The body without organs … further thoughts

Body without Organs

Body without Organs

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.

The lifecycle of a thought

I’ve been thinking recently about how thoughts are formed, how they move from something vaguely intuited or perceived to being more clearly understood and articulated.

I think about this quite a lot these days. I watch myself, I observe my teacher education students, and I think back to the secondary classrooms I taught in.

The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a slow process. At least it’s slow for me, and I know it’s been slow for many of my students (university and school). Insights or understandings rarely arrive fully formed. For example, as my last few blog posts have documented, my understanding of what Deleuze and Guattari meant by the term ‘body without organs’ kept shifting (and indeed it’s shifted a lot since I wrote those last posts). I’ve had to read and re-read sections of their books. I’ve needed to write the blog posts, in order to allow my emerging thinking to become worded, so that I could sit with it for a bit. I’ve gone through gloomy times when I thought it was too complicated a concept for my brain. I’ve read commentaries and watched some online lectures about Deleuze. I’ve let things percolate. I’ve gone back and adjusted my provisional understanding of the ‘body without organs’. I’ve (finally) written a fictional story about someone wrestling with, and then applying, the concept. It’s been a slow process, never linear, constantly looping back on itself.

It’s made me think about the lifecycle of a thought.


The alchemist at work: sourced from

Jung once compared (in The Psychology of the Transference) the psychoanalytic encounter between doctor and patient to an alchemical process: encounter, mixing of the raw materials, blackening (and seeming death), emergence of the elixir (new life). Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ has a similar pattern to it. Perhaps the lifecycle of a thought is similar: encounter, confusion, despair, emergent new form. Something like that.

The image that comes to mind (perhaps only because Deleuze and Guattari at one point liken the body without organs to an egg) is of the slow process as the matter within an egg takes shape over time, and only emerges into the fresh air once it has gone though countless changes.

It is for this very reason that too much of school- and university-based learning is, for many students, not real learning at all. There’s so little time for that slow, hesitant, sometimes distressing (but perhaps telelogically driven) process to take place. There’s a reading and then a quiz, and then the students are moved on to something else. Even the idea of a cumulative curriculum (‘In week 1 we do x, in week 2 we build on x by doing x+1) doesn’t fit what I’m describing here as the more chaotic but still patterned lifecycle of a thought.

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.

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?

Affect, art and scholarship

Earlier this month, a story that I had written with three young teachers was published in English in Australia. It is a piece of fiction, though we did try to follow the poet’s craft in that we drew from personal experience, we allowed our intuitions and our imaginations to shape what we created, and we worked hard to make our story ‘ring true’, to meet some difficult to define but keenly felt criteria of verisimilitude.

There have already been some interesting responses to our story. A beginning teacher wrote to me to speak of his relief at seeing in print something that made him feel that his own experiences were not isolated ones. An experienced teacher wrote to say that he recognised certain truths in the story about the complicated relationships between mentor teachers and those learning their craft in a practicum. Others, including one of my co-authors, have talked about the way the story changed their perceptions. It seems that the story has produced an affect, or many different affects.

I work in a university and I am therefore involved in research. Readers of this blog will know that I wrestle with the nature of my research. In relation to this story, the questions I often ask myself are these:

  • Is my research – in so far as it’s connected to stories like this one – to do with mapping and theorising the kinds of affects produced? In other words, is the scholarly act to do with stepping outside the writing of the story and researching its impact?
  • Is the actual writing of the story a scholarly act in itself? If so, what can we call this kind of scholarship? If not, what does it lack that scholarship has?
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

Dr Anna Hickey-Moody

This morning I have read a wonderful book chapter which, while it doesn’t obviously answer my questions for me, certainly contributes to the complicated but interesting mix of thoughts in my head. The book is Deleuze and Research Methodologies, and the chapter is called ‘Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy’ by Anna Hickey-Moody.

I want to try to summarise the argument. I’m going to do this without opening the book again, because I know that if I do I’ll be tempted to quote large chunks of it, as it’s chock full of evocative phrases packed with resonances and (for me, anyway) affect. Her chapter rests on Spinoza’s philosophy, and on Deleuze and Guattari’s.

