Wednesday, 24 June 2020

July 4th, Otherwise: A National Day of Mourning and Memory

On 27th May 2020, Spain announced the start of a period of national mourning to commemorate those who lost their lives to coronavirus. It lasted for 10 days.

Flags were lowered to half mast as the Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez announced that it would be the '...longest period of mourning in our democracy, in which we will all express our sorrow and pay homage to those who have died.'

I've been waiting for a while now for the UK government to announce something similar. With the death toll continuing to rise (official figures now well past 40,000, although remember - we don't  count all deaths. 60,000 is probably more like it) we have the highest death rate in Europe.  Meanwhile, our prime minister announces the inevitable end of lockdown for economic reasons, Rishi Sunak tweets that he can't wait to go to the pub, and Matt Hancock states delightedly that 'our plan is working' whilst simultaneously failing to ever know how many people are actually being tested.

(By the way, it's ok to be simultaneously happy that the economy is starting up again and frustrated that no acknowledgement of Covid-19 deaths has taken place; the two things aren't mutually exclusive).

Poppies in a Whitley field
Memorialisation is important.  If we're not careful we can fall into a pattern of 'collective forgetting', whereby we minimise the impact ('it wasn't actually that bad!'), allow ourselves to have this forgetting done for us by the State ('it's over people, let's go to the pub!') or become immune to the impact of increasing numbers because we simply cannot picture the scale of lives lost.  (For more on the ethics of collective memory please read this fantastic blog by Anders Sandberg).

How we mourn and memorialise is up to us, of course. The impact will be felt differently depending on our relationship to Covid-19 and how it has affected our loved ones and communities.  It may be that we spend time documenting or journalling our thoughts and facts about what happened (lest we forget). We might want to do something creative; write a poem, paint a picture, compose a piece of music. We might want to talk about someone we lost, perhaps record an oral history. We might want to remember in the pub of course! That's ok too.  The Dutch philosopher Spinoza talked about having an ethics of joy and affirmation; the belief that we can take pain and transform it into knowledge in order to live better lives in the future. I'd love your ideas about how you'd choose to memorialise - perhaps we can share them and create a collective digital memorial? Perhaps you're already doing something and would like to share it? Please comment on this blog if you would like to, and let's make it happen.

Remembering is our moral duty.  One of the hopeful things to emerge from the pandemic was the rise of community action, mutual aid and the sight of people coming together informally, without waiting for state intervention. 

If the government won't hold a day of national mourning, let's do it ourselves. That's how I will be spending July 4th. Fancy joining me?

Monday, 6 April 2020

Towards an ethics of joy

''She discovered with great delight that one does not love one's children just because they are one's children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.''

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I recently returned to this book, wanting to read something that resonated with the strange, other-worldliness of a time of pandemic. Marquez's writing is beautiful and evocative, but the story (as I remembered, coming back to it) is a little problematic. Nevertheless the quote above stood out for me as a kind of theme tune for my experiences so far during lockdown.  I am spending a huge amount of time with my two girls (10 and 12) and it is no understatement to say that just these past three weeks have radically changed my relationship with them. I'm lucky that they are of an age where friendship is possible; we can support each other, laugh together, be silly or just hang-out (when they want me to, that is). Whilst I know they are still very young, it is true to say that they are supporting me as much as I am supporting them.

So it's a strange time to be writing about joy, and also the perfect time. 

Joy is different from happiness; it speaks of moments rather than a state of being, and of the soul, rather than the mind. It requires noticing, and attention to be paid. If the current crisis is teaching me anything, it is that it is pointless striving for long periods of being 'happy' and that instead it is better to spend time spotting and savouring those often fleeting seconds when you suddenly feel joy bubble up, endorphins hitting the bloodstream like a hit of nicotine or alcohol (yes, I take joy from those things too :)

Me, attempting to dance with Oti Mabuse
The Dutch philosopher Spinoza wrote extensively on affirmative ethics as a practice of joy, whereby you firstly pay attention to the things that promote physical and mental well-being (of yourself and others - which may include non-humans).  As Rosi Braidotti states 'A joyful ethics rests on an enlarged sense of a vital inter-connection with a multitude of others by removing the obstacle of self-centred individualism and anthropocentricism on one hand, and the barriers of negativity on the other. ' (2018, p.221).

