C Derick Varn & Nadim Bakhshov in Conversation (pt 1)

Mar 9th, 2017 | By | Category: Articles

C. Derick Varn is an emerging poet, professional teacher, and arm-chair theorist.  He currently lives in Egypt, previously spent two years in Northern Mexico and three years in South Korea, but is originally from the deep South of the United States.  He has worked as a lecturer in English Literature, Composition, and Intercultural communication as well as a high school teacher in literature, writing, critical thinking and ethics.  He is a freelance reader for Zero books

Nadim Bakhshov is the author of Against Capitalist Education. He has worked as a lecturer in software programming (teaching games design, algorithmic thinking and machine learning), sociology and mathematics as well occupying a number of managerial roles including Head of Computing and Head of Centre for Excellence in Teaching & Learning in the UK. He is writing a second book and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Portmouth, UK. 

C Derick Varn: First, on a sad note, how has Mark Fisher's passing affected you, particularly given how much of an influence Capitalist Realism on you?. 

Nadim Bakhshov: There’s a play by Arthur Miller - Broken Mirror - in which the main character, living in New York, becomes bedridden with some form of paralysis. No one quite knows why. The doctor looks for all the usual causes but cannot find anything. Like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy famous pre-existential tale, the people around her seem to fail to see the cause. Arthur Miller provides us with no explanation. All we see is her growing obsession with events unfolding in Germany. The play is set in 1938 and we discover that she is Jewish. We, the viewer/reader, can sense some relation between the rising anti-Semitism in Germany and Nazism and her physical paralysis. We can sense how consciousness and the world intersect in her body without the intervention of supernatural agencies or Jungian synchronicities forces. I thought of this play when I heard of Mark’s death. I thought about the way we ‘see’ so much pain and suffering across the globe, see injustice and cruelty - and stupidity - every time we read a paper, log onto social media or watch the news. And part of me wonders how we shield ourselves from this onslaught.

Mark’s writing struck me as thoughtful and caring, a writing that documented his own sufferings and his own desire for justice and change and I found myself wondering how our saturated media space has contributed towards a level of noise in the brain and nervous system that demands more from us than we can cope with. After reading his book I contacted him and we exchanged a brief series of emails. I asked him about ‘developing alternatives’ and whether he was working on something. He was. I was curious and asked him: who, in the current field, he thought was also pursuing alternatives? We discussed Badiou. He was generous but a little skeptical about Badiou’s project. I said I was not convinced it would generate the right form of consciousness to develop an alternative. I can’t remember if he agreed but the conversation was only brief.  

His book documented the trajectory of working in the UK Further Education system - and the way it had succumbed to the neoliberal project. The failures, contradictions and damage done to UK Further Education were astute and insightful.  I, too, had worked in Further Education, and although the system ejected me - after trying to press me into its service - I became acutely aware of how any global discussion on the future of humanity would also be a discussion on the future of global education.  After being published I began to listen to the Zero Books podcast and listened keenly to Doug Lain and Ashley Frawley discuss a recent conference in which Ashley and Mark shared a stage and discussed various issues. Like Doug I was interested in Mark’s views.

So, yes, it was very sad.

Having said all of that I have to add how impressive his book on capitalism was.

When I stumbled into it I had arrived at the end of a series of studies of Lacan - and found myself becoming more and more worn down by a feeling of, how to put it - the phrase I found was ‘reification of critique’ (though I can’t remember who said this - perhaps Peter Dews.). What I mean is the way that we begin critical thought and theory by applying it to situations in the world. The critical work helps uncover some of the hidden structures or assumptions at work - the classic model being the ‘culture industry’ by Adorno. (Just how difficult this has made watching B-horror movies I cannot say!) But then what follows? It circles back upon itself and encloses itself within the products of its own critique.

Instead of endless critical theory, I moved back to what Badiou calls ‘anti-philosophy’: I took Lacanian concepts and began building a proto-mathematical symbol system, with its own ontological grammar, epistemological structures, and ethical principles. This approach echoed some of the trajectories of Badiou’s use of mathematics. This became the beginning of a new ‘path’ of thinking - using a symbology, a Wittgensteinian language model of intelligibility and, strangely, post-conceptual art. I largely abandoned critical theory as an end in itself by answering the following question: what purpose would be gained only by applying and developing critical theory? After structures and assumptions were made explicit, discussed, broken up and explored what came next?

