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Postmodernism and emancipation

The concept of emancipation in scholarly debates on postmodernism is associated with what Lyotard (1984) called one of the grand narratives, which according to him function as narratives that no longer have any connection to the fragmentation of the postmodern world. Instead of functioning as descriptions of the world we live in, those narratives reduce local, fragmented, specific language games to grand schemes of totalitarian character. And if we are basing critique on one of those grand narratives as a frame of reference, in which a particular sense of totality and a certain cosmology is required, the particularity of local, embodied and fragmented character of living life gets excluded by definition.

Against such (metaphysical as well as actual) violence on the particularity of life, as I understand it, Lyotard claims that there is no need for any conception of the total in order for critique to be making sense in local circumstances in which the sensitivity of the particular is the point, rather than something to dismiss. This is not a dismissal of critique and political activism altogether, as some authors claim (Hewlett, 2007, p. 17), but rather a change in its premises. It makes critique closer to life.

What happened in the course of events following scholarly discussions on postmodernism and post-structuralism in education was a search for a way out of a stagnated position, which sees education as being reduced to the reproduction of class privilege, without any opening for change of such a situation within its own theoretical approach (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Safstrom, 2004b). It has, among other things, led to a situation today in which some claim that the way forward is to take on a post-critical position, if not as a denial, at least severely problematizing the importance of critique all together (Hodgson, Vlieghe & Zamojski, 2018).

In a time when destructive forces are on the move again, with outspoken neo- or post-fascist parties taking hold of large parts of the public in Europe as well as the USA, I do not think that leaving critique behind is the way to go. Even though I do share many of the points made by post-critical scholars, particularly that critical theory in education has to be rethought. On this point, what I am attempting to do in this book is to explore the possibility of rethinking a critical stance on the given order of the world, without falling into the grand narrative type of critique that defined critical theory in the 1970s (Karabel & Halsey, 1977).

To formulate the problem with critique in education, as I understand it, in one sentence: one can say that when education can be understood only in reproductive terms, it reduces education to class reproduction, and claims that education reproduces classes because its role is to reproduce classes. Its foundation is a tautology. In my dissertation (Safstrom, 1994) I deconstructed the claims of such a position in the discipline of educational research, and showed how it worked to create a self-fulfilling prophecy when transformed into empirical data, creating a closed, self-referencing universe that blocked the possibility of understanding change as other than reproduction (Callewaert & Lundgren, 1976).

Even though I see the value of research that pinpoints the reproductive powers of schooling, I cannot accept that by so doing it closes the very possibility of change within its theoretical space. I am far too sophist in my thinking for that — that is, the possibility of (radical) change is what defines education and teaching in the first place, not the reproduction of privilege (see chapter 5). The reproductive approach itself becomes self-referencing in that it tends to explain any deviation from the rule as confirming the rule (see this argument in Callewaert & Lundgren, 1976).

Instead, I think, there is something wrong with the rule of reproduction itself. It is a rule that makes it impossible, in one’s thinking, to escape from what becomes the tyranny of the explanation. The type of empirical research conducted according to this rule has done violence to all those locally fragmented and specific language games that did not conform to the rule (Lyotard & Thebaud, 1994).

That is, postmodernism as a critical stance was built on the experience of being excluded per definition, or being identified, even if to be saved, as marginal, and fixated in that position by empirical research of a particularly rationalistic kind. A kind of research now coming back in a new costume as evidence-based research (even though the theoretical ideology' of the latter tends to be more conservative than the critical empirical research of the 1970s, which was often progressive), as explored above.

Patti Lather’s post-structuralist research (Lather & Smithies, 1997) is a good example of a different, and in my mind healthier, approach. In her studies on women with AIDS, she not only grapples with the sincerity of the women’s local, fragmented and specific stories, but also includes herself as a researcher within the process of understanding the living conditions for people on the margins of the social order. How to research on/together/with people on the margins without adding to the abuse they already experience? And without reducing those women to being defined only or exclusively from their social or medical positioning. For Lather, the very possibility of emancipation is, so to speak, not something you do to someone else, but something that can happen in the course of events when people speak with their voices, and when research is open for that possibility.

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