In Praise of Studying, or The Importance of Studying as Political Action

written by pavleheidler
edited by Rebecca Hilton


During my years studying at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios, and the MFA New Performative Practices at The University of Dance and Circus at the Stockholm University of the Arts, I had the privilege to engage in an informative relationships with a small number of mentors, most of whom I’ve had the chance to work with in more than one of the named institutions. I am drawing from my experience of those relationships in the reflections that follow. I am also drawing from my experience of working as a mentor, and a colleague; a young, queer artist, and a feminist.

What I would like to examine in this text is the complex and intimate relationship, the bond that forms between the mentor and the mentee. I will attempt to tackle the principle according to which “responsibility” becomes an opportunity or else an excuse for “censorship”, and why the employment of such principles cannot be excused any longer. And I will look at what is at stake in education today. Whilst my primary focus is education within the field of experimental dancing and choreography, where choreography is understood as an expanded practice, I will often times refer to education as such. I am of the opinion that given the state of the world we are currently living in, we cannot afford not to think the bigger picture, we cannot afford to think the stakes are not the highest they’ve been in my lifetime.

Ever since I was a child, I raised objections whenever anyone tried to teach me anything. I firmly believe (and I have to believe here, because how could I ever empirically support the following narrative) that I wouldn’t have objected to the imparting of knowledge as such; I was and remain too curious, too eager, and too excitable to refuse partaking in transformative experiences. (1) Study, as I see it, is a transformative experience. What I must have raised objections to were the conditions under which the imparting of knowledge took place.

I don’t know if the following is a trademark of the culture you grew up in, but myself, I grew up in a culture which doesn’t celebrate knowledge. Articulated thought in the context of daily life is seen as a complication and a nuisance, and those who practice such crafts are frequently given the cold shoulder. Philosophising is shamed, since it means “to make simple things unnecessarily complicated,” and to call someone a philosopher is generally meant as an insult. Knowledge, in that respect, is not something that people aspire to.

That people don’t aspire to knowledge means that knowledge is rarely engaged with on its own accord and engaging with knowledge is rarely seen as a source of pleasure. In fact, knowledge is often imparted only when necessary, which––in most cases––means: in the wake of a supposed failure, or else: following a (supposedly past and finite) action. I say supposed failure because what if teaching in this instance itself creates a failure by naming an action one that needs correcting? And what happens when correcting becomes a dominant method of imparting knowledge? What consequences might that have on a culture?

In that there needs to be a reason to justify the imparting of knowledge, teaching is reactive; i.e. it manifests as a reaction. When manifested as a reaction, teaching must be methodologically preconditioned, it must affirm and reproduce a preëxisting order of things. This is due to the “nature” of reaction. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reaction as  “a resistance or opposition to a force, influence, or movement; especially: tendency toward a former and usually outmoded political or social order or policy”. A reaction, in that regard, could be defined as a recognition of things falling out of order, in which case order, however it may manifest, is per definition reminiscent of the past. This becomes especially relevant in environments which are concerned with contemporary (arts education) and research because the artist and the researcher, the ones who are expected to challenge the boundaries of what is currently possible to know, cannot afford to be concerned with the preservation of the past. This is not their job. It never was.

What motivates my criticising of the kind of practice that works to preserve order––at least within the context of the white, western middle and upper-middle class educational system, which includes most dance training facilities and institutions that I’m familiar with––is due to the fact that this particular order, as I see it, is reportedly a profoundly dysfunctional order (2) that has a tendency to––amongst other things––define studying as always concerned with the improvement of one’s efficiency: if to be efficient is to be able to say things clearly, using few and simple words; if to be efficient is to be able to be polite, able to avoid getting on anybody’s nerves; if to be efficient is to be able to avoid misunderstanding, and worse: failure. 

How many times have you advised a student to simplify and clarify their language or their form, without explaining specifically in response to which observations you were making such requests and to which, desired end? How many times have you advised a student to adhere to a system of value, without giving them a chance to position themselves critically in relation to that same system?

Teaching that manifests as a reaction, i.e. reactive teaching, is often conditioned by an intense emotional disposition (later: belief in responsibility) and high levels of stress (later: lack of time). This is due to the fact that reactive teaching: (1) must happen in the short period of time between the singling out of the evocative action that is recognised as one in need of correcting (this comes as a surprise) and the inevitable restoration of order (this must happen as soon as possible), (2) must happen spontaneously (the teacher has no time to prepare, acts from instinct instead of critical reflection), and (3) must happen because the teacher believes they have the responsibility to act: to restore to order what has fallen outside of it as soon as possible.

Whoever is on the receiving end of this kind of attention can do little but comply, obey, align with the standard, and hope to be able to cause as little disturbance as possible in the process of doing so; if only because the social consequence to disturbing (the precious) order can be and/or is unbearable––as will be known to most feminists, queers, and other-abled people––namely, all those individuals who keep challenging the norm not because they want to, but because they cannot help but to. To be on the receiving end of the kind of attention that is reactive teaching, to recognise oneself as a disturbance in response to such attention, is emotionally and intellectually triggering, and can scare one into a state of shock.