What I liked about Mark’s book was it seemed to stop the critical theorizing to make ‘space’ for something else - a silence in which some possibility hitherto implicit became explicit.

C Derick Varn: Are you familiar with David Blacker's work on eliminationism?  Why do you think capitalist education has gone into a liquidation mode?

Nadim Bakhshov: Although I enjoyed Blacker’s work and book - it is very well written and packed full of ‘disturbing’ insights - I found myself disagreeing at some points. For me, like a lot of left theorizing, it is a highly romanticized view of the destructive power of capitalism. It works as impressive rhetoric but falls foul of the problem I repeatedly stumble into: ‘so, what comes after this analysis?’

In the development of a mathematical symbology, I defined the operation of capitalist desire as a failure to ‘totalise’ the world-situation. In the architecture of desire, it always leaves a remainder, a  surplus. Following Hegel, I employed an axiom: desire is a double negation - a negation of negation. After every operation of desire both a remainder persists and a waste is generated. This dual or twofold surplus includes: what is left over after capitalist desire operates in any situation and what is left out of the operation. If the human situation was completely consumed by desire, and there was no left over or anything left out capitalism would fail. There is an intrinsic ironic-contradictory infrastructure to capitalism. Desire, and its execution, generates this remainder, this surplus - ‘waste’: People who fail to function economically, material products that are past their sell-by-date or parts of the world that are considered irrelevant to capitalist desire.  In its psychological aspect, capitalist desire cuts into the ‘soul’ - the ethical-spiritual substance - of its populace, and warps and knots the ethical-spiritual substance of the human. There remain controlled spaces, freedoms, which are then freely given over to other subsidiary systems: entertainment and so on. So there are two excesses or ‘gaps’ at work - firstly: those produced by the actual movement of desire and its strivings. This generates a ‘process waste’. Secondly: desire, in failing to consume the whole situation, sustains a ‘left out’. The process waste - as non-functioning people, waste products, etc - are not eliminated but are conceptually recycled back into the system. For people: we have the ‘ill’, the ‘wasters’, the ‘lazy masses’, the ‘malingerers’. They belong to the system as the ‘image’ of failure. And no one wants to fail. For material products: waste management. The film ‘Soylent Green’ captures the ultimate fusion of waste management: dead people recycled as food. The ‘left out’ largely is theological and religious. Hence the excessive and symbolic obsession with religious terrorism.

Meanwhile, the original cut in the human psyche creates a psychic wound. This allows a ‘‘parasite’ to grow in the psyche. This parasite, like Dante’s ‘she-wolf’ is always hungry and never satisfied. The world is split: between those who become ‘losers’,  some of whom fantasize about being successful billionaires and the actual rich and wealthy. On one side of a Moebius strip, the world moves in paranoid circles, on the other, in narcissistic glory.  

Although education is being reduced to servility it cannot be totalized within capitalism. After Levinas, totalization means war - but even in war more destructive ‘waste’ is generated. Perhaps this waste will choke the lifeblood of the species and kill off capitalism?

As argued above: freedom, as a structural negation which drives and sustains desire, is caught in a dialectic struggle with capitalism. The imagination, always an excess, becomes both a force of consumption and desire and a marginal space of freedom. The power of Blacker’s book lies in seeing the constant shrinkage of intellectual freedom and imagination, of the depth of learning and so on. Blacker argues that we should resist. I wonder what would happen if we didn’t resist. Is this what Zizek meant when he argued in favor of voting for Trump? A ‘dark night of the soul’ in which freedom approached its limit and night entered consciousness?

Eliminationism is always a movement towards a limit that structurally can never arrive. The movement towards elimination is an infinite path. The humanities can be emptied and replaced with ‘business’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ activity. Philosophy, in most bookshops, can be handed over to ‘smart thinking’. But the structural excess necessarily remains. Totalisation fails.

C Derick Varn: Why do you see the nearly Socratic dialogue structure of your book as crucial to its methods? What exactly is it trying to model?

Nadim Bakhshov: The model of the book was a crafted structured mimesis of ordinary conversation. The locus is the key to its use. After Wittgenstein, the locus of ordinary conversation became a form of social thinking.

