Introduction: thinking about this paper

[Word version available]

Many years ago my doctoral supervisor, Jack Whitehead, asked me what I saw as the relationship between the Holocaust and my action research. In those days I was unsure, but over the years the question has become increasingly clear, and is now at the heart of my research. These days I ask it of all the people I work with. From the question, I have come to see how human wellbeing, or lack of it, is underpinned by specific theoretical perspectives, and how these in turn are underpinned by specific values and logics. What we value about the world, and how we think about it, informs the forms of theories we generate about how we are and how we act. I know what I value, and I know what and how I think, and I celebrate my capacity to articulate this epistemology of practice. My entire project now takes the form of enabling others and myself to see how we are all responsible for the wellbeing of one another, as well as implicated in any forces that act against that wellbeing. I believe that it is the responsibility of all, especially those of us positioned in Higher Education, to ensure that we spend our best efforts in ensuring that all our lives are valued, all voices are legitimated, and all have access to the social goods that will enable us to live our lives without fear of becoming the objects of others’ constructed apparatuses of inflicting suffering.

Coming to these understandings has involved appreciating that different people work from different epistemological and theoretical perspectives, underpinned by different values and logics. I choose to work from a living form of epistemology, in which I see knowledge as dynamic, in a constant state of creative transformation. This view is not shared by all. Aristotle believed that thinking should take only one form, in which contradictions would be eliminated by means of the Law of Contradiction and the Law of the Excluded Middle that claims that everything is either A or not-A. Following suite, Popper believed that any theory that contained contradictions would be useless as a theory (Popper 1963).

I acknowledge that the technical rational forms of knowledge and propositional forms of theory that these forms of logic tend to generate can be valuable for more fact-based and technically-oriented practices, yet I do not believe them to possess the potential for enabling processes of cultural renewal, full as they are of creative conflict and unresolved ambiguities (I develop these themes shortly). At the same time, I see that dynamic and inclusional forms do possess this potential, and, in my field of educational research, how this potential manifests most plainly in what has come to be known as the new scholarship. So in this paper, I explain how my research intents are accommodated within, and therefore why I am interested in contributing to, a new form of living educational theory (Whitehead 1989) and a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999).

The new scholarship is different from traditional forms of scholarship in that it locates itself in the real world and places the living ‘I’, in company with other living ‘I’s’, at the centre of the enquiry. The aim of the new scholarship is to enable people to engage in their action enquiries in order to transform their social situations where their values may be denied in practice into more satisfactory situations where people can live their values more fully. This sits well with my educational and social commitments. For twenty years I have been supporting people around the world in finding ways to transform their social situations, and I have, most importantly, seen how influencing processes of cultural transformation means first engaging in intellectual transformation. This insight has matured slowly, involving the long and problematic process of my own intellectual transformation. So my paper becomes an explanatory account of why such transformational processes are important for human wellbeing, and it becomes a case study of how such processes can be nurtured. I produce evidence to show some of the processes involved in the transformation of social cultures through the transformation of intellectual cultures, from propositional to dialogical forms, and from a focus on a technicist form of thinking, to a dialectical form of communication and an inclusional mode of enquiry that has the potential to open the imagination to new possibilities of engaging in the processes of life itself. I am claiming that I have learned how to contribute to the education of cultural formations, and I produce evidence to test this claim from a range of sources, and especially from my work with a group of teachers in a South African township, where I have been teaching a masters degree programme through action research for eighteen months, and from a group of Irish teachers at the University of Limerick, where I have been convening a doctoral research programme through action research for the last six years. This work has led me to interrogate certain assumptions in my own thinking about the nature of cultural shifts, leading to new insights and new practices which I am communicating here for the first time. I hope to show how my account of these practices has the potential to inform new forms of cultural renewal, in South Africa, Ireland and perhaps elsewhere. All these ideas are linked in the common thread of finding ways of contributing to an improved experience of the quality of life for all, through the practice of celebrating the kind of values that can contribute to a quality life experience for all.

