getting beyond places of pain to an ethics of joy

Working Class Academics Conference 14th and 15th July 2020 (may have embroidered a bit in presentation 🙄).

Lou Mycroft

Since this conference was announced six months ago, I’ve been on a journey inside myself and back out again. So I want to start off with a big thanks for even the idea of the next two days. Also, you’ve probably noticed already that my slides and me are not aligned. This is deliberate – I find it freeing! So the slides will rotate and I’ll talk and you, hopefully, will let your thoughts go wherever they need. 

Like many people here, I didn’t know that I was working-class until I went into an environment where people treated me as though I was less important than them, on the basis of where I came from. On the contrary, I’d been accustomed to seeing myself as fairly privileged because, although my dad – a plumber, a real grafter – was permanently out of legitimate work by the time I went to uni, we didn’t live in the kind of abject poverty I often saw around me in early 80s South Yorkshire. 

I failed my honours degree and that crushed my aspirations for the next ten years. It wasn’t until I had my son Fraser – who is speaking in the first session tomorrow! – that I started to believe I could have some influence on the world. 

This presentation isn’t about me, and at the same time it’s inevitably about the way my life has coloured the work I do.

I work in further education and further education is a working class service, as my friend Rania Hafez says. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that black, brown and white working class people make up the bulk of our students, many of our teachers and hardly any of our leaders. And we treat them – staff and students – like battery hens. Which, when you think about it, is a fine preparation for a life working like a battery hen in places like the Amazon warehouse because, after all, as the education secretary Gavin Williamson said only last week, the main purpose of education is to get you a job.

I’ve educated myself out of having a job. Like my dad in the early 80s, I’ve found that the only way I can be myself is by working for myself, though I have to say that I do – eventually – pay my taxes. I both jumped and was pushed from my 20 year career in an FE college – jumped because I liberated myself through European philosophy – more of that in a moment – and was pushed because, eventually, I was just too much myself by which I mean that I wasn’t content just to be working class, letting middle-class colleagues leapfrog over me with my own ideas, I had started to talk about it too.

Have you found this in public service, in academia? It’s OK to be working class as long as you don’t talk about it? Cos it’s cool to be around 

I want to talk with you today about how doing a PhD has liberated me to think differently about what FE can be. I’m studying with Huddersfield, where it’s OK to be working class though I do have to say it’s a bit more awkward to be a working-class person who rejects Marxism in the course of learning how to think. My frame is posthumanism, and even as I tell you that the genealogy of posthumanism comes from the Enlightenment Dutch philosopher Spinoza via Deleuze and Guattari and Paris 1968 I feel a complete dick. You can take the girl out of Mexborough! But posthumanism allows me to lift up the huge crinoline of social construct we labour under and take a glimpse of what’s really there – humans and the non-human world that’s all around us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all, ‘All Lives Matter’ because it’s very clear some lives matter more than others. At the core of posthuman thinking is Vitruvian Man, elevated in Enlightenment times to become the ‘perfect’ human, the David Beckham of his day. This is the biggest crinoline of all, that concept of ‘human’, internalised as it is in us all. Vitruvian Man formed the theoretical base for colonialism, for the othering of any one of us who isn’t as white, as male, as ‘whole’ (I put apostrophes round that), as privileged as he is. 250 years later, the philosopher Simone Bignall wrote that the further away we are from Vitruvian man, the nearer we are to death in this global Anthropocene, this time when humans have done so much damage that the Earth will never recover.

We like to think that education can transform lives and there’s enough truth in that to make the exception seem the rule. Where I used to work there was a culture of gratitude which obscured how many people actually slipped through the net and much of FE is the same. But education can’t make you more white, more male, more straight – and nor should it of course. So, in the world we live in, it can’t make enough of us more equal, for it to make a difference.

What the Enlightenment set up – what Descartes set up – was a monument that holds us all in thrall and that’s the monument of the binary.  FFS, it’s even how computers work. Our challenge is not just to end the struggles of inequality – but the structures that cause those struggles and our wholesale acceptance of binaries is one of those structures, if not the fundamental one. 