Structurally, everyday conversations are, firstly, situated and, for most people and occasions, about mundane and everyday matters. It is very natural to hear people refer to some absent situation, be it in the past, something heard that is going on elsewhere or some possibility of the future. The very situatedness allows references to other situations. This very ordinariness is a locus that is passed over in more ‘serious’ and formal exchanges, in written works that put forward a thesis or critically analyze some political situation. In ordinary conversation, most people do not have the patience to listen to large tracts about abstract matters. Secondly, the role of the interruption is a basic structural element of conversation. Interruptions can be external - or internal. External interruptions mean a conversation can maintain its continuity across broken situations: I can be talking about something with X, but have to complete some report,  but later I can return to the conversation with X. The internal form of interruption isa more interesting from a philosophical point of view. Very rarely do ordinary conversation have extensive monologues - yet nearly all contemporary philosophy is written as an extended piece of monologue. The power of the most exciting conversations is the interruption and change of conversational direction. The combination of this locus of linguistic interactivity (conversation) coupled with the disruptive force of impatience, real situations, and the interruption creates the conditions for a form of social thinking that can, if crafted dramatically, formulate new concepts - in ways standard monologic thinking cannot.

A further feature of conversation is its acausal structure. More often than not, conversation is nonlinear in a way that is hard to replicate in standard prose. The dynamic of conversational interactivity does not follow the same dynamic of a monologue - Bakhtin’s writing on Dostoevsky and the writings of Jose Saramago provide models of polyphony and situated linguistic interactivity in prose that captures some of these features. Each utterance, each event of saying something re-situates the trajectory of the conversation against its evolving plural unfolding. The conversational movement is a dynamic function of the juncture and direction of the conversation at that point.

These features of dramatic conversation are best exemplified in some of Plato’s most vivid dialogues: Symposium, Protagoras and Gorgias; in Chekhov's dramas; in moments within the early Arthur Miller, and, in music. The best musical analogies include contrapuntal writing, fugues and the dynamic interplay in sophisticated jazz improvisation. The internal structure evolves dynamically through its constant re-creation at the interchange of musical lines or voices as the music itself unfolds.

When I came to write the book I had already developed an internal conversational style in the studies and developments of my core philosophical invention: Shovian thought.  By using a structured conversation in the unfolding of philosophical investigation - my own thinking process - I was able to both accelerate through ideas and see their shortcomings and strengths, to change direction and explore assumptions in related areas. This process is a constrained chaotic system of fluctuating interactivity. In attempting to force this style into a standard narrative or argumentative prose I stumbled into a thankless task. To help me develop a style, I undertook a period of writing experimental fiction and worked through it with professional writers. In the end, I found that the originality of philosophical invention - Shovian thought, in my case - required me to stay close to the source of inventiveness. This meant using dialogic forms. 

When I considered the question of how to structure the conversation the issues became similar to writing a drama - certain points in the unfolding of the drama act act as ‘quilting points’ around which the drama can move. I have to develop forms of conversational emplotment to structure the action of the drama as it unfolded within the speeches rather than in the situation of the characters.  

It is interesting to note that after Plato and Xenophon conversational drama re-appeared in Hume, Berkeley and Diderot - who was perhaps more modern than most in his mixing of low humour and high philosophy - Kundera dramatization of ‘Jacques’ draws this out.

At times of great intellectual foment people need to talk, openly and freely and to engage in ideas that may seem unconnected but need to be brought together. The art of the dramatic conversation allows these unrelated positions to interact - through the voices of different characters and their very situatedness. Drama helps establish a ‘realism’ and concreteness that the essay form does not. The Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, made some interesting remarks about the way that conversation has vacated the public commons and left a space for capitalist dynamics to colonise. My book was an attempt to return to this barren ground.

C Derick Varn: Have any of your concerns about education changed or evolved since you finished the book?

Nadim Bakhshov: Many. Let me enumerate them.

The failure of education to resist capitalism. As the ‘left’ has grown more academically sophisticated and jargon-heavy, with many radical thinkers caught in manufactured self-referential dogmas, the ‘right’ has taken control of the mainstream, both in politics and, consequently, policy. For the ‘left’, the combination of intellectual sophistication has coupled with political paralysis. At best, insightful critique - at worst, complex irrelevant language-games.

The failure of contemporary curricula to humanize us. The obsession with metrics, with outputs and with economically relevant skills have crippled the system from developing alternative models of creating a different type of human being. This crippling of the ‘human’ ethical-spiritual substance - what I could the soul - generates a plurality of symptoms, visible at ethical, political and institutional levels.

