Posthuman Child and the Diffractive Teacher: Decolonizing the Nature/Culture Binary
This chapter gives an overview of how the substance ontology of Western philosophy thrives on the power producing Nature/Culture dichotomy, has caused asymmetrical violence, infiltrated everyday language, created academic divisions, produced hierarchical categories and classifications, and underpins colonialism and colonizing notions of relationships – not only between humans and subhumans (e.g., child) but also between humans and more-than-humans (e.g., animals, matter). This chapter shows how critical posthumanism as a navigational tool offers a different relational ontology – more akin to African Indigenous scholarship and ways of living – that reconfigures subjectivity and brings into existence the notions of posthuman child and the sympoietic diffractive teacher (human or nonhuman) – critically urgent notions to consider for education in the Anthropocene.
KeywordsPosthuman child Diffractive teacher Decolonizing education Ontoepistemic injustice Developmentalism Postdevelopmental child
Drawing on posthuman notions of space and time, the chapter starts with a vignette: a tentative imaginary of a diffractive posthuman educator: a heron. In the writing that follows, I explain how the relational ontology of the diffractive teacher as sympoietic system disrupts the Nature/Culture binary and patriarchal notions of the self on which modern schooling has been built. The knowing subject, Man, is assumed to be of a particular (adult) age. Modern schooling positions children as knowledge consumers, not producers, because it is assumed that they are (still) developing, (still) innocent, (still) fragile, (still) immature, (still) irrational, and so forth. In this chapter, I show how six overlapping configurations of child presuppose the metaphysical Nature/Culture binary which has shaped schooling as a process of becoming-adult (Man), also in Africa: the “developing child,” the “ignorant child,” the “evil child,” the “innocent child,” the “egocentric child,” the “fragile child.” The figuration of the “normal” knowing subject informs institutionalized discriminatory and colonizing child/adult relationships, and has brought into existence specific roles of the educator: guide, instructor, trainer, discipliner, facilitator, socializer, protector, diagnoser, or medicator.
Drawing on the philosophies of Barad, Braidotti, Haraway, and Deleuze, this chapter unhinges child and childhood(s) from their metaphysical frame of reference. For “justice-to-come” (Barad, 2012, p. 81), schooling needs to contribute to a postcolonial future that disrupts in particular misogeny, racism, human exceptionalism, and age-discrimination (misopedy). Moving beyond the anthropocentric focus on children’s abilities or capacities as individuals, such posthuman schooling would regard knowledge production as part of an ontological relationality (including Nature and Culture) through which the human and more-than-human render each other able (Haraway, 2016).
Vignette: A Diffractive Teacher
This is not a metaphor, or an analogy, which would assume the Nature/Culture binary, but a homology. Teacher and heron are basically doing the same thing. In the case of an analogy or metaphor, we might for example propose that the heron is like a teacher, but of course not really believing that herons can be teachers, because they have little intelligence after all (a “bird brain”) and no self-reflective consciousness which one needs for being a (reflexive) teacher. With metaphorical thinking, teacher (read: culture, therefore human) and heron (read: nature, therefore nonhuman) are assumed to be at an ontological distance from one another. The human who thinks this connection between teacher and heron re-presents the heron as the teacher through language or other symbolic sign systems, without attributing teacher (human) qualities to the heron himself or herself.
In the case of a homology, the comparison between the human teacher and the bird teacher means that both bodies make and mark “differences from within as part of an entangled state” (quote above). Both bodies – human and nonhuman (heron) – cause diffraction patterns. It literally matters that both bodies are “there,” whether in the river or in the classroom. Moving away from human-centered (e.g., child-centered) education (Murris, 2017), the diffractive teacher is part of the process of producing new thoughts and ideas diffractively sedimented materially as part of the world. The notion of diffraction disrupts the Nature/Culture dichotomy that presupposes individualized existence of subjects and objects.
When I took the photo from a bench along the river, the heron moved gracefully through the river, all the time keeping a watchful eye on me. We were entangled when we were in each other’s vicinity. However, Karen Barad’s notions of diffraction and quantum entanglement go even further than that. Drawing on Quantum Field Theory (QFT), she argues that the “intra-action” is always there (and at the same time not there), even when bodies are not close physically. Moreover, according to QFT, bodies are waves or particles depending on the apparatus that measures (also at macro-level). So, as a matter of fact, QFT queers the individual existence of human and nonhuman bodies as bounded by a skin, whether human skin, bird feathers, the surface of the water or the banks of the river. Boundaries are discursive and human-made after all. Space, time, and matter are not threaded like beads on a string, but threaded through one another sympoietically. Human and nonhuman bodies do not move between points in space and time but are always “on the move.” Sympoiesis, Haraway (2016, p. 58) explains “is a simple word; it means ‘making-with’.” As I was observing the heron in the river, and now, diffracting “my” memories of the event of our encounter, I am also part of the phenomenon and an entangled “observer”: a “being-with,” a “making-with,” a “thinking-with” as a “sympoietic system” (Haraway, 2016).
The work of feminist philosophers Karen Barad and Donna Haraway is about the implosion of nature and culture – a plea to rethink relationality together without the Nature/Culture binary. The posthuman ontology of a sympoietic system (e.g., that of a diffractive teacher) disrupts the Nature/Culture binary on which modern schooling has been built and has profound implications for (child) subjectivity (Murris, 2016). The figuration of the diffractive teacher provokes a tracing of the complex philosophical ideas entangled in posthumanism before re-turning to the diffractive teacher at the end of the chapter where learning is conceptualized as a relational material-discursive process between human and nonhuman bodies. Such a “body” can be human, an animal, a child, or even a stone in the river Rhine. Posthumanism reconfigures subjectivity and with it radically changes what it means to teach and what it means to learn and the Nature/Culture binary is central in what we have come to understand as real knowledge: asocial, apolitical, and rational (in a disembodied manner).
