It may already be apparent from this that the Enlightenment origins and conceptual development of Bildung in modernity tie it firmly to Western-centric, individualistic and colonialist modes of understanding. What of this inheritance is useful in rethinking Bildung in posthumanist times? In answering this question, I approach Bildung as a mobile concept, building on the different ways in which different theorists have reinterpreted, rearticulated and recast Bildung in order to interrogate its continuing usefulness in explaining educational practices, phenomena and problems. Thus, the approach to Bildung I take is inspired by Deleuze and Guattari who, in What is Philosophy? argue that ‘concepts are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies … they must be invented, fabricated, or rather created’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 5). They go on to say ‘there is no heaven for concepts’ (1994, p. 5) and that concepts find their value in being put to use. In what follows, I outline three ways in which Bildung has been put to use as a concept. These have not been chosen arbitrarily but with two purposes in mind: one, to illuminate the radical ways that some thinkers have sought to use Bildung as a means to find answers to new theoretical and practical questions about education, and two, to provide a background to, and springboard for, the main question regarding the possibility for a posthuman Bildung with which this article is concerned.
Bildung and critical theory
In 2002, Gur-Ze’ev considered the extent to which Bildung and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School were compatible in postmodern educational times. His central point is that ‘the thinkers of the Frankfurt School conceived their critical project as inseparable from the tradition of Enlightenment and from the mission of Bildung’ (Gur-Ze’ev 2002, p. 391). However, Gur-Ze’ev shows that maintaining an allegiance to the mission of Bildung required the Frankfurt School to reshape the concept of Bildung alongside their own transformations of their project of critical theory as that project developed during the course of their intellectual activity. In the first ‘utopian’ phase of their thinking, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse found Bildung amenable to their thinking because Bildung, as an educative mode, does not reduce education to mere cultivation, normalisation or socialisation, but stresses the importance of self-cultivation related both to inwardness (see above) and to the subject’s autonomy. The Frankfurt School thinkers’ ‘uncompromising commitment to free will or human autonomy as a central human characteristic’ (ibid, p. 392) was, at least in this initial phase, entirely consonant with Bildung because of the emphasis on the possibility for transcendence into a more humane way of life. However, in the second phase of the development of critical theory, Adorno and Horkheimer abandoned this initial optimism. The second world war, the seeming hegemony of Instrumental Rationality, and the apparent inability of the individual to realise their autonomy, made it seem that the promise of Bildung and of the Enlightenment ideals it encoded were impossible to realise. The philosophical pessimism this resulted in is characteristic of the Frankfurt School’s ‘mature critical theory’ although, as Gur-Ze’ev (2002, p. 395) is at pains to point out, there was no change in their commitment to ‘the possibility of critical work and political resistance’.
Rather than abandon Bildung as a lost cause they therefore tried to recast it to suit their pessimistic critical philosophy. The scale of this recasting was, though, enormous, as is indicated by Horkheimer’s view that the ‘individual is never at one with herself but always an instrument of some other agency, which manipulates her for its own benefit’ (Gur-Ze’ev 2002, p. 396). Add to this the general view of the critical theorists that the human alienation produced by modernity made inwardness impossible. In order to hang onto a germ of the emancipatory commitment shared by Bildung and the Enlightenment, the Frankfurt School thinkers articulated Bildung pessimistically in a negative manner. Driven by their exile state, they used pessimism as an impetus to continue with utopian thinking: alienation and suffering became a ‘worthy stance’ (ibid, p. 400) from which to take an evaluative look at the world. Late Adorno and Horkheimer, therefore, generated a new, negative utopian concept of Bildung which sought to activate social critique as ‘a moral–philosophical–existential–political alternative rather than ‘critical thinking’ or ‘deconstruction’ (ibid, p. 404). This revised notion of social critique offered by late critical theory is ground in suffering but aims at hope through the possibilities of a counter-education characterised as self-cultivation, reflection and emancipatory praxis. Crucially, Horkheimer considered that the universities and the process of higher education still offered hope for an articulation of Bildung linked to social, political and critical ends. Late critical theory, therefore, reintroduced Bildung as a ‘mission, not as a tool’ (ibid, p. 403) but, as Gur-Ze’ev (2002, p. 400) notes, its relevance ‘could not have been sustained without a dramatic transformation in its conceptual preconditions, meanings and aims’.
