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Lecture 1 – Is Education Impossible? Foucault as Educator

Stephen J. Ball (Institute of Education/UCL, UK)
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Stephen J Ball is Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology of Education at the University College London, Institute of Education, previously Karl Mannheim Professor. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2006; and is also Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences; and Society of Educational Studies, and a Laureate of Kappa Delta Phi; he has honorary doctorates from the Universities of Turku (Finland), and Leicester. Honorary Fellow at Oxford University Department of Educational Studies, and Affiliate Professor University of Copehhagen. He is co-founder and Managing Editor of the Journal of Education Policy. His main areas of interest are in sociologically informed education policy analysis and the relationships between education, education policy and social class. He has written 20 books and had published over 140 journal articles. Recent books: How Schools do Policy (2012), Global Education Inc. (2012), Networks, New Governance and Education (with Carolina Junemann)(2012), Foucault, Power and Education (2013), Foucault as Educator (2017).

This lecture is an exercise in finding and exploring my own limits and limitations. That is, as an educator, of sorts, I must confront the impossibility of my role and the possibility of being something else. As a writer I must confront my failings – the failure to grasp and convey what Foucault may have had to say about education, and how he might have said it, the failure to rid myself of modernist conceits. The more Foucault I read, and the more I read about Foucault, the less I think I understand him, but perhaps at the same time, the more I understand myself. I will put myself under revision – as an impossible subject, a Foucauldian educator in a neoliberal university, a human scientist and modernist. In this respect I must also acknowledge the failings of my own ‘limit attitude’.

I shall not attempt any kind of textual interrogation of Foucault or seek to make claims about what Foucault ‘actually’ was. There is now plenty of work of that kind. Much of which ignores the style and nature of Foucault’s intellectual project; as he put it: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning” (Martin et al 1988 p. 9). This statement is important here in two senses. Firstly, for my purposes here Foucault is a starting point not a subject. Secondly, it presages the outline of an aesthetics of the self, which Foucault began in his later works, as a form of self education or self formation. The possibility of ‘becoming someone else that you were not’. Foucault, in effect, wanted to develop and explore an ethos of transgression and aesthetic self-fashioning – “Couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” he declared in a 1983 interview with Hubert Dreyfus. This addresses the problem of how to live, how to relate to one-self and to others.

So what I will attempt is to use Foucault’s early and middle work to consider what education looks like in Foucauldian terms as a history of dominations, a history of the docile subject, if you like – education as impossible. I will argue that more generally Foucault’s anti-humanism, combined with his analysis of institutions makes education impossible – Foucault as uneducator. That is set over and against, using some of Foucault’s later work, a consideration of what education might look like if we take seriously the care of the self and self-formation – a history of the active subject, if you like. That is, “making the production of subjectivity the central practice and concern of a new way of political action and organizing” (Lazzarato 2014). What I have termed ‘subjectivity as a site of struggle’ (Ball 2015). As Foucault put it in his first lecture at Darmouth College in 1980: “The point is not to excavate the hidden reality of the self” but “how could it be possible to elaborate new kinds of relationships to ourselves”.

Introducing Foucault. A Theorist of Freedom

From a foucauldian perspective the issue of education is problematic, and indeed actually to conceive of it in a modernist political context would be impossible. What I want to do in this lecture is to use Foucault to think about that impossibility and then make some gestures towards what might be a different conception of education, to create some space in which it is possible to think about education differently.I will make some preliminary remarks about Foucault and then explore some of his key methods. For me, as for other people, Foucault is not so much a theorist, he is a methodologist, it is about how to do intellectual work. One of the most fundamental influences that Foucault has had on my work is not so much the usefulness of his ideas, although that has been tremendously important, it is the way he has changed my relation to the self.

Foucault is one of the most cited scholars in the history of the Western intellectual practice. But there are many Foucaults. Foucault is not a unitary story, in a variety of senses. His work is always experimental, he was always trying out ideas, but often moving on or abandoning things he had done before, changing, adapting and sometimes shifting problematically in terms of his concepts and primary concerns. Reading Foucault very often depends on where you start and dangerously but usefully there is to some extent an early and middle and late Foucault. In each period there is a different emphasis in relation to the big themes of his work, truth, power and subjectivity. So, in the early work about discourse and The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, his primary concern was with the problems of our truth, in the middle period, in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality Part I, he has mainly acknowledged power and the late works, from The Birth of Biopolitics to the late lectures, are mainly about the care of the self, about subjectivity. But in all of those periods there is the key, fundamental relationship between truth, power and subjectivity providing a basis for his analytical work. If you start in the middle, then you get one view of his work, if you start from the beginning you get a different view of Foucault, of what means doing foucauldian work, and then if you start at the end, you can and have a very diverse view of Foucault and his work.


