Book Review: On Study: Giorgio Agamben and Educational Potentiality

Book Review: On Study: Giorgio Agamben and Educational Potentiality, by Tyson E. Lewis

New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 174.Hb. £85.00.

Reviewed by Joris Vlieghe

On Study: Giorgio Agamben and educational potentiality is not an easy book to read, and I’m sure that this is exactly what the author intended. It may sound like a cliché, but the style and form Lewis uses to express his plea for an Agambenian philosophy of education fully reflects one of his major claims: for true education (i.e. a meaningful change of our lives) to take place, we should not take the easy way to the goal we strive at. We shouldn’t even have too clear a picture of any goal. It is precisely limitations set to what we desire, difficulties that cross our course and above all the feeling of being lost and not-knowing that offer the necessary (although not sufficient) conditions for educational transformation. Analogously, in order to fathom the sometimes ingenious insights in this book, the reader has to be willing to make an effort, to endure paradoxical formulations, and even to remain at some points perplexed, or – to use the author’s own terminology – ‘stupid’.

I use the word ‘willing’ because it is a vital notion in Lewis’ argument. Much of what he argues against – the dominant discourse of learning and a ‘biocapitalist’ system obsessed by testing and optimizing learning outcomes – is criticized for overstressing the ‘wilfulness’ of the educational subject: as if education were a matter of positioning oneself and strengthening one’s position. In the language of Agamben, this merely concerns the actualization of a generic potential. Learners have to relate to themselves in terms of particular needs and gifts that fully define them. As a result, education is narrowed down to a process that envisages the full flourishing of each student’s most particular talents. Every student becomes an exception. Even if this promises an increase in freedom, the opposite is the case. For true change to happen, it is not the realization of already given possibilities that is required, but an opening towards a more profound freedom not to realize what one can do. (Im)potentiality is the basic modality of education, so Lewis argues. This is to say that the experience of being-able (I can), without which education just wouldn’t make any sense, should imply at the very same time a moment of radical incapacitation (I cannot). Only then can the student really be a student (rather than a learner), and occupy herself with her true calling, studying.

This mixture of ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ might be conveniently illustrated by an archetypical activity the studier (and Lewis specifically uses this term, as distinct from learner or student) devotes herself to: to bury oneself in books (I say archetypical because Lewis seems to have this example in mind throughout the book).  When studying in a library one readily ‘gets lost’, but the studier may also sense this ‘dwelling in obscurity’ as a precondition for finding inspiration and discovering unforeseen ways of thought (Lewis, 2013, p. 90). Study isn’t a matter of smoothly bringing to realisation certain capacities, but of witnessing a ‘rhythmic sway’ between feelings of enrapture and melancholy, between experiences of success and powerlessness. Here the studier starts to relate to books in a ‘deactivated way’, i.e. in the form of ‘non reading’ rather than reading. To understand this, consider Derrida’s comment (1984) that reading (as opposed to superficially ‘reading’ a newspaper article) exists in the continuous interruption of reading. One can no longer read, as one involuntarily starts to reflect on the text one has before one’s eyes. Reading as not reading: this certainly applies to Lewis’ book.

In this book Lewis focuses on some remarks Agamben makes in connection with study in order to construct a coherent theory of education. In Agamben we do not find anywhere an explicit, let alone a systematic, account of education. And so, by relating his scarce explicit comments on study to other analyses Agamben offers in relation to apparently unrelated matters (such as boredom, collecting or friendship), Lewis is able to develop what he calls a ‘tinkering phenomenology of study’ (Ibid., p. 149). This is certainly a most commendable initiative. Although Agamben enjoys immense popularity within political philosophy, he has not yet been fully discovered in the sphere of educational theory. It is a pity though that Lewis doesn’t comment on Agamben’s most explicit reference to education, near the end of his book The Open. There he discusses Walter Benjamin’s remark that no one would trust the cane-wielder to decide on the sense of education and that being an educator is not about exerting power, but about taking the right attitude towards the power one happens to possess (Agamben, 2004, pp. 82-83). A further development of this idea could give some substantive indications as to what the activity of the teacher might look like -an idea that in Lewis’ book is only discussed briefly when he talks about teaching as ‘not teaching’ (Lewis, 2013, p. 102). Involuntarily, one is reminded of G.B. Shaw’s remark that those who can, do and those who can’t, teach – a truism that might get a completely new meaning in view of Lewis’ argument.

Moreover, it is often suggested that the true studier is an autodidact, which is not unsurprising in view of Agamben’s own difficult relation to traditional schooling. Lewis even says so literally (Ibid., p. 164) – demanding the teacher only to be a facilitator (as in the model of constructivist learning, which he nonetheless criticizes throughout the book). Anyway, in my view the role of the teacher remains undertheorized in Lewis’ book. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that, although Lewis very precisely argues what is undesirable in existing educational practices, he only insinuates what we should do instead in the world of the everyday, by treating his reader to analyses that are quite remote from what happens on the educational workfloor (e.g. Horkheimer and Adorno discussing the value of discussion). But then again, this decision is completely consistent with the radically indeterminate nature of study. Study ‘interrupts’ and as such opens new possibilities that can never be determined beforehand nor measured. Study is without any purpose whatsoever and, therefore, it should never be turned into an instrument (e.g. translated into clear pedagogical projects, blueprints for educational reform or calls for concrete political action). In Agambenian terms, studying is a ‘pure means’.

