Where is my tribe?

My book, Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities, is written and published.

There is a part of me that wants to leave that project behind and get involved something new. But the unpalatable reality is that I need to be involved in the publicity and marketing for the book. My colleague Anita Collins has designed a webpage for me, at steveshann.com,  and I know I need to get out there and let people know about the book.

My website

My website

But who? And how?

A couple of nights ago, some neighbours came to dinner. One of them told us how a gardening project she was involved in at a local primary school was helping to turn around some disaffected kids. I asked her if she’d ever thought of becoming a qualified teacher; she’d be very good.

‘I’m way too cynical about schools,’ she said. ‘There’s so much pressure to teach the syllabus, to conform, and there are so many demands and rules and procedures that have nothing to do with good learning.’

Afterwards, I realised that she, and the many teachers who struggle to reconcile their ideals and visions with the everyday realities of the classroom, are the people I’m writing for. It’s the struggle I’ve been involved in all my teaching life. If it’s true that we write the book that we wanted to read, I’ve written a book of non-cynical stories, of stories that suggest that no matter how oppressive or pervasive ‘the system’ seems to be, teachers can keep their vision alive, their ideals in tact. The classrooms of these teachers are vibrant places.

On the long drive back from Melbourne last week, I listened to an interview with Seth Godwin  where he talked about marketing and finding an audience. He suggested that the first step in any successful marketing is finding your tribe, the people who are interested in the same problems as you are, and who want to know your solutions.

My tribe is made up of those teachers, many of them new to the profession, who are scared that the system will snuff out their ideals and their visions, and want to hear a more encouraging story.

A mockup of the book’s front and back cover

Here’s the latest version of the cover. Soon, I’ll write something about the image (it’s from a painting by Rembrandt), and why we chose it for the cover.

To see it properly, click on the image.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.41.07 am

My new book

book cover draft 1 JPG copyI have been silent here for a while, finishing my book and getting the manuscript to the publishers.
It’s now there and in production.
The publishers and I have been working on the cover and blurb. Nothing is set in stone as yet, so if anyone has any feedback on what you can see here, I’d love to hear it.

The blurb

Stories matter. Stories speak about complex aspects of our lives that intuitively we know are important but for which the language of rational discourse is often inadequate. Stories draw on archetypal structures and evocative language in ways that create affect: they penetrate,  provoke, and disturb.

This is a book of nine stories about teachers and students. A young woman sits in her first teacher-education lecture and wonders what kind of a tribe she is joining. A preservice teacher clashes with his mentor teacher on a practicum. A teacher and students inhabit an online space with unpredictable consequences. Sally discovers the Universarium. Joseph writes a story that undoes his therapist. Sylvia struggles to free herself from an oppressive discourse about the nature of teaching. Two siblings support and console each other through their complex inductions into classroom lifeworlds.  A secondary student goes missing and police, the media and his teachers wonder why. A teacher-education academic wrestles with elusive ideas in order to prepare a lecture that he hopes will make a more-than-passing impact.

There is no other book like Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities. It not only tells nine gripping stories; it also both positions these stories as part of a growing scholarship about story-telling, and provides practical ways of using the stories in teacher education and professional development.

Steve Shann is a teacher and writer with over forty years experience in primary, secondary and tertiary classrooms.

Keywords: Classroom lifeworlds, mythopoetics, teacher education, story, affect

The body without organs … further thoughts

Body without Organs

Body without Organs http://bit.ly/UCll3T

A couple of months ago I wrote a couple of posts in which I was trying to get my head around the Deleuze/Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs (The Body without Organs and Seeing Multiplicities and assemblages). I had a strong intuitive sense that this concept was relevant to what I’ve been trying to see more clearly about teaching and learning, and the blog writing was helping. But I sensed that I hadn’t quite got it. So I wrote a fictional story (it’s to be included in my new book (Imagined Worlds and Classroom Realities: mythopoetic provocations for teachers and teacher educators). The story is about an academic preparing a lecture and trying to make sense of, and be clear about, the relevance of, this concept of the BwO. In the story, the academic thinks back to an incident that happened in one of his first year’s as a classroom teacher. I’ve drawn here on my own experience; it’s the story in the blogpost A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom. The academic uses Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the BwO to help him conceptualise what happened on that day. Here is the relevant passage of my story:

For weeks, now, he has been trying to understand this weird concept. He’s read about it in Anti-Oedipus, and more recently in A Thousand Plateaus. He’s read commentaries, and even tried to write about it on his blog. For a while, it was a concept that kept slipping out of his grasp: one moment he’d think he got it, the next he’d read something that made it obvious that he was still a long way off. And then – and wasn’t it like this with much of learning generally? – this accumulated tangle of confused and jumbled thoughts about what the term could possibly mean suddenly resolved itself, almost overnight, through no disciplined synthesis constructed by his conscious mind. One morning he woke up, picked up a commentary on the concept of the Body without Organs, a commentary that he’d already read and highlighted several times, and this time it all made sense. Even more satisfying was the realisation that it was saying something about his memory of that hot Friday afternoon in his second year of teaching, and that perhaps it might say something useful for beginning teachers. All bodies seek to persevere in their own being (the phrase is Spinoza’s). Each body, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s way of saying this, is a desiring-machine seeking to join with other desiring-machines in order to increase flows of intensity. At a certain point, however, bodies find themselves organised into relationships and couplings which constrict libidinal flows, and there’s an instinctive and often unconscious move to create and occupy what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs (the BoW), but which might perhaps more accurately (but clumsily) be described as ‘A-milieu-less-constrained-by-organisation’. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari speak poetically rather than logically about this BwO.

… you have one (or several) … you make one, you can’t desire without making one … It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. … on it we penetrate and are penetrated. … The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them … the BwO is also full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance … Where psychoanalysis says “Stop, find your self again,” we should say instead, “Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our BwO yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self.

It’s what first Andrew, and then the rest of the class, were discovering and then occupying on that Friday afternoon. They, and their teacher, both found and created a space where behaviours were not organised from without, where there was license to experiment, create and play. It was a move towards a de-stratification in order to allow for more flow, greater intensities, a more animating experience for a body.

… It is where everything is played out. … A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. …The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree – to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced. It is nonstratisfied, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity … That is why we treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism and the organisation of the organs, before the formation of the strata … the organs appear and function here only as intensities.

Such a strange, unsettling, subversive concept. And what do they mean that they ‘treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism’? Again he thinks about the steamy atmosphere in the classroom on that February day, and the dormant energies of those boys slumped at their desks. The soupy mix in the egg, the soupy mix in the classroom: a milieu out of which new organisms take shape (become extended?). He and the class, in those minutes following Andrew’s question, were making their own BwO. They were freeing themselves from a previous way of being organised (by a teacher, a classroom, a curriculum, a task), and creating the right conditions for energies (potential intensities) to be released and to flow.

Seeing multiplicities and assemblages

I was a school teacher for thirty years, a psychotherapist for ten, and for the last four years have been an academic. These last four years have partly been about trying to understand, more deeply, the experience of the previous forty.

During these four years I’ve been searching for a methodology; I’ve now settled on what I’ve been calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’ve been searching, too, for a writing genre or form that works for me; writing fiction is increasingly my thing.  I’ve also been casting around for some theoretical lens that might help provide the language for what I see though a dark glass darkly; the strange, tangled and complex language of Deleuze and Guattari continues to illuminate.

I want to bring this D&G lens into my current project, which is to write a short story about a small group of teachers attempting to manage within a problematic structure.

In my story, these three or four teachers are trying to manage their own individual and collective desires to do work which is in accord with their values and their needs (both of which are complex). And these values and needs sit in some kind of tension with the values and needs of the structures within which the teachers work. The story is therefore going to be about power, agency and motivation. This is just another way of saying that it’s going to be about libido.

There are a number of D&G concepts which I think are going to be useful (though it’s something of a challenge to think of ways I can employ concepts like these in a short story).

The body without organs

This is a wonderfully slippery and rich concept.