I take as a main conceptual framework for this paper my reading of Judith Butler’s (1999) idea of performativity, which is to do with the need for a critical interrogation of normative assumptions about normative practices. Butler maintains that all conceptualisation proceeds from and is influenced by the dominant epistemology within and by which is it conceived. The term ‘gender’ is itself therefore automatically gendered through the normative gendered epistemology that gives rise to the term, because this epistemology is masculinist and patriarchal. Like Christian (1988, cited in Fortier 2002: 115, writing from a black feminist perspective), Butler believes that theory itself is part of an exclusionary, white male discourse that does not relate to the experiences of women. Furthermore, she believes that human practices need to be deconstructed as products of the same processes of thinking that one uses to think about them, and, for Butler as for Christian, dominant forms are exclusionary and alienating of some people’s experience. I agree. Deconstructing the content of thought without deconstructing the process of thought used to generate it is tantamount to urging your next door neighbour to cut their long grass while standing knee-deep in your own, or recommending to people how to write a text through a manual that is itself poorly written. It can be difficult for someone positioned as a rightful occupant of a majority epistemology to comment on a minority experience without contributing to the ongoing exclusion of the same minority through the exercise of one’s own epistemology and form of language (see hooks 1993).

Yet, to carry this deconstruction process through to its logical conclusion, I do believe that, while it is essential to engage with such critiques, it is also essential to be aware of the thought processes one is using oneself to launch such a critique. I am aware that this caution applies to myself in the writing of this paper, as well as to the people whose work I am speaking about. Derrida (1976) has persuasively argued that one is never free of the form of logic that one uses, and deconstruction itself involves ‘an unravelling of phenomenological assumptions from within’ (Fortier 2002: 69). So, given my interest in the capacity of different forms of theory to act as the foundation for cultural transformation, I ask whether Butler’s (and others’) use of a solely propositional form of critique has the explanatory capacity to make such a contribution. My own view is that, while it is essential to engage with such critiques, it is also essential to move beyond critique, a practice which itself takes a normative propositional form, into a form of post-critical consciousness, so as not to fall into the trap of critiquing a form of critique while using the same form oneself. This, I believe, is a persistent contradiction in Butler’s and others’ thinking, as it used to be in mine. I hope in this paper to produce evidence to explain how, through being aware of and avoiding such contradictions, there are greater possibilities of establishing the integrity of one’s research through establishing the validity of the processes that have led to the research claim.

I organise the rest of my paper as two parts. First I consider the idea of performativity, in relation to the content of thought, and explain how it is necessary to deconstruct the concept at an intellectual level in order to liberate the potentials of one’s own emanicipatory intellectual and social practices, in relation to the processes of thought. At this point I remain largely within a propositional form of logic, where my focus is on concepts as theoretical constructs. Second I offer examples and evidence of how it is possible to do this, which may then stand as exemplars of good practice. At this point I move into a living form of logic, where I tell stories to show how the theoretical constructs take on lived meaning through their realisation as living practices, and I produce live evidence of my real-world engagements that acts as the grounds for my claims that I have developed a critical perspective to my own work and research as I seek to contribute to the education of cultural transformations. I demonstrate how I incorporate propositional forms of existing knowledge within my living forms of knowledge-creation, as I urge others to consider how these ideas may be contributing to a new scholarship of educational enquiry (Whitehead 1999) that has the explanatory power to contribute to cultural shifts in the world order.

The idea of performativity: thinking about values and the contents of thinking

Judith Butler takes as a key theme for her book Gender Trouble (Butler 1999) the idea of troubling normative assumptions and practices, including the form of thinking that allows for an easy and unproblematic categorisation of the world into particular forms of hierarchical relationships, including the form of language used to communicate this categorisation. She comments on her aims in writing the book as follows:

As I wrote it, I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relation to certain forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself. I was writing in the tradition of immanent critique that seeks to provoke critical examination of the basic vocabulary of the movement of thought to which it belongs (Butler 1999: vii).

I recognise myself here. In the past, I too have adopted this stance, and I can point to evidence and explain the growth in my own thinking that has enabled me to move beyond. I recognise that at one time I too adopted an oppositional stance in relation to certain forms of educational research, even as I understand my texts to be about educational research, and I also have offered an immanent critique that seeks to provoke critical examination of the movement of thought to which it belongs. Over the years, however, I have come to see the need to adopt a critical perspective to my own thinking. I am reminded of this need by Said, who says:

I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.

(Said 1991: 28)

Learning also from Derrida (1976), of the need to unravel thought from within the processes of thinking used to generate that thought, I have come to see the need to become critical of my own stance, and explain how I hold my knowledge lightly and provisionally, and I have deliberately focused on developing a critical consciousness in relation to everything I do. This leads me again to the work of Butler.