If you look at the body of the education works in relation to Foucault, most of them concentrate on the middle period and the most influential text is Discipline and Punish, that is used in hundreds and hundreds of articles from people to think about education as an oppressive practice, their impression is of Foucault as a theorist of oppression. But, fundamentally, it is exactly the opposite. He is a theorist of freedom! His work is about freedom, and I will come back to that later on in the lecture.

There are shifts, and discontinuity and instabilities in his work, although there are also important continuities and it is important to have some sense of the shifts in his work. Nonetheless, you have to read Foucault having in mind the role of irony. Sometimes, it is important not to take Foucault too seriously. Part of the irony relates to his illusiveness. He was committed to not being ‘a something’, obviously because his whole project was an attempt to stand outside and look at the traditions of what he called human sciences, the social sciences. He did not want to assume a position as a human scientist, he has been working on, standing outside, the problem of the human sciences.

He said:
I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning (Martin et al. 1988 p. 9).
Here is fundamental his conception of freedom, the idea that freedom rests on our relationship to ourselves and the struggle to be different from what we are. Many problems in reading Foucault originate because we come to Foucault with the whole framework of modernist social science, and we want to know where he fits and he spent plenty of energy avoiding fitting. This leads to another fundamental problem in reading Foucault, because he is studiedly anti-modernist and studiedly anti-humanist. He is not willing to accept any of the basic tenets of modernist philosophy, of modernist social theory. As Johanna Oksala (2005, p. 1) puts it:

To get closer to Foucault’s intent, it helps if one is willing to question the ingrained social order, give up all truths firmly fixed in stone, whilst holding on to a fragile commitment to freedom.
We have to give up normativity, our traditional conception of freedom, our traditional conception of politics, we have to give up our modernist building blocks of scholarship and research practice and to start again treating those as problems to be addressed. And that of course is not an easy thing to do.
If Foucault is all about freedom, about being free, he is also concerned with the dangers of freedom. His role, he said, ‘is to show people that they are much freer than they feel’ (Martin et al. 1988, p. 10). But the point of his work is also to be useful, to do something useful, to do something practical in the world. He said: ‘Everything I do, I do in order that it may be of use’ (Defert and Ewald, 2001, p. 911-912). In this respect, he is not a theorist in a traditional sense, his work is about acting on the world, acting in the world, changing the possibilities of how the world might be.
If you read in particular the later Foucault, he offers a number of overviews of his project. He tells us that he was profoundly interested in how human beings are made subjects. At the same time, he says that his work is also concerned with the history of practices, with the history of institutions, with the history of truth. But in fact all his works relate together, and they are all concerned with the way in which we construct politics of ourselves, we construct the relationship with and to ourselves and to others. He is not interested in speaking subjects, in the modern preoccupation with self. For Foucault, self is a modernist construct, invented in the XIX Century, as a product of the human sciences, and what we need is to give up on the intentions of the self. For Foucault there is no self, there is no an essential us, there is nothing there to be discovered, there is nothing that we could find through psychoanalysis or reflection or counselling. There is no real us. We are social scientists and we are produced through relations of power. For Foucault the self is a problem, an anthropological prejudice. We are authored by power, we are produced by power and he invites us to go beyond the modernist period and our preoccupation with man, with self, and look towards the possibility to unset power relationships. He tells us:

‘It is no longer possible to think in our days other than in the void left by man’s disappearance’ (Foucault, 1970, p. 34).

So he envisaged the possibility that we, as modernist subjects, may at some point disappear and the void left is, he goes on to say, ‘nothing more, nothing less, than the unfolding space in which it is once more possible to think’ (Foucault, 1970, p. 34). In effect, here there is much more perhaps than being free, but not free of power, we are never free of power. This is the possibility of some different kind of power relations.

The last general thing I want to say to introduce Foucault and his perspective is that he has always been preoccupied with writing and with the problem of writing and he described writing as ‘like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses it limits’ (Foucault, 1998, p. 206). Since his earlier works, he was always searching for ways to write, which in other words means, to articulate a position outside of modernism, outside human sciences, outside rationalism. He was very interested in things like surrealism, in the work of people like Raymond Roussel, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and also in madness as a source of the possibility of representing the world in different way. He was interested in possibilities of counter-writing that were transgressive, operating outside or on the crossover of the boundary. At the same time he was also committed, in a related way, to the act of writing as a practice of freedom and he explored in a very late paper the possibilities of what he called ‘self writing’ (Foucault, 1983) where he looked back at Greek writers writing about shaping the self through the production of texts, for example through writing letters to correspondents as a mechanism of self-shaping, of self-formation. He said: ‘When I write I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before’ (Foucault, 1991, p. 27). Writing is part of the process of thinking different, of creating stands in which it is possible to think differently.