In that at the moment of reactive teaching the teacher works under pressure and the student is in the state of shock, reactive teaching––methodologically speaking––doesn’t give itself to negotiation nor critical reflection. Because it comes as surprise, because it must be added to the already existing timetable in which it produces a rapture or a delay, because it is the state of exception, the state of alarm. Once we’re through it, however, it is quickly forgotten. And so it avoids critical reflection, yet again.

In my quest to articulate, to understand what is that makes it nearly impossible to stand in the way of the non-negotiable, such is reactive teaching, I turn to Sara Ahmed, who in Living a Feminist Life (2017) names the following principle: When you expose a problem you pose a problem. This principle speaks to several observations I am hoping to formulate with this text. To contextualise this principle, Ahmed describes the following situation:

“However she speaks, the one who speaks as a feminist (3) is usually heard as the cause of the argument. She stops the smooth flow of communication. It becomes tense. She makes things tense. We can begin to witness what is being locked in this dynamic. The problem is not simply about the content of what she is saying. She is doing more than saying the wrong thing: she is getting in the way of something, the achievement or accomplishment of the family or of some we or another, which is created by what is not said. So much you are supposed not to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that we.” (4)

In order to preserve that we. Reading Ahmed, I am beginning to more consciously examine those habits, internalised (5) during years of conditioning and disciplining in a larger cultural context––e.g. that of the family––that we transpose, and bring––via the complexity and the consistency of our bodily experiences, namely: bodily memory––to inform the choices that can be, and often are made within the contexts of the university. In order to preserve that we, I wish to argue, what we are doing is standing in the way of study.

Ahmed again. 

“One time much later than my other killjoy moments over the family table, I was having dinner with my sister and her (then) partner. He begun saying things about Aboriginal people and how they would complain about the army moving a rock because it was sacred. He was deeply offensive. I responded. Maybe I used the word racism. I can’t remember if I used the word, but it was on my mind. Racism was on my mind because racism was in the room. Whatever I said, he became very angry, but an anger that took the form of silence and stares. He sat there, steely faced, for the rest of the dinner, not touching his food. Waiters hovered nervously. We spoke politely around him. When I woke the next morning, my mother called, and she had heard that I had put him off his food. When will you ever learn––I could hear those unuttered words.

Poor him
Mean” (6)

Unlike the stress posed by the lack of time described earlier, this one is more difficult to outline, as it is made real by performative utterances––words and gestures that are subtle in their performance and most importantly: internalised; both in the action (a sigh, a smirk, a tick, a quiet sound; the pressure created by someone’s heightened attention) and the reception (lowering of the gaze, physical withdrawal, nervousness). That these habits are internalised means that one cannot examine them as theoretical curiosities only. These need to be examined as behavioural patterns, complex forms deeply rooted in one’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual––but most of all––physical faculties.

The difficulty with examining behavioural patterning is that it can hardly be done by an external observer without detailed, and long term observation. This kind of commitment, apart from being time-consuming, is expensive and probably ethically questionable if administered in the form of unrefined institutionalised action. In the meantime, examination of behavioural patterning––and reporting on found results––is happening on an individual basis at all times, except that cultural trademarks are currently in place that discredit such reports if they are articulated, vocalised, i.e. shared publicly. Écriture féminine and other feminist practices, art practices, and the practices of study have been challenging the discrediting cultural trademarks more or less successfully since there was challenge to be made. The following is an example of resistance in the poetry of Nayyirah Waheed.

my whole life
i have
ate my tongue.
ate my tongue.
ate my tongue.
i am so full of my tongue
you would think speaking is easy.
but it is not.

–– for we who keep our lives in out mouths (7)

That challenges have been made doesn’t unfortunately mean we’ve learned how to hear then, let alone accept them as our own.

Jack Halberstam, in their introduction to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) writes: “When we refuse, Moten and Harney suggest, we create dissonance and more importantly, we allow dissonance to continue–when we enter a classroom and we refuse to call it to order, we are allowing study to continue, dissonant study perhaps, disorganised study, but study that precedes our call and will continue after we have left the room. […] And so, […] we refuse order as the distinction between noise and music, chatter and knowledge, pain and truth.”

In other words, when we refuse to call the room to order, we refuse to tie the student’s experience of studying to an existing standard only. We refuse to affirm our student’s, but also our own relationship to the institution we are there to represent as un-critical. By this action we might enable the kind of study Moten and Harney stand for: the study defined as “a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you”. (8)

Mentorship often happens within the framework of an intimate relationship, in as much as it often happens between two people. Mentorship often happens between two people who are separated by an age gap. Mentorship often happens between two people who represent different realms of responsibilities; one might be a freelance artist, a freelance educator, or an educator who is an employee of an institution, the university; whilst the other might be a student, sometimes of that same institution, the university. Both might be functioning within the field of a specific professional environment, and have probably already and to a degree internalised the value systems of that particular environment.