Affirmative ethics doesn't refuse to acknowledge pain, but suggests we use knowledge to transform it into something positive. In the context of coronavirus, this could mean allowing ourselves to feel pain and grieve, while also taking time to reflect and learn from what the pandemic is telling us. It requires a cognitive step which de-personalises the crisis in order to 'transform its negative charge' (difficult, of course), noticing negative emotions of pain, anger, greed and fear.' (ibid., p.222). To be affirmative is therefore about firstly noticing, and then taking action, riding on the back of a wave of 'potensia' energy; the kind of power that comes from natural and bodily forces rather than the static power of organisations and hierarchies. It asks - what can this joy teach me, and how can I generate more from this moment? How can we use this new knowledge to work together, and construct new horizons of hope and change?

I wrote this poem a while ago about counting my daughter's freckles. It speaks of numerous moments of noticing, allowing myself to be affected, and being mindful of the often surprising nature of 'joyful encounters'. There might not be so many during the weeks to come. But I'll keep trying to notice them.

Braidotti, R. 'Ethics of Joy'. in Braidotti, R. and Hlavajova, M. (2018). Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Reframing Home

Over the past couple of weeks (and most likely for the foreseeable future), home in all its imperfect glory has become a site for reflection, and so it seems timely to reflect on the language and framing of 'home' in the context of quarantine and forced isolation. The government's mantra of 'Stay home, protect the NHS save lives' is being repeated ad infinitum, but what isn't being considered within this frame is the politicised nature of domestic space and place. What is meant by 'home', and what ideal is being invoked by it?  This blog attempts to provoke some thinking and as ever I would be really interested to hear your views.

'Home' as promoted in Conservative party ideology suggests a hetero-normative calling to a world of standard families, warm sunny gardens, the scent of fresh baking and the sound of happy children crafting in spacious rooms downstairs. The reality for most, of course, is something quite different. Home, as a concept, is never neutral; it is an ideological as well as physical space, and this global crisis is calling these unspoken assumptions into question.  For many, home may be 'not-work'; a space of antithesis and refuge from a neo-liberal world of forced productivity and consumption. For others, particularly those at risk of domestic violence and coercion, home invokes a sense of threat or imprisonment. Home, for those bound to it through disability and caring responsibilities, will have long been problematised, and isolation may well be nothing new. Meanwhile, the nuclear family of two heterosexual parents and 2.4 children, routed in humanist ideals, has long since stopped being a standard, and is certainly not something to aspire to (if it ever was).   As Stacy Alaimo (2016, p.17) states '...domestic space has served as the defining container for the Western ''human'', a bounded space, wrought by delusions of safety, fed by consumerism, and fueled by nationalist fantasies.''

We are also seeing the leaky boundaries of home, as work creeps into spaces which may have previously appeared impermeable. Rooms are now being given over to makeshift work spaces and classrooms; 'surveillance creep' via management diktat to log hours and productivity is becoming commonplace.  We're reminded of Foucault's 'panopticon', where '...disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. ...It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.' (1977, p.187)  We are realising the extent of the leakiness of bodies too, as fears of the virus contaminating parcels, supermarket food and leaflets dropping through the letterbox remind us daily that our home is no longer our castle. Our houses - just like our bodies - are full of holes. 

Harriet, Inside
We are realising the unbounded nature of our local environments. From Welsh mountain goats to foxes and deer in East London; social media is full of stories of nature reclaiming spaces which were previously overrun by cars and humans rushing about their daily business. The nature/culture binary, and seeking of 'pure' spaces 'just for us' are being truly troubled; just as invisible viruses transcend our breathing space, so animals previously kept out through imagined or physical boundaries are beginning to return.  Perhaps it is time to rethink humans as species, as we move from anthropocentric frames to an understanding of a greater and much-needed relationality. After all, we marvel at the architectural skills of bees without respecting them as architects. Is it time to decentre the human and begin to see ourselves as more animal, whilst at the same time elevating our views of the 'minds' of non-human others?

These re-imaginings are not easy, and old habits of mind are hard to break. In re-thinking our relationships to the natural world, Alaimo refers to Walter de Maria's art installation, New York Earth Room; a permanent exhibition of soil filling a city apartment to waist-height. Visitors can view the earth and breath in the smell, wondering at the juxtaposition of pristine white walls and ageing humus. As ever, art can offer a route into reconfiguring our understanding of the nature/human divide, and in the months to come, may well play a key role in the emergence of a new sociological imaginary.

