Philosophy of Education

The Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory has some helpful articles on the  theorists we are reading in Semesters 1 and 2:

There’s also a (relatively) recent blog post on Arendt and contemporary education at The Digital Counter-Revolution:

Text for Semester 2

ob_dc8900_hannah-arendt-com-cigarroHaving wrangled over the implications of the “postmodern condition” (and its attendant “posthumanism”) for knowledge in general and higher education in particular, it was suggested that we continue these discussions in relation to Hannah Arendt’s earlier work on the “human condition” and specifically her description of “the crisis of education” in her essay of that name.

Details of Semester 2’s reading can be found here. We hope you can join us in March (all welcome)!

From Lyotard towards Arendt

At an engaging first session of the HEAT Reading Group on 13 November 2013, organised by Matt Charles and Steven Cranfield, the topic of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s use of the term ‘performativity’ in “The Postmodern Condition” was discussed. 

 Here, the question of why this is an important topic for higher education is taken up.

Read more…

The Alienation of the Intelligentsia

I mentioned I would attempt a second post on my reservations about the persuasiveness of Lyotard’s “report on knowledge”; hopefully this intersects with some of points raised by Steven in his post on ‘the mercantalization of knowledge’ and by Allan in his post ‘Performance and Production; Command and Control’ (which develops his criticisms of Lyotard’s use of the term performativitiy from his first post).

In responding to Allan’s claims about the conflation of ‘performatives’ (from the language game of speech acts) and ‘performativity’ (from the language game of cybernetics, although Allan rightly questions the adequacy of this concept), I suggested a broader distinction in The Postmodern Condition between knowledge as Learning and knowledge as Competency. (Perhaps it would be possible to generalize this distinction, such as that between the known and know-how, or between doctrinal teachings and wisdom, for example, or even between the Halachah and the Haggadah in Judaism (Walter Benjamin writes: ‘the Haggadah, the name Jews have given to the rabbinical stories and anecdotes that serve to explicate and confirm the teachings – the Halachah’; ‘Wisdom is thus characterized as an attribute of tradition; it is truth in haggadic consistency’.)

One of the questions that needs to be addressed, following on from The Postmodern Condition, is the extent to which the transmission involved in education is simply that of the known (Learning) or is also related to know-how (Competency). Higher education, particularly at doctoral level, still teaches the latter along the lines of something like an older apprenticeship model (e.g. between doctoral student and supervisor), although this is being gradually replaced with skills training that seek to transmit the competency of know-how precisely as the content of learning (something known).

For Lyotard, I argued, the shift in the pragmatic legitimacy of Scientific knowledge involves a deflation of Competency from the socializing experience of the Grand Narratives of history to the  technocratic experience of the Little Narratives of cybernetic systems: a paradigm shift from storytelling to efficiency.  Allan has convincingly criticized the deflation of cybernetic “performativity” to that of “control” in his last post; I would add that I think this is part of a much broader distrust of technology that pre-dates cybernetics but gets taken up into that debate. I agree with Allan that the persuasiveness of Lyotard’s claims are dependent on us agreeing with this distrust and – towards the end of the post – I raise some objections as to why technology might be a red herring here.

Near the beginning of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard lays out what the dominance of new forms of technology upon knowledge entails:

We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with regard to the “knower,” at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete…

This picks up on the transformation of Learning (in education, specifically Science in its broadest sense of disciplinary knowledge) with the deflation of the Competency that legitimates it (socializing narratives reduced to instrumental efficiency). Bildung, of course, is the great socializing narrative of modern education: the acquisition of content (teachings) involves the formation of character (intellectual, social, political, and civic competency).

Lyotard continues:

The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to valorized in new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its “use-value”.’ (pp.4-5)

In the course of this paragraph, Lyotard makes an implicit move from “exteriorization” (an ostensibly neutral term) to “alienation” (a more negative term) and then on to “mercantilization” in the following paragraphs. According to Marx (especially in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and in a much more restricted economic sense in Capital), the relationship between producers and the commodities they produce is one of alienation or estrangement (Entfremdung):  workers are alienated from the value of the commodities they produce, since they work not for the goods they produce (which belong to the corporation in order to sold on the market) but for the wages they receive. Crudely put, the commodity is produced not primarily for its “use-value” (the sensual qualities that satisfy a human need), since neither the worker nor the corporation enjoy that use, but for its “exchange-value” (the supersensual quantity it can be exchanged for profit).