Especially in recent times, I have come to challenge the practice of what Butler terms ‘performativity’, the idea that there is a Law that exists somewhere, which all must obey. She explains it like this.

I originally took my cue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s ‘Before the Law.’ There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object.

(Butler 1999: xv)

In other words, people learn to obey an invisible law, which does not necessarily exist in real life. We make it real through imagining it is real, and it then becomes a cultural practice. Drawing on the work of Julia Kristeva (1984), Butler explains how the law can become conflated with the Symbolic. These ideas have special significance for me. I have seen how others and I have been caught up in the law, and so have become imprisoned through its effects, not necessarily from its imposition by an external agency, but out of our own assumptions that the law exists, throughout the cultural Symbolic, and must be obeyed. For example, I have frequently lent myself to the assumption that certain cultural norms are acceptable, and I have often been quick to agree with, for instance, those in institutional power, when they have chosen to position themselves within normative hierarchies, that theirs is the better view. It has taken a lifetime of the self-conscious unravelling of my own thought from within the process of thinking to come to the understanding that the law exists for me because I choose to subscribe to its existence. The law exists because I choose to create it, from the grounds of my individual commitment. Kafka explained this at the end of his story. He tells how the man who stands before the gate of the Law grows old through his standing, and how, at the moment of death, he asks the gatekeeper what is behind the gate.

The gatekeeper bends way down to him …

‘What else do you want to know?’ the gatekeeper asks. ‘You are insatiable.’

‘All people strive for the Law,’ says the man. ‘How come in these many years no one but me has asked to be let in?’

The gatekeeper realizes that the man is approaching the end, and so, in order to reach his waning hearing, he yells at him:

‘No one else could be let in here, for this entrance was meant for you alone. Now I’m going to go and shut it.’

(Kafka 2003: 251)

We create our own Law, spurred by the assumed rightness of the idea of an externally given reified Law, and this tendency is exploited by others whose interests the idea of an invisible law serves, who carefully put in place strategies for its perpetuation (see Chomsky 2000). Bourdieu (1990) knew all about invisible laws when he spoke of the way the habitus is a given, in that we are born into certain traditions, including intellectual traditions, that perpetuate themselves through their own self-legitimation, grounded in the willingness of people uncritically to subscribe to the given. And, because the idea of an invisible self-legitimating law is so deeply entrenched in the psyche, it is often not possible for people to break out of the form of thinking that leads them to believe in the law, so that they can come to critique the form of thinking that leads them to think this way in the first place. This kind of critiquing of one’s own thinking from within the thinking itself can be difficult, and involves some mental acrobatics, some shifting of gestalts, so that at one time one is looking at the content of thought as the object of enquiry, as the figure against the ground of consciousness, and this arrangement then shifts to see the object of enquiry as the form of consciousness itself, which now becomes foregrounded as figure. Figure and ground, content of thinking and form of thinking, move about in a transformational relationship, rather as in yoga, when one focuses on the thinking process rather than on the content of thought (a marvellous technique for getting off to sleep, when you consciously watch out for the moment you are going to fall asleep and then wake up wondering when it is going to arrive).

I have learned how to foreground consciousness of process as fluently as I foreground content of thought, so I now characteristically think about concepts within a finely tuned awareness of my processes of thinking. This intellectual capacity has been born out of taking action and working out explanations for the action in the midst of the action, sometimes to avoid what could be catastrophic cultural breaches, and sometimes to avoid hurting someone’s sensitivities by responding too hastily to something they have said. It has also been fostered by the decision to act on the critical feedback of others (note1). In relation to my practice in South Africa I have experienced the difficulty of critiquing my own readiness to challenge what I have perceived as some people’s normative assumptions without giving due recognition to the legacies of socio-cultural and historical contexts, and the personal and social problematics of struggling with the upheavals of a new post-apartheid order. I have learned to challenge the contradictions in my own concerns around how some people do not seem to value their considerable intellectual strengths, while failing to understand a historical backdrop that has deliberately communicated that these strengths do not exist. I have had to challenge normative assumptions on my part, too, for example in requiring participants to engage with scholarly literatures and grumbling at them for not citing sufficient sources, while myself ignoring the context of an oral tradition that positions the written word as of secondary importance (see Tuhiwa Smith 1999); and then requiring them to produce a literary form of work that will satisfy the demands of a Eurocentric form of higher degree accreditation without introducing a new form of intellectual colonisation (see also Coetzee’s 1988 White Writing). I hope that this has been achieved, in that people have come to see the usefulness of the western intellectual tradition from their own choice, perhaps because of the utilitarian benefits of engaging with these ways for global influence, without jeopardising their own cultural integrity, but I cannot be sure. I hope I have enabled them to critique their own normative assumptions, and to choose for themselves whether to move into a new post-critical consciousness that enables them to create their own new futures. Shortly I produce evidence to suggest that this may be happening.

