Author Interview: Tyson E. Lewis

Tyson E. Lewis is Associate professor of art education in the Department of art education and art history, College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas. He is author of Education Out of Bounds: Reimagining Cultural Studies for a Posthuman Age (with Richard Kahn; New York: Palgrave, 2010) and The Aesthetics of Education: Theatre, Curiosity, and Politics in the Work of Jacques Ranciere and Paulo Freire (London: Continuum, 2012). Here, he discusses On Study: Giorgio Agamben and Educational Potentiality (New York: Routledge, 2013).


Why did you decide to write On Study: Giorgio Agamben and Educational Potentiality?

I decided to write the book as an intervention into current discourses and practices of learning and the attending emphasis on the quantification and maximization of outcomes.  Coming from a critical theory background, I found that the mechanization of education under the banner of learning was yet another example of the capitalization of human life for neo-liberal ends.  In light of the dominance of learning, I began to look for alternative educational logics that might de-emphasize how the student is constructed as a learner, how learning has become a taken-for-granted good, and how outcomes now seem to outweigh process in educational assessment.  It just so happened that while exploring various critiques of learning and what has been referred to as the ‘learning society’, I was reading the work of Italian critical theorist Giorgio Agamben.  It struck me that his interest in potentiality, pure means, profanation, and, most importantly, study, offered an alternative starting point for thinking education outside of learning.  My book therefore takes Agamben as a starting point for the development of a theory of study as an interruption and suspension of learning.

But the book is not simply an application of Agamben’s ideas either.  It is rather an elaboration and complexification of Agamben’s thought in light of pressing educational problems and concerns.  Indeed, the gambit of the book is that Agamben might very well allow us to begin to think through the basic building blocks of a new kind of philosophy of education, one that we might call potentialism


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

As a researcher, teacher, and scholar, I am continually dismayed by the course of education toward ever increasing levels of standardization, systemization, and optimization of performance outcomes in the name of human capital development.  The complex rhythms of study, which I think are necessary to the life of the scholar, seem to be marginalized by the maxims that now dominate our lives: ‘publish or perish’, ‘the only good dissertation is a done dissertation’, and so on.  Given the need to perform to meet the accelerated pressures of the academic job market, students lose the opportunity to experience their potentiality as such – potentiality that prefers not to abide by the rules of the neo-liberal, learning university.  And according to Agamben, the stakes are very real, for it is in a state of prolonged potentiality that we can begin to feel inspired and once again experience our freedom to be otherwise than.  As someone who must simultaneously safeguard the study time of his students while also remaining mindful of the very real pressures of the job market, the question of the ethics of study is something that continues to interest me, and I plan on thinking about this topic more in the future. 


What sort of response do you hope the book will provoke?

First, I hope the book offers up a new problematic for educational philosophers, one that foregrounds contemporary educational issues in the ancient question of the relation between potentiality and actuality.  Second, the unique mix of philosophical, literary, and historical references might challenge educational philosophers to write differently and re-think what counts as a ‘relevant’ text for education. Finally, I hope that it genuinely strikes a chord with all those who labour within the learning society, helping us to develop new critical tools of analysis while also naming alternatives (e.g. study).

Indeed, the book has had surprising effects in my own life. A major aspect of the book is how study should be done with friends.  While learning is often conceptualized as competitive and individual in nature, study is something done in common with others.  The book has literally produced this effect in my own life, and I am currently co-authoring several pieces on study with various colleagues and doctoral students around the world.  For me, the only way to adequately follow-up this book is precisely to embody its key ethical and political insight: that study is always communist. 


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

When I wrote the book, I originally had in mind educational philosophers and critical theorists interested in Agamben’s work.  Since its publication, I have been invited to give several lectures at different institutions and have found that the book has a much broader audience than anticipated.  In particular, teachers have found my concept of study useful for thinking through their classroom practices.  I have also had several stimulating debates with activists associated with Occupy Wall Street who found the last chapter on public, collective study challenging and perhaps infuriating!  Overall, audiences keep materializing, which, I feel, testifies to something timely and urgent in the book.


What is the purpose of philosophy of education?

Here I would like to end with something that your readers might find controversial.  I think that the purpose of philosophy of education is to stupefy, to make stupid.  As Agamben reminds us, the root of stupidity is conjoined with that of study.  In both states, there is a sense of crashing, or of being shipwrecked, of prolonged suspension of coordinates, destinations, and ends.  When I am teaching classes in philosophy of education, I hope that my students are struck stupid by the enigma of education, that they lose their certainty.  Thus the gift that educational philosophy has to offer is a radically weak, if not impotent gift, a gift that does not sit well with the current educational clarion call for perpetual growth, maturation, perfection, and optimal performance.  In such a world, to argue for the virtue of stupidity is nothing less than a heresy if not a downright joke.  Yet perhaps the heresy of stupidity also reminds us that inspiration can be found in the most subaltern, if not profane, activities.      

Questions: Naomi Hodgson, JOPE Reviews Editor

A review of On Study is one of our May Book Reviews.