Critique and the method of genealogy

Often a great deal of Foucault’s texts are devoted just to clearing the ground, just to setting things aside, removing possibilities, creating new possibilities, inventing instruments of thought. Nonetheless, in all of his writings there is a sense of related concepts and related commitments and fundamental to this, there is the role of critique. For him critique was not some kind of arcane intellectual practice. Critique is a form of ‘philosophical ethos’, is an attitude, is a relationship to the world, is a form of very practical ethics, and then it is also a relationship to oneself. In Foucault’s work there is always this duality, working on the world and, at the same time, working on oneself. It is a permanent orientation of scepticism or, as he said, a mode of relating to contemporary reality. It is an engagement with the world, it is agonism. Foucault sets the critique in this agonist relationship to the world. It is all about identifying and working on the limits, the limits of possibility, the limits of identity, the limits of who we might be, the limits of our relationship to practice, the limits of our sexuality, the limits of our social relations. It is all about the possibility to identify those limits as the basis for transgressing, as the basis for going beyond. And in doing that, in exploring these limits, the thing that we must confront, above anything else, is that we are ‘nothing but our history’. If we are unable to recognize the extent, the fundamental extent to which we are produced by history, then we are in the impossibility of going beyond.

In order to do this, he develops the method of genealogy. Genealogy plays a key role in relation to how one does criticism. Jana Sawicki tells us about a wonderful exchange she had with Foucault when she was a young PhD student after a lecture that he gave in the University of Vermont (see the book Technologies of the Self):

I told him that I had just finished writing a dissertation on his critique of humanism. Not surprisingly, he responded with some embarrassment and much seriousness. He suggested that I not spend energy talking about him and, instead, do what he was doing, namely, write genealogies (Sawicki, 1991, p. 15).

Do not do Foucault, do genealogies. This is the advice he gave in a number of occasions. Nowadays there is a mass of people that are doing Foucault, but not doing genealogies.

The point about genealogies makes me come back to something I started with. As he said:
My role – and that is too emphatic a word – is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed. To change something in the minds of people – that’s the role of an intellectual (Foucault, 1988, p. 10).

That is what intellectuals are for. And in relation to this, as well, there is one of his other famous comments. He said:

Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting. (Foucault, 1984, p. 88).
So the point of knowledge is critique, the point of knowledge is to demonstrate that people are much freer than they feel. That is what genealogy enables us to do. Genealogy are, as Mitchell Dean says:
histories that focus on the interplay of knowledge and power, and seek to destabilize nature and the self, and undermine claims to authority, making them problematic, difficult and dangerous. They address ‘practical issues, necessities, and the limits of the present’ (Dean 1994 p. 20).
The genealogical work starts from questions that are posed in the present. The point about genealogies is to destabilize truth, all those things that we take for granted, what is natural, what is common-sense, what is inherited, what is necessary. Doing genealogies means to look at those things as problems, to take them not as tools that we can use to think about the world, but as objects of analysis which we must deconstruct, in order to begin to create something for thinking different. But without any vision, any anticipation, of what that different thinking might be or where it might lead or what it might be for. We are talking about open spaces and not predicting what there might be in those spaces.
A lot of people have enormous problems with that, because it is all very unsettling, because it destabilizes the coherence of the subject and it seems to strip away the resources that underwrite the subject, that underwrite our coherence. These are the issues that, for example, Judith Butler takes up. She talks about genealogy as:
an enquiry into the conditions of emergence of what is called history, a moment of emergence that is not finally distinguishable from fabrication (Butler, 1999, p. 15).

In Foucault’s terms, this makes us contingent and we have to recognize our contingency, we have to recognize the ways in which we are produced as a subject, subjectivised. In doing this, we have to give up most of the basis tenets and the vocabulary that we use to talk about what we are, like sentiments, emotions, conscience, instinct. We have to recognize all these things as contingent. The point about genealogy is to give histories to things that we normally think do not have history, that we normally think as natural.
The aim of critique, as I said already, is not in producing an account that is more truthful than another account, it is not the creation of truths and to set over these in competition to some other truths. It is actually an attempt to explore possibilities of truth, to actually address and understand the grounds for, the possibility for claiming truth and to disrupt that. Genealogy is the business of destroying truths, of making truths contingent, of inserting truth back into relations of power, of understanding interpenetration of truth and power.

Is Education Impossible?