Similarly, and in relation to my own engagement with the scholarly literature, I have come to see the futility of launching a solely propositional critique, as Butler and others do, without moving beyond the critique and taking action to try to redress the unsatisfactory situation one is in. Talking about performativity never moved anyone out of the practice of performativity, or challenged its real-world power, although talking about it may have been a necessary starting point. I now see it as a moral responsibility to offer this critique, from my own real-world perspective. I agree with Butler’s analysis of performativity, as it is used to keep people under control by rendering them submissive to their own imagined constraints, yet I am pointing out the deep contradiction of speaking only about performativity without acknowledging one’s own intellectual performativity in doing so, one’s own perpetuation of a propositional form of thinking that engages in critique without showing how it is possible to go beyond the propositional critique into new living futures that have been generated by the critique. Valerie Hey (2006) makes the same point, speaking about ‘the same theoretical logic demanded by the idea of performativity’ (page 452), without, unfortunately, demonstrating that she herself has moved out of a propositional form from which she can critique Butler’s work with moral and intellectual integrity.

So this is now where I go, as I begin to move out of a discussion of the linguistic terms of performativity and critique, and show how I give living meaning to the terms through my real-life practices and also how I encourage others to become aware of their real-life performative practices in order to take action to change them.


Transforming performativity: thinking about processes of thinking

I have learned how to transform the abstract idea of performativity into an emancipatory form of life in which people come to offer explanations for why they find ways actively of living in the direction of their own identified educational values. They do this by undertaking their action enquiries into their current circumstances, and finding ways of improving them. They begin by addressing the generic question, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead 1989), and then ask themselves critical questions about what they are doing, thinking and learning. Their questions can take the following form:

  • What is my concern?
  • Why am I concerned?
  • What kind of data can I gather to show reasons for my concern?
  • What can I do about it? What will I do about it?
  • How will I generate evidence to show the educational influence of my learning?
  • How can I be sure that any conclusions I come to are reasonably fair and accurate?
  • How will I modify my ideas and practices in light of my self-evaluation?

(see also McNiff and Whitehead 2005, 2006; Whitehead and McNiff 2006)

It takes a certain type of mentality for people to be prepared to ask these kinds of questions, because the questions themselves search both consciousness about the practice as well as consciousness about consciousness itself, which can be a risky business. The trouble with honesty is that one never knows what conclusions are going to be drawn, and some people prefer to stay away from the exercise altogether. It is something like the foundation of many self-help books, such as Canfield (2005), who requires people to be honest with themselves if they are to take control of their own lives. ‘Take 100% responsibility for your own life,’ admonishes Canfield (page 1). ‘Be clear why you’re here’ (page 28), and ‘Reject rejection’ (page 209). It can be difficult for some of us to engage with this idea that we are fully responsible for our lives and for moving from the comfortable stasis of oppressive cultural traditions such as learned helplessness or paralysis through indecision. I once could not choose between two pairs of equally attractive shoes, and the dissonance became so severe that I walked out of the shop without buying either. Investigating one’s own practice requires a particular form of mentality in deciding that one’s life belongs to oneself, and a particular form of determination to take responsibility for doing something about unsatisfactory circumstances.

It also requires an awareness to change one’s ways of thinking if necessary. This can be the most painful process of all, since having one’s eyes opened to a material reality, rather than an imagined reality such as the imagined reality of performativity, means coming to and stepping over a point of no return, which in itself can be a dangerous and destabilising place to be. Polanyi (1958) speaks of the irreversible nature of opening one’s eyes to reality: ‘Having made a discovery, I shall never see the world again as before. My eyes have become different; I have made myself into a person seeing and thinking differently. I have crossed a gap, a heuristic gap which lies between problem and discovery’ (Polanyi 1958: 143).

