This piece by Spanish philosopher of education Jorge Larossa has spoken to me rather deeply. I have largely identified with so much of it, which made me feel complelled to contribute to the dissemination of these ideas by producing an English version of it, which you will find below.
I hope you enjoy the reading.
In the combat between you and the world, prefer the world.
It is common to think education in terms of the relationship between science and technique, or sometimes in terms of the relationship between theory and practice. Whereas the pair science/technique conveys a positivistic and reifying perspective, the pair theory/practice coveys, above all, a political and critical perspective. In fact, it is only in the latter perspective that the word “reflection” and expressions such a “critical reflection”, “reflection about practice or in practice”, “emancipating reflection” make any sense. Whereas in the first alternative the people who work in education are regarded as technical subjects who apply the pedagogical technologies produced by scientists, technicians and specialists with varying degrees of efficacy, in the second alternative these same people appear as critical subjects who, armed with different reflection strategies, commit themselves, in various degrees of success, to educational practices largely conceived of under a political perspective. All this is sufficiently well known, for in the last decades the pedagogical field has been split between the so-called technical and critical, between those who support education as an applied science and those who regard it as political praxis, and I will not resume that discussion.
What I will propose to you here is that we explore yet another possibility, say a more existential one (without being existentialist) and a more aesthetic one (without being aesthetician), that is, to think education from the perspective of the pair experience and meaning. What I will do next is suggest a specific meaning to the these two words in different contexts, and then you will tell me how that sounds to you. What I will do is, put simply, explore a few words and go about sharing them with you.
And I do that due to the conviction that words produce meaning, create reality and, at times, work as powerful mechanisms of subjectivity. I believe in the power of words, the force of words; I believe we do things with words and also that words do things with us. Words determine our thought because we don’t think in thoughts but in words, we don’t think from a supposed geniality or intelligence, but from and with our words. And thinking is not only “rationalizing” or “calculating” or “arguing”, as we have been sometimes taught, but it is above all giving meaning to what we are to what happens to us. And that, the sense or the non-sense is something which has to do with words. And, therefore, it also has to do with words the way we stand before ourselves, before others, and the world in which we live in. And in the way we act upon all this. Everyone knows that Aristotle defined the man as zôon lógon échon. The translation of this expression is, nonetheless, much more “living being endowed with word” than “animal endowed with reason” or “rational animal”. If there is a translation that truly betrays, in the worst sense of the word, is exactly this one which translates logos into ratio. And the transformation of zôon, living being, into animal. The man is a living being endowed with word. And that does not mean that men have the word or language as a thing, or a faculty, or a tool, but that man is word, and in being word, the way of living of every human being has to do with word, happens in word, is woven in word, that the very way of living of this being, which is man, happens in word and as word. That is why activities such as considering words, critiquing words, choosing words, taking care of words, inventing words, playing with words, impose words, prohibit words, transform words, etc are not empty or devoid of meaning, nor are they mere chatter. When we do things with words, what we do is give meaning to what we are and to what happens to us; we name what we see or what we feel, and how we see or feel that which we name.
Naming what we do, in education or anywhere else, as an applied technique, as reflective praxis or as an experience full of meaning/sense is not only a question of terminology. The words with which we name what we are, what we do, what we think, what we perceive or what we feel are more than just words. Therefore, the struggle for words, for meaning and for control over words, for imposing certain words and for the silencing or deactivation of other words, are struggles in which more than just mere words are at play, more than only words.
1. I shall begin with the word “experience”. It could be said, to begin with, that experience is in Spanish, “o que nos passa”. In Portuguese it would be said that experience is “o que nos acontece”; in French, experience would be “ce que nos arrive”; in Italian “quell che nos succeed” or “quell che nos accede”; in English it would be “that what is happening to us”; in German it would be “was mir passiert”.
