Spivak’s lessons: refractions of the scene of teaching

John Latham, Film Star, 1960
“In Marx’s text philosophy must thus displace itself into the everyday struggle. In my argument, literature, insofar as it is in the service of the emergence of the critical, must also displace itself thus.” (Spivak, 2002: 30)

Picking up from the blog post, Critique, criticality and the right to be critical, it might be suggested that here we are considering some aspects of the role of ‘the critical’ in ‘the everyday’, ‘the everyday’ conceived as a struggle or, in other words, agonistically, i.e. as political contest. This post is simultaneously published in Allan Parsons’ blog, Poiesis and Prolepsis.

The ‘everyday struggle’ for the teacher takes place in the classroom. For everyone else, the classroom struggle is an everyday occurrence for only that part of their lives when they are engaged in formal education. Formative as that ‘period’ may be (in a day-in-the-life divided into ‘periods’), it nevertheless opens out into other kinds of everyday struggle.

The question raised by Spivak in the quote above is whether ‘the critical’ (critical thinking, critique), which is a central part of the everyday struggle for the teacher, has wider value in the other kinds of everyday struggle experienced by those who engage in the everyday struggle of the classroom as a ‘period’ in their lives: the insertion of ‘the lessons’ from one struggle within other struggles.

Unless Spivak is suggesting, which by her own account she surely is not, that we are all engaged in the same struggle … ? The answer to this implicit question must be that, yes, in some ways we are all (the world’s inhabitants, the world’s population, human-reality-in-situation) engaged in the same struggle, but yet that struggle is not the same for all of us, positioned differently, and differentially, as we are.

Yet …

We seem to keep coming back to the classroom:

“Let us return to the undergraduate classroom” (Spivak, 1992: 9), “a typical liberal multicultural classroom” (Spivak, 1992: 7).

We seem to keep coming back to the text [-book] in the classroom:

“On a given day we are reading a text from one national origin.” (Spivak, 1992: 7).

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text [-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom:

“Each discipline has its own species of “setting-to-work”- and the texture of the imagination belongs to the teacher of literary reading.” (Spivak, 2002: 26)

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text[-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom, with the class:

“The group in the classroom from [the text[-book]’s, add. AP] national origin in the general polity can identify with the richness of the texture of the “culture” in question. (I am not even bringing up the question of the definition of culture.) People from other national origins in the classroom (other, that is, than Anglo) relate sympathetically but superficially, in an aura of same difference. The Anglo relates benevolently to everything, “knowing about other cultures” in a relativist glow.” (Spivak, 1992: 7)

We seem to keep coming back to the teacher and the text[-book] (from one national origin) in the classroom, with the class, wherein lies the student:

“Speaking to them and their teachers in December, I stressed repeatedly the importance of explaining the text, of explaining repeatedly, of checking to see if the student has understood.” (Spivak, 2002: 28)

It matters little if we substitute the (static, pictorial) image (painting or photograph) or the (cinematic) film (movie) for the text[-book]. Image and film can become text.

It matters little, equally, if we substitute the studio or the laboratory for the classroom. Studio and laboratory can become classroom.

In one account, then, the student, the student body, the classroom and the text[-book] are centred on the teacher, a centre from which the world (outside the classroom, by means of the text[-book], through critique) may be mastered.

Nevertheless …

Most learning takes place outside of the classroom. The scene of learning has multiple sites, one of which is the classroom, perhaps the archetypal ‘scene of teaching’, a scene which differs from that of indoctrination. Classroom teaching inflects that learning or refracts that learning, and may claim to be formalising that learning through learning-how-to-learn (formally), one the one hand, while critiquing that (everyday) learning, on the other hand.

Classroom learning re-articulates the learning that takes place outside the classroom. Without an awareness of the ‘out’ side of the classroom, already brought ‘in’ side by the student body and the student’s body, classroom teaching could not develop the specificity of its mode of learning, its particular inflection of everyday learning.

In the sense that it inaugurates learning, or brings to awareness the always-already of learning, it is in the form, partly, of an unlearning (of bad habits, the Platonic philosophical stance, raising the philosopher up from the everyday ‘man’) or a learning otherwise, but otherwise in the sense of disciplinary learning, a form of learning that may be more ‘technical’, more ‘analytical’, more ‘critical’: technique, technology, analysis, critique, the main modes through which the Western episteme is developed, which may be to say ‘method’ but not necessarily methodology.