How Foucault can be related to education? The majority of works that use Foucault draws, in particular, upon Discipline and Punish and explores schools as as power houses, as an apparatus working through mechanisms of discipline, mechanisms of visibility and surveillance and correct training. In the Discipline and Punish Foucault himself contributes to this vision of school as a machinery of discipline in which power is literally made visible and invisible, is written onto bodies. Power is represented and executed in architecture and in space, and in the multiple practices of division and exclusion that actually constitute modern school. Power plays a role in organizing school as an analytic space, a cellular space that surrounds us, a ‘therapeutic space’ in terms of the ways in which teachers act on students, a space of precision, a space of exclusion, a space of division. This has been very attractive to researchers. It falls back into other kinds of traditions of analyses that sociologists use to think about school. It reproduces this vibrant, powerful, exhaustive language through which we can understand how school operates. In particular it brings into play the role of the gates and the representation of gates, in particular in Discipline and Punish through the form of the panopticon, as the gates of power, within which the learner is made visible and power itself is made invisible, where the learners see only the tasks and the tests which they must undertake as they become subjects in the ‘eye of power’, virtually made visible to the teacher.
That is all very good and I sign it, but it does, as Michael Gallagher suggests, lead to ‘Orwellian readings of Foucault’. But that is not everything Foucault has to say about world, about school, about social relations, and in a number of ways.
I think that there has been a tendency to neglect how Foucault has articulated two forms of power. He talks about discipline but he also talks about regulation, or biopower, and these forms of power operate at different levels. Discipline operates on the individual, and that is micro-politics, and regulation operates on population, biopolitics, and apparatuses put these two things into set, particularly in places like school. And indeed Foucault suggests that biopolitics, as a form of power, actually brings into play that which we call population, it actually produces the modern conception of population and population comes to appear above all else to be the ultimate end of government. What Foucault does in Discipline and Punish and Territory, Security and Population is to articulate the relationships between government and this thing he calls population. Population is the resource that can be garnered and nurtured within the objectives of the ministries and states to ensure things like economic prosperity and social welfare. What we call the welfare state is really defined by these relationships between discipline and regulation. I think there has been in the translation of his work in education a neglect of regulation, and frequently, of its relationship with discipline.
Another aspect of Foucault work I think has been neglect relates to the privileging of power and to some extent subjectivity and the less attention to the role of truth in relation to education. In some way this is paradoxical. In the Western model of education, the educational aim is the transmission of truths, the point of the learner, the point of learning is the acquisition of knowledge, the acquisition of truths. In a different sense, Foucault has been addressing the relationship between knowledge and expertise, and we operate little with this in relation to education. I am about trying to do a genealogy of pedagogy, to think about the truths that we have provided the teachers with in relation to their expertise. This is something I am trying to think about.
If we put all of that together, then the question raises, as I said, whether education is impossible. If we estimate and analyze education in relation to problems of truth, power and subjectivity, is there anything left? The question is, as Burchell puts it, whether an increase in our capabilities must necessarily be purchased at the price of our intensified subjection. So is it the case that whenever and however we are educated, we are always and inevitably subjected, we are always and inevitably made subject to and made as a subject? In a sense, this defines the limits of education which we cannot go beyond. And this will also fit with Foucault’s anti-humanism, anti-Enlightenment and, of course, education is one of the essential components of the Enlightenment. If we take all of this seriously, is there anywhere to go, is there anywhere else you can come with education, we are doing just like the end of man, like the end of education and see what comes next.

Education as Self-formation

Foolishly perhaps, I have been entranced to think about the possibility of a Foucauldian education. In order to get there, I think we have to take on board two things. One is what Foucault calls the ethics of discomfort. In his words, we have:
never to consent to being completely comfortable with one’s own presuppositions. Never to let them fall peacefully asleep, but also never to believe that a new fact will suffice to overturn them; never to imagine that one can change them like arbitrary axioms, remembering that in order to give them the necessary mobility one must have a distant view, but also look at what is nearby and all around oneself (Foucault, 1994, p. 448).

We must take on what Foucault calls the philosophical attitude, we must take on the scepticism, and begin to use this as the central possibility for looking at education, for thinking about education differently.