Ourselves vs ‘other’

Mind vs body

Man vs woman

Black vs white

Straight vs queer

Middle class vs working class

When I take up my posthuman lens I’ve got half a chance of seeing past those binaries – that monument and the documents that support it, documents like: 

What I choose to wear

What I choose to eat

What I choose to drink

What I choose to do with my free time

I want to be very clear that I am not less working-class because I enjoy an avocado salad with my glass of red wine. I am working class because that has been the experience of my life, an experience which still shapes how I think and act. 

The documents which exclude me, despite my privilege as a white person:

My accent

Where I grew up

Where I went to school

What middle-class people think working class people are like 

Where I live now etc etc etc

I am working class because, as D.Hunter says, I “constantly commit acts of solidarity with my class and against the systems that seek to divide us”. And that’s the heart of it for me:

I am working-class by experience and as a practice.

That’s why the people who give me grief on Twitter for how ‘unhelpful’ it is to mention class, even if our grandparents, our parents or even ourselves shared a working-class experience growing up, can’t shift me from my path. They choose not to practice working-class solidarity any more. I choose to build my career around it.

Since 2017 I have been a nomad, which is a pure Deleuzian concept (again, I’m sounding like a dick). As a nomad, I work for myself on various projects, never completely alone and always with a constellation of others – constellations which are time-bound, coming together as we do around shared ideas and energy for the life of the project. Not a team By not being employed, I’m not ‘owned’ and I can walk away – and have walked away – if the work diverges from my values. I make my decisions based on a personal, affirmative ethics which is very live in me and which I revisit at least daily. Sometimes I get paid, sometimes I don’t, it’s cool, there is enough. I swerve any attempts to territorialise me and I won’t be infantilised, no line management for me. These lines of flight are freeing up the best work I’ve ever done. 

And I came to all of this through doing my PhD, because before that, as a working class person (even a bolshie one), I’d been conditioned not to think, or at least not to think for myself. By the left, as well as the controlling hegemony of the right. 

The value that most drives me is joy – Spinoza’s notion of joy which is relational, all about the connections between people, the energy that comes from that. Joy as a practice. Working class solidarity as a practice. What a combination! Absolutely what we need in the world.

Anyway, as this joyful nomad anarchist I get to talk to loads of people across the whole of FE and I have come to realise that the work I am doing – with others – is to open up spaces where ideas can flourish – where people can flourish. Spaces which always begin with the humanising, “how are you?” not the siloed crinoline of “who are you?” As my friend Stef Wilkinson says, I am asking, “What matters to YOU?” 

Lockdown has accelerated the work and we have a real moment now to change the culture of FE so that the nonsense of othering, of disowning, of infantilising, of patronising, is transformed. We’ve got a moment because we have learned how to do this and we’ve got a moment because there’s going to be the money to do it – if we can make the case powerfully enough for an affirmatively joyful way of working, that money might create some space, rather than continuing the “misery of academia” as Moten and Harney call it. 

Three examples of what is changing FE:

  1. Ideas Rooms, facilitated in a #ThinkingEnvironment, a practice of equality, where role, rank and ego are left at the door and individuals are empowered to think for themselves whilst remaining fully present as themselves, in all their identities so it’s genuinely intersectional work. If your mind has drifted to unicorns and rainbows – STOP. This is a disciplined practice, which is why the power people resent it. The ideas generated here are already shifting stubborn cultures across FE.
  1. #JoyFE💛 a constellation of educators who have come together since lockdown to re-make a joyful education; a broadcast, a magazine, a podcast series, a manifesto, a message, a movement. A new leadership. Funnily enough, we are all women…I’ll just leave that there.
  1. Solidarity Thinking Spaces (#SolidaritySpace), a lifeline. A bi-weekly space, facilitated in a #ThinkingEnvironment which is determined to create a new narrative, and which is also just a place for working class people to be. 

