outside of a dominant regime of truth.
We must set up the cultural conditions where we can move beyond the competitive to the coalescent. We must cultivate the capacity to thinking and appreciate in non-aristotelian ways of valuing our experiences in the world. This perspective has been developed by thinkers like Alfred Korzybski in his theory of General Semantics and Robert Anton Wilson in his playful and satirical philosophy.
Not Everything is Political
There is a helpful perspective on the notion of authority expressed by Prof Mike Neary at the University of Lincoln. The subject is respected as the author of the learning which needs to be done, and as such, authority flows from the phenomena rather than a discrete person from which truth about the universe flows.
The teleological view that knowledge flows from exceptional elites down to the general population as received wisdom is a simplistic and colonial perspective which, on its own, is incorrect. It gives rise to a variety of problems due to prevention of deliberation of insight which comes from outside the ranks of people involved in agencial positions.
It is important to avoid a culture of exceptionalism which comes through specious understandings of such views of learning, capability and knowledge. Everyone has the capacity to tap into the authority of a subject by investing time in study and by seizing upon the opportunities which should be available to all to become an author of their own learning. I would argue that Albert Einstein understood this and that the figure of Socrates expressed this when he suggested ‘genius’ as a spirit which everyone has into which they can tap.
Putting everyone on equal terms in terms of their ability to author perspective and draw upon their collected thoughts to present in a community of peers is an essential posit of a deliberative and open process of education. Precluding these conversations and opportunities to take place creates a policy driven environment whereby the majority are excluded from the necessary opportunity to decipher the facts for themselves.
In this kind of precluded environment learning has thus shifted from the individual engaging and negotiating with multiple realities to form an understanding through skills of reasoning to one where people simply quote and re-quote press releases, statement of opinion (which lack any discrete reference to sources) and argument.
It is in this argumentative space, where after our attentions have been diverted from the agnostic process of seeking more information, that knowledge becomes political rather than referencial to something which encompasses and transcends the human experience. It has become an appeal to a crowd to elect what becomes ascribed the orthodoxy of truth over a repeated investigation of the thing itself.
Not everything is political – “relating to the government or public affairs of a country”. Polis, from which the word political is derived, references the city. We have the typical delineations of ‘Party Political’ and ‘Political with a Small p’. Whilst government is formed of collected organisations of individuals and helps with the coordination of living in large groups, there are things which pre-exist and exist beyond this human frame of reference.
Knowledge in terms of ‘The Subject as Author’ exists in this frame of reference; humans exist in a universe which is apolitical and carries on independently of human government or awareness. To place the whole of the universe within the frame of politics is no more sensible than placing the earth at the centre of the universe; there is of course something more happening – something beyond the political.
To move knowledge away from first principles of engagement is to politicise the scenario of learning and development of knowledge as it imposes a set of views on individuals and governs what they are allowed to do in their own intellectual space. It has become an pugilistic space which is involved in one set of individuals governing another via an ordering of status in the group.
This kind of argumentation formulates categorical heuristics (drawing on signifiers like qualifications, wealth, gender, race, power, sexuality) and creates a kind of consensus market which people use to make shorthand decisions on those people with whom they identify or not. Ingroups and outgroups are woven into a symbolic shorthand of an anaemic anthropocentric reality.
I am concerned with education and learning whereby ‘the state is removed from the social relation’ meaning that in a persons own life they individually develop the skills of critical thinking, analysis and their own ideas. This understanding came from conversation with Abdul Hafiz who is developing notions of ‘cultural action for freedom, self-help and collective forms of social provisioning of biological and social needs: housing, food, energy production, social caring and welfare needs in general’.
The view of knowledge and learning in the Ragged University context is one where we all have equity in our ability to invest in the common instruments of knowledge – those instruments available and accessible to everyone which are both necessary and sufficient for learning and human development.
Prior to the state is the independent and interpersonal space. It is prior and independent to the consensus markets of human populations, it prior to the policies which run in institutional spaces and it is independent of the sanction of the Grand Wazoo (even if they are correct and have a special hat); it is tied to a sensate, feeling, person with autonomous experiences.
What I feel is ultimately important in all this discussion is that the spaces of discussion are not closed down thus preventing people from the opportunity to exercise their own reason and hear formulations from other people.
The Societal and the Social
In societal terms we elect people to look after public goods and institutions which are there to provision everyone. Doctors and lawyers are forged, accountants and entrepreneurs, writers and engineers; all through application of their time and energy to understanding some complex phenomena so that their expertise – and in principal collected understandings – might be drawn on.
Now, the question is to ask whether only the people who are doctors and lawyers, pilots and geographers, are allowed to think about their subject area and form and test ideas in relation to what they encounter in the world. If we say yes, only doctors are allowed to speak about medicine, and outside of those professional spaces – the spaces paying people to do their jobs – there is a prohibition on talking about the subjects. This is an expression of a censored society.
This reinforces a society where people are hierarchically omitted from taking part in discussing ideas which affect them as an individual. I go to my doctor and say I have a stomach ache; the response of “take Stomach Medicine X and see me in two weeks” might take place. Now I might go away and visit the library. I might look up a well reputed text book to understand what is happening to my body – or the body of my partner. It is a natural reaction to try to understand and make sense of what is happening to us and to our world.
Through this process I might have identified that something – maybe hydrogenated fats – coincide with the heartburn which I suffer regularly from. I might read several peer reviewed papers published by independent teams from around the world, a collection of which suggest that saturated fats correlate with indigestion. I might consider that ‘Stomach Medicine X’ is not working to prevent the indigestion from happening but is good at dealing with the symptoms but not the cause.
Researching, collating, and bringing together an understanding of the medical issues is part of the rights, educational process and mode of learning which I have as a developing human being. I would suggest that by drawing on the conventions involved in scientific method I can be legitimately involved in the essential part of medicine which involves informed consent and a duty of candour.
Discussing differences of opinion with institutions which are set up with rigid hierarchies seems to be a problem of the way our culture is configured in a changing civilization. The way in which organisational practices configure collective provision neglects participatory ways of the co-development of special forms of knowledge.
Knowledge becomes thus colonized by professionality and by those who professionally practice in a given field. I use colonized in terms which refer to the notion that certain people are privileged in specific ways to think and do in a field. The problem comes when it is a mandate of exclusivity prohibiting anyone outside of a group from having involvement in the field; I would argue that it is not just an impoverishment imposed on people but also on the field of knowledge.
What are your thoughts ?