Affect is the imprint made on the body/mind by a body’s contact with its environment. With other bodies. These are not necessarily human bodies; bodies are assemblages of many different kinds. When a body is affected (made more or less powerful in its ability to act) by another body, this affect is registered in the body (as a feeling, or perhaps more as a changed state) and in the mind (as a thought, an image, an act of imagination). The body is changed by that contact. The subjectivity (or subjectivities) of the body is (are) in continual flux as a result of this perennial process. (As I read about this in the chapter, I’m feeling more light being shed in my labyrinth, more light on the three syntheses, and indeed a shifting feeling that perhaps I’m not in a Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth at the moment so much as exploring a tunnel or path or territory that is connected to other territories that I’ve found compelling in the past … there are links being made, and this is pleasurable).

A work of art is such an assemblage (in the case of our story, made up of connections and flows and interruptions made possible by the four authors talking, writing, being affected by each other, words being produced and seen and responded to, memories being evoked by the words and the subsequent exchanges, and so on). This assemblage is what Hickey-Moody (following Deleuze and Guattari) calls a ‘bloc of sensation’ … and here I cannot stop myself from opening the book and quoting her definition: ‘A bloc of sensation is a compound of percepts and affects, a combination of shards of an imagined reality and the sensible forces that the materiality of this micro-cosmos produces’ [94]. Art, she suggests, ‘has the capacity to change people, cultures, politics. Art is pedagogical’ [91].

As I read the article, I kept thinking of my two questions. Is she saying that job of the researcher is to map the affects that such a bloc of sensations produces, to document the ways in which art is pedagogical? Or is it to write about the world in such a way that our research papers (or our story, for example) produce affects, are in themselves blocs of sensation?

Entering the Deleuze and Guattari labyrinth

It’s time now to plunge into the Deleuze/Guattari labyrinth, following the trail without knowing either where this trail leads or whether I’ll be able to find my way back to the Queen’s Journey and the line of thinking I began in the last post.

Yesterday I wrote about the first two synthesis, the connective synthesis of production and the disjunctive synthesis of recording. (See, I’m trying to keep the way out of the labyrinth in mind, but it’s about to disappear.) These are the first two of the three processes which are D&G’s equivalent of ‘the-thing-in-itself’, or perhaps more accurately the way ‘the-thing-in-itself’ manifests itself in the world, operates, functions. The first (the connective synthesis of production – Freud’s instinctual drives) leads part objects to connect and create and/direct flows of energy. The second (the disjunctive synthesis of recording) doesn’t just record/register/create some representation of the connections and creations and directions (as I suggested yesterday); it disconnects, redirects, prevents, blocks flows of desire.

This morning I’ve been re-reading parts of Anti Oedipus and the commentary about this second synthesis, the disjunctive synthesis of recording, and this is the trail I want to follow this morning. I’m not sure yet whether the trail is my own thought process, set off by reading this morning, or whether I’m actually following a trail made by D & G. We’ll see … perhaps.

D&G have this concept of a body-without-organs, with which these part-objects somehow interact, and which seems to have the function of buggering things up while at the same time claiming to be the source of all the activity. They describe it as being, or as having, a slippery surface on which the desiring machine’s productions are recorded (in signs, language, memory?). In this act of recording production on the surface of the body-without-organs, flows are interrupted, purloined, blocked, claimed. They talk about this as anti-production. It’s a kind of messing with all the production so that it somehow dissolves, is thrown back on itself, and then needs to be repeated (the energy is irrepressible) but in a changed or different form. The thrust here (or at least a possible meaning which makes sense to me) is that D & G are trying to explain difference, they’re trying to explain the inadequacy of the Freudian implication that we’re stuck with our neurosis/psychosis/Oedipal triangles, stuck in endless cycles of repetition. They’re explaining, perhaps, creativity, new possibilities, freedom from a process determined entirely by instinctual drives.

One of the examples used (was it in Anti-Oedipus or in the commentary) is of the baby’s mouth (a part object) instinctively attached to the mother’s breast (another part object). This is the connective synthesis of production. But the baby isn’t in the grip of this instinctual connecting and sucking forever, just as none of us are in the grip of our instinctual drives the whole time. There are moments of disjunction, or perhaps more accurately an eternal process (to do with signs, representations, memory) which disengages the production machine, where meaning or direction or instinct is repulsed by the body-without-organs, and a new form of production is therefore made possible.