The Philosophical Origin of the Nature/Culture Dichotomy
The Nature/Culture dichotomy and its entanglement with modern schooling and figurations of child and childhood can be traced to – as Alfred North Whitehead famously characterizes the European philosophical tradition – as “a series of footnotes to Plato” (Whitehead, 1979, p. 39). To understand why embodied experiences and the body (Nature) have been rendered inferior to the mind (Culture) in schooling, we need to turn to the binary logic that was put in place by Western metaphysics (and reinforced by capitalism and Christian theology).
The dualism between mind and body has had an incredibly strong foothold on Western thought, with the writings of Ancient Greek philosopher Plato as a major influence. A deeply influential articulation of Platonic dualism can be found in the philosophies of René Descartes. He proposed the idea that the mind is a substance whose whole essence or nature consists in thinking and can exist without the body. Of the two substances, the mind is privileged over the body, or put differently, contemplative life is superior to active life. Also, not the body, but the mind guarantees existence, as expressed in his well-known dictum: “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). In Descartes, we find the most extreme expression of the dichotomous mind/body split that characterizes modernity. Universal, timeless knowledge of the “outside” world is obtained from the “inside” of the knowing subject (as conscious, self-aware, self-contained, independent, rational, mature, universal). This substance ontology has infiltrated everyday language (e.g., what counts as “common sense”) and has given rise to the sciences with strong disciplinary divisions, hierarchical categories, and classifications (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987/1994). It also in-forms academic discourses in the Global North as well as the Global South. Moreover, substance ontology underpins colonialism and colonizing notions of relationships between humans, and between humans and more-than-humans. A radically different ontological framework for relationality is possible using posthumanism as a “navigational tool” (Braidotti, 2013). It is important to stress that this is “radical” only for the Western tradition of thought that was globalized through colonial practices, including education. Juanita Sundberg (2014, pp. 36–37) argues that posthumanists are unaware of their own location when making universalizing claims about “the” human and are silent about past and present non-Western or Indigenous scholarship and ways of living. She points out that “other” knowledge systems based in non-dualist thinking tend to be “forgotten” in the posthuman literature, thereby perpetuating a colonial stance when advancing posthuman scholarship that only engages with “Anglo-European scholarship” (Sundberg, 2014, p. 38). Bearing this critique in mind, I turn to some key ideas in posthumanism and assess her claim that posthumanists are not aware that “knowledge comes from somewhere and is, therefore, bound up in power relations” (Sundberg, 2014, p. 36). I pick it up again at the end of this chapter when re-turning to the figuration of a diffractive teacher.
Man and Asymmetrical Violence
A plethory of terms have emerged that describe this “new” philosophical orientation with implications for ethics: “posthumanism,” “new materialism,” “vital materialism,” “relational materialism,” “socio-materialism,” “object-orientated ontology” and so forth. There are more or less subtle differences between these philosophies, and my own inspiration for doing education differently is inspired mainly by the complex critical posthumanism developed by Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti (who in turns draws heavily on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who in turn have developed their ideas in dialogue with the writings of Plato, Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, and especially Spinoza).
These times called the Anthropocene are times of multispecies, including human, urgency: of great mass death and extinction; of onrushing disasters, whose unpredictable specificities are foolishly taken as unknowability itself; of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of response-ability; of refusing to be present in and to onrushing catastrophe in time; of unprecedented looking away.
Reinforced by Cartesian dualisms and underpinning capitalism, ontoepistemologies that assume that knowledge and intelligence are located only in the human, and one human bounded by a skin for that matter, have become so naturalized as “common sense” and engrained in everyday language (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987/2014) globally that it is not easy to identify the “I” as the root cause of structural exploitation, dehumanization (of women, sexualized, racialized, and naturalized “others”) and asymmetrical violence (Snaza & Weaver, 2015). For poststructuralists and critical posthumanists, the “human” is clearly a political category – white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied (Braidotti, 2013), although interestingly and of concern, age is not included (yet) (Murris, 2016). Sylvia Wynter’s powerful writing makes the receptive reader feel and think differently about the “I” that has made modernity and colonialism possible. She writes that the Western bourgeois “conception of the human, Man, which over-represents itself as if it were the human itself, and that of securing the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioral autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves” (Wynter, 2003, p. 260). The Western “I” – Man – as universal, essentializing signifier has created identity through difference, that is, the human/subhuman dichotomy. This metaphysics, reinforced by religious humanist mythology, has spawned an ontology and epistemology that move on binary logic, power relations of inequality, and “otherizing” notions of identity. Not a posthumanist as such, Wynter’s decolonizing project is that of “practicing epistemic disobedience,” that is, “a delinking of oneself from the knowledge systems we take for granted (and can profit from)” (Mignolo, 2015, p. 107). But Man is not just a product of a particular epistemology, a matter of how and what we know – epistemology and ontology are always entangled as what it means to know and depends on assumptions about what exists (“onto”). Shifts in ontology have implications for what it means to have agency, a voice, or an identity, and particularly relevant for this chapter, what it means to be a teacher. I agree with Sundberg (2014, p. 34) that “decolonization” means “exposing the ontological violence authorized by Eurocentric epistemologies both in scholarship and everyday life.” I am interested in how decolonizing education involves an examination of the various philosophical ways in which coloniality manifests itself in the production and communication of knowledge and meaning-making (Patel, 2016), and how humanist ontology has produced certain constructions of childhood with the Nature/Culture dichotomy as its structuring mechanism (Murris, 2016, chapter 5). Colonialism has instilled a non-relational ontology and competitive individualized subjectivity in education that continues to regard people, land, and knowledge as property, and this also includes colonizing relationships between adult and child (the subhuman).