I’m imagining a teacher as a body without organs, ‘a body populated by multiplicities’ (Thousand Plateaus p34), animated by ‘forces at work within them’(p. 35). ‘A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs … is distributed according to crowd phenomena’ (p.34) 

I’m also imagining the hierarchical structure within which the teacher works as a Body without Organs.  This hierarchical BoW reacts to the ‘forces at work within them’, to the the libidinal flows and intensities in the following way:

An apparent conflict arises between desiring-machines and the body without organs. Every coupling of machines, every production of a machine, every sound of a machine running, becomes unbearable to the body without organs. Beneath its organs it senses there are larvae and loathsome worms, and a God at work messing it all up or strangling it by organizing it. “The body is the body/it is all by itself/and has no need of organs/the body is never an organism/ organisms are the enemies of the body.”* Merely so many nails piercing the flesh, so many forms of torture. In order to resist organ-machines, the body without organs presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier. In order to resist linked, connected, and interrupted flows, it sets up a counterflow of amorphous, undifferentiated fluid. In order to resist using words composed of articulated phonetic units, it utters only gasps and cries that are sheer unarticulated blocks of sound. We are of the opinion that what is ordinarily referred to as “primary repression” means precisely that: it is not a “countercathexis,” but rather this repulsion of desiring-machines by the body without organs. (Anti-Oedipus p9) [Thanks Greg Thompson for pointing me to this passage.]

 None of this makes logical sense. How can a teacher be both a BwO in conflict with desiring-machines and at the same time a libidinal-charged desiring machine? That’s what I’m enjoying about D&G; they seem to be pushing into rich territory that lies beyond that which can be explored through logic.   

Exterior masses and internal aggregates

A valued colleague and I had conversations last year about the intrapsychic. Does it deserve our scholarly attention? Or should we instead be focussing our attention on the ways in which identity and agency is energetically brought into being by social context and relations? Post-Freudian psychoanalytical theory has wanted to emphasise  the interpersonal and social at the expense of the intrapsychic.

I like the way D&G restore a balance. When they write ‘ There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages … [Thousand Plateaus p41], they’re not just talking about external assemblages. In their preceding paragraph they write:

Above all, it should not be thought that it suffices to distinguish the masses and exterior groups someone belongs to or participates in from the internal aggregates that person envelops in himself or herself. They are always relative, changing, and reversible, but between different types of multiplicities that coexist, interpenetrate, and change places—machines, cogs, motors, and elements that are set in motion at a given moment, forming an assemblage productive of statements: ‘I love you’ (or whatever) …  [Thousand Plateaus p41]

So, when I’m writing my story, I’m wanting the writing to come from (even if it never mentions) an awareness of these teachers as ‘statement-producing mechanic assemblages’, populated and animated by by libidinal flows and intensities between the different kinds of multiplicities that co-exist, interpenetrate and change places’.

Gently tipping through a meticulous relation with the strata

I love this much quoted and rich passage from A Thousand Plateaus.

Staying stratified—organized, signified, subjected— is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever. This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bring forth continuous intensities for a BwO. Connect, conjugate, continue: a whole ‘diagram,’ as opposed to still signifying and subjective programs. We are in a social formation: first see how it is stratified for us and in us and at the place where we are; then descend from the strata to the deeper assemblage within which we are held; gently tip the assemblage, making it pass over to the side of the plane of consistency. It is only there that the BwO reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines. (Thousand Plateaus p187 )

I want its spirit to infuse my story, a story of a group of teachers trying to find a way of gently tipping an assemblage to mark out a small plot of land.

The body without organs

 

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

This morning I started reading Chapter 2 of A Thousand Plateaus. It’s called ‘1914: One or several wolves?’

I read the first few pages and had no fricking idea what was being said.

This was frustrating, given that I’d been reading Chapter 1 and thinking that I was beginning to get some of this. But it the fog descended again. It was as if D&G were making sure no reader reached a premature and superficial conclusion about what was being said, so started to mess with minds again.

