Defining and Implementing a Critical Pedagogy

This is a draft article that started life as a collaboration between myself and a number of postgraduate students after the conference mentioned at the beginning of the article. The article was posted in June 2010 using a now defunct WordPress blog using the Digresit theme that allowed paragraph by paragraph commenting. The comments made by collaborators are included at the end of this post.

The Critical Theory and Education Conference last March, organised to launch the student led critical theory journal Roundhouse, was the most enjoyable and stimulating conference I have been to for many years. The topics and discussion were given an added poignancy by the then threat of a lecturers’ strike in response to feared Faculty closures and redundancies. In fact one of the presentations was accompanied by the background noise of a student rally in support of the lecturers’ proposed action. The unrest and conflict at the University of Leeds due to economic cuts and organisational restructuring proposals were seen as symptomatic of many of the changes in University education, its marketisation, the commodification of knowledge, the development of instrumentalism and the general malaise resulting from the adoption of a neoliberal ‘business ontology’. These developments have a number of implications for the role of academics and the experience of students. Some of the contradictions and tensions engendered by these changes can be seen in the confusion about how students are understood: are they ‘customers’ or ‘products’ of the Higher Education system for instance?

A number of common themes and issues emerged from the excellent presentations and discussions. Two I particularly noted were the necessity of developing a critical pedagogy and the difficulty of implementing it in practice within the physical and cultural confines of the University. What do we mean by ‘critical pedagogy’ and how in practice can it inform the process and content of our teaching and learning?

Pedagogy is usually taken to mean the art or science of teaching. A pedagogy will dictate to some extent both the style and the process of teaching. Potentially no doubt there are a number of different critical pedagogies but the general usage is that derived from the sense of ‘critical’ developed by the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School based on the work of Marx. Broadly speaking, Critical Theory has the task of unmasking the reality of capitalist interests and exploitative social relations hidden behind the illusions and obfuscations of the dominant ideology, a dominant ideology that ‘naturalises’, legitimates and secures the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist system and the social relations it depends upon. Our understanding of the nature of capitalism and ideological processes has moved on a lot since the days of the original Frankfurt critical theorists. Nevertheless critical pedagogy based on critical theory aims to enable students to question and challenge the forms of domination that lead to exploitation, injustice, poverty, and social and environmental degradation. There is a reflexive element in this for both students and teachers. According to the critical educator Paulo Freire, students need to develop the ability to think critically about their education. In particular they should be able to “recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts they are embedded in”. This will sound very familiar to students of sociology who know C. Wright Mills’ work The Sociological Imagination where he says it is the political task of the social scientist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. This reflexivity is equally important for teachers and students. A key aspect of critical pedagogy is to question and reconstitute the relationship between teachers and students, so the development of a reflexive critical consciousness is a promising collaborative enterprise in the co-production of a form of knowledge.

But what is this critical consciousness? What is it that we are being asked to be critically conscious of? With earlier theories of ideology this seemed relatively straightforward. The orthodox theory of ideology went something like this. The dominant ideology is the system of ideas and beliefs that reflects the interests, self understanding and world view of the dominant social class. In a capitalist society the dominant class is that which owns and controls the means of production and the disposal of its products. The dominant ideology in various ways colonises and shapes the understandings and world view of the subordinate and exploited classes and so legitimatises the capitalist system and ensures the acquiescence of the population and the conditions for the reproduction of the status quo. Ideology naturalises a state of affairs that is in fact contingent and constructed. Things could be other than they are. Critical theory’s task is to tear away the veil of misinformation, expose the falsity of the consciousness of the ideologically incorporated masses, and reveal the truth of the dominant class interests and the exploitative social relations that serve those interests. Once the exploited class becomes conscious of their exploited position their acquiescence will give way to forms of resistance and revolution. Job done.

There have been two areas of modification to this rather crude conceptualisation of ideology. The emphasis has moved from analysing the content of ideology to expose its distortions and untruths (this epistemological critique of ideology is fraught with all sorts of problems, for instance what would be an undistorted account, what is the ‘truth’?) to a concern with ideology as a process. Examples of this would be Althusser’s work on how ideological processes ‘interpellate’ individuals by ‘addressing’ them and constructing self-identities and self-understandings with which they recognise themselves and understand the world and their place in it, as parents, as workers, as students, as citizens, as captains of industry and so on. This is achieved through the workings of what Alhusser called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) amongst which he identified the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system. Gramsci shows how ideological processes, operating within and shaping the cultural sphere, colonise people’s common sense and shapes beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Both Althusser’s and Gramsci’s work focuses on how forms of ideological domination penetrate and shape individual’s subjective experience, their conscious articulations of their world and life, and, rather more sinister, even the unconscious, unexamined and taken for granted aspects of their selves, their lives and their world. These social psychological and psychoanalytic aspects of ideological processes have been taken up subsequently and developed by many writers and theorists and incorporated into second and third generation critical theory.