This last adventure challenged my posthuman thinking, as do middle-class people on my timeline just about every day. If I’m all about changing culture through affirmative politics, turning anger into joy, why is it helpful to stay in those places of pain? I felt driven to open up the first Solidarity Thinking Space because someone I loved was in pain; I was driven by feelings and intuition (“How are you?” “What matters to you?”) rather than philosophy on this occasion but the thinking has followed. Every one of these sessions ends up in a more affirmative, a more activist space than it began so knock yourself out, haters. As long as working class people – in any community, across any intersection – are hurting because of how they are treated by The Man (the monument), we’ll keep opening up these spaces to find one another. We’ll keep practising working class solidarity. We’ll keep practising joy. We’ll channel that anger into joyful militancy and we’ll change the working class service of FE and so much more besides.


Foreword: The Joyful Noise of the Undercommons

Every PhD is compelled to add to the sum of human knowledge; that is its raison d’etre. In many cases, this is achieved by finely contextualising the experiment, in others knowledge is genuinely new and yet others bring protagonists into a plane of encounter, to observe a process of catalysis which could, of course, result in a damp squib. This dissertation[1] belongs to the latter category in that it is an attempt to mobilise via posthuman thinking a genuinely fresh perspective on English community education. Put simply, we need new tools if we want to imagine something new. It is a fundamental assumption of this research that off-the-shelf methodologies and tick-box ethics will guide us inexorably to what we already know. What follows is an attempt to test that assumption and do something different, rather than doing the same thing differently.

The central research question could be paraphrased, after Manning (2016), as “what else could community education be?” In order to keep this space genuinely open, the posthuman lens works to stay within the ‘encounter’ (staying with the trouble, as Haraway (2015) might say), resisting the gravitational pull of what community education is now, is limited to become, or used to be[2] and working together[3] to be completely in the here and now of moving forward affirmatively on a dying planet[1] . Findings are presented as a Community Education Imaginary, a phrase borrowed from anthropology, where it is used to describe meaning-making around culture and identity (Wolf, 1999).

There is no posthuman literature on community education that we[4] have found. This is genuinely new territory, full of clashing tension and likely to be messy. To employ a standard methodology would be to find solutions for things we already have the answers to[5] and in a rapidly changing world that seems like a monumental waste of time. The research is looking for, “…the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea, which catches as it were, an intuition.” (Bergson, 1998). This makes it a risky venture. Having no methodological road map it’s impossible to see the destination or whether anything “radically new and absolutely simple” could come out of the data at all. But in these apocalyptic times[2] , maybe a single throw of the die is a worthy endeavour.

The research does have a methodology and ethics, just not one that had an identifiable and pre-formed shape at the start. Our goal: not just to end the troubles of community education (which are well documented and which will be summarised) but to end the structures which cause those troubles. The process emerges from an “undercommon refusal of the academy of misery”, the term described by Moten and Harney (2013, p7) as a “joyful noise”, a “tentative holding in place of fragile comings-into-relation, physical and virtual, that create the potential to reorient fields of life-living,” (Manning, 2016 p.8). The research question will be answered collaboratively and as far as possible without recourse to old frames of reference, by those of us who are already present in the space. It therefore stands a chance of challenging the ‘monument’ (Braidotti, 2011) of what community education is perceived innately to be (which is of course not innate at all, but a series of social constructs) and maybe even start to tear down some of the ‘documents’ – procedures, processes, policies – which uphold it.

Time for this “subversive intellectual[6]” (Halberstam, 2013) to introduce the two protagonists whose convergence will hopefully spark something new:

Protagonist: Community Education

Community education is defined for the purposes of this research as any adult learning opportunity which takes place outside a traditional college or university environment, though not necessarily outside formal qualification structures. The absence of a rigorous and agreed definition of community education in England (it has a separate history in Scotland, Ireland and in other parts of the world), alongside any persuasive political rhetoric supporting its survival, has led to a fragile provision which currently exists precariously in the eye of an unprecedented storm: that of regional devolution. Since community education has no political or theoretical champions, no convincing evidence base and no agreed definition it may indeed be a lost cause. Certainly our experience of the 2015-17 Community Learning and Mental Health Research Project (DfE, 2018) revealed a petrified, terrified, sector on the brink of collapse (Mycroft, 2019a), yet it endured until at least the start of the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, albeit in a mummified form.