Critical posthumanists not only raise awareness of the Western Man/human dichotomy, but they also queer how we see the more-than-human as not merely inert, passive things in space and time (Barad, 2007). The queering of the binaries such as the social/physical, nature/culture, individual/society is especially relevant here. To queer is not a fixed, determinate term with a stable meaning and referential context (Barad, 2012, p. 81), but it is the ethico-political practice of radically questioning identity and binaries (Barad, 2012, p. 81). Such a shift to a relational ontology, akin to some Indigenous knowledge systems, requires an un/learning of agency “outside the acting, human body” (Rotas, 2015, p. 94). This unsettling of agency, voice, and identity as not something subjects “have,” invites us to reconfigure who and what the “I” is, as well as its relationship to “the” world.
Earthlings are Never Alone: Queering the Nature/Culture Dichotomy
The Nature/Culture dichotomy presupposes individualized existence of subjects and objects. The kind of individualism and deep dualism this dichotomy has created has become the trademark of Western thought, a philosophical substratum that has made colonialism and capitalism possible, and an imperialism that has permeated the globe (Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Castaneda, 2002). By understanding the Subject (Culture, self, “I,” me, adult) at an ontological distance from the Object (Nature, you, animal, matter, child) particular kinds of power relationships have been made possible: imperial and colonial exploitation of land, resources, animals, certain categories of humans (e.g., young, black, labourer, peasant, nomad, rural dweller, ghetto dweller, township inhabitant, infant, child, homosexual, homeless, female, elderly, disabled, disturbed, addict) – complex global networks of political and economic domination. Nature is otherized, and placed at a distance. The Western humanist ideal notion of the human has been restricted to very few human animals, ironically thereby dehumanizing the sexualized “other” (women), racialized “other” and naturalized “other” (e.g., child, matter).
The Nature/Culture dichotomy has inserted itself into Western knowledge systems and beliefs and, through colonization and global capitalism, extends its reach to push aside and override different knowledge systems (Kayira, 2015), including those of young children (e.g., animism; Kennedy, 2006).
So child is either positioned as good or as bad (e.g., immature) by Nature, and therefore, adults needs to protect child, or adults need to be protected from child. In both cases, it prevents children to be seen as part of the world they share with other earth dwellers, and prevents them from building “real common world relationships” (Taylor, 2013). This, Affrica Taylor (2013, p. 62) points out, is the “biggest cost of all.” Diffracting with Haraway’s ideas, she argues that the real world gets lost. “Common worlds” (a term from Bruno Latour), she explains, are “down-to-earth”… “worlds full of entangled and uneven historical and geographical relations, political tensions, ethical dilemmas and unending possibilities” where crucially nature and culture come back together again (Taylor, 2013, p. 62). So, as a result of the ontoepistemological nature/culture divide, our complex, “messy” real worlds have been kept away from our sanitized classrooms.
Humanism, with its discourse of progress and perfectibility theorized as a movement out of nature, no longer holds the racial Other or prehistoric man as the representative of ground zero – that position is now solely the child’s. (Kromidas, 2014, p. 429)
A map of figurations of child that presuppose the Nature/Culture dichotomy, and position child that is deficit
Figurations of child
What child lacks by Nature
What Culture needs to provide child
Aristotle, Darwin, Piaget, Vygotsky
Plato, Aristotle, Locke
Christianity esp. Protestantism
Trustworthiness; natural goodness
Control, discipline inculcation; Drawing in
Empathy; social norms and values
Socialization by elders inculcation
Psycho-medical scientific model
Protection medication diagnoses; remediation
All these deficit figurations of child assume childhood as an inferior stage in human development with the mature, developed, rational, autonomous adult self as the normative ideal. Moreover, this self is also gendered (male). Nature, traditionally coded as passive and feminine, awaits the active, male imprint of Culture (Barad, 2011, pp. 435, 439). Knowing how the gendered, ageist, ableist and racist Nature/Culture binary works and for whom is salient in this chapter. Some posthumanists offer powerful imageries and experimentally play with new concepts in their academic writing to provoke readers to think differently about relationships. One such powerful notion is Haraway’s sympoiesis.
Sympoiesis and Intra-action
Earthlings are never alone. In other words, the human is not an individual with distinct boundaries, but is “spread out,” like “a flow of energies, constituted in a total inter-dependence with other humans and the matter and physical intensities and forces around us” (Palmer, 2011, p. 7). The subject comes into existence through the encounter with other material-discursive agencies (Petersen, 2014, p. 41). Subjectivity as an existential event is a paradigmatic shift from the discursive to the material-discursive and describes a relational posthuman ontology. The ontological fact that earthlings are never alone means that teachers are always part of, and situated in (as Haraway points out), complex, dynamic, historical, and responsive systems that are both material and discursive at the very same time. Teaching and learning are “worlding-with” practices that disrupt the Nature/Culture binary – explored further below.
Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the words of the Inupiat computer “world game,” earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company.
The significance of critical posthumanism for decolonizing education, is this key idea that categories that involve binaries, such as “subjects, objects, kinds, races, species, genres, and genders” are all products of relationships “between” significant others (Haraway, 2003, pp. 6–7). An ethics of respect for these “significant others,” as Donna Haraway calls them, means “to hold in regard, to respond, to look back reciprocally, to notice, to pay attention, to have courteous regard for, to esteem” (Haraway cited in Lund, 2014, p. 103). Despite not regarding herself as a posthumanist (Haraway, 2016), Haraway’s influence on posthuman scholars has been, and still is, significant. Her inspiration is also notable in the work of her friend Karen Barad, whose notion of intra-action at the heart of her agential realism also emphasizes an ontological shift in how humans and more-than-humans relate and influence each other (Barad, 2007, 2013) as we have seen in the notion of the diffractive teacher.