I’m stumbling along the path here, and there’s not a lot of clarity. But I can see, I think, enough to know that D & G are trying to make room, in their metaphysics, for difference, change, creativity.

My Ariadne’s thread here is the Queen’s Journey story. There is difference, change, creativity in the story. I’m thinking that this is part of the DNA that D & G are trying to explain.

The Queen’s Journey: Meditation 3 + segue

To segue, my dictionary tells me, is to move smoothly, and I’m not sure that this segue is going to be all that smooth. But here goes anyway.

I’ve been writing about The Queen’s Journey story. In one of my meditations, I played with the idea that stories like this say something about the drives that are built into our DNA, or into our systems. It’s something along the lines (I think) of what Spinoza was meaning by the term conatus, or Schopenhauer meant by the term will, or Nietzsche was thinking when he talked about the ‘will to overcome’. It’s what I’ve called, in other posts (following folk like Freud and Jung) unconscious desires and fears that animate.

Well, I’ve recently been trying to get my head around the writings of Deleuze and Guattari. At the moment I’m slowly reading Anti-Oedipus, and at the same time I’ve reading a commentary on the book, as well as a book on Deleuze and educational methodology. It’s slow, slow work. A colleague once told me that you’re meant to read Deleuze like you read mythology or poetry, not trying to pin down the meaning but letting the prose have an affect, letting it do its work. I guess that’s what I’m experiencing, though this doesn’t mean just opening myself up to it. Like some poetry, it means really working hard. I’m not sure exactly how this work should be done, but I’m guessing that the reading (and re-reading) that I’m doing, the highlighting (and the continual going back to the highlights to try to see threads) and the thinking I’m trying to do, are all a part of ‘letting the prose have an effect’.

I’m also thinking that writing something might help, even if I risk exposing my inability to grasp essential Deleuzian concepts. So I’m going to try here, and I’m going to try by relating what I’m reading to what I was writing about ‘the drives that are inbuilt into our DNA’.

Not all that smooth a segue, I suspect, but it was an attempt!


Deleuze and Guattari write about desiring machines, part objects that (I think I am right) are formed or characterized by three functions (which they call synthesis, a term I’m assuming they use because the functions are a collection of drives brought together to form a recognizable single function or process). First there is the connective synthesis of production. Then there is the disjunctive synthesis of recording. (There is a third – the conjunctive synthesis of consumption/consummation, which I’ve yet to get my head even close to being around, so I’ll leave that out here.)

Here’s the leap I’m making: I’m assuming that these two functions or characteristics of part objects (a cell, a mouth, a leaf, even a person, a forest) are related to what I’ve called above ‘the unconscious desires and fears that animate’. If I’m understanding D & G correctly (or even roughly), they’re saying that what animates a part object (an organism, but ‘part’ because it’s always needing to be joined up to another organ or organ-ism) has three stages, the first two being (1) the drive to produce (to create or direct flows of energy by joining up with other organs/organisms), and (2) the business of recording (or registering, thinking about, noticing, having the drive somehow imprinted). They are saying (I think) that each of these stages (and presumably the third as well, but perhaps I’ll get to that in another post) are beyond the control of the subject, and that indeed they create the subject (rather than the subject creating, for example, the recording). The subject does not create the syntheses and a sense of identity; the syntheses create the subject and the identity.

I know that what D&G are saying is much more complex and subtle than this, but I’m trying to relate it to things I’ve thought and things I’ve experienced. I’m hoping that my reading and my understanding will become more refined from this attempt.

Before finishing, though, I want to try to relate this to what I think happens in a classroom. A part-object (a student) is animated by the part objects of which he/she is made. These part-objects of which the student is made animate the student, produce in the student flows  which the student part-object then unconsciously directs as it comes into contact with other part-objects (words, teachers, other students, ideas). As these flows of energy are produced, and as they come into contact with other part-objects involved in the business of production (they are all, after all, desiring machines attempting to channel their desires in pleasurable ways) the impulses/experiences are recorded in some way, and the recording has an effect or effects: flows are redirected, shut off, increased, provided with connections which are excited, rebuffed, ignored or whatever.