The research is driven not by any belief in a community education ‘golden age’ (inadvisable to revisit out of context, even had it existed) or by any desire to preserve the status quo, but by a belief in the potential, just over the horizon, that community education could be something else, something it has not yet had the chance to be.

Protagonist: Posthuman Thinking

Critical posthumanism as defined by Braidotti (2018) is also a convergence: of posthumanism (critique of the humanist ideal of ‘Man’) and post-anthropocentrism (human exceptionalism).

How can this help free community education from the chains of its history and (low) expectations? There are so many taken for granted ‘truths’ hardwired into the structures of community education that stripping back the layers is an unfathomable task, not least because the weight of assumption is so heavy that the thinker will find it difficult to withstand “the gravitational pull of the old,” (Braidotti, 2019, p.214). A significant disruption is necessary to unsettle the norms, assumptions and givens. The decentring of ‘man’ from human, and ‘human’ from all forms of life, might just do it.

This posthuman ‘frame’ provides a lens with which to trouble the structures and systems of a setting where, typically, adults return to education “having successfully diagnosed themselves as the problem” (Moten and Harney, 2013 p.36), ie they don’t fit the Enlightenment ideal of ‘man’ and are in some way ‘othered’ from society’s privilege, whilst maintaining the privilege of being human. We know, and will explore below, something about the demographic of community education being far from the middle-class ‘leisure learning’ of politicians’ assumptions (Blunkett and Tuckett, 2018); like all of English further education it provides opportunities from those marginalised by the mainstream academic pathways of school, A-levels, university.

The determination of posthuman thinking to seek out binaries and assumptions in order to see beyond not only the ‘monument’ or structure (Braidotti, 2011) of community education but also the “standpoint from which [the current system] makes sense”, to paraphrase Halberstam (2013, p.8) with reference to Frantz Fanon and colonialism, a connection which will make more sense later. Without this vital disruption to the norms of thinking, any re-imagining will be impossible.

Monuments and Documents

Throughout this dissertation, there will be frequent references to the ‘monument’ of community education (or English education more broadly) and to the ‘documents’ which uphold it.

The terms are common in historical analysis. Ceserani (2019, p16) explores the etymology, paraphrased here:

Monument – from Latin mens (of the mind), memeni (memory) and monere (recalling the past). Monuments are therefore the heritage of the past, what remains of what was established then. The ‘monument’ of education is as it is, because of a) what happened in the past to establish and maintain it and b) what remains of that, ie what historians choose to tell us. It “connates intentionality” (ibid), that is to say, it stands for something (or a set of somethings).

Document – from Latin docere (to teach or instruct); this evolved in the Middle Ages to mean ‘proof’. It has “connotations of truth or objectivity” (ibid.) The documents we see are always a selection of what ‘evidence’ has been available, however ephemerally, and the human mind – believing itself, as the essentialist human, to be the curator of the process – has made the selection. The documents therefore uphold a certain form of monument, which is believed to be its essential form.

Foucault, exploring the archaeology of knowledge (1972) contended that any examination of history had to examine the monument, rather than the documents, otherwise the original monument constructed by those documents would continue to stand. This is another way of saying, we want to do something different, rather than do the same thing differently.

COVID-19 – Stepping out of Time

The unique (and unintentional) timing of this research, bridging as it does the first wave of the COVID19 epidemic in England, provides a further counterpoint. The disruption to ‘life as normal’ during three months of lockdown, when people were told to stay in their homes unless their work was essential to the basic functioning of society, meant that lives were suddenly being lived online and access to ‘community education[7]’ was beamed into living rooms as (some) people exercised with Joe Wickes, learned to paint with Grayson Perry or danced alongside Oti Mabuse and her family.