The main point to be taken from this though is that it is no longer possible to see ideology simply as a distorted version of reality and all that is needed is to find a way of removing the distorting lens of ideology to see what is ‘really’ going on. This is because ideological processes simultaneously both represent and construct reality. Ideology constructs social relations, shapes mental conceptions, and provides people with repertoires of understanding, action and behaviour. If society is materially and structurally the sum of the outcomes of the agency of social actors, then ideology constructs reality rather than hides a pre-existing reality. It is not simply a contingently constructed representation hiding an underlying ‘actual’ reality. Since reality is partly a construction of ideological processes and representations, reality cannot be appealed to in any simple way to provide an independent falsification of the ideological representation of itself. More accurately, reality can be seen as the result of a process of co-construction, even co-evolution, involving both material and social processes. Reality is itself contingent in that it is a material and social construction actualised by the contingent ideological representations and processes that shape and constrain actors’ mental conceptions and behaviours.

With Gramsci and Althusser, then, we no longer see ideology as just the construction of a psychological illusion. We see ideology more as a process that constructs and is constructing reality, as a social and material reality. This makes a strategy that somehow exposes a non-ideological reality to be placed in opposition to a distorted ideological representation of reality unavailable. However, what can be done is the exposure of the processes by which powerful interests are converted into particular contingent social, cultural, political economic and material realities. This opens the way for different sorts of societies and social arrangements to be envisioned by ‘denaturalising’ the taken for granted ‘realism’ of the status quo. Clearly the ‘real’ has a number of different senses here. If a critical pedagogy aims to expose some aspects of what is ‘really’ going on, then it is important to clarify what we mean by the ‘real’. What is the nature of this ‘real’ and how can it best be understood, investigated and represented in knowledge?

This is where the perspective of Critical Realism may be useful. This is usually traced back to the philosophical and epistemological work of Roy Bhaskar and developed more sociologically by writers such as Margaret Archer and William Outhwaite amongst others. Broadly speaking, Critical Realists assert that reality is multidimensional and stratified. The social and material world we observe is the visible and contingent product of underlying generative mechanisms and processes. The reality we observe is partly contingent on the way human society, symbolically and materially, interacts with these underlying generative processes. This suggests the reality we observe has been and could again be different. I say that reality is partly contingent and shaped by the way we interact with the underlying processes because to some extent these are aspects of ‘intransitive’ reality, i.e. that which is independent of human knowing and human knowledge. One way of thinking about this is to see intransitive reality evidenced in the ways that nature hits back and escapes our techniques of control and intentions, or in the way that the dynamics of social processes produce unintended consequences that confound our social and political strategies and policies. Some processes evidently work beyond our understanding and intentions.

There seem to be clear affinities between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. What we see is the ‘surface of things’. The reality presented to us as observers of the everyday, or even as scientists, is in fact contingent effects, traces, of underlying mechanisms (natural, social, economic). The reality we see and directly experience is symptomatic of deeper invisible processes and the key to understanding the reality we see is to somehow read from these down to the underlying processes that, intermeshing and impacting on one another, produce the surface reality as their emergent and contingent product. The implication is that the self-same processes are capable and could have produced the observable reality differently. The produced reality could be other than it is and part of the explanation of why reality is as it is, contingently, is the exercise within society of economic and cultural power. This emphasis on the contingency of reality associate with the exercise of power is a key point of connection between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. This is why it is ‘critical’ realism. This also has the consequence of generalising some features of ideology, as a representational system and as a meaning-making process, to all forms of knowledge including science. It extends the critique of social forms of knowledge, their embeddedness in social relations and networks of power, to the sciences as well.

Another take on what is real is offered by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism. By capitalist realism he means “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable and political system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine an coherent alternative to it”. (p 2 author’s emphasis). Fisher claims we are now living in a post-ideological age, certainly in the sense of the classical concept of ideology. Capitalism no longer needs to dissemble via ideology. We live in and collude with capitalism with a degree of bad faith and cynicism largely because of a sense of its inevitability and because it is seen as the least bad system. This is a ‘realistic’ acceptance of the capitalist system as “the only act in town”. Symptomatic of this is the prevailing mood that the best we can do is ameliorate its most destructive and unjust consequences. Ameliorate global injustice by buying Fairtrade products. Ameliorate global warming and climate change by trading carbon and the right to pollute. According to Fisher most events in the name of anti-capitalism concede too much to this capitalist realism and, in practice, limit themselves to the ambition to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism rather than replace it. They don’t expect too much. Capitalism can comfortably incorporate anti-capitalism and even exploit it. In his view most anti-capitalist protests create “a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism and […] share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8” (p 14). So capitalist realism is “like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought an action” (author’s emphasis p 16). When politicians repeatedly use the phrase “the reality is that …. “ when prefacing an argument about cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes, privatising some aspect of public services or increasing student fees the reality they invoke is that naturalised by capitalist realism.