Barad’s neologism intra-action ruptures the familiar concept of “interaction.” Intra-action is different from “interaction” in that “nature” and “culture” are never “pure,” are never unaffected by each other, but are always in relation – a sympoietic system, Haraway would say (“entanglement” for Barad). It is a radical shift from substance ontology to an intra-active relational ontology. It moves discussions about relationality from the sociological to the ontological – sometimes referred to as “the ontological turn” in the history of ideas. This “ontological turn” sits uncomfortably with pedagogies informed by scientific realism, social constructivism or poststructuralism that all assume the necessity for linguistic or other semiotic systems to mediate between Nature and Culture (Murris, 2016). The power of these systems has not only been substantial, but also “substantializing,” allowing linguistic structure to determine our understanding of the world (Barad, 2007, p. 133). Take, for example, the standardized educational practice of giving definitions of concepts to capture the essence or meaning of concepts, including attempts to define what child is by nature.
Posthumanism breaks with the assumption that there is no direct “access” to child in reality, that child is not present, and can only be re-presented through human semiotic constructions or scientific language. Key to this rupture is the notion of intra-action.
Intra-action is ontologically different from “interaction.” Intra-action should not be confused with notions such as “inter-subjectivity” or “inter-activity” (as in child-centered pedagogies), which assume pre-social, independently existing human subjects (in relation with one another). This ontological shift is so difficult to make because it requires thinking differently about space and time – not as containers filled with bodies (as in Newtonian space), or as a succession of atomic moments. Movement does not depend on time; it is the other way around ontologically: time measures or re-presents motion (Deleuze, 1968/1994). Or, as Barad (2007) puts it: past, present, and future are always intra-actively threaded through one another (Barad, 2007) – the reason why at the same time, posthumanism is not post, as it would assume that humanism can be left behind.
The neologism “intra-action” creates fresh decolonizing opportunities for a doing of subjectivity differently. Ethics is not only a human affair – human actions are just one element of the apparatus of entangled intra-actions with the more-than-human. The quantum entanglement of all human and nonhuman phenomena intra-acting with one another means as we have seen in the case of the diffractive teacher, that it is impossible to say where the boundaries are of each entity, including people. This “lack” of bodily boundaries is not just epistemological, but ontological. Put differently, it is the way the world is, not just a matter of how we get to know this world. Ontological relationality is not a matter of how we experience the world, or a matter of (psychological) awareness. Neither is it a doing away with, or a denial, that there are individual humans who exist, but what is at stake here is a rethinking and revaluation of human’s anthropocentric philosophical claims to exceptionalism: the normative idea that what sets human animals apart from other earth dwellers (including matter) is reason and rationality, the source of all knowledge and located in a mind that is contained by a body which exists alongside other bodies moving through space and time (as autopeiotic systems). For critical posthumanists, words or concepts do not capture or mirror things “out there” in the world, but are part of a constantly changing reality.
This means pushing aside colonizing knowledge systems that assume an inner/outer (or mind/body) and nature/social binaries. Meaning making is not purely a social process involving human agency only. Barad (2007, p. 152) writes: “Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically prior or epistemologically prior…matter and meaning are mutually articulated.” For a posthumanist (and many other knowledge systems other than Western, including young children’s), human and nonhuman matter always exist in entangled intra-active relations.
African Indigenous Ontoepistemology
As new materialists Jackson and Mazzei (2012, p. 114) explain: the artificial divisions between the biological and the cultural, the material and the semiotic, the natural and the human, genes and the environment blind us from the knowledge “at the intersection between things and people, between feats of engineering and social structures, between experiences and bodies.” Such “blindness” is particularly devastating for Africa. According to the Geo-2000 report, some 500 million hectares of land have been affected by soil degradation since 1950, it has lost 39 million hectares of tropical forest and water is scarce in 14 countries and the number is only growing, not getting less (Le Grange, 2012, p. 60). Apartheid capitalism is partly to blame, not only for the “material suffering,” but also the “mental suffering” as apartheid legacy continues to impact on the everyday in terms of race, gender and class inequalities (Le Grange, 2012, p. 61). Conservation and the environment are often seen as a luxury and of concern only of the white elite who are not struggling for basic survival.
With “Indigenous” I mean the groups of people in sub-Saharan Africa who have ancestral ties and claims to the land prior to colonization by European nations, and who have a particular ontoepistemic relationship to that land (as well as to each other and ancestors). African scholars claim that unlike Western humanism, African humanism does not reduce nature to a mere object of human knowledge and thereby also disrupts the Nature/Culture dichotomy. Nature is not seen as something that exists “out there,” passively, to be discovered by humans’ thinking about or experimenting on “it.”
At first glance the ontology described seems very anthropocentric, but Kayira (2015, p. 111) claims that Ubuntu’s interdependence and community involves the natural world as well as human networks: “Nature and persons are one, woven by creation into one texture or fabric of life” (Sindima, 1995 cited by Kayira, 2015, p. 111). South African scholar, Le Grange (2012, p. 58) draws on Guattari’s “ecosophy,” which recognizes the entanglement of the social, the environment, and human subjectivity – nature and culture cannot be separated. He suggests that there is a close similarity between ecosophy, ubuntu, and the broader concept of ukama (Le Grange, 2012, p. 61), hence his proposal to use African philosophies as an ethical response to the environmental degradation and “erosion of human solidarities” characteristic of contemporary Africa (Le Grange, 2012, p. 61).
We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “a person is a person through other people” (in Xhosa Ubuntu ungamntu nganabye abantu and in Zulu Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye). I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threathened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. (Tutu, 1999, cited in Kahiri, 2015, p. 110)
Now to what extend does Ukama put the human in the center of the ontoepistemic universe and to what extent does that presuppose the possibility of a justification for the human (Culture) to be at a distance from Nature, with the latter to be used as a resource and commodity for exploitation? Zimbabwean philosopher of education Amasa Ndofirepi explains that “Ukama, in its etymological roots, is a Shona adjective from the stem hama, meaning “relative.” While U is the adjectival prefix, kama is the adjectival stem and kama on its own means “to milk’ an animal.” The idea of milking an animal suggests “closeness and affection” and Ndofirepi (2015) adds that ukama points at a relational ethic – relationships that come first and form us. Quoting De Quincey, Ndoferipi argues that “we emerge as subjects from intricate networks of interrelatedness, from webs of inter-subjectivity.”