I’m struggling to see what this theoretical lens offers me, though I’m sure it is offering me something important. Obviously I must first become clearer about what D&G are actually saying.

I’ll keep reading & thinking & writing.

On writing fiction as an attempted act of scholarship

RomeoJulietPrologueI’m doing my head in at the moment, trying to think about methodology in educational research. This started as a simple blog post which attempted to

  1. describe the project I’m currently working on
  2. ask myself if it’s a valid piece of educational research, or just a lot of fun
  3. wonder aloud whether our project is ‘legitimate academic scholarship’ and if the way we’re approaching this project might be dignified with the impressive sounding word ‘methodology’.

What’s happened, however, is that as I’ve been writing I’ve found myself  asking more and more questions and my thinking keeps getting tangled up. I’ve ditched several drafts.

I’m going to try again.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with three beginning teachers (two in their first year out, one who’s just finished her teacher education course), and we’ve produced a fictional short story. At the moment (it’s not finished) the 8000 word story is called Both alike in dignity, a quote from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. It describes a young pre-service teacher introducing Shakespeare’s play to his class, his mentor teacher’s reaction, and the distressing events that follow. We’re rather pleased with the outcome, though there’s still work to be done before we’re ready to attempt some kind of publication.

How have we got there?

In September of this year, I contacted these three students to see if they’d be interested in being part of a project to write some educational fiction. I described some of the relevant reading I’d been doing (Greene 1995; Stronach and MacLure 1997; Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ; Britzman 2003), and explained to them that I wanted to attempt to write a story, or a series of stories, that would in some way describe classrooms in a way that spoke to the complexity of being a teacher, that troubled simplistic accounts of a beginning teacher’s life. I wanted to look at a teacher’s work in terms of navigating a way through and around competing and intersecting discourses (Britzman 2003), intersecting life trajectories (Massey 2005) and desiring body-minds (Spinoza 1677; Semetsky and Depech-Ramey 2010). We would not set out, I suggested, to demonstrate any particular truth about any set of educational issues, but instead try to produce a creative piece which would evoke visceral responses and perhaps lead to useful conversations and even insights into the lived lives of teachers in schools.

Why fiction? There were two main reasons. The pragmatic reason was so that my colleagues could speak frankly about what they’d experienced without any concern that there might be repercussions for their young careers; we would create a fiction which, while informed by real experiences, transformed these into what Peter Clough calls ‘symbolic equivalents’. The deeper motivation was to draw on what is valued by our own discipline: we were all English teachers and we all believed that the creation of imagined worlds was a valid way of discovering and describing aspects of the world inaccessible to more rational disciplines and discourses (a belief supported by my own background in the ontologies and epistemologies of depth psychology). By writing a story, we felt we were opening ourselves up to discovering something. (And this morning I found a reference to a chapter by L. Richardson called ‘Writing: a method of inquiry’, which I will follow up when I can.)

My three students agreed to be a part of the project, and so we set about creating our story. First we talked together and wrote, them about their experiences and me about what seemed to me to be the emerging themes. I then produced a couple of tentative beginnings to a possible story (we still had no plot line), and we discussed the veracity of the emerging characters. There was a good deal of experimentation at this stage, with me drawing on my collaborators’ writing to create characters and scenes, and my colleagues responding, reacting, suggesting possibilities. Two characters emerged from this process. There was some initial antipathy expressed by some in our group towards these two characters as they appeared in these early versions, so we wrote to each other about how we might flesh them out in a more rounded and sympathetic way, how we might breathe some more convincing life into them.

We still had no plot for our story, and then I remembered an incident that had occurred a year or so ago and which (substantially fictionalised) might provide us with what we were seeking. I wrote a first draft, my colleagues responded,  and an iterative process ensued which saw me producing seven drafts before we were ready to show it to some valued and experienced outsiders. They, in turn, gave us further feedback, which we’re currently working with.

So, in conclusion, while the story was (in the end) written by me, it was a genuine collaboration: the initial inspiration was provided by the actual experiences of my colleagues and drafts of the early sketches and subsequent whole-story drafts were constantly being adjusted, reshaped by their responses and suggestions. While I have been the writer, and while the story has been shaped (largely unconsciously) by my theoretical lenses, it’s a story which has come out of our collaboration in its many forms.


