« 01.26 Elizabeth Goodman, Nathalie Jeremijenko | Main | Introduction to WebCamTalk 1.0 »

01.19 Christoph Spehr

Free Cooperation in New Media Art Education

  • Introduction:

Traditionally, political concepts and goals of emancipation were based either on objectivism or formalism. Most often it was a mixture of both. In the first case, there is supposedly an objective insight into truth, history, society, and human nature. Everything that is wrong is deducted. In the latter case, supposedly formal societal structures  (or smaller cooperations) determine an outcome that can be labeled as freedom, equality, or control. Of course, objectivism is a highly problematic concept itself now, rightly under attack from postmodern critics. Political formalism mostly ignores that relationships of power that are in fact what determines the outcome. This is not an academic question; a lot of emancipatory politics turned out to be part of the problem rather than the solution.
The concept of free cooperation is an attempt to base emancipation, political theory and left politics once more on free negotiations and equal negotiating power. It can be applied to any kind of cooperation, from society at large to educational projects, from
new media art to economy- it is an utopian guideline for progressive transformation.

About Christoph Spehr:

Christoph Spehr is a German political and cultural theorist, author and video-maker. In 2001 he got the Rosa-Luxemburg-prize for his essay on Free Cooperation; an English translation will be available in 2005. Since 2000 he is the organizer of the conference series Out of this world which focuses on the relationships between popular culture, exp. Science-Fiction, utopian concepts and political emancipation. He works as an editor for the magazine Alaska and takes part in the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism project. His video On Rules and Monsters was screened at the Networks, Art & Collaboration Conference, SUNY at Buffalo, 2004.

Video (German)

in Speaker Series | this section only


Christoph Spehr: Education and Crisis

As part of
Transcript from WebCamTalk 1.0

[Christoph Spehr is a German political and cultural theorist, author and video-maker. In 2001 he got the Rosa-Luxemburg-prize for his essay on Free Cooperation; an English translation will be available in 2005. His ideas about collaboration were formative for the "Free Cooperation: Networks, Art & Collaboration" conference in April 2004 (www.freecooperation.org).]

Trebor Scholz: What are your thoughts on new-media art education, specifically taking into account your concept of "free cooperation"?

Cristoph Spehr: We experience a general crisis of education today. Teachers are dissatisfied, students are dissatisfied, the educational system is dissatisfied, and society as a whole is dissatisfied with education. In Europe we witness the horrible results of the PISA tests for some of the world’s richest countries, especially for Germany. Everybody is calling for education but nobody seems to be very interested in thinking about it. We have a huge pressure from capital on education while we seem to have lost all standards of previous discussions about learning, teaching, education and society. Education is all messed up. While there is so much hatred everywhere around education we see at the same time, a deep desire for it-- mostly unfulfilled and unconscious.

I watched >Animatrix< again recently. There is a scene in >Kid’s Story<, situated in a classroom, a completely alienated situation, the teacher is one of the >agents< as it turns out, and then the kid’s cell phone rings. He switches it off but it rings again. It’s Morpheus telling him that he has to get out of there because they are coming for him, which confirms his half-conscious suspicions about the false reality he lives in. This says everything about education. It shows the teacher as the agent of the system, education as oppression, not so much as indoctrination than as a prevention of thinking, of waking up – we will come back to this later. But at the same time, there is that phone call, and this is the other side of education. The call that gets through— somehow at any time. The call is a fantasy about education, about teaching - to do something that cuts through, that has an effect on somebody, that reaches someone, that creates change. It’s an illegitimate, an obscene fantasy, a fantasy of violence. Because it implies that the teacher (in this case, Morpheus) does something that the student clearly didn’t ask for. He couldn’t, and maybe wouldn’t have if he would have had the choice. But this is what education is all about. This is what we are in for, what really matters. And this is the deep contradiction in all of education. We want to be free, we don’t want to be forced, but at the same time we wish something to be done with us, something to happen that we couldn’t ask for. This goes way beyond the classroom. This is not only true for education but for the realm of the social in general-- of relationships, and of love. Because we are humans, and this is how humans “get formed”, as Bertolt Brecht tells us: “by joining here and there, by beating and getting beaten”. We don’t learn by consuming injections and infusions of information.