(It’s been so reassuring to listen to some podcasts by very intelligent and well-read philosophers and to hear them saying, in the middle of an otherwise animated conversation: ‘… but this bit makes absolutely no sense to me’. Do we teachers do enough of this in the classroom?)

D&G were getting in a lather about Freud, and his Wolfman case. Freud was, they were saying (I could tell this much) completely missing the point.

They seemed to be particularly upset that Freud felt the need to continually reduce the richness of the Wolfman’s unconscious to a single Oedipal cause. Freud kept asking the question ‘What does the wolf represent?’, ignoring the fact that the Wolfman himself described a dream with many wolves in it, a pack of them. Freud wanted to identify a singularity when it was multiplicities that were present.

This was helping to regain some sense of connection to what they were saying. I understand multiplicities and the shallowness of explanations that imagine a singularity. A classroom for example. I cringe when I hear someone (and sometimes that someone is me) talking about a ‘receptive’ or an ‘unmotivated’ class, as if it were a single organism. Even talking about a student as ‘switched on’ or ‘unengaged’ doesn’t sit well, especially when I remember the number of times I’ve sat in an audience and been switched on by one speaker and utterly unengaged by the next. These seem properties to do with some other entity, something composed of multiplicities.

And all of that is helping me make more sense of D&G’s concept of ‘the body without organs’. A classroom is a body without organs, made up of multiplicities with their different flows and intensities, and being plugged into (or disconnected from) other bodies without organs (the students), similarly made up of multiplicities.

This seems to be what they’re saying in the following two passages:

A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena … Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organisation of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organisation. Lice hopping on the beach. Skin colonies. The full body without organs is a body populated by multiplicities. (34)

The metrical principle of these multiplicities is not to be found in a homogenous milieu but resides elsewhere, in forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido, which constitutes them from within, and in constituting them necessarily divides into distinct qualitative and variable flows. (35)

I’m trying to push myself to see what follows from all this. What is it that this way of thinking is helping me to do (rather than explain – see last post)? What is the affect?

I think it’s helping me see that the importance of lesson planning (the subject of one of the units I’m teaching) is less to do with creating a structure for a singularity (the class) and more to do with unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (the teacher-planner) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (the students) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways, into ‘forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido’.

It’s helping me to see the ways in which a group of us working together on e-Portfolios which tell our academic stories is less to do with finding a way to tick the boxes when it comes to our annual performance review and more to do with … ‘unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (each of us as individual academics) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, and also colleagues and structures with whom we share our work) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

It’s helping me to see that student motivation is much more than a function of the fixed attributes  (the socio-economic background, the intelligence, the existence of ambitions and fears) of singularities (the individual students) and more to do with … ”unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (me as teacher, the class, each of the students) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, the curriculum, the school, the community) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

The ‘helping to see’ in itself is an unblocking and stimulating. So the seeing is more than just an interpretation, a way of understanding or theorising. It’s a way of acting.

[The source of the image of Deleuze is here.)

 

Classroom flows and intensities

I’m in the Deleuze and Guattari labyrinth, and though it’s dark and tangled and I often feel lost, the  experience of being disoriented, of having familiar bearings disappear, is quite exciting.

And I’m stumbling across interesting stuff in here.

This morning, for example, I came across the following in A Thousand Plateaus (18):

… the issue is never to reduce the unconscious or to interpret it or to make it signify according to a tree model. The issue is to produce the unconscious, and with it new statements, different desires: the rhizome is precisely this production of the unconscious.(18)

The first thing this made me thing of was my thesis, ‘Mating with the world’, an attempt to think through how to respond to a story told me by a student while I was working as a psychotherapist. I started (this was nearly 20 years ago) by asking myself (to use the language that D&G use) ‘what does this story mean?’ and ended up much more interested in the question ‘what does this story do?’. Our therapeutic relationship, in the end, seemed much less to do with interpretation and much more to do with what D&G call ‘the production of the unconscious’. When the student told me his story, and as it produced affects in/on me, and my responses produced affects on him, what seemed to be going on was more to do with ‘new statements, different desires’ than with interpretation and signifying.