Alternatively, such (re-)inauguration may form a making strange of what has been learned in the everyday, as in avant-garde art practices, which bring to attention what has been termed, in another time, the ‘absurdity’ of the everyday.

What classroom learning may, however, inaugurate is a mode of perceiving the world in more detail or, rather, as a series of fragments.

The scene of teaching, as has already been noted in a prior discussion of Basil Bernstein’s work [1], [2], [3] and [4], forms across a plurality of sites. What matters is the articulation of the modes of learning that take place within the different sites. The classroom is, in part, where you are classed, and may bring to awareness a degree of class consciousness, but not class mobilisation. The classroom is where you learn your class, categorically, where you learn to split your (imaginary-originary) persona among sites, to become an actant in different apparatuses; an actant, both acting and acted upon, both affecting and affected, both perceiving and perceived. [Note 1]

The text[-book]

John Latham, Film Star, 1960

The text[-book] may be seen as an articulated joint or hinge, bringing text and book into some kind of folding alignment, an arrangement which holds together two of the leaves or threads of university pedagogy as it has developed since the 18th century in the form of the professorial system, as a bridge from the professor’s speech to the disciplinary content, as discursive archive.

The text, the vital part, comes alive in the classroom, as ‘living presence’ in the hands of the teacher, who displays his/her mastery of the world which unfolds from the codex. The book, the dead part or the inert part, the text’s remains, so to speak, are held in the tomb of the library, which may or not be a magnificent monument. Together, both parts, the live part and the dead part, form the ‘materiality’ of the text[-book] or, in other words, its actantiality, its ability to rise from the dead, again and again, as the inert body of the book is resuscitated in the classroom, life breathed back into it through the teacher’s voice.

The text belongs to the teacher; the book belongs to the librarian.

The academic library …

The book may be studied in the library. What form of life does it take then and there, without the presence of the teacher. Has the teacher imparted ‘tools’, perhaps in the form of a conscientiousness or a method, to enable, at least, a partial text-to-eye resuscitation: can the student understand?; has the student understood?; can the student’s understanding be tested/assessed?

From another perspective, the learning that takes place in the classroom is (necessarily) supplemented by the learning that takes place without it (both outside of it and without the aid of the classroom), i.e. necessarily and so therefore not supplementarily: both necessary and supplementary.

One ‘immediate’ contextual feature of the classroom, the context which enters into the classroom frame metaleptically, so to speak, is the learning environment, or the learning ecology, constituted by the higher education institution: the (non-)place, material-virtual, the student enters in order to learn to be a student.

Of the several ‘non-places’ of this wider institutional learning environment, none is more present and more absent than the library. Not-classroom, not laboratory, not studio, not seminar room, not lecture hall, nevertheless, learning takes place there: learning (‘studying’) is where the library takes place. What kind of pedagogy inhabits or animates this kind of learning-taking-place?

Neither presence nor absence/both presence and absence, the academic library, as an element of/in the scene of teaching-as-learning or classroom teaching/learning, spread across several sites, constitutes a kind of learning, a testing moment (does the student understand?), which is not an external assessment, that opens the learner to a ‘void’, an untried and unanticipated step into learning/not-knowing, which is not a step towards knowing-as-mastery, and which brings into focus an awareness of the performative scaffolding from which that step is, hesitantly, being taken.

Becoming devoid of support, the student must find a way to deal with that emptiness (there is no step that is obvious, no direction to be taken), or simply with emptiness without particularity. Nevertheless, learning remains, in this elemental scene, an individual enterprise, private study, silent study, even in the midst of the (semi-)public space constituted by the library – subsumed in the classroom as the primary (traumatic) scene of teaching: instruction as in-struck-tion, as being struck, beaten into shape, finally stricken.

The text[-book], the classroom, the library and the world

What is missing, clearly, is a philosophy of the academic library, particularly a philosophical justification of the pedagogy of the library, a reasoned account of the learning that takes place in the library as the library, perhaps along the lines of curatorial pedagogy/pedgogical curation, one might joke.

This would be a performative account, focusing on what the library can do, for example, does the library de-centre the mastery of the teacher?; does the library disperse the living presence of the text[-book]; does the library endlessly defer knowing taking place; does the library open knowledge to sharing, through deferral and referral. And if the library performs thus, how does it do so?


Are we anywhere near understanding the academic library as part of a larger, multi-levelled, socio-technical learning environment and learning apparatus?