In many ways, what is described above is only remotely removed from a description of any familial cross-generational relationship; that of a parent and a child, that of cousins who are of different generations. That these relationships are similar could be triggering in a positive or a negative way, depending on what kind of relationships we, the students, have established with our elders and vice versa. Be that as it may, the behavioural patterning internalised within the context of the familial must be transferable to public relationships, via the complexity and the consistency of one’s bodily experience, namely: the bodily memory. The reason I am interested in examining the kind of behavioural patterning developed early in life and at home is because it exists, it is real, it frames what is possible to do so deeply, to refuse to examine it would be foolish, to say the least. What is the best way of examining such delicate aspects of the human experience at the intersection of the private and the public is yet to be decided.

I see the relationship between the mentor and the mentee as the most critical one to examine. Due to the fact that the relationship between the mentor and the mentee might be one of the most intimate relationships a student can experience in the course of their education, this relationship holds the potential to create the conditions within which the student can experience their study. To experience studying, in my experience, is what becomes the source from which to draw the kind of capacity that makes it possible for one to become independent, and self-confident in one’s process. 

This I see as a chance for the student, because of how closely their process is followed, to practice critical examination and critical reflection, to practice articulation and contextualisation, to practice collecting of experience, to learn how to study. In order for this to happen, the focus of the student’s work must be their own process, their own research, and not hijacked by the stress connected with achieving, gaining recognition, etc. Studying, in that respect, ought not to be seen as a professional endeavour, or motivated by possible and future professional gain. Studying, in that respect, ought to be regarded as political.

In conclusion, I must insist on a vision of mentorship, the purpose of which is not to direct, but to encourage and care, if to care is to make possible. This is why I think mentors (and all teachers, eventually) ought not push an agenda or even help students “do good”. Instead, my proposal here is that mentors should be little else than storytellers, should do little else than tell stories. Mentors should, in other words, make information available, but leave it to the student to critically reflect, deduct, and decide what to do with the information provided; where to implement it, why refuse it, when to remember it, how to misplace it.

What is at stake here is educating, or: bringing up the kind of critical thinker who can remain critical under pressure, who is not afraid of conflict, who can think independently, and make an informed choice. What is at stake here is the raising of a feminist. This is crucial if we are to dismantle this culture of oppression, this culture of reproduction, this culture of competition. This culture that Hannah Gadsby so eloquently recognises as “stuck in the perpetual state of adolescence”.

*

Post scriptum.

What I’ve noticed working with mentors and mentoring thus far is that the mentor, given their best intention, cannot foresee what of the information they aim to pass on will be impressive enough for the student to take in. Likewise, I’ve noticed that the students themselves can rarely be in control of their interests in the way that allows them to actually stay in control of their interest. In much the same way that the mentor can’t control which information the student is going to take in, the student cannot control what information will manifest itself as truly impressive.

It takes years for one to realise, to recognise what piece of information actually made an impression. It takes years for one to realise, to recognise what piece of information actually stuck.

I am currently making an attempt to formulate a community-driven project, entitled The Legacy Project, that would document that the self-reflective process of recognising value in given information using the method of storytelling and eventually outline the lineages of intimate relationships that made the transfer of information and the recognition of value possible. I wish to align this project with an oral tradition in order to expose the effort it takes to articulate in language what is deeply rooted in physical experience, and the importance of recognising of the physical experience as central to the process of study. Physical here stands for emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and whatever other bodily faculty one might have access to and be using in their daily life.

You can look The Legacy Project (9) up by following the link below.


The Legacy Project at IDOCDE.net
The Legacy Project on VIMEO

*

Post Post Scriptum.

All this time I’ve been referring to the student, to the mentee, I might have referred to the apprentice instead. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an apprentice as “one who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers a trade, art, or calling”. I am interested in that archaic and possibly romantic notion of apprenticeship, that long-term relationship that is based on trust, on patience, on examination, and conversation. That age-old notion so elaborately documented in the tradition of storytelling.

written in the summer of 2019

notes:
(1) Some call this behaviour annoying, especially adults who recognise this behaviour in other adults.
(2) This order is an order of colonial capitalist privilege. It is also an order I think to be a counter-intuitive and a self-destructive when practiced in the context of the study of art and art making.
(3)  as the one who challenges the norm by falling out of order, by breaking the rules, i.e. the student who is studying
(4)  Sara Ahmed, 2017, p. 37
(5) I am using the notion internalised here in reference to the notion of internalised homophobia. Revelandriot.com defines internalized homophobia as follows: “Internalised homophobia happens when LGBQ individuals are subjected to society’s negative perceptions, intolerance and stigmas towards LGBQ people, and as a result, turn those ideas inward believing they are true. It has been defined as ‘the gay person’s direction of negative social attitudes toward the self, leading to a devaluation of the self and resultant internal conflicts and poor self-regard.’ (Meyer and Dean, 1998). Or as “the self-hatred that occurs as a result of being a socially stigmatized person.” (Locke, 1998).”
(6) Sara Ahmed, 2017, p.39
(7) Nayyirah Waheed, 2013, p.78
(8) Jack Halberstam in Moten and Harney, 2013, p.11
(9) Responsible for moderation, management and the hosting of The Legacy Project is IDOCDE.net and myself, in the role of the editor of the IDOCDE website.