Lyotard goes on to describe ‘knowledge in the form of an informational commodity’ as a process of ‘the mercantilization of knowledge’ (p.5). As Steven points out, Lyotard’s prediction that the circulation of informational commodities via multinational corporations will undermine the privilege of nation-states over Learning is open to debate. The most obvious examples would be the emergence of multinational educational corporations, whose existence is presaged in the growth of overseas campuses by brand-name universities (the University of Westminster was recently in the news over its campus in Uzbekistan) and of international educational chains (such as the recently-collapsed Swedish company JB Education which until recently ran several Free Schools in England). That the creation of markets in education still require quite forceful intervention by nation-states implies a problem with Lyotard’s analysis of the postmodern condition, as Steven’s example makes clear.

I would argue that the problem lies in another one of Lytord’s rhetorical moves (comparable to that Allan picks up on in relation to performatives and performativity): that from technological “exteriorization” to “mercantilization” via “alienation”. Alienation is primarily problematic for Marx because it involves the material exploitation of the worker to the benefit of the owner’s of the corporation; that is, the worker becomes a commodity to the extent he or she only possesses their labour power to be exchanged for wages, but this is a position of weakness that ultimately impoverishes the worker. (Admittedly, in his earlier writings Marx also expands on this alienation in non-economic terms as the alienation of the worker’s “species-being” but later Marxists, most notably Althusser, regarded this as an illegitimate form of humanism.)

The “postmodern” question is whether it is technological/cybernetic exteriorization itself that transforms knowledge (the informationization of knowledge into quantities of transmission, cf. especially n.14), with its rejection of the old pedagogic principle that ‘the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds,’ or the fact that this exteriorization permits the mercantilization of knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold, which leads to the domination of exchange-value over use-value. As with “performativity”, is it merely “exchangeability” that is the key issue here or “exchangeability” under the capitalist relations of the exchange of commodities (including human labour power) on the market?

One response is to blame technology itself (informationization) but this falls into the trap of missing how specific economic relations and priorities lead to the development and (mis)use of such technologies. I think the literary critic and educationalist F. R. Leavis is guilty of this when, in his essay on ‘Mass Civilization and Minority Culture’, he describes the “Americanization” of English culture and education in terms of the “machine”: the mass-production, standardization,  and levelling-down of culture which result from the mechanization of means over the capacity to discrimination ends (an earlier version of cybernetic efficiency). What Leavis is lamenting is the impoverishment of what Lyotard calls Learning as it is uncoupled from Competency. Leavis’ quotation from T. S. Eliot anticipates the contemporary condition that Lyotard defines as “postmodern”:

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.

As I suggested in my last post, Lyotard sees this as a potential field of opportunity, as the very interdisciplinarity of knowledge and multiplication of meanings in The Posmodern Condition suggest. But writing on ‘The Culture Industry’ a decade or so after Leavis, the critical theorists T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer point out that:

Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms …No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself …This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy.

Adorno and Horkheimer share with Leavis a concern about “instrumental reason” – the domination of means (technological efficiency, say) over ends (the human competency to choose values) – but they are clear that this is a function of the capitalist economy and not a law of technology itself. This is relevant when we think about the “exteriorization” of knowledge which Lyotard presents as the precondition for its “mercantilization”: there are ends involved in the prioritizing of such means (the performativity of efficiency) and these ends serve those who seek to profit from the imposition of such criteria (profit). As Allan rightly points out, this relates to a bureaucratic managerialism that increasingly dominates public institutions, including higher education, and which strives to make what it to some extent immeasurable (the outcomes of teaching and research) quantifiable, for reasons connected to the commodification of education (as public resources are withdrawn and private resources increased).

But if we agree with Adorno and Horkheimer, we adopt a modern (Marxist) analyses of recent developments in the field of knowledge production and not a postmodern one. On this basis, we might distinguish more carefully between the processes of “exteriorization” and “mercantilisation”, which Lyotard tends to subsume. Doing so raises some knotty questions. One difficult question is whether knowledge is already capable of being commodified (produced in exchange for wage-labour in order to be exchanged on the marketplace for a price) without  being exteriorized (in which case, is exteriorization necessarily the problem)? Conversely, can knowledge be exteriorized (recorded as information with the maximum capacity for transmission) without being commodified (in which case, is exteriorization itself necessarily a problem)?