The implications for education are that moral education with ukama as guiding principle starts with the family and then outwards. The core of the ethic is non-individualistic and focuses on shared interdependence. Ukama expresses a relationality between people that also extends beyond death. The relations with ancestors are critical for the passing on of the values that are immortal and need to be treasured and preserved. What it means to be ethical for an individual in this context is to re-establish the presence of one’s ancestors (Le Grange, 2012, p. 61). Le Grange (2012, p. 63) insists that ukuma is not speciecist, and constitutes the right ethical response to the environmental crisis – a crisis that includes the erosion of human solidarities (Le Grange, 2012, p. 61). He also claims that his proposal is in line with Guattari’s ecosophy. However, there seems to be a profound tension between the Natureculture relationality claimed by African philosophers and the scholarship on child and childhood in Africa.
Child in Africa, Childhood, and Ontoepistemic Injustice
In all societies, the figurations in Table 1 are entangled phenomena and are materialized differently in teaching, educational research, curriculum construction and educational policies. In African societies, the extended family is a microcosm of the wider society, characterized by communal interdependence (Letseka, 2013). Hierarchies are written into the nature of the universe, with child low in the hierarchy – subservient (obedient and respectful) to adults and ancestors. Child’s place is to serve this extended family, with obedience as a prerequisite and reinforced through physical punishment (Penn, 2005, p. 110). Girls have even less status and authority than boys, and are expected to be more domesticated and more compliant, also sexually (Penn, 2005, p. 110). There is an important difference though from (deficit) Western notions of childhood. Children are capable of important responsibilities, and like adults, need to contribute to the subsistence of their extended families and wider communities. Depending on gender, even young children are supposed to, for example, look after infants or herd cattle. Childhood is not seen as a phase in a human life, but is instead associated with certain capabilities, that is, the physical activity to perform adult tasks, economic independence and getting married (Twum-Danso, 2005). The hierarchy is less related to age, and more to children’s obligations to support the family in times of need and old age, so in that sense, children always remain children (of their parents). It is not something they grow out of. The basic assumption in the (dominantly Western) literature is that (Western) children – “indoor children” – grow up in a benign environment where the family will look after their development, whereas child-headed households are not uncommon in Africa (Penn, 2005, p. 111). Especially in a continent plagued with HIV/AIDS, there is a distorted picture of what childhood is like for many children, obscuring their capacities and the contributions they make in caring for siblings and other family members (Kesby, Gwanzura-Ottemoller and Chizororo, 2006, p. 186). As Penn (2005, p. 111) puts it “[c]hildren’s resilience, solidarity, capacity for sharing, their stamina, their sense of time, place and the future, are rarely conceptualized or investigated.” In a significant sense, child in Africa is only visible in Table 1, because child has been normalized into a Western metaphysics that assumes the Nature/Culture dichotomy. The latter has infiltrated and colonized Indigenous peoples, also through a Western normative education system that regarded African culture and their ways of being and knowing as inferior and worthless – something to be ashamed of (Kayira, 2015, p. 108). The queering of the Nature/Culture dichotomy in Table 1 is therefore both a decolonizing and a posthuman move towards regarding young earthlings on a more egalitarian footing: a “being-with,” “making-with,” and “thinking-with” as part of the world as sympoiesis. This should be included in the larger creative ethico-political project of transforming how humans relate to each other and to nonhuman “others” and the material environment. Although the decolonization of speciest discourses is on the agenda of an increasing number of scholars, child is still rarely mentioned as a category of exclusion, even in the feminist, postcolonial and posthuman literature (Burman & Stacey, 2010). And this despite the fact that it could even be argued that the logic of childhood is the internal structure of the logic of colonialism (see below). Crucially, a reconfiguration of child and childhood is not just a matter of including another category of humans previously excluded epistemologically and ontologically. What is involved is a radical reconfiguration of identity and the human subject.
Salient for education is that the Nature/Culture dichotomy separates the thinking subject with agency from a sensing body (object) that is temporal, spatial, without agency and not involved in knowledge production. Affect and other transcorporeal knowledges are thereby excluded from the domain of “real” knowledge. But as Barad (2014, p. 168) argues “the quantum understanding of diffraction troubles the very notion of dicho-tomy – cutting into two – as a singular act of absolute differentiation, fracturing this from that, now from then.”
The Western dichotomy has also cut child (Nature) apart from adult (Culture) thereby essentializing and discriminating the young “other.” But surprisingly, child as subhuman tends to be forgotten and childhood remains unproblematizied in much posthumanist, postcolonial writing, as well as African philosophy of education. For example, Kayira (2015, p. 109) states that “traditionally most Africans believe that that one gains wisdom and knowledge with age in relation to traditional and community-based practices.” Many Western philosophers and educationalists still assume that child is associated with Nature and that his or her development to mature adult will either unfold (Rousseau), or needs to be developed (Locke), or interacted with (Kant) through Culture in order to become “fully-human” (Murris, 2016).