The timing of this dissertation will probably mean that there will be little research to draw on about the uptake of these unexpected activities and certainly we won’t know about their impact on future community education curricula. And, naturally, the velocity of life is such that any piece of research is moving out of date the moment it’s submitted. But it was impossible to ignore such a schism, and so the original survey was revised and re-sent, to see if the disruption to everyday life had also provided a disruption to thinking. Nearly 400 contributions were received, including 40 received post-lockdown, in which the ideas were qualitatively different from many of the original submissions, when the potential of community education was perhaps more fixed.

In this pause to ‘normal life’ there is an opportunity to step out of time. Community education has been largely suspended in England and its future seems more uncertain than ever. As part of my stepping out of time to process this research, I was influenced by the Walking Lab’s ‘research-creation’, which “is the interrelated practices of art, theory and research,” (Truman and Springgay, 2016). They use performance art-based walking tours to take that temporal mis-step (Springgay and Truman, 2019) in order to unsettle conventional understandings of the past, present and future. This research does not use art in the same way, nor does it operate in the settler context of Springgay and Truman’s Canada. While it is impossible to remove this research from its context I can only hope that by keeping thinking open, some measure of the conclusions will be usable in any new world which ensues.

Joyful Militancy

The activism of the “subversive intellectual” (Halberstam, 2013) is probably the messiest element of this dissertation, and the most risky. Beyond the stated ethics of the methodology, there was no standing back in the name of ‘clean’ research. If an opportunity for activism presented itself, it was taken, and there is no denying that this, in turn, influenced future reading and thinking in the analysis stage. The literature review, essentially, did not stop, and activism inspired by the research process itself would have been unethical to delay.

This was due, in some part, to an emerging work around “joyful militancy” (a term coined by Montgomery and bergman in 2017, which shares the same Spinozen genealogy as this research). Joy, as defined by Spinoza[8], is ‘immanent’, ie not belonging to some transcendental ‘God in a cloud’. It is present in the connections between people and in the energy that erupts in activism in these constellations. In the spaces where we discussed this research, connections were made and activism happened[9] which in turn re-informed the research. No claim is made, therefore, for the sterility of metaphorical ‘laboratory conditions’.

The activism continues but the threads have to be cut somewhere (Latour, 2004) and in the relatively conventional narrative presentation of this dissertation there are hopefully enough anchor points for it to fulfil the requirements of the academy.


[1] Conventionally in the UK, the written submission for a PhD is known as a thesis. This word is also used in an Hegelian sense to set up an opposition and some form of victory or consensus: thesis – antithesis – synthesis. As the Hegelian dialectic is explored, challenged and critiqued by this work, the use of the word becomes problematic. I have chosen instead to use the term ‘dissertation’, which is more widely used on the European mainland.

[2] Within a given spectrum of ‘truth’: Duffy’s “rosy retrospection” (2018, p.238).

[3] For how that collaboration is achieved, read on.

[4] Following Moten and Harnay and in the words of Halberstam, (2013, p.25), “…we is always the correct mode of address here.” Wherever I use ‘we’, I am referring to some element of diffractive practice, ie my thinking is re-made because I have explored it with others.

[5] Community Education: underfunded, under-theorised and overlooked. We know this so unequivocally that it hardly seems worth spending six years of my life finding it out.

[6] The subversive intellectual, “enjoys the ride and wants it to be faster and wilder; she does not want a room of his or her own, she wants to be in the world, in the world with others and making the world anew.” (Halberstam, 2013, p.9).

[7] Defined above as, “…any adult education which takes place outside a school or university…”

[8] Spinoza wrote of ‘God’, his work was secularised by Deleuze (1970: 1988)

[9] An example of this is the #JoyFE💛 movement during lockdown, of which more below.