Experience is that which happens in us, to us, which touches us. Not which happens or touches. Each day many things happen, yet at the same time, nothing ever happens to us. It could be said that everything that happens is organized in such a way that it doesn’t happen to us. Walter Benjamin, in a renowned text, already observed the poor nature of experiences that is characteristic of our world. Never have so many things happened, yet experience is increasingly more rare.
First of all, because of information excess. Information is not experience. And more, information leaves no room for experience, it is almost the opposite of experience, almost an anti-experience. Hence the contemporary emphasis on information, on being informed, and all the rhetoric destined to make us into informing and informed subjects; information does nothing else other than cancel our possibilities of experience. The information subject knows a lot of things, spends his time searching for information, what most worries him is not having enough information; each time more is known, each time one is better informed, but with that obsession for information and for knowing (yet knowing not in the sense of “wisdom”, but in the sense of “being informed”) what you get is that nothing ever happens to you. The first thing I would like to say about experience is that it is necessary to separate it from information. And what I would like to say about the knowledge from experience is that it is necessary to separate it from the knowledge of things as in knowing when you have information about things, when you are informed. It is language itself that allows us that possibility. After attending a class or a conference, after reading a book or some information, after taking a trip or visiting a school, we can say that we know things that we didm’t before, that we have more information about something, but, at the same time, we can say that nothing has happened to us, that nothing has touched us, that with all that we have learned nothing has happened to us or in us.
Furthermore, everyone has certainly head that we live in an “information society”. And we have already realized that this strange expression sometimes works as a synonym to “knowledge society” or even “learning society”. The interchangeability of the terms “information”, “knowledge”, and “learning” is, indeed, intriguing. As if knowledge came to be as information, and as if learning wasn’t anything else other than acquiring and processing information. And it is also interesting that the old organismic metaphors of the social, whose many games empowered the totalitarianisms of the last century, are being replaced by cognitivistic metaphors, certainly also totalitarian, even if dressed in a liberal and democratic look. Regardless of the urgency in questioning this discourse which is establishing itself without criticism, and each day more profoundly, and which thinks society as a mechanism of information processing, what I want to point out here is that a society built under the tenet of information is a society where experience is impossible.
Secondly, experience is increasingly more rare due to excessive opinion. The modern subject is an informed subject who also gives opinions. He is someone who has a supposedly personal opinion which is supposedly of his own and, sometimes, is supposedly critical of all that happens, of all that he has information about. For us, opinion as information has become an imperative. In our arrogance, we spend our lives giving opinions about anything that we fell informed about. And if someone does not have an opinion, does not have a position of their own about what happens, does not have prepared judgement about whatever presents itself, feels inferior, as if lacking in something essential. And thinks that he has to have an opinion. After information, comes opinion. Nevertheless, the obsession for opinion also nullifies our possibilities of experience, also making sure that nothing happens to us.
Benjamin used to say that journalism is the great modern device for the generalized destruction of experience. Journalism destroys experience, there is no doubt about that, and journalism is nothing other than the alliance between information and opinion. Journalism is the fabrication of information and the fabrication of opinion. And when information and opinion are made sacred, when they take up all the space of the happening, then the individual subject is nothing other than the informed platform of individual opinion, and the collective subject, who would have to make history according to the old marxists, is nothing other than the informed platform of public opinion. That is, a subject fabricated and manipulated by the information and opinion apparatuses, a subject incapable of experience. And the fact that journalism destroys experience is something much deeper and much more general than what would ensue from the effect of the mass communication media on the conformity of our consciousness.
