Dialogues, Klingovsky
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Supposed freedom and the urge to optimise oneself

We seem to have arrived at a learning culture where the individual enjoys the greatest possible freedom of design. But this freedom is more appearance than reality. With Foucault, Professor of Adult Education Ulla Klingovsky debunks the «brave new learning culture».

One of your books is entitled «Schöne neue Lernkultur» (brave new learning culture). What do you understand by the term «learning culture»? 

The term learning culture is not clearly defined in the specialist literature. However, in the late 20th century, in the context of the discussion about self-organised, lifelong learning and competence orientation, the demand for a «new» learning culture was raised.  

In my opinion, the term remains diffuse, it does not refer to anything real but works rather as a promise: in this new learning culture, the learning of subjects should finally be freer, more lively, more self-determined and the individual development possibilities should be unlimited. A new learning culture should finally enable processes in which learners themselves identify their learning needs, define their own learning goals and mobilise their personal resources for learning. No more paternalism, no more manipulation by the power of course instructors and institutions; their heteronomy needs to be replaced by radical self-direction in a new learning culture.  

Now, we could say: that all sounds well and good, but this promise has never been fulfilled. Adults still sit in uniformly furnished and organised classrooms, listening to more or less thrilling PowerPoint lectures and have been dispatched to adult education by their employers. However, the term is not an empty promise either.  

But what, then? 

If we look at the promises of the new learning culture with Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, we recognise its subject-oriented programming. Adult education in the new millennium needs to undergo a radically individualising transformation: the education of adults is not seen as a collective necessity (any more), but rather as a personal investment. Instead of a state-regulated right to education, adult education obligations are installed and career options are linked to certificates. Instead of putting adult education in the context of democracy, generation of knowledge and social negotiation processes on pressing contemporary issues, it falls into the clutches of small-scale certification, accreditation and assessment procedures intended to prove individual usefulness for the labour market. This transformation work certainly gives rise to criticism, especially because, at the same time, it is related to a transformation of social relations as a whole – key words here are individualisation, responsibilisation, economisation, digitalisation, dismantling of the so-called welfare state, etc. 

To what extent can Foucault’s analysis of power reveal this? 

What makes Foucault’s theory of power so fascinating to me is the radically different concept of power he asks us to think about. For Foucault, power is not located in a state apparatus, nor is it a possession. It is not that some – «the state», «companies» – have power while others do not.  For Foucault, power also does not work from the top down. The most fundamental consideration, however, lies in the abandonment of the idea that power only ever has a negative preventive or restrictive function. For Foucault, power is refined, creative, it stimulates, it challenges, in short: it supports the permanent transformation of oneself, of relations, rituals and habits. 

And that, in a way, is exactly what is required in the new learning culture: no one is «forced» to learn by someone else here; the classic structure of programmes offered in adult education, which should enable structured development of objects of learning, is replaced by pure demand orientation, in which subjects themselves obtain adult education offers like a product according to their supposed needs (or the needs of the employers). The profession – so the demand – must also withdraw with all its professional counselling, teaching and design competences because otherwise it would only determine the learning of adults from outside. It is replaced by radical self-determination of the learning subjects. The design options presented for this in a new learning culture – which can currently also be seen in the numerous online adult education courses – can certainly be described with Foucault as «technologies of the self»: instructions that enable individuals to perform a series of operations on their thinking, their actions and their mode of existence, thereby permanently reshaping and further developing themselves and their own learning. Their purpose is, above all, for designing oneself as an always flexible, self-active and self-responsible individual subject or as human capital.  

But there is freedom of choice, so to speak – or also the freedom to do without, isn’t there?  

That is correct. The outlines of a new learning culture always emphasise the absolute freedom, the unlimited autonomy and the radical self-determination of the learning subjects. However, Foucault now shows that, ultimately, we are not – cannot be – as free as is assumed in this narrative of individualism. Freedom is always a relational variable in social relations: Hegel already knew that my freedom ends where the freedom of others begins. The highlight of my analysis was therefore that while technologies of the self open up free scope for design, the subjects in them are not free – but are required to change. The credo is then «shape yourself!» and this permanently and always anew – on and on in an optimising way.  