The Nature/Culture binary works in contradictory ways in Western education – an education that has now become the universal norm. Since the Enlightenment, human intentionality and agency and the capacity to reason have positioned school-based education as the conduit through which to bring the pre-rational child into the world of the rational (white, male) adult through cognitive development, thereby rendering Nature as passive and inert (Taylor, 2017, p. 62). On the other hand, the Romantics (e.g., Rousseau) have inspired educational approaches that regard Nature as innocent, good, pure and true. Nature is aligned with “children, animals, ‘native’ people, and pristine wilderness areas,” whilst Culture is aligned with “greed, immorality, political exploitation, technological perversions, and urban and industrial pollution” (Taylor, 2017, p. 63). In short, Western education assumes that either Culture is “the teacher,” or Nature, and has led to two very different approaches to (environmental) education: play-based back-to-nature approaches (e.g., Forest schools) or cognitive-orientated classroom activities that involve representations of and knowledge about Nature. The problem of both Western approaches is that they assume the Nature/Culture dichotomy, but there is no “pure” nature, only environmentally damaged places (Taylor, 2017, p. 65). Since the unenlightened Enlightenment, educators have been unhealthily (for the planet) preoccupied with the holistic development of the individual child in social-cultural contexts at the expense of the nonhuman and more-than-human “others,” such as plants, animals, things, planet, water. For example, the production of economic profit relies on the exploitation of animal bodies, their labor and their reproductive capacities (Pedersen, 2015, p. 59). Although postcolonial, poststructuralist and postmodernist theorizing has brought many gains in terms of foregrounding categories of discrimination and exploitation, these scholars tend to focus on the human (race, gender, class), rather than the young human, or as Helena Pedersen (2016, p. 6) argues, on animal/human relationships (speciesism) and are therefore also anthropocentric.
The Nature/Culture Dichotomy and Ontoepistemic Injustice
Thanks to twentieth century feminist scholarship, we have come to understand that the hegemonic conception of knowledge is grounded in patriarchy. The normal Subject, the standard by which other earth dwellers (including more-than-humans) are measured, is of a particular gender (male), race (white), able-bodied, and with a particular sexual orientation (heterosexual); the humanist ideal of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as the yardstick by which the worth of the “other” is measured (Braidotti, 2013). But we have to turn to scholarship in childhood studies and early childhood education to find that this normal Subject is also assumed to be of a particular (adult) age (Burman, 1994; Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999/2013; Fendler, 1998; Jenks, 1996; Walkerdine, 1984). This injustice is not just social, but also ontoepistemic (Murris, 2016). Children are not listened to because of their very being (onto) a child and are therefore unable to make claims to knowledge, because it is assumed that they are (still) developing, (still) innocent, (still) fragile, (still) immature, (still) irrational, and so forth. As a result, child is denied ethically, epistemically and ontologically.
Ontoepistemic injustice is a kind of injustice that is woven into the fabric of social injustice. The Nature/Culture binary affirms the child (Nature)/adult (Culture) binary. For decolonization this is important, because much injustice is inflicted on children on the basis of adult claims of what counts as reason, rationality or true knowledge, and therefore what is, for example, educationally worthwhile. For Miranda Fricker (2007), who coined the term, epistemic injustice is done when people are wronged specifically in their capacity as a knower. Knowledge is offered by the child, but not heard by the adult, because of identity prejudice (ageism) (Miranda Fricker does not refer to children as a marginalized social group. She only refers to class, gender, and race.). This kind of prejudice is in turn related to conceptions of child and childhood and the stereotyping involved (Murris, 2013). Stereotyping involves empirical generalizations about a given social group (here, children), sometimes even resulting in universal claims, such as, “All children are immature.” Fricker points out two necessary conditions for the identity prejudice in such a claim to be prejudicial. First, the attribute (intellectual disability) needs to be a reliable generalization, and secondly, it should not be a “pre-judgment,” that is, a judgment made without proper evidence (Fricker, 2007, pp. 32–33). Importantly, the misjudgment of the speaker’s credibility should be non-intentional, that is, clouded by prejudice and not a case of deliberate manipulation (Fricker, 2017, p. 54). She continues that many attributes assigned to historically powerless groups are often associated with a lack of “competence or sincerity or both” (Fricker, 2007, p. 32), and the attributes she mentions also apply to child historically: “over-emotionality, illogicality, inferior intelligence, evolutionary inferiority, incontinence, lack of “breeding,” lack of moral fiber, being on the make, etc.” (Fricker, 2007, p. 32). These prejudices of deficit are often held “unchecked” in the collective social imagination, and do their damage, especially, when child is not only young, but also female, black and lives in poverty (Murris, 2016). Prejudice runs deep. It operates “beneath the radar of our ordinary doxastic self-scrutiny” (Fricker, 2007, p. 40) and is particularly damaging, but hard to detect, when power relations and structural prejudice undermine child’s faith in its own ability to make sense of the world (a case of “hermeneutic injustice” – see Fricker, 2007, 2017). Ageist prejudices are directly related to the Nature/Culture binary, which separates child from adult epistemically and positions child as an ontological, colonized “other.”
Misopedy and Colonialism
The idea of a telos of progress from animal child to human adult is both a historical and conceptual antecedent of the idea of European civilization, prefiguring its stories about maturation and progress from cultural ignorance to enlightenment.
Developmental theories prepare children for a capitalist economic workforce (Burman, 1994), have an evolutionary bias, and are colonial (Burman, 2008, 2016). It has been pointed out that the assumption in developmental theories is that the goal of the process is maturity – each stage is followed by one that is “better,” more “mature.” This is what philosopher of childhood Gareth Matthews (1994, p. 17) calls “evolutionary bias.” Developmentalism is a recapitulation theory: child’s intellectual development is compared with (“recapitulates”) the development of the species (with the child as nature, as the origin of the species) from “savage” to “civilized.” This process of “racial differentation” underlies our modern understanding of the child and is influenced by the natural sciences, and in particular physiology and medicine (Oswell, 2013, p. 24). It is significant that colonialism and cognitive theories of child development emerged at the same time in Europe (Nieuwenhuys, 2013, p. 5). There is an intricate connection between imperialism and the institutionalization of childhood (Burman, 2008; Cannella & Viruru, 2004; Nandy, 1987).