The pair information/opinion is very general and also permeates, for example, our idea of learning, and also of what pedagogues and psycho-pedagogues call “meaningful learning”. Since we were little all the way to university, throughout our trajectory in the educational apparatuses, we are subjected to a device which works in the following way: first one needs to become informed, and then one needs to give opinion, obviously an opinion of one’s own, critical and personal about whatever. The opinion would represent the “meaningful” dimension of the so-called “meaningful learning”. Information would be the objective, opinion would be the subjective, it would be our subjective reaction to the objective. Moreover, as subjective reaction, it is a reaction which has become automatic to us, almost a reflex: informed of anything, we give opinion. This “opinion giving” is reduced, most of the times, to being either in favor of or against something. We are therefore made into subjects competent to respond as God wishes to the teachers’ questions which resemble more and more confirmations of information and opinion surveys. Tell me what you know, tell me which information you have and give your opinion: this is the journalistic device of knowledge and learning, the device that makes experience impossible.
Thirdly, experience is increasingly more rare due to lack of time. Everything that happens, happens extremely fast, and increasingly faster. And with that it is educed to an ephemeral and instantaneous stimulus, immediately replaced by yet another stimulus or by another excitement equally ephemeral and instantaneous. The event happens in the form of a shock, of stimulation, of raw sensation, in the shape of the instantaneous, punctual, and fragmented experience. The speed with which we live events and the obsession for novelty, for the new, which characterizes the modern world, hinders the meaningful connection between events. It also hinders memory, since each event is immediately replaced by the another which equally excites us for a moment, but which leaves without a trace. The modern subject is not only informed and giving opinion, but he is also a voracious and insatiable consumer of news, novelty, a relentless curious being, eternally unsatisfied. He wants to be permanently excited and has already become incapable of silence. To the subject of stimuli, of punctual experience, everything excites him, agitates him, shocks him, yet nothing happens to him. That is why the speed and what it causes, the lack of silence and memory, is also enemy of experience.
The modern subject, aside from being an informed subject that gives opinion, and aside from being permanently agitated and on the move, is a being who works, that is, who tries to conform the world, both the “natural” and the “social”and “human” world, both the “external nature” and “inner nature”, to his knowledge, his power, and his will. Work is the activity which derives from this pretension. The modern subject is moved by a pretentious mix of optimism, progressivism, and aggressiveness: believes that he can do everything he sets his mind to (and if he can’t do so today, he will one day) and for that he does not hesitate to destroy everything he perceives as an obstacle to his omnipotence. The modern subject relates to the event from the perspective of action. Everything is a pretext for his activity. He is always asking himself what he can do. He is always wishing to do something, to produce something, to change something, to regulate something. Regardless of the motivation for such desire to be good will or bad will, the modern subject is taken by an urge to change things. And in that coincide engineers, politicians, industrialists, medical doctors, architects, union men, journalists, scientists, pedagogues and all those who put their existence into doing things. We are not only ultra-informed subjects, teeming with opinion and super-stimulated, but we are also subjects full of will and hyper-active. And therefore, because we always want what is not, because we are always active, always mobilized, we cannot stop. And, not being able to stop, nothing happens to us.
2. So far, experience and the destruction of experience. Now to the subject of experience. This subject, who is not the subject of information, of opinion, of work, who is not the subject of knowledge, of judgement, of doing, of power, of will. If we listen in Spanish, this language in which experience is what happens or “crosses” us (nos passa), the subject of experience would be something of a territory for crossing, passing by, something of a sensitive surface, in that what happens affects it somehow, produces affections, leaves some marks, traces, some effects. If we listen in French, where the experience is “ce que nous arrive”, the subject of experience is a destination point, a place where things arrive, as a place that receives what arrives and that, in receiving them, gives them space. And in Portuguese, in Italian, and in English, where experience sounds like “aquilo que nos acontece, nos sucede”, or “happens to us”, the subject of experience is above all a space where happenings take place.
In any case, be it as territory for passing by, be it as destination point, or space of happenings, the subject of experience defines itself not by its activity, but by its passiveness, by its receptiveness, by its availability, its openness. It is, however, a passiveness which precedes the opposition between active and passive, of a passiveness made of passion, of surrender, of patience, of attention, as a primal receptivity, as a fundamental availability, as an essential openness.