One could almost imagine a manifesto, such as those favoured by the profession of architecture, in which it is stated, as a series of slogans:

The academic library codifies multidisciplinarity, and holds the potential for interdisciplinarity, while permitting the possibility of cross- and trans-disciplinarity. The academic library materialised the ‘flipped classroom’ long before the phrase entered the educational vocabulary. The academic library facilitated ‘blended learning’, again long before this phrase entered the educational vocabulary. The academic library enables independent learning, which is non-classroom-based and a-curricular. The academic library promotes the sharing, exchange and circulation of ideas and knowledge, through collective learning. The academic library is one remaining isolated enclave of (limited, constrained) collective, public, shared, collegiate space. The academic library embodies the sociality, the materiality and the technicity of knowing. The academic library is a social medium, but neither purely nor simply. More programmatically, the library encourages rhizomatic learning, i.e. non-linear, mixed physical-social-virtual learning.

The academic library articulates the following principles, such a manifesto might go on to say:

  • The principle of browsing (chance)
  • The principle of derive (aimless, endless, wandering)
  • The principle of detournement (de- and re-contextualising)
  • The principle of collage, assemblage, montage (metaleptic, relational creativity)
  • The principle of curation (multi-media, multi-modal inter/trans-media/textuality)
  • The principle of avant-garde making-strange/defamiliarisation (critique  of ortho-doxy)
  • The principle of deconstruction (critique of injustice and exclusion)
  • The principle of Buddhist (in)direction (critique of teleology)
  • The principle of Buddhist mindfulness (‘silent study’ and its relations to the mindfulness of body, feelings/sensations, mind/consciousness and the dhammas, i.e. Buddhist teachings)

Last word … 

The last word falls to Spivak, her final lesson:

“The solution is not to write new textbooks, the liberal intellectuals’ favourite option.” (Spivak, 2002: 26)

[Note 1]

Lynsey Hanley (2015) reviews Mike Savage’s book, Social Class in the 21st Century, in The Guardian newspaper. She points out that Savage and his colleagues at the London School of Economics have constructed a seven-class schema for the UK in the 21st century, ranging from the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, the new affluent worker and emergent service workers, through to traditional working class and the precariat.


Hanley, L. (2015). “Social class in the 21st century” by Mike Savage. The Guardian, 14 November, Review p.7. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/13/social-class-21st-century-mike-savage-review [Accessed 15 November 2015]

Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century. London: Pelican.

Spivak, G.C. (1992). Teaching for the times. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 25 (1), 3–22. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1315070 [Accessed 11 November 2015].

Spivak, C.G. (2002). Ethics and politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and certain scenes of teaching. Diacritics, 32 (3/4), 17–31. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566443 [Accessed 11 November 2015].


3 thoughts on “Spivak’s lessons: refractions of the scene of teaching

  1. Hi Alan

    Thanks for posting your reflections on Spivak. I agree that in Spivak’s writings as highlighted by you we do seem to return to the classroom as if to the scene of the crime.

    Indeed, there is something about Spivak’s spatial trope of ‘the classroom’ that is problematic, and which perhaps derives from an overriding concern with ideology as materiality and vice versa. In its widest sense a learning environment is anywhere that learning may conceivably take place: for example, a laboratory, a ‘classroom’, a library, the patient’s bedside, an oil refinery, cyberspace, even outer space. Spaces not designated as learning environments may nonetheless be places of learning (see Savin-Baden, 2007). However, this focus on materiality is only one way in which we might think of learning as embodiment. Philosophers as varied as Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty and Tallis also suggest that learning arises from the individual’s sense of their body (and of others’) and its/their extension in space/time. Learning and knowledge is something which ‘points towards’ something or someone else and which, according to Polanyi is characterised by a ‘from-to’ motion. Indeed it may be in such distal-proximal ‘bodily clues’ that learning and knowledge is predominantly registered. As Marjorie Grene, one of Polanyi’s followers, comments (1995) when emphasising the kinetic (rather than spatial) trope ‘All knowledge is orientation’.


    Grene, M. (1995). Interview in ‘The Believer’. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200503/?read=interview_grene
    Savin-Baden, M. (2007). Learning Spaces: Creating Opportunities for Knowledge Creation in Academic Life. Maidenhead: Mc-Graw-Hill Education/OUpen University Press.

    1. Restoring the ‘thickness’ of Western ways of knowing

      Dear Steven,

      Thank you for your response and for providing the useful links to the Marjorie Grene interview and the learning spaces review.