Depending on how we answer these questions, we may have differing evaluations of the significance of more recent technological developments in education such as MOOCs or  Wikipedia. This returns us to that key distinction between Learning and Competency: whether the acquisition of Learning can be unproblematically dissociated from the cultivation (Bildung) of Competency, or, indeed, whether it ever really was so closely associated. If it is not technology that determines and transforms the relation between Learning and proclaimed Competency (exteriorization and performativity) but economic relations of production and consumption then Competency might always have been a politicized category in knowledge and specifically in education. That would suggest not some fundamental transformation from the modern to postmodern but – to quote Fredric Jameson – the latest stage in the cultural logic of late capitalism, one which now  comes to dissolve the means and relations of production for the intelligentsia, as it has done with all the facets of society it has already encountered. Perhaps this only feels like the end of the world/of modernity to intellectuals.


Performatives to Performativity: What Kind of Move?

This post is in response to the difficult questions that Allan raises (and plays with) in his earlier post, ‘Re-Reading “The Postmodern Condition”….’, but it is far too long to be appended as a comment. Thanks to both Allan and Steven for starting the discussion (and apologies this is such a long and quite speculative response).

Let’s agree that the conflation of the “performative” and “performativity” is one Lyotard explicitly makes:

The term performative has taken on a precise meaning in language theory since Austin. Later in in this book, the concept will reappear in association with the term performativity (in particular, of a system) in the new current sense of efficiency measured according to an input/output ratio. The two meanings are not far apart…’ (n.30, p.88)

As Allan’s original post claims, what is at stake here is whether such a conflation (of terms and of language games) is itself legitimate. How one attempts to answer this question of legitimacy depends on whether one is persuaded by and adopts the position on knowledge advanced in The Postmodern Condition. To do so, requires the acceptance that all knowledge involves a “general agonistics of language” in which every utterance is a “move” within a language game with a set of rules invented and adhered to by the players. In this post, I’d like to suggest what kind of rules I think are governing Lyotard’s “move” from performatives to performativity.

chessI would like to make the suggestion that the main distinction drawn in the book between Scientific and Narrative knowledge provides a particular contrast between two broader aspects of knowledge: that of Learning and that of Competency. I’m going to quote at length here, because it clarifies my point above but also because the particular conditions ascribed to Science relate to the issue of performative/performativity that I’ll return to later:

 Knowledge in general cannot be reduced to science, nor even to learning. Learning is the set of statements which, to the exclusion of all other statements, denote or describe objects and may be declared true or false. Science is a subset of learning. It is also composed of denotative statements, but imposes two supplementary conditions on their acceptability: the objects to which they refer must be available for repeated access, in other words, they must be accessible to explicit conditions of observation; and it must be possible to decide whether or not a given statement pertains to the language judged relevant by the experts.’ (p.18)

As an aside, it is worth reminding ourselves that Lyotard is using the term “Science” in the more general sense conveyed by Wissenschaft in German (systematically researched knowledge of the kind taught as disciplines) and not the narrower sense of “natural science” implied in English. It therefore includes not just biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine but also history, law, politics, and literature, etc. In the quote above, Lyotard says that Learning is a kind of Knowledge whose principle utterances or moves all follow the rules of denotation (they describe a referent in terms that the one addressed can give assent to as “true” or that are capable of being disproved as “false”). But Science is a specific kind of Learning that requires the additional conditions of (i) being observable and (ii) subject to the authority of a disciplinary expertise (this second point is less clear, and related, I think, to the systematic nature of Scientific research, but not important for my argument here). Both of these undergo a subtle transformation in the supposed shift from the modern to the postmodern, but it is changes to the first (observability) that bring in the criteria of “performativity” in the sense of efficiency.  

In the main part of the text, Lyotard’s more general claim is that the pragmatics of Science cannot legitimate its utterances without recourse to moves only permitted by the rules of other (non-Scientific) kind of language games. In particular, Scientific knowledge draws on the pragmatics of Narrative knowledge which does perform its own legitimacy through the transmission of a set of rules that constitute kinds of social bonds.

Contrast the denotative utterance made by a customer (“The shop is open”) with the same performative utterance made by a mayor (“The shop is open”). The former can be true or false depending on whether we agree that the referent (“the shop”) has the quality of being “open” at the time the utterance is made, but the latter gives the referent the quality of “openness” in the very act of being uttered. As an aside, note here that the utterance “the shop is open” might constitute Learning, but it does not meet the conditions of Science, since without further information it is not capable of repeated observation (it does not propose a law) and it is not assignable to a language judged relevant by experts (it does not belong to a disciplinary discourse).