The subject of experience is an ex-posed subject. From the perspective of experience, what is important is neither the position (our way of putting), nor the o-pposition (our way of opposing), nor the im-position (our way of imposing), nor the pro-position (our way of proposing), but the ex-position, our way of ex-posing, in all of its vulnerability and risk. That is why one who puts oneself, or opposes oneself, or imposes oneself, proposes oneself, but does not expose oneself is incapable of experience. It is incapable of experience that with whom nothing happens, in whom nothing happens, whom nothing touches, at whom nothing arrives, affects, threatens.
3. Let us now look at what the word experience teaches us. The word experience comes from the latim experiri, try out [taste]. Experience is first a meeting or relationship with something that one tries out or tastes. The root is periri, which is also found in periculum, danger. The hindu-european root is per, which is primarily related to the notion of crossing, and secondly to the idea of proof. In Greek, there are numerous derivations of this root which mark the crossing, the covered territory, the passage: peirô, to cross; pera, beyond; peraô, to pass through; perainô, to go all the way; peras, limit. In our languages there is a beautiful word which has this Greek per of crossing: the word peiratês, pirate. The subject of experience has something of this fascinating being who exposes himself crossing an unknown and dangerous space, putting himself to the test, and searching in it his opportunity, his occasion. The word experience has the ex of exterior, of foreigner, of exile, of stranger, and also the ex of existence. Experience is the passage of existence, the passage, of a being who has no essence or reason or foundation, but who simply exists in an ever singular manner, finite, immanent, contingent. In German, experience is Erfahrung, which contains the fahren, travel. And of the ancient high-German tara also derives Gefahr, danger and gefahrden, to put into danger. Both in the germanic languages and the latin languages, the word experience inseparably contains the dimensions of crossing and danger.
4. Martin Heidegger gives us a definition of experience which sounds quite pertinent to this argumentation. This receptiveness, this openness, as in these two dimensions of crossing and danger that we have just highlighted: “…to have an experience with something means that something happens to us, reaches us; that it takes over us, throws us down and transforms us. When we talk about ‘having’ an experience, it doesn’t mean precisely that we make it happen, ‘doing’ here means to suffer, to hurt, to accept that which reaches us, to the extent that we subject ourselves to something. To do an experiment means, therefore, to allow ourselves to be approached by that which calls upon us, penetrating and subjecting us to it. We can be transformed by such experiences, from one day to the next or over time.”
The subject of experience, if we go over the verbs used by Heidegger in this paragraph, is a reached subject, thrown down to the ground. Not a subject who remains always standing up, erect and sure of himself; not a subject who achieves that which he purports to or who takes over that which he wants; not a subject defined by his success or powers, but a subject who loses his powers precisely because that which is experience takes over him. Conversely, the subject of experience is also a suffering subject, surrendered, receptive, accepting, appealed, subjected. Its antithesis, the subject incapable of experience, would be a firm subject, strong, fearless, unreachable, erect, numb, apathetic, self-determined, defined by his knowledge, by his power and his will.
In his last lines of the paragraph, “… We can be transformed by such experiences, from one day to the next or over time.” one may read another fundamental component of experience, its formative and transformative capacity. It is experience that which ‘crosses us’ (nos passa), or which touches us, or which happens, and in happening to us, forms us and transforms us. Only the subject of experience is, therefore, open to his own transformation.
5. If experience is what happens to us, and if the subject of experience is a territory for crossing, then experience is passion. One cannot capture experience from a logic of action, from a reflection of the subject about himself as agent-subject, from a theory of the conditions of possibility of action, but from a logic of passion, a reflection of the subject about himself as passionate subject. And the word passion may refer to a number of things.