      1. Reflection, Refraction, Diffraction

      My first comment, which is a minor point but may have significance, would be that my text is not a set of ‘reflections on’ Spivak’s texts, but ‘refractions of’ them, as the title says. It is not a process of mirroring or throwing the texts back on themselves, of trying to get to their inherent or original ‘truth’, but of taking them elsewhere, of deflecting them, to find or discover, i.e. to ‘create’ using Spivak’s textuality, another ’truth’ in them, the potential truth of a form of otherness, the otherness of the class/room, as specific learning environment.

      The choice of term here relates to the discussion of the use of optical metaphors raised by Donna Haraway and extended by Karen Barad.

      Barad (2003: 803) highlights Haraway’s use of the term ‘diffraction’, noting that:

      “Haraway proposes the notion of diffraction as a metaphor for rethinking the geometry and optics of relationality …”

      Haraway (1992: 304) elaborates:

      “Diffraction does not produce “the same” displaced, as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is a mapping of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where differences appear, but rather maps where the effects of difference appear.”

      Barad (2007: 88) explains that whereas reflection is about mirroring and likeness, seeking homologies and analogies between separate (assumed to be whole and pre-existing) entities, diffraction examines patterns of difference and attends to specific material entanglements.

      In Barad’s diffractive methodology: “Diffraction is an ethico-onto-epistemological matter.”; it “is a matter of differential entanglements.”; and it is “about the entangled nature of differences that matter.” (Barad, 2007: 381)

      Furthermore, Barad adds,

      “Diffraction owes as much to a thick legacy of feminist theorizing about difference as it does to physics.” (Barad, 2014: 168)

      These issues are explored in greater depth on the Glossary page of the Open Readings website, see https://openreadings.wordpress.com/glossary/, where Barad’s use of the terms ‘diffraction’ and ‘diffractive methodology’ are discussed.

      Rather than attempt a Harawayian or a Baradian ‘diffraction’ of Spivak’s text, I am seeking only a ‘refraction’, but may have accidentally caused a diffraction.
      2. ‘You are always situating yourself’

      From the Grene interview, two phrases and a recommendation of the value of three authors’ works stand out for me. The phrases are ‘you are always situating yourself’; and ‘all knowledge is orientation’; and the authors are Michael Polanyi, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and James Jerome Gibson.

      It seems to me that all three authors are seeking to effect some kind of displacement of the abstract, decontextualised, ego cogito and, in doing so, present different theorisations of ‘perception’ or ‘recognition’.

      Polanyi contrasts explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge; Merleau-Ponty moves from mind to body, while emphasising the social character or grounding of ‘body’ (as inter-corporeality), in which the body is a perceiving entity, interwoven with an awareness of being-perceived, of being located (in place), situated (inter-corporeally) and positioned (inter-subjectively); and Gibson contrasts perception as a passive reception of sensory data to perception not only as an active (psycho-dynamic) construction of perceptions from sensory data but also as an active, responsive environmental scanning related to sensori-motor navigation of specific material environments, as well as to the pragmatic action (the situation) in which the perceiver is engaged.

      While Gibson focuses on the ‘physical’ and the ‘animal’ environment, his insights can be extended to the ‘social’ environment, acknowledging that the ‘physical’, the ‘animal’ and the ‘social’ cannot be separated within an ecology as a dynamic, living system, an insight that takes us towards Merleau-Ponty’s inter-corporeal, and may take us some way to Haraway’s insights concerning cybernetic organisms and their environments, insights which Barad seeks to extend, perhaps not entirely satisfactorily, through her conceptions of the ‘apparatus’ or ‘dispositif’ (as ’system’ might be re-conceived), ‘agential realism’ and ‘intra-action’ (in contrast to inter-action).

      What Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty and Gibson might be taken to say is that the conscious mind, as a bodily phenomenon, not a separate substance as in Descartes, is afforded the opportunity to learn within specific environments, and that each environment affords/offers a different potential for learning, and that each learning environment, as part of an emergent learning ecology, affords a different emphasis upon learning: in terms of the tacit knowledge of the body understood as forms of dispositions/habitus towards, first, a set of bodily techniques for acting and interacting; second, a set of permissible feelings, emotions and affects; third, a set of accepted reasoning practices (whether as common senses, disciplinary thinking or professional practices); and, fourth, a set of textual (or otherwise encoded, e.g. pictorial) teachings.

      To engage with Grene’s rubrics, then, it is not so much that ‘you are always situating yourself’, but perhaps that, on the basis of being somewhere, you are always examining your location, your situation and your position, and considering the affordances that are offered by that located, situated positionality.