The other thing that is important is the shift in his thinking about power. In ‘The Subject and Power’, Foucault (1982) outlines a shift that he is making in his thinking about power, a shift from the idea of power as a relationship between the state and a particular political rationality, power as an abstract art of government, to the idea of power as a practical art of government, as something which is invested in our everyday lives, which is part of our relationship to ourselves and to others, and which is situated within the ‘points of contact’ between technologies of domination and technologies of the self. What he is suggesting is that power is part of our immediate and intimate relations, our relationship to ourselves. Rather than focusing on power as having ‘a single center’ and looking for ‘general mechanisms’ or ‘overall effects’, if we want to understand power, we should be ‘looking at its extremities, at its outer limits at the point where is becomes capillary’ (Foucault, 2003, p. 27). What he has done, fundamentally, is to make power accessible. Power becomes something that we address and resist and engage with, and is part of our everyday practices and our everyday lives. Power is something that is fundamental to how we purport ourselves, to how we relate to ourselves and relate to others.
If we make that kind of shift in relation to power, then we no longer position ourselves as oppressed, we actually create possibility to resistance and refusal and freedom. The critique now becomes something that is aimed not at the generality of power, at the abstract of power but at specific points of power, at the immediate institutional settings. Resistance becomes something that is immediately available to us, a set of provocations, mundane rebellions, not on the basis of pre-established moral positions or commitments, or even clear goals and purposes – rather, it is a commitment to transgression, a commitment to refusing the practices of power and transgressing them, and in doing so, committing ourselves to our own self-creation, taking responsibility, taking control of our own subjectivity.
It seems to me that, in some ways, we can say that what Foucault is suggesting in the Birth of Biopolitics and beyond is that politics of the self, as he called it, is the most immediate and fundamental form of politics, the struggle against the forms of subjection ‘is becoming more and more important, even though the struggles against forms of domination and exploitation have not disappeared’ (Foucault, 1982, p. 782). In other words, within the reading of neoliberalism that he articulates, subjectivity and the self become the key sites of struggle. That is the point in which he finds power in its most immediate form, on the site, on the grounds of our own subjectivity. The struggle that comes, the refusal of what we are do not mean, Foucault says, giving up with ourselves, but subjectivity becomes the key site of critical activity within neoliberalism, the struggle over what it is that we have to become and what it is that we might be. Through that struggle we may possibly create the space of concrete freedom, that is possible transformation. If we struggle on this site of subjectivity, there is the possibility that we may actually become something different, that we may actually change the ways we relate to ourselves and to others. Again, this is not about discovering our true self, there is no true self, rather it is about taking responsibility for our own self-formation, for producing ourselves, not discovering ourselves, not understanding ourselves but forming ourselves, always of course in relation to others. The struggle is the struggle of our own experience, how one experiences oneself.
This is, I think, where education can come back in, education as self-formation. A foucauldian education would essentially be not an institution but a relation. I am not talking about a space, an architecture, a set of organizations and arrangements, I am talking about a relation to ourselves and to others. What education becomes is the process of self-formation, and self-formation becomes the process and the point of being educated. Saying this also means that there is no endpoint, self-formation never starts, it never finishes, there is no finished product about self. And indeed we never know what it is that we might become, the point of this is struggle, the point is the scepticism, the point is the critique, the point is the discomfort. So education does not become a site of safety, it becomes a site of discomfort, it becomes a site where questions are raised, but it also becomes a site of the care of the self. It becomes somewhere where we take responsibility for crafting ourselves, making ourselves into what Nietzsche called an admirable self. Education is an aesthetic process. But in Greek aesthetic does not mean some abstract sense of artistic value or work, it actually means a kind of artisanship, it is a kind of craft, the work of crafting the self. So this aestheticism is not choosing some kind of artistic version of who we are, it is a crafting, an artisan version of who we are, it involves hands on ourselves, it involves efforts, it involves care, it involves practice, it involves a tension to desire, it involves what Charles Taylor (1989) calls a radical reflexivity and also, crucially, it involves audacity, dare to trouble ourselves, to dare to destabilize ourselves, and sometimes to take a delight in oneself, an askesis, a self-mastery, a practical art of living.
Lastly and fundamentally, this is also an ethical and political education. The ethical is always political and vice versa, in the formation of who we are and in the formation of our relationship to ourselves and to others, we are both producing a practical ethics, who it is that we are trying to be, and resisting to whom we do not want to be, and that has implications for our immediate relations to others. So, the care of ourselves relates to how do we treat others, it is not something one does solipsistically, individually. This process of self-formation is always done in relation to others and is always in relation to a sense of practical ethics about how we govern ourselves. It is not an intellectual exercise, but rather the production of a particular kind of experience, a reconfiguring of experience itself (Barry, Osborne and Rose, 1996, p. 6), and our experience is impossible to be thought outside of social relationships.
In the end, this foucauldian version of education is a permanent commitment to uncertainty, which again is the antithesis of modern education. This is the point to which my thinking has come so far, and hopefully that will be useful. It is a provocation, is an interruption, is a disruption and there may be things that relate to what you are experiencing in your own research. But equally it may not.



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