Author Interview: Tomasz Szkudlarek

Author Interview: Tomasz Szkudlarek

Questions: Naomi Hodgson


Why did you decide to write On the Politics of Educational Theory?

It is difficult to answer this question. It was not a decision that I could localise in time; I have been interested in discourse studies, and thinking of educational theories as political, for a long time. This book just continues my interests and develops ideas that I have been teaching and writing about for years. And I have often used Ernesto Laclau’s theory, where the construction of identity is described as a rhetorical process, as a framework for such analyses.

But why analysing theory as political discourse?  It seems risky, and perhaps reluctance to read theory as discourse speaks to the ethos in which it is impartiality, conceptual clarity and logical rigour that matter. Reading theory as discourse means that it is read as text, not only through conceptual structures and logical arguments, but “as it is”, together with omissions, inconsistencies, paradoxes, saturated with rhetorical tropes and strategies. It seems that if we point to such features in theory, we do it usually to de-mask its weakness or ideological bias. In this book, however, I follow Laclau’s ontological understanding of discourse and I read such “weakness”, i.e. rhetorical elements of theory, as constitutive of their political significance.  Multifaceted connections between education and politics are inescapable, and this is one of the reasons why educational theories must deal with tensions, like that between individual autonomy and the construction of social order, and are therefore inevitably ambiguous, if not aporetic. This feature has been identified long ago, and it means that rhetorical devices are unavoidable to make such texts coherent and “readable”, to say nothing of making them persuasive and thus operational as well.

My general intention behind this book is to re-read such connections between education and politics as not only contaminating each of these discursive fields, and forcing theorists to resort to rhetoric where they cannot bridge conflicting forces conceptually, but as delimiting their territories, and thus as constitutive of their specific logics as well. And of course to read theories not only through their conceptual structures, but also via their rhetorical tropes and strategies. This is why I start with Rousseau, where the relations between education and politics as both ontologically indispensable and conceptually impossible are consciously addressed by the author. Rousseau is perfectly aware that he cannot build his argument without rhetoric, and that rhetoric is indispensable if his inventions are to be put in practice.

One more thing is important to note here: On the Politics of Educational Theory is part of a larger project (supported by Narodowe Centrum Nauki in Poland), in which this relation is investigated from the political side by Tony Carusi from Massey University. He analyses education policies in the same methodological framework in which I analyse theories, i.e. through the lens of Laclau’s theory of discourse, as well as through his own conception of tropes that I borrow for my analysis as well. Our common aim is to reconnect the educational and the political in one ontological framework, which in itself is an extremely exciting reason to write a book like this one.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

Apart from the general intention that I spoke about above, I had not listed aims of the book precisely before writing it. They developed gradually, in relation and in response to particular analyses. However, three general aims may be identified as persistent throughout this project. First, as I mentioned above, is re-reading education theory in a way that reveals its connection to political discourse, and more precisely to the construction of diverse historical “versions” of modernity. Second is to reveal the work of rhetoric in theory. Following Laclau, I am treating rhetoric not as a mere adornment of theoretical language, but as an important, performative aspect of its ontological functions. Why ontological? One of the answers I give to this question in the book can itself be read as an example of one of the ways rhetoric works in theory; how concepts turn to metaphors, or reveal their metaphoric roots, and how as metaphors they inspire further conceptualizations. In the book I remind readers that the term “theory” stems from a Greek word theoria (θεωρία), which relates to spectacle, or seeing. This coupling invites the understanding of theory as “organisation of visibility”, and this identification inspires the search for strategies of making certain objects and actions visible or invisible. If we recall Rancière’s notion of le partage du sensible, we can understand that such rhetorical strategies are of political and ontological importance, that they are constitutive of social structures and of exclusions that fix their borders. This is very close to how Laclau understands discourse. After I analyse the constructions of visibility/invisibility, the list expands and I speak of strategies of totality, temporality, of profanation and deification, and so on.