Following the principle of lifelong learning would therefore mean submitting to the urge to constantly optimise oneself. 

In a world that is thoroughly globalised, accelerated and characterised by the narrative of constant change, a human being who is only referred to as human capital risks losing his or her right to live if he or she falls behind. If those affected are made participants, they themselves are ultimately responsible for their own failure. This process is called responsibilisation in the specialist literature. And this is the violent part of the reversal described by Foucault and called governmental strategy of power.  

In whose interest is that? 

Neoliberalism as an economic form is the ideal breeding ground for the governmental strategy of power. And it knows winners and losers – or at least privileged classes and subalterns. However, as I said, Foucault does not want to sort things clearly into top and bottom. For him, rather, the governmental strategy of power gains additional sophistication because it makes us all agents of power. The individual is no longer simply a disciplinary object to be monitored and punished. Foucault recognises a discursive practice in the governmental strategy of power: we pass on calls and invocations, play along and sign onto the governmental machinery of power on a daily basis. We are part of this power; it does not face us – even though there is obviously different positioning in this machinery. 

And if one simply refuses to join in? 

The refusal of this discourse, one could say with the American philosopher Judith Butler, bears the risk of losing one’s subject status. Or put the other way round: those who do not design themselves as capable, dynamic, flexible, intelligible (i.e. visible and recognised) subjects at all times – which is actually the mission of the technologies of the self – in a sense remove themselves from social visibility and recognition.  

Foucault developed his concept at the end of the 1970s. Why is this theory still relevant today? 

Probably one of the main reasons why Foucault’s analyses of power continue to receive unbroken attention to this day is precisely because he – incidentally, only in his late work and shortly before his untimely death in 1984 – anticipated a social development that has only fully unfolded in the past four decades. In the increasing fragmentation of society into filter bubbles, the disruption of, until recently, relatively unanimous social forces, individualisation and the associated processes of de-solidarisation, the resulting new social divisions as well as increasing polarisation in society, the consequences of these developments are also becoming recognisable for us.  

However, there are societal models that propose a solution to this dilemma. There is no shortage of utopias. 

Although he was strongly influenced by Marx and was also aware of the critical theories of the Frankfurt School, Foucault – as a thinker informed by the post-structuralist movement – expressed difficulty with the concept of utopia. Foucault understands it as our task to critique, to be critical. However, the criticism is not intended to raise the veil of false life in order to uncover what is true and unadulterated behind it. Historically, in trying to dream of a diverse, colourful, equal-opportunity world where there would be no more oppression, no more discrimination, no more privilege, there has been decidedly too little movement. On the contrary, we are constantly creating new distortions, injustices and dependencies. Consequently, for Foucault, any attempt to design a beautiful, ideal, power-free world only leads to even more refined strategies of power and new power relations.  

For the discourse analyst Foucault, there is no beyond discourse, only a powerfully created network of spaces and structures without a false bottom.

Foucault opposes the utopians with the concept of heterotopia. What is meant by this? 

For the discourse analyst Foucault, there is no beyond discourse, only a powerfully created network of spaces and structures without a false bottom. From a discourse analysis point of view, nothing can be cleared away in order to make visible what is behind it, what is «actually good»; one is always in relationships and orders. In this respect, the concept of utopia also fails as precisely that which is true, original and unadulterated beauty.   

The concept of heterotopia seems much better suited to accentuate the potential of critical uses: criticism, considered heterotopically, has two functions: it should help to expose the whole of reality as an illusion, and it should question the orders that have been created. This can expose seams where the fractures, contradictions and contingencies of a «sewn» reality open up.   

Foucault also gives us a kind of instruction manual to practise the heterotopic gaze. He recommends looking in a mirror. What can one see in it? 

A mirror reveals inspiring mixed experiences of reality and unreality. The reflection is a place without a place. In the mirror, on the one hand, I see myself somewhere that I am not at all, i.e. in the mirrored space. At the same time, the mirror puts me in exactly the place that I can occupy in reality. When we speak of the imaginations that the mirror makes possible, we are not primarily talking about an image machine that creates new image worlds, but more about an image meditation, an analysis that combines the creation with the destruction of images. The heterotopic imagination is Western deconstructive – it wants to deconstruct the standardised norm, the usually smoothly functioning, exclusionary reality, in order to make possible reconstructions conceivable.  