The important point, however, is that just as the particular move made in performative utterances is one that produces the qualities of its referent, so knowledge transmitted according to the more general pragmatics of Narratives determines the legitimacy of its rules in the very act of narrating. Narrative knowledge may involve a variety of language games and kinds of utterances but performative utterances are the clearest example of this kind of legitimation. The mayor is an authority to the extent he or she can make performative utterances of this kind (that is, you or I are incapable of using such performatives, as is evident when I stand outside a closed shop and say, “I declare this shop open”). Narrative knowledge more generally confers this kind of authority on the speaker but not through an acquired political position but simply by virtue of the utterer having also been the addressee of the narration. This is a social situation it produces and therefore constitutes the rules – in its narrating – of a social bond.  A subtle example, which I’ll elaborate on later, might be taken from Marx’s The Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite!”

Just as Science belongs to a particular kind of knowledge called Learning, so I interpret Narrative as belonging to a different category of knowledge – comprised of a variety of language games and their permissible utterances or moves – concerned with Competency more generally. This does not concern denotative correctness but a whole field of utterances concerned with the criteria of “good” performance:

Understood in this way, knowledge [note that Lyotard doesn’t say “Narrative” here] is what makes someone capable of forming “good” denotative utterances, but also “good” prescriptive and “good” evaluative utterances …It is not a competence relative to a particular class of statements (for example, cognitive ones) …On the contrary, it makes “good” performances in relation to a variety of objects of discourse…’ (p.18)

Narrative offers one kind of criteria of “good” performance, conferred through the competency of the act of narrating itself (the author becomes an authority) and comparable to that of performative utterances, but Competency in general pertains to a host of language games and criteria. Perhaps this interpretation is too schematic here – and I’m not sure it is necessary in order to follow Lyotard’s claims – but it helps emphasise how that the question of legitimacy (lacking in Science) involves criteria for the competency of performance, e.g. Science as the political project of social improvement or the philosophical project of Enlightenment.

This sets us up for the other major claim of the text: that the way in which Science draws upon Narrative has been transformed in the shift from the Modern/Industrial to the Postmodern/Postindustrial or Cybernetic. Recalling that the question of the social bond (the relation between players in a language game) is itself a move in one such game (Narrative), shifts in knowledge produce shifts in the nature of the social bond.  In the past, Modern Science explicitly drew on Grand Narratives for its legitimacy.

Furthermore, Lyotard seems to claim that one of the Grand Narratives of Modernity is that which sees society as a unified totality of a self-regulating system (originally organic, later cybernetic), whose goal is the optimization of performativity in terms of technical efficiency (minimum input and maximum output). One of the consequences of this view is that all “theory” (i.e. theoretical, Scientific knowledge) ultimately contributes to the self-regulating of the system (as negative feedback). A theory that sees itself as “critical” of this system (and Lyotard is referring to Frankfurt School “Critical Theory” here, and primarily the critical theory of Jurgen Habermas who is The Postmodern Condition‘s chief antagonist) therefore possesses a different conception of society as internally opposed and divided in order to legitimate its claims through a possible Narrative of human emancipation.

Social systematicity (cybernetic sociology) and social contradictions (Marxist historical materialism as the history of class struggle) were both Modern Grand Narratives through which Science sought to legitimate itself. But this demand for legitimation, once it became self-conscious rather than simply accepted, produced a process of delegitimation which produced an incredulity towards Grand Narratives and consequently placed the language game of Science on a par with all other games.

This is why Lyotard equates the postmodern transformation of knowledge with the “computerization of society”. It is felt as the “atomization” of the modern social bond into flexible networks of multiple language games, whose rules are based on the greatest possible flexibility of moves (not a single, master discourse) and whose knowledge is legitimated not by Grand Narratives but Little Narratives of localized and short-term pragmatics. ‘Each [move] ….must formulate its own rules and petition the addressee to accept them’ (42), either by inventing new moves within the existing rules of the language games or switching language games.

This leaves me in a position to return to the legitimacy of Lyotard’s conflation of performatives and performativity in the postmodern condition of knowledge. The two specific conditions that make Learning a Science were defined as having an observable referent and disciplinary expertise. The latter (expertise) is transformed into networks of interdisciplinary researchers and teachers, reflecting an anxiety about expertise in general and more specifically any kind of discipline that makes claims to be a master discourse. The former (observability) is transformed as the human sense organs (and their technological appendages, e.g. microscopes or telescopes that enable the human eye to see better) become superseded by digital technology independent of verification by human sense organs (e.g. scanning equipment that can read and verify the image or sound itself and translate that into information). The transformation of the observability condition of Scientific knowledge entails that the pragmatics of Little Narratives make an appeal to the competency not of humans but of technical efficiency: the criteria of “good” or “bad” performatives becomes based on the technics of performativity. This is no longer the pragmatic rules for social bonds constituted by the Grand Narrative of human narration (a human speaker, a human listener, a performance that confers authority on the former because she narrates and on the latter to narrate in turn). As Lyotard writes, ‘a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another” (44): it minimizes input (human effort in however a mediated form that takes) and maximizes output (information/data).