The lack of universalism and idealism in education and the utter fragmentation of pedagogical ambition along personal, ideological and epistemological specialisms of learning.

The lack of a philosophical infrastructure in organizing education. In this century children still do not know what epistemology is yet they are expected to passively assimilate ‘dogmas’ of modern science as if they were facts. (Simple example: the ‘chemical atom’ is not a fact but an organizing heuristic of the structure of the material world. Why are children taught it as a ‘fact’?)

The lack of critical education. I would include the lack of an engaging political education here. There is a constant refrain that young people are no longer interested in the political systems we have. Perhaps the lack of engagement in schools is part of the problem?

The tiresome and cliched splits between the sciences and the arts. This insidious split continues to damage the possibilities I detail in my book.

The politicization of education management. The chronic failure to raise people into management positions along meritocratic lines - nepotism is a scourge in education.

The obsession with ‘skills’, economically relevant skills. This singularly is emptying opportunities to educate youngsters as humans. The whole system has become riddled with a virulent and narrow form of output pragmatism.

C Derick Varn: What do you see beyond the immediate horizon in education as capitalism seems to be moving education into a different model?

Nadim Bakhshov: In my view, we are living amongst the dying embers of capitalism. As it continues to revive itself amongst the very conditions it has created it is doing more damage and harm than good.  

Here are some starting points:

The equivalence of qualifications and capital. I imagine a time when the trade of qualifications will become a growing market. That to buy and sell qualifications will become the norm for many.

The death of philosophy. Capitalism has no use for it. It will be replaced by ‘smart thinking’ or another category that serves business.

The continuing devaluation of the teacher and pedagogue.

The reduction of learning to behaviorism and performance based models. It’s already in the system but I think it will grow.

The death of the humanities. Or, at least, the ongoing onslaught against the humanities and the ‘re-purposing’ (sic) of a humanities education for the business world.

The disavowal of a growing class division with those at the bottom most in denial about a system that diminishes them.

War. As an attempt to legitimize the agenda of a split humanity and to totalize all life on the planet the grand old narrative of ‘use and them’.  Its inevitable failure will probably bring the ecosphere to its end.

If there is a ‘beyond capitalism’ then I think a post-capitalist education will share some or all of the following features:

The centrality of a generative and creative ethical and political education and the subordination of epistemology to the Socratic. The precedence of the human sciences and its own distinct methodologies against the tyranny of neo-natural scientific methodologies. (Levinas, Plato)

The notion that ontologies are as much designed and conceptualized as they are discovered. (Deleuze)

The intimate linkage between all religions and metaphysical frameworks as a necessary dimension of the human. (William James)

The necessity of creating a global civilization and the role of education to imagine what this might look like.

The return of the conversation as vehicle for thought - both as a written form and as a performance art. (Plato)

The subordination of platonic models of mathematical objects to mathematical constructivism. (Vico)

A mathematics of meaning. Not a hermeneutic calculus but a grammar and syntax of thought that can be consistently applied to all human situations. (cf. Badiou)

The death and rebirth of philosophy as the organizing principle of education.

Different forms of engagement and value attributed to great works of literature - in all media.

Social and political formations that are both local and connected to a global organically generated civilization.

The growth of what it means to be human. (Aristotle)

New conceptions of human interactivity that privilege uncertainty.

Each point is linked to the others but an enumeration seemed like a simple way to make these points explicit. Of courses, there is a substantial complexity and argument behind each one.

My father once said to me that you can measure a civilization by looking at how it educates its populace. Do you think capitalism reveals anything significant in the way it treats education?