The zoonotic nature of the virus, and the increasing sense of blurred boundaries (both human and non-) speaks to the breakdown of dualistic beliefs which have separated humans both physically and ideologically from the natural world.  For me, this time of interregnum raises the following questions. What might it mean to embrace multi-species living, but with a new respect for difference and kinship? What does it say about entrenched global and local inequalities, and how do we challenge Western dualisms which perpetuate ideas of difference? And what might it mean for our homes, to know that we were never really separated at all?

Alaimo, S. 2016. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Monday, 30 December 2019


As educators, we have little time to reflect on our practice. I'm convinced that the reason for this is largely political - who knows what we might think, share, or decide to change if we have time to really explore and consider the issues affecting what we do in our day to day working lives? Means of resistance are becoming more squeezed, as we fight the bureaucracy of 'academic capitalism', where time is money, and less time is our own. Twitter exchanges are carried out in soundbites; there is anger and there is frustration, and most of all, there is pain. We are all grieving for something - our disconnection from the natural world, from each other, for a world of equality which is unlikely to come in our lifetimes, for certainty and answers when everything feels upside down.

Yet we need to continue to seek out affirmative approaches to change, that take us out of places of pain and inspire hope. These might just be temporary 'lines of flight,' but the disruptions to the status quo can produce a ripple effect that lead to lasting change, even if we can't see what these might be right now, or know where they might take us. Networks like #ClearTheAir slow down linear time as conversations loop and emerge through thinking that is deeply relational and reflexive; but most of all informal, driven through the will of individuals to learn and share together in a spirit of humility and vulnerability. These are the kind of spaces where learning happens, but they require a presence and openness that can be difficult, particularly when we are fearful. Being reflective in this context means letting go; or as Brene Brown would say, 'daring greatly.'  Perhaps this is one resolution to start with in this new year.

In 2017 the fab Benjamin Doxtdator (@doxdatorb) put together a podcast which encourages us to take a pause and reflect on the 'productive interruptions' which might create small ruptures in the systems that limit and constrain us. You can listen to it here: On the back of his brilliant idea, I suggested we take the first 30 days of January 2018 to continue pausing and reflecting in response to different questions about social justice in education, grouping them with the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist.  And now I'm suggesting we do it again in the early days of 2020.

I have started to post reflective questions on the 30 Days Google doc - please take a look and add your own question to the list.  I will then post one for each day of January on Twitter using the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist. How much or how little you join in is up to you, but if you would like to pause and reflect in the company of others, it might be a great way to start your new year.

It's in our interests to stay awake and alert to means of resistance, even when anaesthetizing (in whichever way we choose) feels like an easier way to deal with the pain. As the structures within which we work become more restrictive and stultifying, it may be that the rhizomatic connections we make through projects like this really are the best hope we have for change and transformation.

Looking forward to reading your thoughts and tweets over the coming month - many thanks for sharing.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

#BeMorePhilosopher - Taking Back Space as Thinkers

One of the big frustrations of teaching on a Childhood Studies degree is the lack of esteem with which the qualification is held. Despite being an interdisciplinary grounding in philosophy, psychology, and sociology; a multi-modal space for engaging with visual, literary and artistic perspectives; and a programme populated with vocational opportunities for connecting theory to practice, students often talk of the degrading way in which it is viewed by others.

It's our responsibility as lecturers and students not to fall into this trap but to continue taking up and owning space as thinkers and philosophers of practice. Of course, we are not helped by the dominant discourse around what makes a thinker or philosopher; Google these words and you're likely to see a row of white men (often ancient, or - if French - smoking and looking pensive). The images do not speak to our many students or lecturers, be they female, people of colour, 18-year olds, non-binary or intersections across these identities and many more.

Searches for more recent theorists offer revealing trends too. Men are often pictured alongside women who are not named or acknowledged in the photo - but are theorists or thinkers in their own right. A search for photographs of Jean Piaget with Barbel Inhelder, John Dewey with Helen Parkhurst, Jean Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir, and so on reveals interesting displays of power along with a lack of adequate naming and accreditation.

In her blog, Existing While Female, Jana Bacevic reminds us of the way in which women are rarely able to just sit and think; interiority for us is not seen as useful or productive. When women think, they should be in the company or others and/or otherwise occupied (embroidery; walking; or perhaps these days, engaged in well-being or self-care activities). Just sitting and thinking in space as a woman is in itself a counter-cultural act of resistance.