The third aim is to discuss Laclau’s theory (as well as, to a lesser extent, those by Rancière or Foucault) after the political in educational theories has been reconstructed in its light. In a way, this means that I return to those original theories (i.e. Laclau, Foucault, etc.) with effects they “produced” (with my hands) in the domain of the educational, and to see what modification such a return provokes in their original texts. In short, it is about making political theory “aware” of the pedagogical as – the way I see it – indispensable in their ontological claims. Even though we have known from Gramsci, or more recently from Giroux that one needs to see politics as operating via pedagogical means, it is still rare that we intervene into this connection with more detailed analyses, or with attempts at theorizing an overarching ontology in which such relations would not sound threatening, strange, or “just interesting”. 


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

As I said before, the idea of writing a book on politics of theory is old, older than my reconstructions of Laclau’s thought for education. For instance, I have been fascinated with Rousseau for a long time. His thought links the conceptualization of education to political issues in ways so complex that Rousseau cannot deal with it other than by means of being exceptionally vibrant with inventive rhetorical strategies. This is why I am using Rousseau to start the reconstruction of the basic tropes and strategies of “ontological rhetoric” in educational theory.

However, the search for connections between education, politics and rhetoric may be still older than my studies in Rousseau’s thought. When I studied education at the university, Poland was a non-democratic socialist state, and one could learn easily that the way we speak of education, the way we do social theory or philosophy are political. We read a lot of international literature written from various theoretical positions, quite a lot of such works were translated into Polish. Unlike most readers who ignored them, I often read editorial introductions to those translations. When a book was not written from a Marxist perspective (and the right Marxist perspective, to be precise), it always had an editor’s preface that explained why it was wrong. Interestingly, sometimes such introductions applied clever strategies to turn such explanations into quasi-religious, ritualistic invocations, at the same time hinting “between the lines” that the editor in fact supports the line of the author. In short, I was raised in a system in which theories mattered so much that they could be limited, censored, or banned and made absent, because of their possible performative effects: because of what they mightdo to the state based on a specific doctrine. I guess this might have been the first experience that made me interested in reading social theories as at the same time rhetorical and political, co-constitutive of social ontologies so fragile that they can be ruined by a text. No wonder I got fascinated with Laclau.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

Of course I hope that the book will broaden the understanding of educational discourse, and theory in particular, and that it will draw attention to how rhetoric is important in their operations. A more specific issue relates to one of the chapters which is devoted to the discussion on Ernesto Laclau’s theory and its impact on understanding education, which, importantly, includes a critique of his theory that points to how it could profit from addressing the role of education in creating “semantic repositories” for identity construction as part of its body.

The latter issue speaks to a long-held hope that theories of education are read not only by practically oriented pedagogues or the narrow circle of historians and philosophers of education. That they are studied as important for our understanding of politics, and of social ontology in general. I do not mean the typical repertoire of political expectations here, like how to teach the canon or educate for employability. I am speaking of ontological issues, of the precarious and never fully accomplishable constructions of society, of the role of rhetorical tropes and strategies in the process, and of the indispensable work of education in creating those rhetorical resources. Our approach—Tony’s and mine – is non-foundationalist: society is always “in the making”, its identity can only be fixed provisionally and only by rhetorical means (cf. Laclau’s empty signifiers), and education, aside from its functions related to socialization, vocational qualifications, or personal betterment, is a powerful cultural machinery productive of rhetorical devices and strategies indispensable in the creation of such fixations. In other words, if education creates conditions for political constructions of society, it is always excessive in such creations and its effects can be used for the construction of any society. We are speaking of non-foundational social ontology here.