So, to return to my questions: what is the nature of the thing we have produced? Is it, and the process that led to its production, an example of scholarship? Is it research?

Before I try to answer this, I want to return to what I think is a relevant current preoccupation of mine, which is the question of whether English is a discipline (a valid and distinct way of knowing the world, with its own unique methods of inquiry and forms of representation). Bill Green and Phil Cormack (2008) and Robert Dixon (2012) have suggested that English as we encounter it in schools is a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all. I find myself wanting to suggest that this is precisely what is wrong with school English at the moment, and why students – in general – find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it.I’m beginning to think that we need to reclaim its disciplinary status, or to at least ask ourselves what would be different about our teaching of school English if we were to remember that at its core is the claim that to engage imaginatively with the world through what we read and what we write is to know the world in ways unique to the English discipline.

This is an argument which, obviously, I need to think much more about, both to test out its robustness and to tease out its implications. But it’s an important argument in my current thinking about the nature of our story-writing project.

Our writing of this story, it seems to me, is an attempt to use the methods which our discipline values (in particular, the way our discipline claims that an imaginative exploration through story gives us access to aspects of the human denied to other disciplines) in order to understand better the classroom worlds we experience and in which we do our work. The argument here is that the imaginative act of creating a piece of fiction is to draw on a valid disciplinary practice in order to see more of what is.

This imaginative move is not something that can be explained, though folk like Freud, Jung, Winnicott and Hillman have all had a go. It’s just that it seems to be a useful and disciplinary-valued source of insight.

But there’s a related argument which, while I come to no fixed conclusion about it, seems relevant here. Good theory helps us to see more than we would otherwise, and there are at least two theories that have informed my thinking (and perhaps have informed the unconscious imaginative act itself, though I have no way of knowing if this is the case and, if so, to what extent). A Spinoza/Deleuzian theorizing about desiring and relational body-minds informs the underlying ontology of the story, and Doreen Massey’s notions of the nature of space have directed my gaze at the way in which space is the product of relations. Her view of space is my view of classrooms and staffrooms:

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished.

Further, I’d want to make a distinction between research/scholarship that is designed explain what is experienced and that which has as its aim to make visible what was previously underappreciated or only partially seen (Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ). In our story, we are not just attempting to further our own understanding (standing, as we do, on the shoulders of the educational, disciplinary and poststructuralist scholars who have influenced our thinking and helped us shape our methodology); we are also attempting to contribute in generative ways to the thinking of those who might read our story and who might then find themselves seeing new aspects of, and reflecting in new ways on, their own experiences, perceptions and theories.


Barone, T. (2001). “Pragmatizing the imaginary: a response to a fictionalized case study of teaching.” Harvard Educational Review 71(4).

Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. &. Cormack, Phil (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Massey, Doreen (2005). For space. London, Sage.

Semetsky, I. and J. A. Depech-Ramey (2010). “Jung’s Psychology and Deleuze’s Philosophy: The unconscious in learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory online.

Spinoza, B. (1677). The Ethics. London, Everyman.

Stronach, I. and M. MacLure (1997). Educational research undone: the postmodern embrace. Buckingham, Open University Press.

Re-imagining English teaching

At this year’s AATE conference in Sydney, I was on the look-out for sessions that would help me think about what English teaching has become or is becoming in a changing world. One of the exciting things about being involved in a profession for an extended period of time is when we find a writer or a presenter who shakes up our thinking, shows us new possibilities for the work we do.

It was over 40 years ago, when I first experienced this. A colleague lent me a book called The Secret Places by David Holbrook. Here was a writer bringing the world of the unconscious – the worlds made more visible through the writings of Freud, Jung and Winnicott– into the English classroom. Of course it had always been present: poems and novels have always had a powerful relationship with dreams, intuitions, instincts, nightmares and the imagination. But Holbrook put two apparently unlike fields – psychoanalysis and creative writing –  side by side, and the juxtaposition pointed to the powerful possibilities of allowing disaffected students to write more freely, to draw more confidently from their imaginations, to see their spontaneous imagery as being neither fanciful, distracting nor shallow.

