New article on online learning ecologies with Susan Carter

Download here.

E-learning is not just a learning and teaching innovation; it also signals a shift in human cognition and communication. The lexicon of e-learning borrows from the barren lexicon of information science: of users, usage and usability, or of information-seeking and affordances. Deep e-learning requires a more fecund idiom, a new myth: of the digital agora, an e-learning ‘trading zone’. Here we reflect on the process of shaping an electronic version of our generic doctoral skills sessions, during which it occurred to us that, to match the benefits of interactivity in face-to-face teaching and learning and to be transformative of academic subjectivity, e-learning must be truly performative, rather than merely informative; e-learners (and e-teachers too) must enact the skills they hope to learn (or teach).

I-Hood: Fichte on Construction

Fichte (1762-1814)

For Fichte, according to Daniel Breazeale, construction, i.e., thinking through the self or “I-hood” (Ichheit), has six distinctive features. It requires a “postulate,” i.e., a question or occasion, that serves as

  1. an invitation or summons or challenge . . . to engage in an act of abstraction (from all that is not the I) and reflection (upon whatever remains in consciousness following such an act of abstraction)” (6), i.e. philosophical construction is a process of thinking — thinking as doing or making, rather than merely contemplating. Its “prerequisite” is
  2. an act of radical abstraction from the ‘objective’ or ’empirical’ contents of consciousness,” which characterizes the “philosophical standpoint” (7); and its “organ” is
  3. the capacity for reflection, attentiveness, or intellectual intuition,” i.e., “a direct awareness . . . of what ‘happens’ when one tries to think the I” (8). The process nonetheless requires
  4. synthetic thinking,” which “attach[es] to some previously constructed concept a new concept, one not already contained in the previous one, but instead somehow presupposed by it” (10), i.e., grounding it (à la Leibniz) and “dialogizing” it, i.e., opposing it (à la Spinoza) and transcending it (à la Hegel). These heuristic principles are driven by
  5. imagination” (12), i.e., the “feeling for truth” that characterizes the “philosophical spirit”: “the capacity to think creatively, to engage in ‘inspired guesswork'” (13).
  6. N.B. The scope of construction is limited to “the domain of the pure subject-object,” i.e. “I-hood” (14).

In construction, we reflect on what is happening to the “I” when we abstract from experience to think through an idea.

The problem is: what do ideas have to do with the I? Or, to put it another way, how does “synthetic thinking,” which works with ideas, get us to the I?

Here’s one solution: this requires a kind of thought-experiment in which we think about the I by not thinking about it.

  1. We assume the I and ideas “work” similarly.
  2. We pick an idea.
  3. Because the I is foundational (self is primary) and dialectical (a self implies an other), we examine the grounds of that idea and explore its contradiction.
  4. This leads us to new ideas.

This is “I-ing” the idea — or, rather, this is the I at work.

For Fichte, this is the I. His method of construction is thus genetic, i.e., construction generates the I:

what such a method displays is precisely a transcendentally ordered process in which each stage in the philosophical construction of the self springs necessarily from the preceding one as the condition for the very possibility of the same.


the various realms and structures of ordinary actual life can be grasped philosophically only as products of the transcendental self-construction of the I. (15)

Or to offer another, simpler solution: thinking is how the I acts. To reflect on the I, we examine it in action, i.e., in the process of thinking.

What Fichte offers us, then, is a way to think of thinking (a.k.a. the I) as positional, a way to think beyond identity politics towards positionality. When we argue, we are — or ought to be — at once constructing a self and an argument, not to mention a world.

Putting it somewhat less clearly, to pose a question and propose an answer is to take up a position that presupposes a positioning, the positing of a self and a world.

Only Connect!

A conventional narrative of the evolution of civilization suggests that society has gone from a highly collective, as it were, centripetal society to a less collective, centrifugal one: “the centre cannot hold,” etc, etc. — hence narratives of modernity as individualizing, increasingly multicultural, relativist.