      To say, ‘you are always situating yourself’ might seem to assume that you find yourself in a situation of your own making or your own choosing, which you can simply re-make, through choice. Here, we are simply re-working Marx’s (2003, 1897) statement concerning men and women making their own history but not as they please, i.e. not making it under self-selected circumstances, but under already existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past, encoded and repeatedly re-enacted through the affordances of habit, habitus and habitat. This takes Gibson’s affordances to breaking point.

      So, perhaps, rather than ‘you are always situating yourself’, it is that ‘you are always already situated’ or that ‘you are always somewhere’, and that ‘somewhere’ is dynamically structured, including your dispositional sense of the affordances which that environment and that situation proffers.

      This could be one way of characterising the learning environment in general terms, wherein the classroom is one particular kind of place, a particular kind of being-located, in a situation, within which one has to position oneself.

      It may therefore be said that ‘you are always struggling with the situation in which you find yourself’, in which you are partaking, and in relation to which you are agonistically located, situated and positioned, relational bonds of varying degrees of strength, but bonds that can be opened up to contractual negotiation, to negation, to opposition, to disagreement, to critique, to dissent and to disavowal; and, going forward, to realignment.

      Only in this sense of multi-dimensional engagement can it be said that ‘all knowledge is orientation’, a process which may begin with more or less severe dis-orientation, the process of learning to orient.

      3. The learning ecology

      The Savin-Baden (2008) article highlights similar issues concerning the value of considering material environments in relation to thinking practices, or of habit-in-habitus-in-habitat, encoded and performatively re-enacted; through whose performance, it should be added, the potential to act otherwise emerges.

      She seeks to move away from the notion of learning styles:

      “To move away from the idea of learning styles removes possibilities for generalizing learner approaches and instead presents the notion that learning is complex and specific to the learner and must therefore be located in the context of their lives and their stories.”

      To do this, she introduces the notion of ‘stance’:

      “The notion of stance is used here to indicate that the learners, at different times and in different spaces, ‘locate’ themselves as individual learners. To some extent stances in and towards learning are invariably formulated through school experiences and parental expectations.”

      This, once more, emphasises two of the main sites of the scene of teaching: the parental home and the school classroom, as evidenced in Bernstein, see The Scene of Teaching part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

      Savin-Baden contends that,

      “ … this model of learning stances (Savin-Baden, 2000) stands against the notion of learning styles and deep and surface approaches, arguing instead that stances relate not only to cognitive perspectives but also to ontological positioning within learning environments. Conflict between expectation, identity and belief in a learning context can result in staff and students becoming stuck: experiencing disjunction in learning and in teaching, either personally, pedagogically or interactionally.”

      The learning environment, then, Savin-Baden suggests, in a learning ecology is an ensemble operation, a Lefebvrian social-spatial practice, a set of ‘apparatuses’ through which the learner is co-constituted in/as a field of relations, as afforded orientations to learning and as a desire-to-know, a perpetually moving goal, which continually removes the certainty of knowing, and whose end can never be attained/mastered/possessed.


      Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28 (3), 801–831. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/345321 [Accessed 7 June 2012].

      Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

      Barad, K. (2014). Diffracting diffraction: cutting together-apart. Parallax, 20 (3), pp.168–187. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13534645.2014.927623 [Accessed July 15, 2014].

      Fogle, N. (2009). Social space and physical space: Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory as a model for the social dynamics of the built environment [PhD thesis]. Department of Philosophy, Temple University. Available from http://cdm2458-01.cdmhost.com/cdm/ref/collection/p245801coll10/id/40829 [Accessed 22 November 2015].

      Haraway, D.J. (1992). The Promises of monsters: a regenerative politics for inappropriate/d others. In: Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., and Treicher, P.A., eds. Cultural studies. New York, NY: Routledge, 295–337. Available from http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-the-promises-of-monsters-a-regenerative-politics-for-inappropriated-others/ [Accessed 30 July 2014].

      Marx, K. (2003, 1897). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Mountain View, CA: Socialist Labor Party of America. Available from http://www.slp.org/pdf/marx/eighteenth_brum.pdf [Accessed 27 November 2015].

      Savin-Baden, M. (2008). Learning spaces: creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. Maidenhead, England: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press. Available from http://www.germ-a.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Learning_Spaces__Society_for_Research_Into_Higher_Education_1.pdf [Accessed 19 November 2015].

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