Fisher invokes with approval a Lacanian distinction between the ‘Real’ and the ‘real’ that Žižek has recently revived. The Real can be seen as the realm of possibility that a naturalised contingent reality must suppress. The ‘real’ is the contingent reality that has succeeded in naturalising itself by suppressing, by blocking off from consciousness and knowledge, the underlying processes that the maintenance of the contingent reality relies on. The task is to reveal the current reality as contingent and therefore potentially other than it is. To do this we must look for and exploit fissures and tears in reality that provide glimpses of these processes. The connection with Critical Realism’s notion of ‘intransitive reality’ can be seen here. Fisher identifies a number of rents in the fabric of capitalist realism revealed by developments in the environment, in education and in the role of the State. Each of these developments expose contradictions that have the potential to ‘denaturalise’ and give the lie to capitalist realism and the impression that there is no alternative.

There is an application of critical realism that may illuminate what a critical pedagogy might be in practical terms. This can be illustrated by the writings and work of photographer and documentary film maker Allan Sekula. Much of his work is a commentary on and critique of the workings and consequences of global capitalism. Representations of reality recorded in photographs and film cannot be seen as objective and neutral records. We are aware of how a photographer’s point of view and selection of subject matter constructs a photograph and we are aware of the postproduction processes such as cropping. But the content is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framings. There is a sense in which the photograph ‘knows’ more than its author. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to its author. In a documentary photograph the reality represented pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. These processes create and present the visible surface of things to the camera and the photographer and can be revealed so that the image can be understood as the product of these processes. In Sekula’s work these underlying processes are understood in Marxian conceptions of the circulation of value to acquire growth, capitalist labour relations, processes of commodification, commodities as the product of exploitative social relations, commodities as the embodiment of ‘dead’ labour.

Typical of his recent work is the 2006 film Lottery of the Sea (the title is taken from Adam Smith’s observation that the prospects of work and success in capitalism is like a lottery) which is a densely woven and moving documentary on globalization and its political and ecological discontents. Amongst many other events and scenes in the Lottery of the Sea, there are depictions of life working on deregulated container ships sailing under flags of convenience, the dispossession of marginal and powerless communities to make way for container ship dockyard developments and tourist accommodation and facilities, and the local inhabitants’ attempts to clean up the oil spilt on the beaches from The Prestige, an oil tanker that sank in controversial circumstances in 2002 off the Spanish Galician coast polluting thousands of kilometres of Spanish and French coastline and disastrous damage to the environment and the local economies based on the fishing industry. The images and film sequences can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the reality depicted in the images.

So what does all this imply for a critical pedagogy, for practical styles and methods of teaching and the relationship between teachers and students and their collective relationship with the learning process? What is the critical consciousness that critical pedagogy should try to develop with students? How is this achievable within formal higher education institutions that have been culturally colonised and structured by the ‘business ontology’ naturalised by the neoliberal hegemony and, in Fisher’s sense, capitalist realism?

In the spirit of critical theory and a putative critical pedagogy, this would perhaps best be discussed and formulated as an exercise in the collaborative co-construction of critical knowledge by students and teachers with interests in conceptions of the public good and social and environmental justice. Several of the speakers at the conference paved the way for this discussion. For example, Monica Mclean suggested that we should become activists in our own places of work and, in order to face the distorting colonisations in the university environment, we need to be critical and “agree what is right”. Ricardo Blaug, on the other hand, seemed to suggest that little was now possible to foster this sort of critique within the structures and strictures of the University. His suggestion was that we should explore the possibility of following and enacting the principle of ‘parallelism’ adopted by activists in the Prague Spring of 1968. Students and academic staff should look for ways that the critical aspects of education and political critique and engagement in danger of being neglected by our marketised and commodified education system can be pursued alongside the existing educational institutions. Personally, as a teacher of sociology, and bearing in mind C. Wright Mills’ characterisation of the ‘sociological imagination’ referred to above, I see critical pedagogy as fully compatible with an engaged and politically relevant sociology. This is the case with many of the social sciences, arts and humanities. It is not inevitable that these disciplines will lose their reflexive and critical edge in today’s political and educational climate. But what are the practical implications of critical pedagogy for mathematics, for modern languages, for engineering and for the natural sciences? The answers to these questions are specific to the disciplines but also general to the purposes and functions of higher education in the production of informed and engaged citizens who will have to solve not only their own problems but to some extent consider what they hand on to future generations, possibly beyond the era of capitalist realism and the neoliberal hegemony. This urgent discussion is still needed and hopefully Roundhouse, initiatives like the Really Open University, and the critical ethos that still exists within the Academy will carry this forward in imaginative and effective ways.