For example, in Liquid Modernity (Wiki) Zygmunt Bauman elevates “individualization” to the defining principle of modernity, describing it this way:

“individualization” consists of transforming human “identity” from a “given” into a “task” and charging the actors with the responsibility for performing that task and for the [32] consequences (also the side-effects) of their performance. In other words, it consists in the establishment of a de jure autonomy (whether or not the de facto autonomy has been established as well). [. . .] Needing to become what one is is the feature of modern living — and of this living alone. Modernity replaces the heteronomic determination of social standing [via “estates,” i.e., “locations of inherited belonging”] with compulsive and obligatory self-determination [via “classes,” i.e., “targets of manufactured membership,” in the first wave of modernity or roles in the second wave]. (my emphasis; 31-32)

This principle is a symptom of a larger historical movement of de- and reterritorialization, of uprooting and transplanting:

Early modernity “disembedded” in order to “re-embed.” While the disembedding was the socially sanctioned fate, the re-embedding was a task put before the individuals. (32)

Bauman remains skeptical about his re- or the trans-: in “second” or “reflexive modernity,”

no “beds” are furnished for “re-embedding,” and such beds as might be postulated and pursued . . . often vanish before the work of “re-embedding” is complete. There are rather “musical chairs” of various sizes and styles as well as of changing numbers and positions, which prompt men and women to be constantly on the move and promise . . . no satisfaction of “arriving,” of reaching the [35] final destination, where one can disarm, relax and stop worrying. (33-34)

Nomadism — ethnicity, tribalism, and other loose or minimal collectivities — becomes the norm in modernity. Or, to switch the metaphor from solids to liquids, we moderns are taught to value liquidity: solvency, fluidity, rhythm — the dissolution of (old) bonds and the permeation of barriers.

To extrapolate (and to put a little pressure on the metaphor), a liquid tends to seek its level: it is “democratic.” But it can be pressurized: a steady state — like a ideal loose collectivity — tends to be transient (if that’s not a contradiction in terms).

But what if civilization were evolving in reverse? What if the drive to individualisation, etc, in modernity were just a reaction to the increasingly collective and centralized nature of society? The principal force in modernity would be connectivity — and thus collectivity.


Marx and Engels called it interdependence:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence in every direction. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. (The Communist Manifestosec. 1)

Leaving aside the not-so-implicit colonialism of this assertion of a connective commons, perhaps we moderns, then, would be better to value entanglement: networks, evolution and involution, threads — the forging of (new) bonds and the enfolding of layers. If entanglement is the sine qua non of interdependence, whether it is seen to emerge from independence (like the “mastery” of the old West — or the newly mega-rich) or dependence (like the slavery of its Others — or those other than the mega-rich), we cannot ignore it, so we might as well embrace it.

Sloterdijk says “You Must Change Your Life!”

From the Goethe Institute, a brief introduction to Peter Sloterdijk’s book on autopoeisis, You Must Change Your Life!, (apparently) forthcoming from Polity Press:

Peter Sloterdijk – Portrait of an Admonisher [excerpt; silently edited]

Don’t you consume too much energy? Aren’t you after a quick buck? Don’t you constantly lie to others? “You must change your life!” In March 2009, at the height of the financial crisis that began in September 2008, Peter Sloterdijk, one of the best known and also most controversial German philosophers, published a book with this timely call for transformation as the title [see Du mußt dein Leben ändern: Über Anthropotechnik (Suhrkamp, 2009)]. No wonder it struck a chord.

In the book, Sloterdijk develops his doctrine of human beings, who, he argues, possesses no naturally fixed essence, as the great religions postulate they do. On the contrary, human beings creates themselves, as Nietzsche and the existentialists thought. This activity must, however, be learned. That means it must be practised: human beings, according to Sloterdijk, are practising beings. They create themselves through their actions — an insight that the young Karl Marx in 1844 also espoused. Sloterdijk, however, expands the zone of practice beyond the scope conceived of by Marx: not only as workers, but also as models, as feeling and communicating beings, human beings are in training to achieve peak performance. At any rate on this point, Sloterdijk’s thought is not traditional.

What has this to do with the financial crisis of 2008? Well, when human beings are conceived of as practising and self-creating beings, they will naturally be responsible for their own lives. They must (and can!) respond to the global crisis by changes in their own lives, in the financial world as in the environment. In this way the “crisis” has taken the place of gods and gurus, who in earlier times confronted human beings with similarly tremendous demands.

In order to pursue the prospect of common survival, Sloterdijk calls for the building of a global immune system, which he calls “co-immunism” [i.e., a system of mutual protection from social contagion, i.e., against commun(al)ism]. In this he does not propose to rely on force, but rather, as does liberalism, on the hope in human beings’ ability to reason, which makes them see their duty.

The title is a line from Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” (New Poems [1907], trans. Stephen Cohn):

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The Bricoleur and the Engineer

Verbatim from Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962):

the “bricoleur” is . . . someone who works with his [or her] hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. . . . (16-17)

. . . bricolage being D.I.Y. (Interestingly, L-S always uses scare-quotes about “bricoleur,” to suggest that the term is figurative.)