Then I thought about classrooms, and my current work as a teacher and researcher. It’s not easy to wriggle free of the notion that my teaching job is to do with skills and knowledge and my research work is to do with interpretation and communication. But what if my work is more to do with production of the unconscious ‘and with it new statements, different desires’? What might this mean?

I like this shift.

It focusses the attention on the lifeworlds of classrooms, on bodily affects. It gets at the central (but boringly explored) notion of motivation from quite a different direction. Instead of the focus being on classroom management models, teacher strategies and the intrapsychic ambitions and limitations of students, an emphasis on ‘the production of the unconscious’ asks us to think about the way classroom lifeworlds are produced as a result of the circulation of affect.

Not just ‘think about’; do. Not just interpret; produce.

The central question becomes: How can we, as teachers and scholars, increase the production of affect, open up flows and intensities of desire in a world (the classroom) of un-pin-down-able multiplicities?

Time to mull

imaginationtree2.jpgIn October last year, I wrote a series of blog posts as I tried to get my head around Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.  It was hard, sloggy, not-entirely-pleasurable work, and I wasn’t sure that I was making much progress. I tried to find connections between what I was reading and a story I knew, and then to ideas I have about teaching, all interspersed with healthy doses of blind speculation about what D&G were actually meaning. I ended up writing about an article (by Anna Hickey-Moody) that helped make sense of some of it.

But then the momentum lost energy, the hard yakka petered out, and I forgot about Anti-Oedipus. I’d read about a quarter of it, but wasn’t moved to read more.

Instead I started working on other things.

The revision of an article (‘A love towards a thing eternal’)  on Spinoza and the lifeworlds of classrooms (which I’ve been working on for over three years now) took a couple of weeks.

Then I wrote what I hope is a more coherent articulation of the connection between fiction and scholarship (‘A mythopoetic methodology: Storytelling as an act of scholarship’).

Finally, over the past month or two, I’ve been writing a couple of the short stories to be included in the manuscript that I’m contracted to submit to Sense Publishers around the middle of this year.

It was when I was working on the second of these two stories that I had a mini-epiphany. My break from Deleuze and Guattari wasn’t a break at all; something had continued to work away beneath the level of my consciousness.

This became evident when I found myself creating a character who, like me, was finding some of the ideas of D&G strangely relevant, and who surprises himself one day by reflecting on an experience in Deleuzian terms. This character has been trying to work out why a particular event took place in the way it had, and so he’d been speculating about its root cause, the one factor that might explain what took place. But then he says:

Not root cause, but what Deleuze and Guattari would call something like the simultaneity of multiplicities each of which represents an assemblage making and breaking connections with other assemblages. Lines of flight, seepages through gaps, planes of immanence, desiring machines coupling and uncoupling with other desiring machines.

The surprise was how easily this came out, and how naturally it seemed to describe what this character had been experiencing. This wasn’t me slogging away to try to understand something not-a-little foreign and indigestible; it was me drawing on a way of seeing the world that I had, to some extent,  internalised.

The epiphany was not exactly that. I’ve known, of course, that lots of learning is like that. You work hard at trying to serve a tennis ball, nothing seems natural but you persist, progress seems non-existent, you leave it for a few days … and then, at the next practice, it’s as if your unconscious has been at work smoothing over the rough bits, making necessary adjustments to the way you think and the way your body functions, and the serve seems to work!

The epiphany was more to do with the way we too often undermine this process in our education system by denying the need to just ‘sit on things’ for a while. If there’s a common complaint from most students and teachers, it’s that there’s too much pressure to get content covered. It leaves so little time to let ideas or potential insights settle so that they can then percolate in the background. Too little time to let things be sorted out at some level beneath our conscious awareness. Or for the apparently aimless mulling that we do if we are given some relief from the cancerous need to tick things off on an endless to-do-list.

Had I been tested on my understanding of D&G in September (how those two would turn in their graves at the thought of a short-answer quiz on their key concepts!), I would have done poorly. I’d still struggle, I’m sure, but perhaps not quite as much.

I’ve since begun to read parts of D&G’s A Thousand Plateaus. It’s offering up its ideas a little more easily. Is this, perhaps, me becoming a more receptive reader, as a result of what I’ve been describing here?