There have, of course, been ground-breakers in English teaching since. But for a while, now, it’s been my impression that as a profession we’ve been more concerned with expansion (into the visual and the digital), classification (in attempting to name the proliferating strands of English teaching content) and consolidation (doing better what we’ve been doing before, often in the face of an unsympathetic neoliberal agenda).  There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and indeed one of the best sessions I attended (Wayne Sawyer’s Effective Teaching in Low SES schools) did all three inspiringly well.

But where, I wondered, was the new thinking about English teaching?

There was a hint of it in the opening address on ‘The rhetoric and poetics of English, Media and Drama’ by Professor Andrew Burn. On the surface this was all about expansion, classification and consolidation. It made sense to Andrew (his presentation was so relaxed and informally inviting that it would seem strange to call him ‘Professor Burn’) to think of the ways that traditional English teaching, media and drama might work together to create a more embodied experience of story and culture. He showed some examples of student work created in this area of overlap between the three subjects. Here, in this opening address, there was the suggestion – as there’d been for me with David Holbrook – of what might freshly be seen if we brought together areas that in the past had been seen as separate.

Associate Professor Jane Mills

But it was in the final conference keynote given by Professors Bill Green and Jane Mills –called Screen Culture, Literacy and English teaching: a matter of affect – that a more radical and stimulating juxtaposition was explored.  In some ways, their intention was to point out the differences between film and page, and to argue that the discourses (and the use of the word ‘literacy’)  brought to film from the world of literature – of analyzing imagery, finding words to describe meaning, locating themes, identifying techniques – was inappropriate. Film, said Jane Mills, is ‘beyond language’. Cinema, she suggested, is about the love of the moving image, it’s about bodily impression; the point is to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. To appreciate cinema, we must learn to simply touch the visual surface with the eye. Loving the screen with the senses, she added, falls outside the rhetoric of explanation. Experiencing film as it should be experienced, she concluded,  ‘goes well beyond our current ways of thinking about English’.

The effect of all of this on me was not, I’m guessing, quite what the speakers intended. They, I think, wanted us to be looking for alternatives to our text-based language – the language of analysis, coherent narrative and explicit meaning – for our appreciation of film. I left the lecture theatre thinking about the importance of body and affect for English teaching more generally, including the way we study written texts.

What would English teaching look like if we were freed from the shackles of our curriculum’s emphasis on analysis and identification of techniques? What would the English classroom be like if, instead of studying Romeo and Juliet in order to help us ‘understand and interpret’, or ‘respect the varieties of English’, or be able to name the ways in which it has ‘the power to evoke’, or to ‘develop an informed appreciation of literature’, we instead studied it in the way that Professor Mills was urging us to experience film: to experience rather than to understand, to be affected rather than to be enlightened, to re-experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, to touch the surface with the senses in a way that falls outside the rhetoric of explanation?

David Holbrook’s insights didn’t come out of nowhere; they came out of his time’s intellectual engagement with the scholarship of psychoanalysis. Similarly, the insights of Green and Mills come out of current scholarly preoccupations to do with the body, affect and the senses.  David Abram wants to remind us about ‘the spell of the sensuous’.  John Armstrong writes about the ‘secret power of beauty’.  Giles Deleuze inspired a school of thought exploring the ways in which our bodies were ‘desiring machines’ affecting and being affected by other bodies. Margaret Somerville asks us to take notice of the ways in which paying attention to affect and bodies leads to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the world. These are just a few of the scholars simultaneously drawing on and tapping into a 21st century zeitgeist which requires us to reimagine culture, individualism and the nature of knowing.

Perhaps Bill Green and Jane Mills are a part of this movement, suggesting that there’s a more radical imagining of English teaching that might bring it more in line with what our age requires of us?

What if …

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’

Yesterday an English-teacher colleague told me she’d read a couple of my recent posts (Spatial Delight and What is) and couldn’t work out what on earth they were all about! So I thought here I would have a go at explaining them, and in particular what I see as their possible connection to our work as English teachers. I do this with some nervousness, as I know from past experience that there are things I think I know in my bones that somehow don’t make their way out from the inside when I try to put them into words.