TS: Is education a chaotic process?

CS: Definitely, hopefully-- otherwise we would all be dead. But let’s think a little more systematically about education. A lot of us don’t like the word, because of its association with oppression and manipulation, and many use different words for what they think is bad (education) and what they think is good (other word). But that’s a way to sneak away from the problem, so let’s stick to the term. As we know (from postmodernism, from cognitive science, from the critique of science) education is basically something the subject does, the student, not the teacher. It is learning, and learning is an active process, involving the creation of maps of the world, of becoming able to do something, and of imagining alternatives. In a strict sense, teaching is impossible because the student has to do the learning, the creation, and it is not possible to tell what exactly makes him or her modify this or that map, attitude, imagination in this or that way. It’s like that because this is how our mind works - we could go into Thomas Kuhn, explaining that progress in science is not done by logical deduction but by leaps, breaks, due to practical problems and relations of social powers; next we could go and look at Lakoff and Johnson telling us that >The mind is inherently embodied; thought is mostly unconscious; abstract concepts are largely metaphorically<; or we could just remember the experience of teaching: you never know what makes the mind >snap<, you have to try various ways, and you cannot dictate the outcome.

So teaching is never forming or informing, it is only facilitating the process of self-education, by giving resources and by manipulation. You can’t get the manipulation out of the teaching. Apart from giving resources (books, stories, telling, pictures, whatever), teaching is manipulation of the learning process. That’s why we would pay someone for it: to help us speak Spanish faster, to manipulate our learning process in a way that speeds it up, is more secure, saves us at least some of the hardest lessons in reality (like getting it all wrong with a Spanish girl because of some mispronounced leading to serious misunderstandings).

Education happens everywhere in the realm of the social, it’s inseparable from our social practice - social practice is education, education is social interaction. Education as a institutionalized setting, as a school or an educational system (or only a specially designed situation, like a talk in a café), is to education what the teacher is to the learning: a means of facilitating, by giving resources and by manipulation - to and of both the teachers and the students (which in real life are mutually changing roles). And society is to institutionalized education what the educational system is to the learning/teaching subjects, a means of facilitating, by giving resources and by manipulation. Again, you don’t get the manipulation out of the education.

But manipulation does not mean to shape something after a picture. You cannot do education like you build a chair. We can conceive education only as cooperation. (And a good carpenter would say, you can’t really build a chair, it’s a form of cooperation with the wood - but with embodied minds, it’s even fuzzier.) This is the >tragedy< with every authoritarian education: it is not really good in achieving, in making something happen, in enabling somebody - but it’s quite good in preventing, in destroying, in eradicating. If you put a system under stress, you can not guarantee which new interior regulation it will put in place, what it will do. But you can predict a lot of what the system will prevent. So, authoritarian education is about stress AND selection: put up pressure, effect stress, let something snap, and pick out what is to your liking, the rest you throw away. In my view, this is what happens in our schools, our universities, our society, and our social relations. Why is our society is so dumb? The reason is that oppression functions so much better for unlearning, than for learning. It’s exorcism rather than education; and this is what the teachers do to the students. The educational systems and society, the educational spaces and settings produce zombies. And the lamenting about the lack of creativity, of inventiveness, of knowledge— are no more than crocodile’s tears.

TS: What has changed in education and how do explain the crisis in education that you acknowledged in the beginning?

CS: The crisis exists because the world is deeply changing, but education is not. In spite of what I just mentioned, education happens, because every educational system relies not only on forced cooperation but also, partly, on free cooperation. No educational system could work if it would not include spaces of free cooperation, of non-authoritarian learning/teaching and education, as well. The system knows, at least practically, that it cannot really force education, that you can’t force creativity, learning, imagination. That it has to let go in part. It’s all about making a deal.

Spaces get shut down today, and deals break down. This is caused by the shifts that are signaled by globalization, the emergence of a global information resource (the Internet), immaterial labor, and the lack of socialism.

