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.



One thought on “#BlogOff1

  1. Just Tweeted this:
    “Read this and be changed. If your heart isn’t affected and changed; ask some atomic astronomical force to blast your mind out of the way. This is just the foreword!”

    Thanks so much Lou for your obedience to the call. Something is shouting and you are one of the few listening, painting into the future an original. You equip minds to craft tools to make a new different.
    Be Brave Breaking The Hardest Ground, The Rewards Are Greatest There.

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