One view is that enlightenment notions of progress and reason have colonized children as positioning them in need of recapitulating the development of the species. Like Indigenous peoples, children are seen as simple, non-abstract, immature thinkers who need age-appropriated interventions in order to mature into autonomous fully-human rational beings, and therefore cannot be granted political agency. Child as not fully-formed-human and developing is evident in biomedical and bio-psychosocial approaches to early childhood education (e.g., their focus on age, weight charts, language, gross and fine motor skills) (Cregan & Cuthbert, 2014, p. 10). Children’s development is seen as dependent on adult Man – the standard by which their development is measured, evaluated and found wanting.
Rollo takes this a step further and argues that the concept of childhood has made it possible to conceptualize all subhumans as ignorant, immature, uncivilized animals by Nature and therefore they need faith (premodernity) and reason (modernity) in order to progress and develop into fully-human beings (Rollo, 2016, p. 4). This means that age is not just another category of exclusion, like race, gender or class, but “the degraded figure of the child provides the internal structure and logic of the colonial conception” (Rollo, 2016: 4; my italics) of the deficient “other.” The comparison between the colonizing of (“developing”) nations, women, people of color, and people living in poverty is, therefore, not just a paternalistic analogy (as e.g., with Burman, 2008), but a homology – a sharing of essential structures: these subhumans are children (Rollo, 2016, p. 4). Misopedy is not only about children, that is, young people of a particular age, but includes “all feral children of civilization, including white European ancestors” (Rollo, 2016, p. 2). Key to this internal structure of the childhood of society as inferior is a linear notion of time. The logic of linear progression has positioned school at the heart of a civilization process (Culture) in aid of developing the wild and ignorant (Nature) to become “fully-human,” whether as individuals or as species.
Since the Enlightenment, so-called inferiority in reasoned speech (logos), through which the intellect is evaluated and assessed, is not seen as innate and inherent in the subhuman, but understood as temporary and should be “fixed” through schooling (Rollo, 2016, p. 11). The associated moral superiority of the adult colonizer explains the resilience of misopedy and its intricately related use of time (linear progress) in school. Whether inspired by religion (progress through faith), or non-secular ethics (progress through reason), the adult as savior is seen as in a hierarchical and authoritative position to cultivate the inferior non-civilized “other” – even as a means to justify the use of violence (Rollo, 2016, p. 4). It is this moral superiority that is disturbing as misopedy is sedimented in school as chronological institution. Elsewhere (Murris & Haynes, 2018), a decolonizing way forward is proposed through the verb “to child” – something all of us can do.
Posthuman Child and Justice-to-Come
We have seen how dominant discourses and material practices, especially since modernity, position child as a lesser human being, marginalized and excluded, despite sustained academic critique from many disciplinary quarters in higher education. If these dominant discourses are not contested, the professional preparation of, for example, teachers, architects, lawyers, anthropologists, medical practitioners, art educators and social workers, will continue to be ageist. African children experience the most fundamental intersecting forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, living in poverty and lack of representation in political decision-making fora. As Achille Mbembe (2015, p. 2) comments: Western philosophical traditions regard “the body and the flesh” of the non-Western, and especially the African as the “stranger.” Like many others in the postcolonial literature (see, e.g., Mignolo, 2011; Maldonado-Torres, 2007), Mbembe argues that an African self has been negated as a result of the Western “I” as universal, essentializing signifier, creating identity through difference.
This decolonizing move is therefore not about truths about a just future as perceived by the educator to be taught (transmitted, facilitated, mediated etc.) to the learner, but to continue to ask the awkward questions (including what it means to decolonize). Importantly, it also means to allow children to ask the questions that matter in class (including what it means for them to decolonize education). This decolonizing pedagogical move reconfigures children as knowledge co-creators and as such includes them in the becoming of their own futures (both immediate and long term). We can now pick up some of these and other threads and re-turn to the figuration of a posthuman teacher. If the teacher is neither a guide, nor an instructor, nor a trainer, nor a discipliner, nor a facilitator, nor a socializer, nor a protector, nor a diagnoser, nor a medicator, then what kind of teacher is s/he/it? How will learning be assessed? Which pedagogies will be used? What kind of teaching resources will s/he/it use and how? What is becoming evident is that they are simply the wrong questions to ask as they already assume the existence of bounded (by their skin) individuals who exist prior to their interactions with the human and more-than-human. A posthuman reconfiguration of both child and teacher assumes that there is ontological, as well as epistemological equality between species and between different members of each species.
(Doing justice is a profound yearning, a crucially important if inevitably unachievable activity, an always already inadequate attempt to respond to the ethical cry of the world.) Or, rather, perhaps I can put it this way: It is the very question of justice-to-come, not the search for a final answer or final solution to that question, that motivates me. The point is to live the questions and to help them flourish.
Re-turning: The Diffractive Teacher
Posthuman education moves beyond the anthropocentric focus on children’s abilities or capabilities as individuals and regards knowledge production as part of an ontological intra-active relationality (including nature and culture) through which the human and more-than-human render each other able as part of a sympoietic system (Haraway, 2016).