What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

I do not expect a quick or massive response to this book. However, I do hope that it gradually attracts readers who are interested in meta-theoretical investigations in education, as well as those who are interested in discourse-analytical approaches where rhetorical tropes and strategies are read ontologically. I also believe that my work might be interesting to Laclau scholars – the book is not “just pedagogical”, but it presents education as an indispensable element of the political that is too rarely taken seriously by political scholars.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

As I have mentioned, On the Politics of Educational Theory is part of a broader, collaborative project where theory and policy are read through the lens of what we call “ontological rhetoric”. I am still engaged in this project, and other publications on this topic – including those co-authored with Tony Carusi – will very likely follow soon. Another project concerns the question of instrumentality and non-instrumentality in education. Obviously, it is related to the question of non-foundational ontology, which I have mentioned above. If we think education is instrumental in relation to society, what does it mean when we say that society is “ontologically impossible, but politically necessary”, as Laclau liked to abbreviate his theoretical position? We are engaged in two special issues of international journals, one edited by Carusi and one by myself, that are being prepared on this topic now – of course addressed from various perspectives, not only one inspired by Laclau.

And I hope that I still have time to do more about arts. Writing about arts, as well as painting, for instance  – when done as interruption, or free time activity–  is a particular experience of being “taken” by the object; you simply do not do it if such an overwhelming submersion has not occurred. One feels attracted, guided and limited by the object at once; it almost feels physical, like diving or mountaineering. In a way, its effects come back, perhaps as certain readiness to see things and their background together, or to accept that one’s own writing modifies things while representing them, when one returns to more “serious” academic work.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

This, again, seems a rather difficult question and I am tempted to say “I do not know”. Perhaps because in the continental tradition, in which I have been educated, it is difficult to draw a line between philosophy of education and educational theory. Or, in other words, philosophy of education has traditionally been an integral part of what we call pedagogika in Polish (a direct translation of the German pädagogik). That way of doing philosophy of education was very far from the non-foundationalist perspective of which I am speaking now. On the contrary, it was meant to be thefoundation for educational theory and practice – like in the classic book by Herbart, where it was ethics that defined aims of education; the whole structure of theory, with its practical implications, was deduced from those aims. On the other, non-foundational side, we have other things to do philosophically. To call them “critical” or deconstructive would be banal perhaps, but if we take those terms seriously, I could agree to use them here.

What I am trying to say could be, perhaps, rendered in a mix of Laclau’s and Rancière’s languages, where there are ontological and ontic layers of the social. The first one speaks of the processual, of the never accomplished desire to “have” society, to fix its nature in an identity that would bring us peace and order, “a fully reconciled society”, as Laclau says. Rancière calls this process – this impossible desire that we must be trying to fulfil – politics. In Laclau’s terms, it manifests itself as an “always failed totality” that can be only be fixed when our demands of fullness are invested into empty signifiers. Rhetorically and provisionally, in other terms. The other, ontic layer, speaks not of impossibility, but of those temporary closures, or crystallizations of the social, with their institutionalization of conflicting desires, their normative rules, borders, distributions of the visible and invisible, etc. – Rancière calls this police. Perhaps philosophy is still here because, as long as the ontic is “all there is”, as says Laclau, it is good to know that “what there is” is not there for good. It is good to know that it is but a temporal fixation, and that we have the right to know that it is precarious. Perhaps philosophy of education is still here – in the perspective that I am trying to sketch now – that it is good to know that whatever aims and measures are imposed on us by “police orders” that work hard to make their appearance permanent and invisible as appearance, education is not confined by any police; that it is excessive to any expectations and obligations and that whatever closures are being worked for, it will accidentally open to the flow behind them. Philosophy of education, in this perspective, would have to do two things. First is to reveal how fixation (identity, police, crystallization) is produced rhetorically as at the same time pedagogical and political closure. Second, to point to change, or indeterminate flow that is more permanent than whatever appears immovable. I think this negative work is nowadays important. Too many things have been made solid and presented as impossible to change, and the effects of their persistence are too horrifying to let us sleep well. Solidity of social constructions, instead of bringing peace and order, made us impotent and passively dumb in face of global catastrophe-to-come. We definitely need change, globally, and the first thing to learn for thinking change as possible is to “liquidate” solidity.

In a way, we are still in the old game between episteme and doxa. Only that episteme points to negativity now, to the non-existence of the permanent – or to the acceptance that what is permanent is contingency and change. At least this seems to be the episteme of today.