A postmodern, postcolonial Bildung
Postmodern and postcolonial reconstructions of Bildung throw Enlightenment assumptions about the self into doubt. ‘Classical’ notions of Bildung presume that the subject is an integrated albeit mutable entity: the person has a self-soul-identity, is composed of a durable inner substance, and that it is possible, though educative practices, both to get to know oneself and one’s inner core ‘better’, and to effect changes to improve oneself through education. Humboldt’s university is the raison d’etre for this notion of Bildung. The assumption that personal progress is possible is disputed by postmodernism, as is the assumption of the unitary self with a stable ego. Postmodern understandings figure the self as a multiplicity, as produced in and through fragmentation, as plural and contingent, as a set of locating co-ordinates not a fixed point; and see those engaged in higher education as knowledge wayfarers whose physical and ontological learning journeys are characterised by nomadic, erratic and recursive moves of un-learning, re-finding (out) or undoing of previous ways of knowing, rather than a teleology of self-improvement through educative practices (Stronach and MacLure 1997).
The contingency and social constructedness of the postmodernist self is echoed in postcolonial understandings which pose the self as hybrid, instituted through difference, and the product of multiple power plays. Postcolonial theorists such as Fanon, Said and Anderson have shown how colonialism worked as a system which propped itself up by producing ‘otherness’. The identities of the colonisers were produced in opposition to those they colonised, and those identities were ontologically justified through the cultural imposition of a range of binaries: civilised/savage; progressive/unenlightened; rational/ emotional; culture/nature; ordered/wild—and secured by sometimes violent repression of local, indigenous epistemologies. Education, as a process of social and cultural formation and improvement, was considered by colonialists to be a civilising mission, and the educators’ task was to bring the best that is thought and known in the West to these ‘others’ whose cultural lack indicated their great need. Hence, postmodernist and postcolonial theorisations critique the assimilationist goals of Western education, in which Bildung figures as a normative technology of the self, infused with colonial, elitist and masculinist assumptions about identity, rationality and the nature of progress. This
Bildung is responsible for the epistemological erasure and othering of those forms of knowledge that contest the humanist Enlightenment master narrative of reason, ‘truth’ and objectivity.
However, some postmodern and postcolonial theorists wish to widen the scope of Bildung and claim some of its ingredients for their educative project. There are three factors which motivate this endeavour. The first is the need for more plural understandings of the ‘self’. When the self is foreground as a social practice enmeshed within social contexts and in relation to which individuals form and reform themselves as persons, then it is possible to move away from essentialist notions of self that underpinned ‘classical’ forms of Bildung. Postmodern and postcolonial notions, then, open towards a form of Bildung which begins to think about identity as process of becoming-other, and in which Bildung may figure as a radical opening up of the self to the other. Gur-Ze’ev (2002), thus, proposes a postmodern Bildung that draws on Levinas to rethink self-cultivation within a dialogical relation with others. Castle (2013) proposes Bildung as a form of ongoing experimentalism to find new ways of self-formation in a global world. Likewise, Thavenius (1995) stresses that Bildung can be configured as a mode of deliberate confrontation with the aesthetics of contemporary media forms out of which identity is constructed, rather than a bourgeois category of essentialised identity.
The second factor in recasting Bildung in a postmodern, postcolonialist frame concerns values. ‘Western’ values are not universal values but are simply one set of values amongst many others; there is no measure with which to gauge the extent to which they may be any ‘better than any others’ values; and, in any case, what ‘counts’ as ‘Western’ values has always been open to contestation (as much then as now). Gur-Ze’ev (2002, p. 408) makes the postmodern position clear: Bildung cannot deliver truth, ‘real’ meanings, objective yardsticks or emancipation, but what it can achieve is a ‘resistance, refusal, critique and a solidarity that makes a philosophical, existential and political difference’. In a global world increasingly fragmented by economic and social polarisations, a postmodernist, postcolonial Bildung might be enacted as a positive force in developing educative practices which begin in the recognition of difference and diversity.