Men doing thinking stuff

Next Tuesday (24th September) myself and students will be instigating a photo hack which aims to take back space for us as under-represented thinkers and philosophers of practice.  Using the hash tag #BeMorePhilosopher we will create our own photographs of ourselves - perhaps emulating the men in the ones here; re-mixing them to photoshop ourselves into their spaces; or subverting the whole notion of what it means to think in public space and creating an entirely new genre.  We'll share them on this Padlet too

Why not join us?

Claire Birkenshaw and Nicole Gridley
'Thinking while female'

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Walking, otherwise

Critical posthumanist thinking is on the rise as a new way of theorising the world - much-needed in these complex and concerning times. Yet the term itself is contested and often conflated with other approaches such as transhumanism, anti-humanism, metahumanism and many other schools of thought. At a time when we are crying out for guidance and instruction, rejecting binary positions and embracing challenging philosophical theories feels counter-cultural, and downright scary. Yet, 'think we must' as Virginia Woolf reminded us during the 1938 rise of fascism (1938, p.60). Difficult times call for hard work, not anti-intellectual stances.

This week, our band of nomadic thinkers* are running a series of 'posthuman walks' for The Sociological Review's exciting event, Thinking on the Move.  It therefore feels timely to set out our own interpretation of posthumanism in order to set the scene. What might it mean to think in posthuman ways? or to walk in them?

Tight-rope walker, Utrecht
For us, Posthumanism is not a recipe card, a tick-box of activities or one philosophy, but a navigational tool or lens through which to read this rapidly changing world. As Braidotti and Hlavajova (2018, p.5) state‘…[it is] a field of enquiry and experimentation that is triggered by the convergence of post-humanism on one hand and post-anthropocentricism on the other.’  

Posthumanism here first critiques the humanist ideal of ‘Man’ as the universal representation of the human. We are all familiar with Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man; the finely-honed figure of the 'perfect' human body (male, white, European, physically able, buff, symmetrical, unattainable). In this world we (generally) reject this limited and biased idea of what it means to be human, but many of our systems continue to be built around it, discriminating and excluding on this basis.  Posthumanism is therefore a ' call to ‘mark the end of the self-reverential arrogance of a dominant Eurocentric notion of the human, and to open up new perspectives.’ (ibid p.3). These perspectives may be post-colonial, feminist, queer, critical-disability, and many other things besides.

Using posthuman approaches as a navigational tool requires teachers and researchers to elevate the voices of those deemed ‘non-human’ throughout history, accept and work with technological mediation, consider the role in our practice of non-human actors such as animals, artificial intelligences, and take account of the agency of material ‘things’. 

The second, post-anthropocentric element takes into account the damage done by humans to the earth and seeks to re-imagine ways to live symbiotically, re-thinking human/nonhuman relationships and challenging species hierarchy.  Both elements bring the body back in, rejecting Cartesian dualisms and building towards new relationalities that challenge individualistic paradigms and practices.

Our posthuman walks will aim to bring these ideas to life, asking questions such as:
- what happens if we pay attention to the embodied nature of ourselves as walkers in the city?
- what happens if we reject the idea of thinking as an individual act and develop active walking practices in which we think as a multiplicity? 
- who are our non-human walking companions and how do we become more aware of their presence?
- which kind of walkers is the city designed for and which 'walkers' are excluded?
- how can understanding the algorithmic design of the digital world help us make sense of the physical one?

We look forward to walking with you!

*Lou Mycroft, Peter Shukie, Kay Sidebottom.

Braidotti, R. and Hlavajova, M. (2018). The Posthuman Glossary. Bloomsbury Academic.
Woolf, V. (1938). Three Guineas. London: Blackwell.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

'Think, we must'; a call to reclaim spaces of intellectual endeavour

I’m learning a huge amount from my PhD, but one thing that has excited me is realising how liberating it can be for educators to engage philosophically with education. Debates about the ontological and epistemological beliefs underpinning education systems; the impact of neo-liberal structures on our agency in the classroom, and the wider purpose of education using post-structural and post human concepts is proving sustaining and empowering. There is a thirst for spaces of critical engagement; much like the spaces we try to seek out for our own students. It’s doubtful that institutional CPD would include courses on educational philosophy, and teacher training (pushed as it is to more instrumental, tick-box content) can only offer limited amounts too. It is the kind of thing that happens on EduTwitter to a degree; although character limitations and binary thinking often sends interesting discussions down conversational cul-de-sacs; ending up with a resort to gifs and memes that leave the interesting ideas hanging. Our values and actions as teachers depend on our fundamental beliefs about the world and the role that education plays in it – so where are the spaces for slow, meaningful discussion and theoretical engagement?  