References and Resource
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
k-punk Mark Fisher’s blog
Critical Pedagogy definition

Terry Wassall 11th June 2010 3312 words.


Terry says
I had originally intended that this article would draw some conclusions about what a critical pedagogy would be in practice, given the analysis of the various sorts of realisms etc. But it is already over 3000 words and perhaps this could come out in some discussion, especially if I make the concluding paragraph of 2 more of an obvious invitation discuss it. The last 3 paragraphs begin the discussion after a fashion. Or perhaps a follow up article that I could put on my own blog and link to from the Roundhouse blog.

Leon says
But I would argue that there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it [Sayer (2000) has a good account of this position], (mis)perceptions of which could be ideological in that they do distort it. For instance, would you not want to argue that your picture of the construction of reality presented here is a more accurate picture of reality than mine?

Terry says
You’d have to tell me what yours is first! The relationship between a symbolic representation and that which it represents can vary of course. A map of a mythical island can presumably be shown to be false if the referent, the island, cannot be found or empirically demosntrated in any way. Or a unicorn perhaps. But a map of the London Underground does have a least a schematic relationship to the network of railways and stations and this can be demonstrated empirically and in practice. This is hardly surprising as the ‘actual’ underground system and the schematic map that now represents it are both constructed from the original plans that built the empirical railway network. To what extent is the underground map either true or false? This is why I think your claim “there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it” is problematic, or at least the ‘any’ is. Some realities are not distinct from the constructed ideas about them because the constructed ideas have constructed the reality, socially or materially. This is what Bachelard was trying to get at in another context with his claim that scientific apparatus should be understood as ‘reified theory’ and his notions of ‘surrealism’. And perhaps Murphy with his ideas about ‘recombinant’ nature.

Leon says
On ‘fissures’ and ‘tears in reality’ John Holloway’s new book is insightful:

Terry says
Great. Thanks Leon. I’ll have a look. Going back to our discussion in paragraph 7. These ‘tears’ are perhaps evidenced, made visible, by a mismatch between the reality posited by a discourse (say neoliberalism’s account of the operation of free markets) and what reality actually comes up with, empirically and demonstrably.

Leon says
‘Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens.’ Perhaps a little hard to decipher the meaning here.

Terry says
Thanks. If the article get to go-ahead I will be attending to some of the more obscure forms of words. This sentence is, verbatim, a note I made while listening to a presentation about Sekula after a screening of ‘The Lottery of the Sea’. It is rather condensed an enigmatic.

Terry says
Looks like a discussion of another piece may leak into this one! Never mind. I am here playing the Devil’s advocate

“ creating social relations on a different basis, on the basis of love, friendship, solidarity, collaboration, fun”.

A problem with this is that it is not necessarily anti-capitalist and doesn’t necessarily threaten capitalism. As Fisher says, capitalism can colonise counter currents and relationship, exploit them, commodify them, marketise them, legitimate itself with them, demonstrae its inevitability with them, etc.

“Either we take the highway of subordination to the logic of capital, in the clear knowledge now that this leads directly to the self-annihilation of humanity; or else we take the hazardous paths of inventing different worlds, here and now and through the cracks we create in capitalist domination”.

The cracks mentioned here “we create” are due to the volition of actors and may not be cracks at all. Some of them will be accommodations and adaptations to the capitalist reality. I think the tears and fissures Fisher talks about are due to structural contradictions that create the opportunities to see beyond the ‘naturalised, capitalist realism and do not depend on deliberate human agency for their existence although agency (informed presumably by a critical consciousness looking for the cracks) would be necessary to expose them and articulate them in a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project.

Or though (thinking aloud!) ‘we’ might create the cracks in the sense that the contradictions Fisher refers to as being inherent in the capitalist system may well have an impact on our behaviour and experience and force the sort of reflexivity that Giddens and Archer refer to. Then it is a matter of how we translate that reflexivity into adaptation and a strategy of accommodation or a critical consciousness and a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project. Another increment of self-annihilation as in the quote above or a step on the hazardous path to inventing a different life.

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