First, to suffering or surrender. In surrender one is not active, nor is one simply passive. The passionate subject is not an agent, but patient, but there is in passion an assumption of surrender, as in living, or experiencing, or bearing, or accepting, or owning the surrender which has nothing to do with mere passiveness. It is as if the passionate subject did something to own his passion. Sometimes, also, something public, or political, social, like a public testimony of something, or a public proof of something, or a public martyrdom in the name of something, even if this “public” takes place in strict solitude, in the most complete anonymity.
And “passion” may refer, at last, to an experience of love, of western passion-love, courtier, chivalry, christian, regarded as possession and made of a desire which remains desire and which wants to remain desire, pure unsatisfied tension, pure orientation to an ever-unatainable object. In passion, the passionate subject doesn’t possess the beloved, but is possessed by it. That is why the passionate subject is not in itself, in control of itself, but out of itself, dominated by the other, captivated by otherness, alienated, hallucinated.
In passion is a tension between freedom and slavery, in the sense that what the subject wants, precisely, is to remain captive, to live its captivity, its dependence upon its beloved object. There is also a tension between pleasure and pain, between happiness and suffering, in the sense that the passionate subject finds its happiness or at least the fulfilling of its destiny in the surrender that its passion yields. What the subject loves is precisely its own passion. Better still: the passionate subject is nothing other than, and does not want to be anything other than passion. Hence, perhaps, the tension that extreme passion bears between life and death. Passion has an intrinsic relationship with death, it unfolds in the horizon of death, but of a death which is desired as the true life, as the only thing worth living for, and at times as conditioning of the very possibility of being reborn.
6. So far we have seen some explorations about what the experience of the subject of experience could be like. Something which we have seen from a perspective of crossing and danger, openness and ex-position, receptiveness and transformation, and passion. Let us now go to the knowledge of experience. Defining the subject of experience as passionate subject does not mean to think him incapable of knowledge, of commitment or action. Experience also grounds an epistemological as well as an ethical order. The passionate subject also has its own force, and this force is productively expressed in the shape of knowledge and in the shape of praxis. What happens is that it is different from the scientific knowledge and the information knowledge, and praxis which differs from that of technique and work.
Knowledge of experience takes place in the relationship between knowledge and human life. In fact, experience is a kind of mediation between both. It is important, nonetheless, make certain that, from the perspective of experience, neither “ knowledge” nor “life” has its regular meaning.
Nowadays, knowledge is essentially science and technology, something essentially infinite, which can only grow; something universal and objective, somehow impersonal; something which is out there, outside us, as something which we can make our own and which we can utilize; and something which fundamentally has to do with usefulness in its strictest pragmatic sense, in a strictly instrumental sense. Knowledge is basically commodity and, strictly, money, as neutral and interchangeable, as subject to profit and accelerated circulation as money. Hence the theories of human capital or these contemporary rhetorics about the knowledge society, the learning society, or the information society.
On the other hand, “life” is reduced to its biological dimension, to the satisfaction of needs (generally induced and always increased by the logic of consumption), to the survival of individuals and society. Think about the meaning of “quality of life” or “life style”, nothing more than the possession of a series of trinkets for our use and indulgence.
In such conditions, the mediation between knowledge and life is but the utilitarian appropriation, the usefulness of this which presents itself as “knowledge” for the needs of that which is “life” and which are completely indistinct from the needs of the Capital and the State.
To understand what experience is, it is necessary to go back to times preceding modern science (with its specific definition of knowledge as objective knowledge) and capitalist society (where the modern definition of life was constructed as bourgeois life). For centuries the human knowledge had been understood as a páthei máthos, as learning in and by the surrender, in and by that which happens to us. That is the knowledge of experience: what is acquired in the way in which someone responds to what happens to him throughout life and in the way with which we give meaning to the happening of what happens to us. In the knowledge of experience it is not about the truth of what things are, but it is about the meaning and the non-sense of what happens to us. And that knowledge of experience has some essential characteristics which oppose, element by element, to what we understand as knowledge.
