whispering voices and secret idioms

Gilles Deleuze

Experience is rendered meaningful – that is, becomes a learning experience – not by grounding particulars in abstract universals but by active experimentation on ourselves in real life … It is the singularity of an informal experiential situation, rather than a mode of direct instruction, that contributes to our learning and the construction of new knowledge. [49]

Semetsky, I. (2012). “Living, learning, loving: Constructing a new ethics of integration in education.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 33(1): 47-59


What does Semetsky (drawing on Deleuze) mean by this? And what are the implications for teacher training?

We learn, says Semetsky, when in life we encounter the unknown and still unthought. ‘It is an experiential shock to thought that makes us think and learn’ [47].  The encounter is first experienced as a powerful or unsettling affect, and the process of ‘thinking through affects brings elements of non-thought into a thought’[49]. Too much of what is called education is doomed to superficiality because it requires students to jump ‘upon a pre-reflective linear solution as a univocal answer’ [51]:

For Deleuze, education would begin not when the student arrives at a grasp of the material already known by the teacher, but when both of them together begin to experiment in practice with what they might make of themselves and the world. [50]

This is a highly charged and significant process. Learning from this kind of experiential encounter requires of the learner that he/she bring the ‘assemblage of the unconscious to the light of the day, to select the whispering voices, to gather … secret idioms from which I extract something I call my Self (Moi)’ [Deleuze & Guattari 1987, quoted p 49-50].

At one level, all of this is entirely consistent with the approach of current teacher education programs. We ask students to go out on prac, to observe and do some supervised teaching, to experience the highs and lows, and then, drawing on what they’re learning in their teacher education units, to reflect on those experiences. We require them, in other words, to find words which help alleviate the shock, which help them think the unthought, and in doing so to see the possibilities of more powerful action. ‘For Deleuze, a concept is always full of critical, creative and political power that brings forth values and meanings.’ [49]

In our faculty, we call this process ‘pedagogical reasoning’. We seem to be promoting exactly what Semetsky and Deleuze call learning.

But I’m not so sure. Too many of our students experience our course less as a shock to adapt to and more of an unpleasantness to endure. There is less ‘becoming other’ than we would like to think, and more a retreat so that the student can emerge relatively unscathed when the course is over, with theory dismissed as irrelevant, and the original sense of self in tact.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this.

First is the way we sometimes present theory: we imply that theory is tested knowledge and that the students’ task is to take the theory and put it into practice. We imply that raw experience is just that, a dodgy guide to good pedagogical practice. ‘Your teaching needs to be tempered by theory,’ we say, explicitly or implicitly. Theory and practice are two things, we end up implying.

This is not how Semetky (or I) see it. We experience something, we sense the inadequacy of our previous thinking, and we are compelled to think more powerfully. Other people – in conversations, through their writing, or in lectures – help us to think the unthought, to see what was previously invisible. But this is not because they (the teachers, the researchers, the thinkers) know and we (the preservice teachers, the students) are ignorant; this is not because practice is a rough guide and theory is reliable. It is because experience and theory are, like Spinoza’s body and mind, two sides of the same coin, iteratively and substantially co-joined, neither telling the whole story, needing each other for meaning to be created. Theory – whether it comes from the outside or the inside – is just our way of bringing to consciousness the unthought, a way of relieving the pain or unusable pleasure of the affect.

Deleuze positions the origins of philosophical thinking at the level of practice. What he calls a thought without image, that is, a model of thinking that spills over the individual and dogmatic Cartesian Cogito is necessarily a mode of learning grounded in experience, in life. Thinking is oriented towards the evaluation of one’s current, here-and-now, mode of existence, of actual living, and ‘beneath the generalities of habit in moral life we rediscover singular processes of learning’ (Deleuze, 1994, p. 28). The learning process cannot be confined to a formal classroom. It is the singularity of an informal experiential situation, rather than a mode of direct instruction, that contributes to our learning and the construction of new knowledge. [48]

By giving theory primacy, we leave some of our students feeling undermined, misunderstood, undervalued and/or angry. They retreat rather than engage.

The second reason why some students will not, or cannot, engage with our courses is to do with the move away from face-to-face teaching. Students need to be helped to engage with the uncomfortable shock of encountering the unknown, with the as-yet unthought; it is relationship (formed through face-to-face encounters) that allows this to happen. My face-to-face contact time with my students has been reduced by half over the last three years. The content remains the same, and so there’s much more online preparation and interaction (and so teaching takes up just as much time as it used to). Some of this online work is innovative and stimulating, and allows for new ways of engagement, …  but only if it’s built on a bedrock of face-to-face relationship. This semester I will have only four tutorial sessions with my students. Some of my them are now less engaged with, and less affected by, the course work than I would have expected. They might still express approval in USS feedback (though it’s dropping), but perhaps that’s because our courses are now better adapted to their over-committed lives, not better adapted to their learning needs.

Articles like this one help me make sense of uncomfortable trends; they bring to consciousness whispering voices.