L-S contrasts the bricoleur and the engineer:

[He or she] is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he [or she] does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His [or her] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his [or her] game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relationto the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (17)

This is to say,

the engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them. (19)

Mythical thought is analogous to bricolage:

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual “bricolage.” (16)

But so is the self.

L-S goes on to contrast the “savage” (or mythopoetic) mind with the “scientific” (or conceptual) mind.

  • the “savage” is a bricoleur, assembling patchwork objects by adapting “the means at hand” (by adding, deleting, substituting and transforming them);
  • the “scientist” is an engineer, creating objects “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth.”

The artist is “half-way between” (22).

One last note: Derrida, himself—like most postmoderns—a bricoleur, comments with his characteristic irony that “the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur” (360).


See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1962; Chicago: UCP, 1966) 17ff. (excerpted online at “The Savage Mind“) and Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 2nd rev. ed. (New York; London: Routledge, 2001) 360.

Bacon’s skin

In his Self-Portrait (1973), Francis Bacon demonstrates Michel Serres’s idea of

the skin as a variety of our mingled [or, in Bacon’s case, mangled] senses

(quoted in Steven Connor’s introduction to Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Crowley [1985; London; NY: Continuum, 2009] 3; see 5).

Serres on the skin 1

Serres on the Skin 2


Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait (1973).

“For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance [here his self] arouses in me” (letter to Michel Leiris, 20 Nov. 1981).

If Bacon realistically captures the cluster of sensations that is his self here, the “soul” that touches the world in the convoluted whorl of his skin is less “changing, shimmering, fleeting” than oddly static, smeared, and lumpen (see “Creatures of habit[us]: bundle theories of the self“). We know this of Bacon, but he still fascinates as still life.

Lateness vs Belatedness

I. late

O.E. læt “occurring after the customary or expected time,” originally “slow, sluggish,” from P.Gmc. *latas (cf. O.N. latr “sluggish, lazy,” M.Du., O.S. lat, Ger. laß “idle, weary,” Goth. lats “weary, sluggish, lazy,” latjan “to hinder”), from PIE base *lad- “slow, weary” (cf. L. lassus “faint, weary, languid, exhausted,” Gk. ledein “to be weary”)

i.e. when speaking of artists or their work, late in the life of the author or their oeuvre, and thus

  1. resigned, i.e. mature and wise (and thus, perhaps, closed—see 2)
  2. alienated and open, i.e. resisting harmony, cohesion and completeness

(#1 to a degree preserves the etymological sense of weariness [and perhaps a sense of post-ness, i.e. post- the artist’s “classical” period; this is a Romantic/expressivist reading]; #2 does not, except in that it describes the art of an exhausted age [this is a Hegelian/historicist reading].)

i.e. according to Said in On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006), a late literary work is characterised by “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction” (see also Adorno’s “Late Style in Beethoven” in Essays on Music, on which Said draws, and his “Adorno as Lateness Itself” in Adorno: A Critical Reader)

Nietzsche describes literary lateness as a kind of epigonal superstition (epigonus L successor); in “The Uses and Abuses of History for Life” (1874) he writes,

You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present. . . . [O]nly the man who builds the future has a right to judge the past. In order to look ahead, set yourselves an important goal, and at the same time control that voluptuous analytical drive with which you now lay waste the present and render almost impossible all tranquillity, all peaceful growth and maturing. Draw around yourself the fence of a large and extensive hope, an optimistic striving. Create in yourselves a picture to which the future is to correspond, and forget the myth that you are epigones.

Colonies certainly came late in the imperial evolutionary scale—and fit #2 better than #1: they’re alienated both from the wise local indigenes and metropolitan masters—for this reason, they are to a degree, open (for better or worse).


II. belated

1618, “overtaken by night [!],” from be- + late; sense of “coming past due” is from 1670

i.e. coming after—and, as a result, ambivalent to—earlier, overshadowing (prior, larger) presences who pervade the later author’s work, a.k.a. “precursors” (Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence [1973]), and thus diminished (-), or narrow and stringent (+); the term need not be exclusively literary

Colonies can be seen as cultural “laggards” (benighted even?), adopting metropolitan innovations belatedly and thus inherently provincial (cf. Wystan Curnow, “High Culture in a Small Province,” in Wystan Curnow (ed.), Essays on New Zealand Literature [Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973] 155-71).

[Online Etymology Dictionary; A New Handbook of Literary Terms]