In response to Allan’s question, I would suggest that we could see the legitimacy of the shift from analysing knowledge in terms of language games (pragmatics of performatives) to analysing language games in terms of cybernetics (pragmatics of performativity) as itself performed by the postmodern condition of knowledge: the deflation from the social bonds constituted by the Grand Narratives of social systems to – what has the semblance of a dehumanization or desocialization – the Little Narratives of paralogy.

But there is still a little joke to contend with:

If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted), higher education becomes a subsystem of the social system, and the same performativity criterion is applied to each of these problems’ (p.48).

This claim is exactly the kind against which Allan takes issue and it is important to notice that it begins not with a denotative or peformative utterance but something far more conditional: If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance [i.e. competency] (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted)…’.

Lyotard has to phrase this in the conditional because he cannot take this position. It is that of the Modern Grand Narrative of social “unicity” (i.e. that the “computerization” of society determines the criterion of competency for all knowledge as efficiency). What is the legitimacy of this narrative and therefore of the conflation of performatives and performativity? Lyotard cannot give his assent to this description (that would by Talcott’s sociology) nor suppose a perspective which seeks to transcend it (that would be “critical theory” of the Marxist kind).

Luckily (for him), he is no longer required to affirm or critique whether the social as a fully-regulated system is “true” or “ideological”, since the need for consensus with his readers has been abandoned. What he is performing in the conflation of performatives and performativity is, rather, ‘a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge’ (61) that generates blind spots and precisely aims to defer consensus. In this sense, The Postmodern Condition might be read as an anti-manifesto. Where Marx, in The ommunist Manifesto declared that,

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable…

this seemingly denotative statement has the quasi-performative task of making manifest that which it hopes to happen (assent by making it true). This is its the socializing function of the bond it produces via Grand Narrative: it establishes the rules for its own legitimacy. In Marx, for example, the Scientific knowledge of the overthrow of capitalism will be true (and therefore legitimate) according to the socialization produced by Narrative knowledge (the proletarian revolution). The incredulity towards Grand Narratives means that – whether Marx’s statement is true or not – it no longer enacts its mode of legitimacy (the historical narrative of revolution).

But  when Lyotard claims something like (paraphrasing Marx), “the development of Postmodern Cybernetics, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the intelligentsia teaches and researches the Science of Knowledge” he is trying to confuse the issue and thus fragment the social bond. Jameson, in his foreword, compares this to a Deleuzian schizophrenics of survival within capitalism; its pragmatic effect is, presumably intended not to produce consensus (assent or dissent) but to defer or delay such consensus (and this was the effect it had on Allan, who questioned it) . This is not Frankfurt School “ideology critique” – from a standpoint of a Scientific Knowledge which permits Learning from outside of the system, but only through resource to the Grand Narrative of one great big historical antagonism – but a generalized recognition that there is nothing but antagonisms (agonistics) and thus a system only in the sense of a systematic antagonisms. Lyotard’s “move” (the conflation of performatives and performativity) is one of dissensus, like a small and localized virus that spreads and mutates from within, and whose anti-manifesto performance is to unravel the referent described: the performativity of efficiency. Its a move that paralyses, blocks, or short-circuits the performance. After all, the persuasiveness of The Postmodern Condition is remarkably inefficient: it requires maximum input (cf. its accumulation of footnotes that cover a wide range of fields) for minimum output (“there, don’t you see how things are?”).

If I have time, I will write another post arguing why, nonetheless, I think Lyotard’s little game is ultimately unpersuasive because it sets off  from the wrong foot concerning “computerization”. This will concern some of the issues surrounding the mercantilisation of knowledge that Steven picks up on and the problems surrounding technological performativity that Allan’s post on ‘Command and Control’  so eloquently raises.

Meeting Reminder

The first meeting of the HEAT reading group will take place on Wednesday 13th November (which is Teaching Week 8). The meeting will be from 1pm – 3pm in Room 358 in the main Regent Street building (309 Regent Street). We will be discussing The Postmodern Condition and in particular its relevance to issues concerning higher education today. 