There is of course also a culture of anti-intellectualism at play, whereby subjects such as art, literature and science are downgraded into the kind of knowledges that can be regurgitated to suit prescribed tests rather than studied deeply and meaningfully. This instrumentalism can affect educators on a micro level too, deadening our own attitudes towards learning without us fully understanding why. Thinking, in an age of academic and expert distrust, is seen as the practice of the elite; yet we are in a time that calls for new ideas and approaches to complex ethical dilemmas more than ever. ‘Think, we must’ as Virginia Woolf said*; but in accelerated consumer cultures of product, customer and service, time and space for these activities is eroded. What I am not arguing for however is self-indulgent, ‘navel-gazing’ practices of rumination; what matters is not necessarily what we think, but how we put this thinking to work through social action. It becomes more Gramsci’s idea of ‘philosophy of praxis’, pushing thinking outwards to incorporate the politically-informed, socially relational aspects of our situated lives.

One helpful philosophical concept I have recently explored with practitioners is teacher as ‘cosmic artisan.’ (To be clear; I am no artist, and the word 'cosmic' is most familiar to me from early '90's school slang). The ‘cosmic’ here actually suggests having a greater awareness of the flows and multiplicities connecting us to each other; the concept has its roots in the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari and can speak to the deep affective nature of teaching as craft and potential for re-imagining the world.  Cosmic Artisans are sensitive to the affective, intense moments of learning that cannot be captured formally, in teaching observations or in testing frameworks.  They are attentive to moments of affect; below our normal threshold of attention. Who hasn’t experienced that strange shiver of embodied knowledge that somehow tells us learning is taking place?  Cosmic Artisans tell stories, not those fixed in positivist research practices of Enlightenment thinking, but ‘views from a body’; stories that challenge what it means to research, what knowledge is, and whose knowledge counts.   What might it mean to pay more attention to these moments in teaching, to acknowledge them and bring them into being?

Moments of affect can be best expressed and explored through creative endeavours; poetry, art, music.  At this point it is important to say that being cosmic artisan does not mean being an artist; it is more about recognising that we do not have to be limited by standard modes of expression in our responses to moments of affect. As Jagodzinski writes ‘ …this is not an out-of-the-world practice; it is just the opposite; it is to reveal, expose and experiment to show that the cosmic is of this world.’ (2017, p.36). I have written previously about the use of art as a stimulus for thinking differently about our teaching practice, going beyond the limits of reflective practice to a space of creative re-imaginings.  Artistic responses can challenge our linear capturings of teaching practice and give us new means to tell the stories of beauty and joy in our classrooms.

Last week at the StoryMakers Festival I explored the ideas further with a fantastic group of professionals. We considered those moments of teaching that affected us and elevated them, using poetry as a means of exploring feelings and intuitions more deeply. Using Al Zolynas’ ‘Love in the Classroom’ as a stimulus brought the philosophy of Cosmic Artisan to life.  In this way, standard reflective practices become diffractive moments of embodied knowledge, underpinned by connection to theory and philosophies that allow us to explore new ways of viewing education.

Cosmic artisans are ‘...committed to 'summoning forth a new earth, a new people...fabulating and fabricating new worlds...intensifying and livening events. They transmute the mundane or the machinic into a vision of excessive beauty and invention.’ (Sholtz, 2016). Studying philosophy together through engaged practices is empowering, in an educational world of struggle and disenfranchisement. It allows thinking to grow in oppressive spaces and offers something truly ‘for us’, unregulated, unrestricted, nomadic and liberating.

To close with the words of Virginia Woolf:
“Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking—what is this ‘civilization’ in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?” (Woolf, 1938, p.60).

* thank you to Rosi Braidotti for sharing 'Three Guineas'; an important and overlooked work.

Jagodzinski, J. (2017). What is art education? After Deleuze and Guattari. London: Palgrave.

Sholtz, J. (2016). Intervals of Resistance: Being True to the Earth in Light of the Anthropocene. University of Alberta. Available at:

Woolf, V. (1938). Three Guineas. London: Hogarth Press.