Several teacher educators have interrogated the logic and ethics of anthropocentrism in education and have given examples of decentering the human by resisting “following the child” only (Blaise, Hamm & Iorio, 2017; Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Murris, 2016; Nxumalo, 2016; Olsson, 2009; Taylor, 2013). Drawing on the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway and Barad, they have given concrete examples of how pedagogies and research methodologies, such as multispecies ethnography, rhizomatics, modest witnessing, or diffraction can work in the university classroom, outdoor outings and on field trips. This is important work, as they show how a posthuman inclusion of the more-than-human can work in the context of schooling – rendering children “capable by and with both things and living beings” (Haraway, 2016, p. 16). The details of these material-discursive entanglements matter, and tracing them “link actual beings to actual response-abilities” (Haraway, 2016, p. 29). When child is reconfigured as part of a sympoietic system, more equitable relationships between humans (of, e.g., different ages) and between the human and more-than-human are brought into existence. Sometimes these pedagogical examples focus explicitly on more-than-human entanglements in everyday encounters with colonized and environmentally damaged places (Nxumalo, 2016, p. 2). Like many Indigenous ontologies, posthumanism posits the inseparability of humans from their material environment and more-than-human relations and response-abilities (Nxumalo, 2016, p. 2). There is an important ethico-political point about building a different relational ontology in the Anthropocene, a geological period of permanent change to the planet’s biosphere caused by large-scale industry, natural-resource exploitation and intensive agriculture. Unlike ecologists who assume that natural systems are universal and “outside, or separate, from human communities,” posthumanism offers a transdisciplinary approach that disrupts the Nature/Culture binary and attends to land, the temporality of place and offers a way of “experiencing ecology as an intensive quality of experience,” for example, attending “to the smell and texture of grass, soil and plants (Rotas, 2015, pp. 91, 97). A different kind of education is required for “an affirmative ethico-political economy” that addresses the “problematic of a dying species such as ours who is on the trajectory to extinction” through a shift that includes “trans-subjective and transhuman forces” (jagodzinski, 2015, p. 128).
It is only when we separate the human “I” from other human and nonhuman bodies that teaching and learning become activities that (human) individuals do (to each other or themselves as in “reflection”). This happens when we use language and other semiotic sign systems and mediate knowledge about the world through these conceptual systems and thereby bring into existence the Nature/Culture binary. Knowledge, so construed, is about the languages we use about the world and not regarding ourselves as part of the world.
It should become clear now that Sundberg’s critique discussed earlier that posthumanists are not aware that “knowledge comes from somewhere and is, therefore, bound up in power relations” (Sundberg, 2014, p. 36) is unfounded. Ontology and epistemology are always entangled with the ethical because the knowing subject is not at a distance from the world. S/he is always located, but not in a “fixed position,” that is, “with the specification of one’s social location along a set of axes referencing one’s identity” (Barad, 2007, p. 470, Fn 45; my italics). Therefore, “location” does not mean the same as “local” or “perspective.” For example, my email address is specific in the internet, but this net itself is always fluid and becoming, and so are identities (Barad, 2007, p. 470, Fn 45), but never politically neutral.
In contrast to the transcendal signifier “I” of humanism, the posthuman subject (including child subjectivity) is an entanglement that is constituted by concepts and material forces, where the social, political, the biological, and its observing, measuring, and controlling machines are interwoven and entwined. All elements of the entanglement intra-act without clear bodily boundaries, including between what is natural or cultural. For a justice-to-come this is salient, because binary thinking misses important knowledges – it cuts nature away from culture, child from adult, mind from body, boy from girl. So what could or should the role of the teacher be in posthuman schooling? What does it mean to teach and to work and think together in a posthuman classroom? Let us re-turn to the vignette at the start of this chapter.
Diffraction helps materialize important new insights for posthuman schooling. It disrupts the idea of humanist schooling that knowledge acquisition is mediated by the more expert and knowledgeable other; schooling as a linear journey from child to the more “fully-human” adult. Importantly, the diffractive teacher can be human, nonhuman or more-than-human, contributing to a reconfiguration of the world in all its materiality – a process of “worlding.” Importantly, this process is always relational, not individual. The heron’s standing in the water is made possible by the water, the river, the people who maintain it, the mountains, the people who pay taxes, the heron’s mother who gave birth to him/her, environmental laws and rules of the city, animal protection agencies, other species, global politics of climate change and sustainability and so forth. All are intra-acting with one another and with me who took the photo. Like the diffraction pattern caused by the heron’s body, the relationship between the human and more-than-human is dynamic and has agency. The point is not so much that knowledge practices have material consequences, but that “practices we enact matter – in both senses of the word,” and that these practices of knowing are “part of the world’s differential becoming” (Barad, 2007, p. 91; my emphasis). And this includes when as educators we re-turn to experiences diffractively: experiencing the experience (again). Making knowledge is not about the production of facts, but about “making worlds” (“worlding”), “in the sense of materially engaging as part of the world in giving it specific material form” (Barad, 2007, p. 91). Knowledge is constructed through “direct material engagement with” and not by “standing at a distance and representing” the world (Barad, 2007, p. 49). In that sense, teaching and learning are a “performance.” (Barad has been influenced by Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, but she is also critical of her reinscribing matter “as a passive product of discursive practices rather than as an active agent participating in the very process of materialization” (Barad, 2007, p.151).)
When learning is not positioned “within” a subject, but is conceptualized and enacted as a dynamic, relational process of intra-action, what it means to “think-with” in education is a material-discursive intra-action between human and nonhuman bodies (a “flattened,” non-hierarchical ontology). A body is to be understood as in physics, as any kind of body, whether a human body, an organ, a heron or a stone. Jane Bennett (2010, p. 2) describes how, for Spinoza, human and nonhuman bodies have “a peculiar vitality” or “conatus” – “a power present in every body [conatur] in order to persevere in its own being” (Bennett, 2010, p. 2). In that sense, all things (including the human body) are equal, and therefore form an ontological continuum, not a difference of kind. Although for Spinoza (like Descartes a rationalist), human beings strive to live by the guidance of reason, all things have vitality and are able to persist in existing “with the same force whereby it began to exist.” For Spinoza, even a falling stone strives to continue its motion (Bennett, 2010, p. 2). Spinoza’s monism and the relational ontologies of Barad, Deleuze and Guattari make us think differently about teaching and what it means to think together. Not only human bodies, but also their minds are part of nature, not in control of it, or in command of it. It has been wrongly assumed that education is only for, and about, humans. Decentering the human is one step (in the river) towards decolonizing education and the figuration of posthuman child is part of our response-ability for a justice-to-come.
This work is based on research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa [Grant number 98992].
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