A number of posts have already gone up on this blog that you are worth reading and might provide some of the starting point for our discussion. Please feel free to add further posts or comments of your own. 

We look forward to see everyone at the meeting and don’t forget to bring suggestions for next semester’s text.

Performance and Production; Command and Control

The particular use that Lyotard makes of the term ‘performativity’, i.e. that it is synonymous with ‘productivity’, does not seem to be a move that can be legitimated by reference to philosophy of language or indeed to cybernetics.

In the cybernetic context, a similar reduction seems to be taking place to that which occurs with performativity-as-productivity. The suggestion is that cybernetics takes ‘control systems’ to be ‘systems of control’, i.e. ‘control’ is taken to mean ‘command and control’.

As Beatrice Fazi (2011) points out, cyberneticians must themselves be held partly responsible for this reduction. Wiener (1948) defined cybernetics as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. This definition has stuck, despite its meaning being contested throughout the history of cybernetics. Much of the suspicion towards cybernetics, Fazi continues, seems to derive from this tainted interest in achieving and preserving mechanisms of control.

However, as Fazi notes, Andrew Pickering (2010) examines a varied body of works in cybernetics that allow for a wider range of meanings of the term ‘control’. Thus, while post-war British cyberneticians are interested in control machines, the controlling exerted can be articulated as a means of adaptation, interaction or, in Gordon Pask’s terms, ‘conversation’ (Scott, 2001), i.e. a “form of reciprocally productive and open-ended exchange between two or more parties” (Pickering, 2010: 322).

From this point of view, Pickering claims, cybernetics would favour a sort of Heideggerian ‘revealing’, in contrast to the ‘enframing’ of traditional sciences, which seek to command and control, via knowledge, whatever the world has to offer (Fazi, 2011).

So, although Pickering does not dismiss the political importance of a critique of control, “the dystopian association of cybernetics with Big-Brotheresque agendas or panoptical projects is also refused” (Fazi, 2011). The attacks on cybernetics by some intellectual and artistic avant-gardes in the 1960s, for example, from the Situationist International, could be seen as deriving from the same misplaced understanding of control mechanisms, the validity of which Pickering is challenging. Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, may equally be seen to partake in this limited understanding of ‘control’ as ‘command and control’.

For Pickering, cybernetic reality is always new and perpetually in a state of becoming. It is populated by entities that are entangled with the “endless performativity of matter” (Pickering, 2010: 289). Such a reality cannot possibly be captured by the representational capabilities of traditional epistemology, Pickering suggests.

Here is the very sense of ‘performativity’ that Lyotard might have derived from philosophy of language and from cybernetics, i.e. the sense of its being protean, beyond productivity and beyond control.

Rather, the topic of Lyotard’s critique are those modes of discourse and practice that narrow down performativity to productivity and which equate control with command and control.

Such discursive practices might go under the name of managerialism or corporatisation, which may indeed draw on resources available through philosophy of language and cybernetics, but not in any simple, direct or necessarily legitimate way.

What Lyotard seems to be striving to critique is the corporatisation of the university, in which academic practice becomes labour or ‘work’ and therefore productive, and human resource management seeks to increase the productivity of that labour (Gulli, 2009: 98).

The language of ‘productivity’ is part of the corporate university. The language of ‘performativity’ arose in the context of the the university as a place of and for learning, perhaps even disinterested learning. The reduction of performativity to productivity is performed through managerialism as discourse and field of practice.

It is then a question of whether, by insisting on the fullness of performativity and the ‘conversational’ or interactive nature of control, one is engaging in fantasising a Romantic past or indeed engaging in “a useless, if not politically dangerous, nostalgia” (Gulli, 2009: 95); or whether one is engaged in a kind of struggle, which is not simply an academic contest, as defined by Gulli:

“If capital asserts its sovereignty primarily by means of the logic and language of productivity, and if productivity is a central moment of the corporate university, fighting against it – through creative and caring labour – is ending the sovereign claim, the dominance of capital and property over labor and life, outlining a model of social justice.” (Gulli, 2009: 107)

If so, where does this restoration of the creative and caring dimensions of ‘performativity’ take place?


Fazi, M.B. (2011). Cybernetics in action. Computational Culture, (November). Available at: Accessed on 19 October 2013.

Gullì, B. (2010). Earthly plenitudes: a study on sovereignty and labor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Pickering, A. (2010). The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Scott, B. (2001). Gordon Pask’s conversation theory: a domain independent constructivist model of human knowing. Foundations of Science, 6(4), pp.343–360.

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.