This is how I have also learned how to enable people to transform their intellectual performative practices of remaining at the level of propositional critique, by encouraging them to move beyond to develop a post-critical living consciousness. They can do this by systematically interrogating their own values and logics, and checking whether they have crossed the heuristic gap which lies between the critique of identifying what is happening in an unsatisfactory situation and why the situation is as it is, to a post-critical intentionality where they make conscious choices about what they propose to do in order to improve the situation for the wellbeing of all participants, while checking all the time for potential slippages between their intent and their actions. Many people find that they transform their logics from a commitment to critique to a commitment to improvement through dialogue. I place below two such stories from the teachers whose masters studies I support in South Africa, about their experiences of liberating their own thinking through undertaking their action enquiries. The first story is from Tsepo Majake. Speaking of his plans to conduct an action enquiry to improve his practice as a mathematics educator in a township school in South Africa, he writes:

‘The vision of [South Africa] is greatly compromised by advantaging one form of knowledge over another [in a South African context, the propositional knowledge of books and official guidelines is greatly advantaged over the personal knowledge of teachers and other practitioners]. All forms of knowledge have their own place … It is important to realise that each form is as important as another and that without one form, some disciplines would not exist. … In my [action] inquiry, I will explore incorporating in our mathematics learning everyday experiences and also the creation of learners’ own personal theories. I am hoping to develop a transformational form of pedagogy in which I encourage learners to explore their own potentials for knowledge-creation.’ He also speaks of the transformation in his own thinking. ‘For a number of years I have taught my learners to be “paper tigers” and “armchair revolutionaries”, people who talk the talk but never walk the talk. My concern was to see them analysing content conceptually and to see them return to me what I had given to them. A clear distinction has got to be made between theorists and “verbalists”. Theorists offer descriptions and explanations of what they are doing while verbalists offer descriptions of what they are going to do but never follow up with action. I am looking to influence my learners to be theorists rather than verbalists, to encourage them to make thoughtful decisions about their learning and not just talk without reflection. My views have changed since I began investigating my practice as part of my research programme, and my concern now is how I can influence my learners to learn in such a way that they will be able to make sense of what they are learning, using their personal interpretive strategies that are informed by their past and current experiences and how they are positioned in the world. The theories they develop about how they learn and what they learn will then form the basis for their sharing of the experiences, hoping to influence each other to learn from the experience. This I believe has the capacity to change what is being learned and how it is learned, and this has the ability to change the teaching of Mathematics from a traditional propositional perspective to a value-laden living approach where the accounts may be presented linguistically and symbolically, and will show the lived reality of practice and how it is potentially influencing others.’

(Majake 2007: 4–5)

Similarly, Arthur Mgqweto, also a teacher in a township school, speaks of how he has opened his eyes to the power of his own potential agency. First he speaks of some of the difficulties of engaging in a Eurocentric masters programme, with its expectation of critical engagement with the literature:

‘Macintyre (2000: 15) [says] that one of the principles of action research is that the research plan is informed by literature. She continues to say that action researchers who read are enriching their experience. To be honest, reading is not one of the normal practices for us Africans, due to the fact that we have a long history of passing information verbally from generation to generation, and this has made some of us lazy in engaging with the literature. This Masters programme has worked wonders for me personally in this regard, and I am hoping that this piece of work will contribute to the standard of quality set by the key thinkers in the field of research.’ Speaking of what engaging critically in his learning has done for him he comments: ‘All these years I have been looking and searching for a rationale for this situation [the alienation of learners and their lack of engagement with learning]. When I try to enquire from colleagues about the reason, some put the blame on the medium of instruction, some put the blame on the government’s banning of corporal punishment, some put the blame on the illiteracy of parents, some blame the government for not providing enough resources, some educators are demotivated because of low wages and other reasons. I always ask myself questions regarding these issues. Is it possible for these issues to be addressed and at least improved? If it is, where do I start? If I decide to tackle at least one of them, will I get the support I need? The location of my home is about twenty kilometres away from my place of work where poverty, gangsterism, teenage pregnancies, robbery, young people acting as parents, and the effects of the HIV pandemic are daily experiences among African communities. These conditions add further complications to my daily practices because they also need to be attended to. Lack of human resources in the education fraternity to attend to some of these problems is worsening. It is even difficult for me to spend all the time that I would wish to spend with my learners because I have to travel by public transport. Despite all the obstacles, I have made up my mind that I will never sit back and watch the work of my own hands fall apart. I will try my utmost to help my learners gain some interest in the subject. It is one of the reasons why I am making this action plan [to take action to improve my teaching of mathematics].’