If experience is what happens to us and if the knowledge of experience has to do with the elaboration of meaning or non-sense of what happens to us, it is about a finite knowledge, connected to the existence of an individual or of a human community in particular. Or, in an even more explicit way, it is about a knowledge which reveals to the concrete and singular man, individually or collectively regarded, the meaning or non-sense of his own existence, of his own finitude. Therefore, the knowledge of experience is a private knowledge, subjective, relative, contingent, personal. If experience is not what happens, but what happens to us, two people who experience yet the same event, do not experience it the same way. The vent is what happens in common for the two, but the experience is unique to each, singular and somewhat non-replicable. The knowledge of experience is a knowledge which cannot be separated from the concrete individual in whom it incarnates. It is not, as scientific knowledge, outside of us, but it only makes sense in the way it configures a personality, a character, a sensitivity or, definitely, a singular human way of being in the world which is in its turn ethics (a way of conducting oneself) and aesthetics ( a style). Therefore, the knowledge of experience cannot benefit from any manumission, that is, none can learn from the experience of another unless this experience is in some way relived and made one’s own.
The first note on the knowledge of experience therefore underscores its existential quality, that is, its relationship with existence, with the singular and concrete life of a singular and concrete living being. The experience and the knowledge which derives from it are what enables us to make our lives our own, to have a life which belongs to us, which is personal, or as said by Rainer Maria Rilke, in Los Cuadernos de Malthe, something increasingly more rare, almost as rare as one’s own death. If we call existence this life of one’s own, contingent and finite, this life which is not determined by any essence or destiny, this life which has no reason or sense out of itself, this life whose meaning is gradually constructed and deconstructed in its very living, we can think that all that makes experience impossible also makes existence impossible.
7. Modern science, which begins with Bacon and reaches its most elaborate formulation in Descartes, is suspicious of experience. And it goes about trying to convert it into an element of method, that is, an element of the safe path of science. Experience is no longer the means of this knowledge that forms and transforms the lives of men in their singularity, but it is the method of objective science, of the science that sets as its task the appropriation and domination of the world. An idea of experimental science therefore comes to the fore. But then experience has been transformed into experiment, that is, in a stage in the safe and predictable path of science. Experience is no longer what happens to us and the way with which we give or don’t give it meaning, but the way with which the world shows us its legible face, the series of regularities from which we may come to know the truth of what things are and dominate them. From then on, knowledge is no longer a páthei máthos, a learning in experience and by experience, with all uncertainty that it implies, but a mathema, a progressive accumulation of objective truths which, nevertheless, will reman external to men. Once the knowledge of experience, as well as knowledge of human existence, are defeated and abandoned, a paradoxical situation arises. An enormous inflation of objective knowledges, an enormous abundance of technical artifacts, and an enormous poverty in these kinds of knowledge which acted upon human life, penetrating and transforming it. Human life has been made poor and needy, and modern knowledge is no longer the active knowledge which fed, enlightened, and guided the existence of men, but something which floats in the air, sterile and disconnected of this life which one can no longer incarnate.
The second note on the knowledge of experience intends to avoid the confusion between experience and experiment or, if you will, clean the word experience of its empirical and experimental contaminations, of its methodological and methodologizing connotations. If the experiment is generic, experience is singular. If the logic of the experiment produces accordance, consensus or homogeneity among subjects, the logic of experience produces difference, heterogeneity and pluralism. That is why in the imparting of experience, it is more about a heterology than a homology, or better yet, it is more about a dialogic which works heterologically than homologically. If the experiment is replicable, experience is non-replicable, there is always something of a first time to it. If the experiment is predictable, experience always has a dimension of uncertainty which cannot be reduced. Furthermore, given that the result cannot be anticipated or predicted, experience is not a path towards a predicted objective, towards a goal which is known beforehand, but an opening to the unknown, to that which cannot be anticipated or foreseen or predicted.
English version by Clarissa Bezerra
(Translated from the Portuguese version by João Wanderley Geraldi)