Much of our educational practice is based on the premise that people’s actions are dictated, and their future constructed, through individual mental effort around objectives. Student A makes it her objective to become a better reader, or to lead a more disciplined and productive school life, or to get on top of a particular skill or topic. She then makes certain adjustments to her daily life in order to bring this about. Her clear focus on an articulated objective leads to a certain outcome, or set of outcomes. A teacher’s job, then, becomes partly to do with motivation, with making the outcomes seem both desirable and achievable. Explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi, etc are all natural and logical implications of such a premise.

There is, of course, a certain truth here. Our imagined futures, desired outcomes, do influence our behavior. It often works when we are clear about what we want to achieve, and then make adjustments so that we can achieve our goals.

But the problem (in education) comes when we take this too far, when we think that this is the only thing that dictates behaviour and constructs futures.  There is a whole area of life that is ignored when we focus exclusively on educational outcomes, as if they were the only motivators, the only means by which to construct a useful curriculum.

What is missing from this view?

I want to approach the missing part from another direction, by describing my secondary students’ reactions, year-after-year, to their experience of ‘doing English’ from Years 7 to 12. It’s something along these lines:

I used to love reading, and I enjoyed it at primary school when we were given an opportunity to write creatively. So I thought I’d really enjoy English, I was actually looking forward to it. But it hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. There was something about the way we had to read, and the way we had to write, that turned me off reading and writing. I found myself finishing fewer and fewer books on my own, and enjoying writing much less. Because I wanted to do well at school, and in English, I paid careful attention to what got me the best marks. I learnt the game, I guess. And I’ve done OK. But I haven’t enjoyed it. I really look forward to the holiday when I can read for my own pleasure. And writing? I don’t know. Will I ever get a chance to write about what I read in a way that actually takes me deeper into the book, that increases my appreciation of it? The writing I do at school gets me good marks, but that’s all.

[See also a blog post I wrote – Play the game – after one of my Year 11 classes.]

There are English teachers  in every school who manage to transcend this tendency, who manage to build on students love of stories and words and ideas so that they come out of English classrooms more knowledgeable, more stimulated, more deeply aware of dimensions of texts or possibilities in their writing. But these teachers, I’m wanting to contend, work beyond the influence of explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi.

It’s something to do with how we conceive of the space in which learning takes place.

To imagine that learning comes about as a result of explicit and focused attention on outcomes is to imagine space as a closed system, where behaviours are shaped by a student’s relationship to defined endpoints. Student X succeeds because he is motivated to achieve Outcome B; Student Y fails because she either cannot or will not submit. The teacher’s plans are predicated on this notion of a closed system which she can, to a large extent, control. The teacher succeeds when she gets all or most of the students in the class to Outcome C; she fails when she cannot.

This is an outdated view of what is. We live not in closed and controlled systems, but in open, dynamic, unpredictable and messy ones. Spinoza painted a picture of the world as being made up of desiring body/minds affecting other body/minds as they bumped into each other, an idea which found its echoes in chaos theory and was given 20th century currency in the humanities by intellectuals such as Giles Deleuze. This is a world of interactions, of relationships, of animated bodies affecting unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes, or, more accurately, where there are no fixed outcomes but just more unfoldings of inter-relational processes. It is what is brought to the classroom – through the body/minds of interacting teachers and students – that determines what happens there, not single-minded adherence to a particular set of explicit outcomes.

When, in an earlier post, I quoted Doreen Massey about the nature of space, what I was trying to say was that if we conceive of the space which is the English classroom in the same way as Massey describes all space, then we see beyond the superficiality of outcomes, rubrics, scope-and-sequences, lesson plans (necessary parts of the picture though these might be). I’m stimulated by the following paragraph because of it describes so much more fully what actually goes on in an enlivened English classroom.

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished. Here, then, space is indeed a product of relations …, and for that to be so there must be multiplicity … However, these are not the relations of a coherent, closed system within which, as they say, everything is (already) related to everything else. Space can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else. A space, then, which is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too. (Massey For Space 11-12)

I called an earlier blog post What is, and I did this because I think Massey is trying to describe space in a way that helps us to see more clearly ‘what is’. Her description of space is closer to the way the world is than some previous descriptions, including the way classrooms have been conceived.

I’ve called this one ‘What if?’, because I’m wanting to explore the following question:

What if we thought about classrooms, about English teaching, about learning as an open interactional space in the way Doreen Massey describes it?