(Mgqweto 2007: 1–2)

This kind of determination to do something about an unsatisfactory situation, underpinned by a resilience of values and a dialogical logic of inclusion, is now normative among the group whose studies I support. From my limited knowledge of the wider culture, I can only say that the development of this kind of critical consciousness, and a determination to take action with social intent, seems to be what is required to move towards a more sustainable future within what is still a post-apartheid post-modern moment of indecision about which new directions to take and which cultural identity to develop (see Gaylard 2005). These reports, and others like them, also seem to signal the development of a culture of critical awareness amongst our group to engage with a capacity to take control of the present in order to transform it into a future in which oppression, including the oppression of one’s capacity for critical engagement, will indeed become a thing of the past.

My work with this small group of teachers in South Africa is symptomatic of work in other contexts, where practitioners, individually and collectively, are deciding to take control of their own futures by investigating what they can do in the present. ‘The present’ however is a problematic concept. I was interested to read in Trask and Mayblin (2005) of different perceptions of time.

In English, when we say that something is in front of us, we often mean that it’s in the future, while something which is behind us is in the past. This seems so natural to us that we rarely think about it. But not all languages are the same. The ancient Greeks did it the other way round. … The answer appears to lie in the way that people perceive time. We English speakers, apparently, perceive time as standing still while we travel forward through it. Hence the future is in front (we are travelling toward it), while the past is behind us (we’ve already been there). [Whereas the Greeks] perceive [themselves] as standing still while time overtakes [them] from behind. So, the future was still behind the Greeks – and not yet visible – while the past was already in front of them – and hence visible, at least to some extent.

(Trask and Mayblin 2005: 53–54)

I wonder whether these different perceptions of time play a role in the decisions people make about whether or not they will intervene in their own futures. If we see ourselves as standing still while things happen to us and overtake us, there seems little point in trying to change things. My own view is that I see myself at this point of the present, stepping off the edge into the void of the next moment, and this enables me to have a sense of my own agency in ensuring that this moment is the opportunity to create a future. I try to communicate this passion for creating the future within the present as the responsibility of humanity to create the future we wish to have. But this view involves adopting a metaphorical stance that sees the world and its occupants as involved in a creative process of ongoing creation, a view that may be alien to those who see reality as propositionally given, and moving towards a predetermined end.

This returns me to my main theme of performativity, as it influences cultural practices. I have supported many people in building up their own intellectual and emotional capacity to take hold of this moment and transform it into something better, in spite of the normative habitus that says they should not destabilise the status quo or go against the Establishment of cultural elites who decide what counts as knowledge and who should count as a knower. In Ireland, three women have achieved their doctorates through studying their own practices, and in so doing have moved their action enquiries into a context of cultural transformation. Bernie Sullivan (2006) shows how Traveller culture should be valued, within a dominant culture of the exclusion of minorities; Caitríona McDonagh (2007) shows how children with dyslexia are able to create their own learning strategies to teach themselves how to learn spellings, and so reject the label of learning disabled with which they are currently identified; Máirín Glenn (2006) shows how she has transformed normative epistemologies by examining her intellectual and social practices to the extent that she has developed an emancipatory epistemology of practice. Mary Roche (2007) and Margaret Cahill (2007) are both in the final draft phases of their PhD programmes. Mary focuses on how she has learned to become a critical thinker, and Margaret explains how she has developed a living theory of inclusional practice. These five women are setting new standards in Ireland for what counts as valid doctoral work, and have demonstrated the emancipatory power of moving from the constraints of traditional propositional forms of enquiry to new scholarship forms.