And with that, one can play a trick on the ever-effective power relations? 

Well, in any case, through a heterotopic gaze we can open up the possibility of recognising the structuredness of our surroundings. We see the places and tasks assigned to us. We grasp provided (self-)technologies that equally lead to the exacerbation of social inequalities, as they discriminate and determine our ideas of the good and right life or irritate us, which in any case affect us in every conceivable area of life.  

For us in adult education, it is interesting to interrupt the logic of optimisation.

Let’s now apply this to adult education or the culture of adult education. What do we see? 

For us in adult education, it is interesting to interrupt the logic of optimisation. We can question the norm orientations in recognition procedures, evaluations and quality management processes and insert ourselves as a discipline and profession between the demands addressed to our participants for self-optimisation and self-government, responsibilisation and usability. In this way, we provide a necessary explanation of these entanglements: from a power-critical perspective, adult education is not just innocently involved in imparting knowledge or advising on competence development processes. On the contrary: as an organising process, adult education is a fact and as a cultural practice it is involved in the powerful processes of subjectification with which everyday ways of living are planned, tested and practised.  

When Foucault conceived his theory of heterotopia, digitalisation was not yet an issue. Today we live in the age of digitality. Has this changed the task of educational work with adults as you describe it? 

I’d say no. What will change in an increasingly digitalised culture because of the complex entanglements between people, digital technology and society are our relationships to ourselves and the world, as well as our relationships to others. It can be seen, for example, that algorithms that make purchase suggestions based on our previous behaviour are removing part of the self-determination from our lives. The problem lies precisely here: the logic underlying the algorithms is not transparent to us. Filter bubbles, on the other hand, which arise because social networks only send us very specific, pre-selected messages, shape our perception of and about the world – and the further development of democratic societies. In my opinion, this is precisely where adult education finds its socially relevant place: at the point where it is not just about technical training or a questionable qualification to adapt to external conditions, but rather about education in a digitally shaped culture. How can adult education make people aware of these new problems? How can we design adult education as a place where these open questions about the effects of digitalisation and its very practical everyday consequences can become reflexive? In my opinion, this is the central task of adult education. 

Would this make the «brave new adult education culture» actually brave? 

In my view – and this became clear during the Corona crisis, for example – adult education education, with their potential for enlightenment and problematisation, should be perceived as a decisively system-relevant factor. In times of pandemic control, a great need for knowledge and education has become apparent in many places, which could be dealt with in the best adult educational tradition through massive educational work in different places, in different constellations, alone, in conversations or discussions. «Popular» education, however, is not only a centrally important component of pandemic control, but also a central challenge for the further development of Western democracies that are under pressure from different sides. From this perspective, adult education is not a private matter, but a public duty. Or, referring to the Czech theologian, philosopher and educator John Amos Comenius, one could say: it is a public duty in terms of making improvements in human affairs.  

Is this realistic in a «adult education reality» that is completely dedicated to the market? 

As is well known, crises always offer opportunities, not only from the perspective of educational theory. Perhaps in the future it will be possible to place fewer democratic messages like promotional items before every vote in Switzerland, but to generate differentiated knowledge and publicly negotiate complex decision-making processes through well-resourced and media-supported adult education activities. However, «popular» education in this sense cannot and must not remain the business of a few. We are therefore trying to bring together knowledge transfer, media use and community learning with a project called «Blind dates». Academic knowledge-based podcasts on current topics are the basis of the «Blind dates». «Blind dates» are when two or more people from very different backgrounds meet. They do not know each other and are assigned to each other by an algorithm. They talk about a current political issue, using knowledge gathered from the podcasts. In this way, opinion making processes are reflected on and transparent. The discussion will be made available as a podcast, making the learning experience of the discussants themselves a topic.  

And now what is your prediction for the future of adult education? 

I am an optimistic person. I do not only consider it extremely important to recall the institutionalisation within civil society, the socio-political significance and the remarkable innovative power of adult education. I think this can definitely also bear fruit. 

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