The third factor central to a postmodernist, postcolonialist stance on Bildung concerns the need to pay closer attention to how values are interlaced with power, and how forms of power/knowledge produce the educative discourses through which we experience education and inhabit its processes. Foucault (1980) talked about the conditions of sayability and visibility which enable discourses to become ‘productive’ in defining, regulating and legitimating certain ‘regimes of truth’ for knowing, being and doing in higher education. Thinking Bildung, then, as a discursive practice for regulating what counts as a ‘valid’ educational experience (and what doesn’t count or is ‘invalid’), in which particular forms of knowledge (and not others) are validated and certified, and for regulating particular educational identities as legitimate (for example being a ‘good’ student) while disavowing others, has led some postmodernist, postcolonial thinkers to see classical notions of Bildung as an exemplary expressions of how ‘power defines what gets to count as knowledge’ to borrow Flyvbjerg’s (2001, p. 155) phrase. This is particularly evident in its valorisation of a liberal arts curriculum as a hallmark of ‘reason’ and ‘civilisation’, and in the dominant codes of Western science education which assume a dualist ontology, and an ‘objective’ epistemological stance as the guarantor of Truth. But, as Biesta (2002a, p. 347) points out, ‘we must at least acknowledge that what is called the rational life is itself but one tradition’. Postmodernist, postcolonial notions of Bildung, in drawing attention to how knowledge is bound up with gendered (and ‘classed’, ‘raced’, heteronormative, and ‘ableist’) power relations, urge us to install a more multifarious view of knowledge and more heterogeneous ways of knowing in higher education. One particularly good example of this is Cajete’s (1994) project of decolonising science education which embraces the knowledge-making practices of Indigenous people. Such a postmodern, postcolonial reconstruction of Bildung as a politics of location promises a higher education that is about much more than the transmission of facts to the next generation.
A canine Bildung
Gustavsson’s (2004, p. 109) view that ‘Bildung is a contested concept; different parts of it are used for the purpose at hand’ is worth bearing in mind with regard to a recent use of it which elaborates a canine Bildung. Kendall-Morwick (2014) appropriates and reshapes Bildung via a reading of Virginia Woolf’s novel Flush which relates the biography of its eponymous hero, a spaniel who lives first with his mistress in London, then travels to Florence with her. Flush has a penchant for the Greek lexicon and for listening to the harp. Flush is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog and Flush’s story is entwined with the story of her romance and marriage to Robert Browning. Kendall-Morwick reads Flush as a canine Bildungsroman in which the Bildung processes of Flush parallel those of the woman poet, tracing how both are conditioned by patriarchal, sexist and humanist assumptions about identity. Kendall-Morwick’s (2014) central argument is that Bildung provides a useful way of reflecting on how human–animal entanglements help to shape human experiences, and provoke a rethinking of the boundaries between them that have held the category of the human so firmly in place for so long. Kendall-Morwick points out that constructing the category of the human has been central to the educative enterprise of Bildung, and is in agreement with Biesta that Bildung is not ‘something universal, external or “typically human”’ but is subject to continuing re/construction and articulation in order to distinguish the category of ‘human’—or some humans—from inferior others (Biesta 2002a, p. 346).
In addition to the questions, it raises of what constitutes the category of ‘human’, a canine Bildung brings into much sharper focus broader issues concerning subjectivity and creativity, learning and knowing, as recent work by scholars in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies indicates. Massumi (2014), for example, proposes that when animals and humans play together, they are caught up in non-individual forces that traverse and exceed their discrete bodies and that far from creativity being an originary human trait, animal biology reveals animals as playfully inventive, experimental and creative, while Willett’s (2014) findings suggest that animals’ play and laughter is oriented to the cooperative establishment of animal–human communities based on a ‘biosocial’ conception of self. These studies undermine cognitivist, individualised notions of learning, knowing and self-formation, and give a taste of how current debates in animal studies might inform a reconceptualisation of Bildung. And while the radical ways of thinking about self and subjectivity proposed by animal studies are currently at odds with a higher education system largely oriented to human employability, economic efficiency, individual performativity and institutional competition, nevertheless such thinking is valuable. It provides a glimmer of a different articulation of Bildung and, therefore, of a different educative project for higher education, and lends support to my question: is a posthuman Bildung possible?
The remainder of the article addresses this question. Like the three lenses above, a posthumanist Bildung offers a radical reformulation which contests some of the central presuppositions of ‘classical’ Bildung’s while retaining its allegiance to educative practices that are more than technical, instrumental or input–output.