And what of me? Where is the evidence of my own intellectual transformation that has enabled me also to overcome my inclination towards performative intellectual and educational practices? For anyone who has the patience, the development of my own critical thinking can be traced through my publications. In Whitehead and McNiff (2006) I tell the story of how I became conscious of my unknown commitment to Whiteness, and how I transformed this as soon as I became aware of what was going on. In McNiff (2006, 2007a) I explain how I learned, from the frequently problematic experiences of working in a culture foreign to myself, to develop compassion for myself and the people I was working with. In McNiff (2007b) I explain why I have deliberately adopted a narrative form for my writing about educational theory, a form that is quite different from the orthodoxies of the dominant literary canon of educational research. My story here about learning how to challenge performativity is quite different from, for example, Hey (2006), as a prime example of the orthodox literary canon of educational research.

Furthermore, I am able to explain what I see as the significance of this work. There are limits to what the orthodox literary canon of educational research can do, grounded as it is in propositional logics. It can offer insights about how we got to where we are. It can offer cultural and political analyses. It can make suggestions about what needs to be done to transform current unsatisfactory situations. Yet a propositional tradition is unable to show the processes required for moving into a lived reality, and for showing what can be achieved when real people mobilise their personal and collective resources to do something about unsatisfactory situations. The stories I have offered in this paper are more than simply stories, or stories about personal revelations. They are research stories, grounded in an inclusional epistemology that sees knowledge as the creation of a critical knower, and the transformation of that knowledge into living theories as the manifestation of the capacity of a knower to offer robust explanations for their lives and to justify their claims to know their own practices.

This, I believe, is a key strength of a living theory tradition, and I illustrate this by drawing an analogy with linguistic theory. Trask and Mayblin (2005) explain how the distinctive nature of human language lies in its capacity to perform creative linguistic transformations on syntactic strings. A dog may say ‘Woof’ but cannot say ‘Not woof.’ A dog cannot form questions, or perform abstractions, or talk about is own capacity to say ‘Woof.’ By analogy and extension, I am saying that explanations for the performance of such creative transformations is most persuasively offered from within the living experiential contexts of the performance processes themselves. Most importantly, from the arguments presented in this paper, which claim that cultural transformation appears to depend to a large extent on the capacity to critique thinking from within the process of thinking, the inadequacy of a propositional form for the task is revealed by its non-capacity to reflect on itself. Propositional theory has not the explanatory power to reflect on its own potential explanatory power. A living form has this power, as I am demonstrating in this paper. It is only by engaging with the living logics that one uses to make sense of one’s own lived experience of oneself as a knower that one can unravel thought from within the process of thinking, and so come to a point where it is possible to reflect on practice and, despite the temptation to go into an infinite regress of reflection upon reflection, with its threat of intellectual paralysis, decide to take action, in spite of the hazards involved, to try to improve what is happening in the here and now.

I conclude by referring to another story by Kafka, ‘A Report for an Academy’. The story tells of a chimpanzee, now a famous vaudeville performer, who was captured in his home in the Gold Coast and transported by ship to the Hagenbeck Zoo. During his captivity, he yearned to be free. He discovered that the ‘way out’ (not freedom) lay in doing what his captors wished him to do, so he learned to be like them. He learned to drink and smoke: ‘I imitated because I was seeking a way out, and for no other reason.’ This required enormous self-discipline: ‘One supervises oneself with the whip; one mangles oneself with least resistance.’ He finally achieved fame and fortune, and, at the point of the telling of the story, presents his report to members of the Academy. ‘In any case,’ he says, ‘I have, all in all, attained what I set out to attain. Let no one say it was not worth the bother. Besides, I am not intent on any human verdict; I only want to spread knowledge; I only report; for you too, honoured gentlemen of the Academy, I have only reported.’ (Kafka 2003: 291–293)

I do not only report. I do not make myself like others, beguiled by the blandishments of the promises of rewards for performative thinking and action. Nor do I speak only to the Academy. My situation of the last twenty-five years has been as an independent practitioner-researcher, moving in and out of the Academy, while working with people in workplaces and townships. There is something especially powerful about positioning oneself outside, with the option of moving in, rather than the other way round; and there is something especially powerful about refusing to stay at the level of propositional critique and maintaining the right to move into social action, while incorporating insights from the propositional critique, with the intent of enabling people to transform their own intellectual and social cultures. I do not abide by any imaginary constraining law, although I do abide by the law that others and I create for ourselves about how we can find ways of living our educational values more fully in our practices. And this is enough for this day’s work.

Note 1

I am grateful to Tsepo Majake for his critical insights on an earlier version of this paper, and for helping me to see the anomalies in my thinking, even while writing this paper.


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