The contradiction in education deepens. It is quite clear that education has to change today: Informational resources are available widely; a lot of skills are computerized; it makes no more sense to memorize information, to automatize skills, but having an orientation gets increasingly important, that you know how to move, how to get things, how to cooperate; how to translate between systems, etc. Work is becoming more immaterial, and education has to reflect this. For a lot of stuff you have machines; what counts in education is more and more purely the social, virtuality and IT urge for an education that is about interaction between people, social abilities- because there’s no point in repeating what the machine already offers. The more >immaterial< education becomes the more difficult. New negotiations are needed for educational systems, deals that include much more free cooperation. Free cooperation also in spaces where the >violent< functions of education may happen, the >call<, the operations that have not been solicited - because in free cooperation, people can accept this, because they are not helpless, because they can control the situation they are in.

But, as we all know, this is not the way things go. Educational systems around the world have become everything but free. Society itself has become very free, putting high economic pressure on the individual and all cooperations. This is why learning is in crisis. You can’t learn with a gun pointed at you. You may get imprinted /conditioned- the way we do it with animals in experiments. But conditioning breaks down as soon as the surrounding situation shifts, so conditioning is of little help in times of globalization, rapid informational change, and immaterialization of labor.

Around this aisle, the central focus on crisis, you have grouped a whole bunch of sub-crises, dependent on different perspectives and situations, a whole bunch of deals breaking down and spaces getting shut down. One deal that breaks down today is the “student’s deal.” Globalization and the Internet shatter the resource monopoly of the educational system. You don’t need teachers, and no schools to get information. For reflection and mind-mapping, you are better served at the movies than at school. At the same time, globalization (if done on the basis of free capital movement) undermines the economy and social stratification even of the richest countries; so the teacher’s weapon that you need the grade to get your job later becomes empty, because there is no job anyway for the most, you know that. Therefore, the student’s denial to any education becomes almost impenetrable in many cases, and then his or her reaction to the educational situation often becomes utterly violent.

The next deal that breaks down is the teacher’s deal. Based on his information monopoly, he used to mix >inferior tasks< (basic training) with >superior tasks< (like ideological influence, production of opinions and attitudes, influencing society - there’s no good teacher that did not get lured into his/her business by this idea). But nobody wants his/her >superior tasks<. The students want him or her to >deliver< what they think they need to become rich, they give a shit about his/her ideas or ideals or opinion; the system sues him/her for the crisis in learning but gives him or her no resources and no spaces; and society has little interest in education and little respect for the teacher because society has no vision.

And another deal that breaks down is that between the dominant elites and the critical opposition about changing the educational system. Hardt and Negri write in >MultitudeThe Matrix survives not only by sucking the energy from millions of incubated humans but also by responding to the creative attacks of Neo, Morpheus, and the partisans of Zion. The Matrix needs us to survive.< The system cannot change itself, it has to be changed, even for his own sake. So there is usually a deal between the system and its enemies; they are the best teachers, and they alone can trigger systemic change. But today there is no one who wants to change the system. The system kills every attempt very early, very successfully. Therefore, the crisis grows. The lack of socialism, the lack of alternative visions, of a fundamental critique of today’s capitalist global system, is part of the crisis. Education cannot develop if it’s not criticized, and there is no practical critique without a deal. There is no deal because the system abstractly needs change but is not actually forced to change. So things do just rot.

TS: How do you envision partial free cooperation in education?

CS: Remember: education is inherently violent; something confrontational, obscene; it does not go without manipulation. This is only bearable in a free cooperation, in a form of enabling that can be controlled and taken back, and where the roles are not fixed one-sided, where learning/teaching is done by every member, where the teachers have to learn and the students have to teach the teachers. In a forced cooperation, the weaker side follows the rules as far as they can be coerced, but instinctively rejects manipulation. So in an authoritarian setting, the student will refuse, he or she will build up walls of protection - without trust, there is no openness, and without equal bargaining power, there can be no trust, it would be suicide. But education needs its walls smashed, otherwise you are stuck. This is a problem for the overall system, no triumph for the student, because he or she doesn’t learn anything this way. It’s cool if you reject the school’s manipulation while enjoying a society where learning is possible, outside. But this is not our situation. Learning is stuck everywhere - in school, in society, in the media, at work. And this is bad for the people, for us.