C Derick Varn:  The focus on skills that are immediate but not necessarily future oriented seems to indicate that capitalism is reaching a point in its development that it isn't future oriented in the ways it used to be. The emphasis on STEM, when you break down the raw numbers on field placement, is misleading because it is increasingly not encouraging basic research.    Most reforms of the "factory" model of education--which I find to be endemic even among left-liberal reformers--still use a consumer model to replace it, and the gamification pushes this even more to the limits of consumption patterns. The declining investment in it is because most of the educational goals need to be more immediate for more immediate profits, and education is, by Marxist theory, an area where capitalists have a hard time profiting except for in selling technologies.  This emphasis on tech in 21th-century skills is actually quite illustrative: It is profitable for rent-seeking sectors of the economy because the tech is a commodity or a rent.   All investment in faculty is investment in less tangible commodities whose benefits are more socially diffuse.  This is also probably part of why consulting is an increasing part of the secondary education market and administration is the post-secondary: it is rent-seeking behavior encouraged by a lack of vision.  I tend to think this is part of why David Blacker's thesis in the "Falling Rate of Learning" that the state will stop using formal education as means to regulate both entry into the workforce and talent sorting through credentialization is probably because the rent-seeking behavior is making it too expensive and the immediate need for profitability even in government makes it hard to go anywhere.

In short, this shows that capitalist forms of instrumental reason are actually getting into hard to untangle knots around profitability and knowledge investment and these contradictions are leading to devaluing of education. Furthermore, it shows that instrumental reason has won out in these institutions in a way that it did not during the Cold War or times when capitalists felt like their were really, truly different non-capitalist ideologies that were highly productive--like the ideologies of the USSR and PRC (I will reframe debates around the nature of "actually existing socialism" or "state capitalism" because it is irrelevant to the idea that there was a real competitor).

What I don't know how to predict is what effects the reason turn to nationalism in the developed world are going to be mean for education, but this is one area where the evidence is that old trends under globalization will probably continue even after that period of capitalism is over.

Nadim Bakhshov:  Interesting.

How, in your view, do we challenge capitalism worming its way further into education, turning students into consumers, selling programmes as consumable products, promising greater economic functionality for those who do STEM, etc? Having worked as a Head of Department of Computing in a UK College I have found the very issue to be at the heart of the mainstream debate. Instead of challenging the orthodoxies - which emerge and fluctuate with great unsettling rapidity, most senior managers I have worked with have tended to 'go with the flow' and look for pragmatic solutions to funding, student feedback/complaints, etc. Compliance has become to dominate cultures. OFSTED, the educational inspectorate in the UK, has become a 'marketing' ploy - get a great grade and sell your wares to all and everyone.

There seems to be a lack of intellectual leadership. There seems to be a lack of a conceptual narrative to challenge the inevitability of this. As an educator and pedagogue yourself, what do you think is the path out of this mess?

Personally, I place the current symptomatology on the persistence of the relativising strains in postmodern thought, including the rejection of a grand narrative. What do you think? Do we need a new narrative to get out of this mess?

C Derick Varn: Well, one is to try to make as much of one's work in it non-profit, but this is difficult as one has to make a living oneself.  This may require some creative thinking on how to get educational knowledge out of university or high school.

Are you as pessimistic about this as me? I think postmodernism was a precursor to this, but I am not sure its larger cultural effect. But assuming that is, we need to focus on what society is and what education is actually for? Merely replacing cliches like the factory model of education with gamification isn't going to cut it.

Nadim Bakhshov: I am pessimistic with the current system, mainly because I see policy making as a huge problem. Not only are policy makers largely indoctrinated into principles and ideas of the marketisation of education their pragmatic focus tends to move things the wrong way.  A poet recently said that he would rather be a policy maker and make the arguments to change the system at governmental level. As a poet yourself, would you ever consider going into policy development or management? Would you ever consider taking your educational sensibilities and trying to bring them into policy?

C Derick Varn: That is a difficult question because at one point in my life was pursuing a ph.d. to do exactly that but dictates of the economy required me to back out. However, I am very clear as to what policy level one needs to work to reverse these trends. Indeed, since a large part of the problem seems to be an embedded relationship to capital and the particularity of education in relationship to that, it is becoming a global problem.

However, a policy advocate may be just mapping a new direction beyond what is currently politically or economically possible and in that sense, I would consider it.

What do you see as the limitations of the public policy approach to educational change?

Nadim Bakhshov: For me, the biggest issue with current policy making - and the wider problems that infect these mainstream debates is careerism and the reluctance to challenge the assumptions behind much of the funding thinking in education in the UK. It’s interesting that you considered the path of a PhD and looking into going into policy or management but found yourself moving in a different direction. For some years I thought I could break into this circle without compromising my integrity or instincts. It was only when my integrity was threatened that I realized the education system had begun to fail. The encroachment of these new business managerial strategies at institution level have begun to erode the fabric of education as far as I can see.

 

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