A hot afternoon in a 1971 classroom

Some stared off into the distance, a couple squabbled half-heartedly, half a dozen had their heads on the desks (was Michael actually asleep?), and even the most conscientious were struggling to keep their minds on the rather mundane exercise I’d set for them. Well, it hadn’t seemed mundane when I was planning it the night before; in fact, I’d managed to convince myself that this activity would, finally, allow the students to get their teeth into something enlivening. But it hadn’t really worked.

We’d shut the windows to keep the hot February wind out of our classroom, but this only made it worse; after a lunch hour tearing around outside, twenty-five sweaty boys meant that they brought the heat in on their bodies. All day – no, if I was honest, all week! –  I’d struggled unsuccessfully to engage them, and I was beginning to think it was time to abandon the attempt.  Maybe it was best just to see out the afternoon and try again tomorrow.

This was 1971. This was my second year of teaching and I hoped it would be a fresh start after a challenging first year at a different school. I was desperate to find some way of focussing the intelligent energy I was convinced was there, though up til now I’d seen only flashes of it. The boys were usually compliant, most of them keen to please and wanting to continue to succeed (as most had done at this Melbourne private school), but there’d been little real intellectual excitement.

And, right now, there was none. Just lethargy. Going through the motions. Waiting for the bell. I could feel it in myself.

Then Andrew, something of a class clown, climbed up on a desk, apparently intending to open one of the high windows in our stuffy classroom. There was a long rope attached to this high window, installed make it possible to open the window without climbing on the desks, but Andrew wasn’t a boy who liked to do things the obvious way.

‘Andrew,’ I said rather irritably (and perhaps more loudly than was necessary). ‘Get down from the desk.’

A slow smile spread across his freckled face. He had my attention. He looked down from his vantage point and saw that he had everyone’s attention. He grabbed hold of the dangling rope and put it loosely around his neck.

‘Is this a hanging offence?’ he asked.

We all laughed.

I looked around the room. Where a moment before the boys had been listless and unconnected, suddenly they were alert, focussed, engaged. It was what I’d been hoping the exercise would have done, or any number of things I’d tried during those early weeks.

I very much wanted to prolong the moment, and, not quite sure where this would lead, I had an idea.

‘You are on trial, Andrew English,’ I intoned in a voice that I hoped sounded like some 19thh century judge, ‘for the wilfull act of attempting to hang yourself by the neck until dead. Take your place in the dock …’ I hastily moved one of the desks so that it sat in relation to my ‘judge’s’ desk where a dock in a courtroom might be. ‘… and subject yourself to the full might of blind British justice.’

Andrew’s smile broadened. Then he made a half-hearted attempt to look awed, bowed his head, and solemnly got off the desk and sat himself down in the ‘dock’.

I sat in the judge’s chair and hastily appointed a lawyer for the prosecution, another for the defence. Other students became character witnesses or observers, court reporters and the like. The ridiculous nature of the alleged crime – attempting suicide – was never questioned; we’d suspended disbelief.

For the next hour or so, our classroom was transformed, the heat forgotten. I watched as a group of lethargic 11 year olds transform themselves, in an instant, into a galvanised team attempting to creatively cope with the excitingly unexpected. They put on new voices, adopted new body language, created (in that hour or so) a new space shaped by their imaginations and ability to think on the go.

All of that happened 43 years ago. I think it’s possibly fair to say that I’ve spent the last 43 years trying to understand that moment better, and to find ways of building what I glimpsed at then into my teaching. Dull minds became intelligent, spent bodies became animated. Something significant was triggered, released, harnessed.

One way of describing that moment would be to say that a story was told that captured imaginations, got into bodies, agitated molecules, and changed the way an environment was constituted. A story did something. It became an actor, an agent, a mover, in our classroom. We became infected by its presence and found ourselves being carried along by a momentum that hadn’t been present before the story made its entrance.

