A note of caution about posthumanism in education

One thing I’ve been gradually noticing since I joined an education department a few years ago is how influential posthumanism is within education vis-a-vis other theoretical perspectives. I wouldn’t suggest this is anything other than an impressionistic judgement, based on the journals I choose to look at and the topics which stand out to me, but conversations with other people have left me confident that it’s at least the case that other share this impression. I find this curious because I read contemporary posthumanism in terms of a realist turn within social theory, as otherwise disparate perspectives share a common orientation to recovering a reality which sometimes receded out of view due to the excesses of constructionism and poststructuralism. The focus of these perspectives varies but what they have in common in an insistence that certain non-human elements (technology, infrastructure, nature etc) fundamentally matter and ought to figure in our explanations, even if the elements to be recovered and the process of recovery works in different ways. In that sense, the elements of the realist turn which appeal within a field of inquiry might in some sense reflect which elements are felt to have been occluded by orthodox theoretical perspectives. Hence my interest in why posthumanism has seemingly proved so influential within education.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, I should stress that I have no problem with the ‘more-than-human’. Much of my work as a social theorist has involved theorising human agency and platforms, exploring the multifaceted links between these digital infrastructures and the human relationships manifested through them. The problem I have is that, as someone whose intellectual sensibility was shaped by Richard Rorty, I believe theory should aim to reduce confusions and then get out of the way. We should aim to deflate theoretical debates for this reason by minimising redundant terminology, removing obscure elements and resisting the temptation to keep arguments going purely for the sake of theoretical victory. My concern is that a thinker like Rosi Braidotti does exactly the opposite, for reasons inherent to her project, leaving her liable to exercise an inflationary influence over theoretical debate within education. Even if the motivation for introducing her ideas is intellectually sound, I worry that it brings with it a vast apparatus of neologisms and metaphysical preoccupations which often won’t add in anything and will sometimes actively get in the way.

The thrust of posthumanism in education is often concerned with the explicit and implicit theories of learning in circulation which are practically inadequate or undesirable in some way. My concern is that elevating this into a philosophical issue of humanism vs posthumanism does little to help us understand exactly what theories of humanity are circulating, why they’re entrenched and how me might change this.

I was prompted to think about this by a thought-provoking passage in Siân Bayne et al’s (superb) The Manifesto for Teaching Online. On pg 14-15 they write about an orthodox humanist view of education and the conceptual difficulties it poses for coming to an adequate understanding of the role of the non-human and digital education. I particularly like the language of assuming a process is ‘untroubled and unchanged by the material context in which they occur’:

In this view, human agency is the supreme driver of the educational project, and the structural factors that constrain—or indeed enable—the exercise of that agency are rendered invisible. Education is seen as a process by which the individual moves toward being more fully human (Snaza 2014), making the human subject the center of educational processes and outcomes. This perspective views education as a process of socialization into prevailing cultural norms or as functioning to develop the “full potential” of an individual’s capabilities. In either case, the core processes of education and learning are presented as fundamentally untroubled and unchanged by the material context in which they occur. In this context, technologies are often seen in terms of their capacity simply to assist and enhance human capabilities and so are understood as neutral instruments of human intention (Hamilton and Friesen 2013).

I’m pointing to this example because it illustrates how theory is unavoidable. It’s impossible to identify, unpack and critique assumptions like this without reasoning theoretically and theoretical bodies of work provide us with resources which can support in this undertaking. The reason I like Siân Bayne et al’s treatment of these issues, which I think draws predominately on Actor-Network Theory, is that it moves on from the issue after it has been resolved, in the sense of clearing away detritus so the positive activity can be undertaken. This means that objects of inquiry which invoke more orthodox components (e.g. “human teachers can engage in reflective learning on the effects of the digital in their professional practices” on pg 27-28) don’t get tangled up in the cultural politics of the theoretical approach i.e. they remain comfortable talking about the traditionally human when relevant because there’s no inherent tension between these and a more-than-human approach. What I’m calling inflationary theoretical approaches struggle to do this, generating a tendency to get bogged down in the internal tensions and knots generated when theoretical categories are applied in empirical investigation.

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