Derek R. Ford
After yet another brutal murder of a person of color by the police, the streets of Baltimore are on fire. Protests have taken place on a near daily basis, and they are growing increasingly militant. I haven’t lived in Baltimore for a while, and so I have been watching the battle unfold through social media.
One of my close comrades has been reporting from the frontlines, and recently he posted a 1-minute video that captured succinctly the tragedy and hope running through the streets. The sun had long been set and the first mass protests that took place earlier that day – Saturday, April 25 – had ended. It’s a nondescript street corner in Baltimore, with multicolored row houses and a corner store in sight, and a few dozen riot cops are standing behind the barricades. We don’t get a full view of the street but it looks like the cops outnumber the people. Most of the people are Black and, although we can’t see the cops’ faces, we know what color they are.
There is no march taking place, no rally, no speeches. Instead, people seem to wander about. They are yelling at the cops, and for the duration of the video bottles, cans, and other objects are constantly being hurled across the barricades. A few people are recording the interactions, and some others are standing right up at the barricades, unafraid of the cops and the state power that they represent. Most of the people are just around the corner, and that’s where the attacks on the cops originate (the spatial layout of the battle and barricades makes this the safest place to be). Others approach the barricades, shouting and gesturing at the cops, and then retreat again so they don’t get hit by flying bottles.
One woman – the only one that we can see who holds a placard – is standing near my comrade as he records, and so her voice is clear. “Y’all still a bunch of bitches!” she yells. She then begins chanting, “Fuck y’all! Fuck y’all!”
In addition to documenting the beautiful struggle against police repression taking place, this video bears witness to a powerful example of an undertheorized and underutilized educational act: the act of studying.
Studying in and against the learning society
We are now living, we are told by politicians and policy makers at all scales, in a “learning society.” In this learning society a host of activities, “from child-rearing, having sex, eating, or communication, to traveling and using free time-are regarded as being competency-based and in need of a prior learning experience” (Simons and Masschelein, 2008, p. 391).
There are several problems with learning. Gert Biesta’s (2006) main problem with it is that it is an attack on teaching, because to learn one does not need a teacher; learning can be done by oneself with a book or computer program. Relatedly, another problem with learning is that it is always only about the already-is. One literally cannot learn something new. We can learn something, some skill or habit that we previously did not know, possess, or embody, but it will not be new. Relatedly, learning is always about reaching a predetermined destination, even if that destination is constantly changing, as it is in “lifelong learning.” There are always learning outcomes, and these are always measurable.
Tyson Lewis (2013) argues that learning is the educational logic of contemporary capitalism in that it insists on the actualization of potential. Drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Lewis (2011) writes that the problem with learning is “not that it views the child or student as a lack but that it views the child as an infinite potentiality that can and must be actualized through constant performance testing” (p. 587). In other words, the logic of learning demands investment in potential in order to maximize economic viability and, thus, profitability; it is purely about ends, and it is about reaching those ends as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Studying stands against learning. So what is studying? To begin, study names the generation “of thought and experimentation that leave one intoxicated, those moments of encounter in a text or conversation that blow one’s mind, driven by curiosities that are closer to pleasure, to play, to wandering, to leaving work” (Arsenjuk and Koerner, 2009, p. 8). Unlike learning, studying is not about arriving at a destination, and in fact it is definitional of studying that one does not have a destination in mind. While lost in the archives, travelling between references, or moving between definitions in a dictionary, one is detached from any predetermined end. As Lewis (2013) writes:
Studying suspends ends yet does not retreat into pure potentiality. It is the ambiguous state of recessive sway that holds within itself this and that without choosing either. As such, studying holds within it both the pleasure of undertaking (a new project) and the interminable pain of undergoing (an indefinite process) . (p. 147)
Importantly, studying is about suspending ends, not eliminating them. Thus, Lewis is not in any way proposing that we stop setting goals or outcomes and working to achieve them. In fact, while studying is in opposition to learning it is always in antagonism with it, for in order to study, say, a text, one must have already developed some capacities of reading. The critique is rather that the logic of learning has edged out studying, has made studying seem a pure waste of time (and it certainly is a waste of time as valued under capitalism in that studying is about use, not exchange).
Studying in the streets
Watching this video again and again, I couldn’t help but see an act of studying taking place on this street corner. No clear, predetermined goal was expressed through the actions captured on my comrade’s camera phone, no plan unfurling. What took place instead was a certain wandering within and beyond boundaries, or rather experimentation with those boundaries and our relationship to them.
Instead of well formed chants and orchestrated contingents there were cries of indignation and anger and multitudinous swarms forming and disbanding; advancing, retreating, and advancing yet again. The skirmishes with the cops weren’t leading up to a big finale; they were rehearsals for a revolutionary event, for something that we can’t quite envision yet, but we know is immanent in the present.
None of this is to devalue organized protests and demonstrations, for these too are rehearsals for revolution. We need spontaneity and organization, studying and learning. But just like the logic of learning has come to dominate at the expense of studying, so too have the received forms of protest that bourgeois democracies can accommodate come to dominate at the expense of insurrectionary tinkerings. The hope is that these tinkerings can generate new knowledges, skills, subjectivities, and forms of organization that can then be generalized and subsumed in a mass movement and, ultimately, an insurrectionary moment.
Derek R. Ford is a PhD candidate in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University, where he studies philosophy of education. Recent articles have appeared in Educational Philosophy and Theory, Policy Futures in Education, and the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies. He is co-author (with Curry Malott) of Marx, Capital, and Education: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Becoming(Peter Lang, in press). He is an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition and teaches in the Social Justice Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Arsenjuk, L,, & Koerner, M. (2009). Study, Students, Universities: an introduction. Polygraph, 21, 1-13.
Biesta, G.J.J. (2006). Beyond Learning: democratic education for a human future. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Lewis, T.E. (2011). Rethinking the Learning Society: Giorgio Agamben on studying, stupidity, and impotence. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(6), 585-599.
Lewis, T.E. (2013). On Study: Giorgio Agamben and educational potentiality. New York and London: Routledge.
Simons, M. & Masschelein, J. (2008). The Governmentalization of Learning and the Assemblage of a Learning Apparatus. Educational Theory, 58(4), 391-415.