In view of this, the sometimes very assertive positioning of Agamben in relation to other thinkers comes as a surprise. Surely, one of the greatest merits of Lewis’ book is to relate Agamben’s thought to established philosophers of education, among others Illich, McLaren, Freire and Rancière. But, Lewis seems a bit overzealous and risks starting to sound like he is nit-picking when he shows repeatedly what these authors ‘lack’ or ‘fail to address’, and how Agamben’s ‘unique’ concepts and frame of thought offer the sole adequate answer to the issues raised. It is disconcerting to read comments such as ‘Kennedy…misses the messianic turn completely’ (p. 113), ‘[Negri and Hardt’s] analysis is, in the end, lacking precisely because it is not grounded in a theory of study and its connections to impotentiality’ (p. 150), ‘The complexity…is therefore completely missed by both Ziarek and Žižek, who remain incapable of thinking the im-potentiality of study’ (p. 155). This way of phrasing things (and perhaps also of constructing arguments) is at odds with the nature of study and the attitude of not-knowing and cultivating situations in which any clear orientation or position is lacking (a-poria, the absence of a road) that it implies. By using Benjamin’s concept (which Lewis does, p. 150), he might be said to exert ‘mythical violence’ to the body of philosophy and educational theory, rather than studying it ‘playfully’ and using it in a ‘profane’ way (to mention two other fundamental characteristics of study).

These things said, Lewis also offers highly nuanced analyses and, although I may have suggested otherwise by emphasizing the negativity that characterizes study (not-knowing, a-poria, im-possibilities, etc.), the argument in this book isn’t a mere repudiation of the things we usually hold to be true. As I said, he is quite critical of progressive tendencies in education, revealing them to be concerned with the wilful pursuit of the student’s interest and self-determined subjectification. What he calls for is not a revolutionary reform, but a ‘minimal displacement’ within the given order of things and taking a different attitude towards what already exists. Lewis writes that this requires ‘a suspension of the law of classroom design without destroying or negating this design’ (Ibid., p. 114). It is also at this point that Lewis discusses the most concrete illustrations of studious places (a notch in the traditional four walls of the classroom) and studious activities (the ‘tinkering school’). The classroom as ‘not a classroom’.

Moreover, Lewis convincingly shows how Agamben’s conceptual framework can help to understand some of the ambivalences and contradictions we witness in today’s educational world. For instance, the obsession with standardized testing can be explained as an attempt to conceal that in a biocapitalist society we no longer know what to transmit to the next generation or why we should do it: we therefore behave as if a specific set of contents and skills is of vital importance and want to secure its transmission by neurotically measuring learning outcomes. Much of the deplorable situation in American inner-city schools can be explained in the same way. It is because we don’t fully understand the dialectic relation between the potential for real change and the profound impotentiality that is always involved, that we commit a double mistake: on the one hand we install in some schools a competitive regime that dictates every individual student to realize her full potential, while on the other hand we project the disavowed impotentiality on coloured schools where students have no alternative than to realize the self-fulfilling prophecy that they literally can do nothing good.

Clearly, this book also has political bearings. In view of what I said regarding Agamben’s status as a contemporary political philosopher, Lewis is most original on this point. This is because political matters are approached from the starting point of education (and not, as happens too often, looking at education from the view of already formed political ideas). More precisely, Lewis shows that the very nature of studying, and the relationship between students (and teachers) it implies, is inconsistent with any ordering of societal life that imposes clear identities. Positively stated, it is a matter of friendship. Even if this might sound sentimental, the force of this argument – and this is true of the whole book – is that Lewis is not projecting ideals onto educational situations, but tries to work ‘from within’. His is a phenomenological account of studious activities, which reveals that we can’t conceptualize study adequately without taking into account certain aspects – in this case: an attitude of radical amicability. In other words: to take studying seriously is to see that it is in and of itself a communizing activity that requires one to refrain from a violent imposition of one’s own will or the pursuit of private interests. As such, the studier of this book is left with the promise of what the author calls a ‘weak utopianism’.


Agamben, G. (2004). The Open: Man and Animal (K. Attell). Stanford: Stanford University Press

Derrida, J. (1984). No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives), Diacritics 14 (2), 20-31.

Lewis, T. (2013) On Study.Giorgio Agamben and educational potentiality. London: Routledge.


Correspondence: Joris Vlieghe, Moray House School of Education, The University of Edinburgh, Old Moray House, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, UK EH8 8AQ

Tyson Lewis discusses On Study in this month’s Author Interview.