TS: You suggest that our current social system has no visions-- that the educational system is emptied out of ideologies today. This is not what we experience in the U.S. at the moment -- there surely is a lot of vision, but one may not want a piece of it.

CS: There is this new fundamentalism, the call for conservative values and virtues, but you can’t take that serious. It’s not ideology because it does not work as a way to embrace today’s change in a way that gives visions. The world is admiring capitalism and America not because it does or does not have articulate leaders but because it is such a strong system that it can afford the biggest dumb heads as leaders without collapsing. Oppositional forces are so weak because the movements’ visions are also weak still-- there is no real threat of an alternative. In the 70s, capitalist and bourgeois ideology became really smart because it had to fight the Left. Cooperation ideologists read Marx and Foucault, they studied feminism and the ecological movement, they discovered the frictions between emancipation and socialism as well as those between the people and the authoritarian, patriarchal state; this is how neo-liberalism was born. It was a time when the dominant educational system really tried to create affirmative ideologies, when it wanted something to happen in education, wanted people to learn >resistance to left ideologies< and to learn the >right thing<.

This is over. Today, institutionalized education is nothing more than an occupational army standing in a country formerly called education, and its main order is to prevent that something happens. It does not create something, it does not even try to teach anything. It only >shows the instruments< of today’s society, the crude and cruel rules of sheer competition, and exterminates any spaces and processes that could get out of control, that could create something dangerous. The Bush fundamentalism gets down to the simple formula that the U.S. is always right because they have the fattest ass in the world. You can’t really call that an ideology. It’s an act of humiliating its enemies by displaying unchallenged dumbness. And as such, it works.

TS: Could we get back a little to our starting point, the situation and perspectives of new- media art education? Is there anything specific to teaching new media in your opinion?

CS: In general, I see little new media education in our societies. I still remember a teacher of our son rejecting his homework in geography because he had printed out some stuff from the Internet. When I talked to the teacher, she told me she couldn’t accept this because it was too easy, not laborious enough. Would he have copied the stuff, writing it by hand, she would have accepted it. This is the state of affairs in new media education at school, as far as I can see.

So we’re coming back to Ancient Egypt at the moment, a situation where a handful of people are skilled and employed as >writers< while the majority of the people are kept analphabets. Again, this is what an occupational army does. It tears down the schools, the universities. It destroys education while supporting a handful of specialists. This doesn’t work too well, but it causes a hell of a lot of problems. It destroys hopes, and visions. It brings domination down to administration of the catastrophe, stripping off its creative aspects, rejecting any deal.

I think you can imagine new-media art education only as the education of society, of the people, according to the changing world, the changing society, and changing technology. Imagining yourself as being a part of this task, and not just of becoming a specialist on your own. To me, this is very important for democratic education, to imagine it as a practice for society as a whole, and coming out of society and its problems, being addressed to the people in the end. This is also what every good artist does: building an audience that did not exist before. It’s not about the >work<, it’s about a new practice that implies work, audience, interaction, creation, influencing both ways. I loved that about Miles Davis, he started his most creative phase with the determination not to address an audience, but to build one. Well, now >that< is art. And this is something that education should be about: using skills to imagine and envision what could be done with new all these possibilities, by the people. Without that, we’re just training cooperation assholes.

TS: What exactly do you mean by >cooperation asshole

CS: Someone who relies on society, on others, as we all do, but pretends that he does not. The >cooperation asshole< pretends to be all self-made, self-educated, exempt from cooperation. He or she is buying that archaic genius stuff. They are, therefore, not willing to pay anything back, to make him- or herself useful again for the others. Late neo-liberalism, stripped from its early anti-institutionalism, is mainly an ideology for cooperation assholes.

I don’t really have an original idea about new media education in particular. Just be honest, try not to be afraid; accept that you are part of the problem. Try to be part of the solution. Have visions, cooperate, support free cooperation while rejecting forced cooperation. Go around, do not live inside institution, do other things, ask people. Find the rebels. Be patient, be revolutionary. The usual stuff. Try to find a better answer than this.

Posted by: rts | 2005-01-27 11:02:23 AM

There are no transcripts for this section.