During the past 43 years, I’ve come to know better (but never understood enough) about the ways in which a story acts in and on the world, and how this capacity of a story to do its work can be used in classrooms to release and focus dormant energies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I moved into secondary English teaching and then, for a period of about ten years, into psychotherapy, where those who came to see me – often adolescents or primary aged children – would tell me stories and we would work with them.

These two moves – to secondary English teaching and psychotherapy – were, as I said, perhaps unsurprising, given my professional preoccupation with the potential power of story. Yet in both those professions, I found myself being diverted from my earlier insight that a story is a free agent, an actor, a do-er of things in the world. In both secondary English teaching, and then in psychotherapy, I found myself being unconsciously seduced by the notion that a story is less an agent of unpredictably but exciting change, and more an object to be understood and studied from a disciplined distance.

On being made dizzy and earnest by Deleuze and Guattari

When Deleuze and Guattari are writing Anti-Oedipus, and writing about these dynamics (desiring machines, the body-without-organs, the three syntheses), at what were they looking? About what were they writing? Where might I observe a body-without-organs? Where might I look to see a desiring machine? What’s the unit they’re imagining? I can see that I haven’t got a clear grip on this. I keep wondering where I might see these processes in action, but I struggle. So, maybe if I become a bit clearer about what D&G were looking at when they were writing, what it was that they were picturing, maybe it would become clearer to me.

The title, Anti-Oedipus, should help. Freud, in writing about Oedipus, was writing about patterns and processes of the unconscious, patterns which influenced (determined?) behaviour and formed a sense of self. D&G think that Freud’s psychology is narrowly deterministic, bleak and inward-looking. Narrowly intrapsychic, perhaps. Like Klein and Winnicott, and in a way like Jung too, D&G are wanting to shift the focus to a more inter-relational place: desiring machines coupling, channeling flows, experiencing blocks and so on, as different couplings take place. These are body/minds, not just unconscious psychological processes. And these organisms, these body/minds, are not just a single entity in a human individual (an individual unconscious); the human body itself (is it a body-without-organs, in the sense that D&G use this slippery concept?) is made up of lots of desiring machines coupling and uncoupling, driven/animated by desire and whose dynamics are described (say D&G) by the three synthesis. Everywhere there is life there is production, recording and consumption; everywhere there is creating, frustration, repetition and difference.

Everywhere. This process that animates is present not only within individuals but also within the socius, the social body. Anti-Oedipus is also a response to Marx. I’m even less clear about exactly what D&G are objecting to with Marx; I’m clearer (I think) about why they employ (but play with) Marxist concepts: production, machines, surplus, capitalism. D&G are wanting to say that the processes which drive the individual body/mind are the processes that drive the social body/mind as well.

So, as I read and try to make sense of what they’re writing, one moment the body-without-organs seems to be the individual’s body (I’m not sure about this), the next it’s (in historical order) the gods, the despot, capitalism. And, as I read, I keep imagining the body-without-organs as the school, the university, any institution (socius?) that appropriates the productive capacities of the part-objects (the people whose labour fuels these bodies-without-organs): recording, appropriating, directing, blocking and bestowing a sense of identity upon the desiring machines (in this case people) who make up its engine.

So maybe D&G are elusive in all of this because they’re wanting to conceptualise something that’s elusive but omnipresent. The book is like a big, rambling, complicated poem, full of allusions, metaphor, shifting images, unconscious shifts, aiming to make an impression, have an effect and create a felt response rather than the kind of thinky one I’m attempting here.

I’m reading Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects at the same time as reading Anti-Oedipus. Stewart’s book is obviously in the D&G tradition: desire, flow, affect, event, interruption, trajectory are ideas she keeps returning to. But it’s so different from Anti-Oedipus! It’s so concrete, so set in actual human lives.

I suspect that part of my struggle is my age and background. Some of my younger colleagues and some of my students are at home with postmodern texts in a way that doesn’t come so easily to me.

As I was about to post this, I noticed one of my six aphorisms from my last post, aphorisms I wrote roughly 20 years ago:

Play: To much earnestness, too great an iron focus on getting to the essential meaning of things, gets in the way of the most important therapeutic activity, which is play.