Poststructuralism, Politics and Education
reviewed by Nathaniel Monsour - 1997
Given a spate of articles and books that have come out in the last decade attributing various crises in academic politics to the introduction of French theory, it is refreshing to read Mark Peters's Poststructuralism, Politics and Education, since it is a sincere attempt to demonstrate the implications of postmodernism for education and politics in general. Though Peters teaches in the Department of Education at the University of Auckland, his background, according to his education, is in philosophy, and he is able to bring a cross-disciplinary breadth of knowledge to this ambitious project.
Though short, this book is densely packed with theoretical discussions of metaphysics, history, economic theory, and ethics. Peters is clearly constructing a polemic, but he does attempt to provide a balanced view of his subject. At times, the attempt to do both makes this an extremely allusive book. To reduce this complex skein of theories to a simple thesis statement, it could be said that the book criticizes both the liberal belief that children should be encouraged to develop as individuals and the conservative attempt to teach children marketable skills and "traditional" values. Peters sees these two movements as opposite sides of the same coin: the inculcation of Western notions of subjectivity. Though liberals might believe that they are giving marginalized children the tools that they need to find their own voices, they are in fact preventing them from becoming critical thinkers who can question the fundamental principles of the systems that subjugate them.
Peters is critical of both the right-wing attempt to instill so-called traditional values into the public educational system and the seemingly liberal project of turning schools into "enterprise zones" where students learn to treat knowledge as a commodity. This latter educational model only prepares students to be passive consumers (and later, docile producers) of knowledge, without giving them the critical tools necessary to perceive how government has encroached on their personal freedom, turning them into perfect marketing statistics. In this postindustrial age, Peters implies, educators should be searching for educational models that subvert both traditional authority structures and those newer models of education that turn both teacher and student into knowledge consumers.
Peters begins his critique of current trends in education by examining the way in which the Kantian philosophical subject was successively dismantled by Hegel, Marx, and finally Nietzsche. In a very cogent explanation of the influences underlying the birth of poststructuralism, Peters discusses how the Marxist revival of Hegel in the French academy gave way to structuralism, which preserved the Hegelian binarism while criticizing the inevitability of Self and Other collapsing into a single entity, and then poststructuralism, which questioned the neatness of binaries.
This is not to suggest that poststructuralism is merely a response to a given set of historical circumstances, and Peters goes to great lengths in the chapter entitled "Against Alain Finkielkraut's The Undoing of Thought: Culture, Education and Postmodernism" to demonstrate that postmodernism is to be considered not an end point of history but rather a perspective from which all times and cultures may be compared. While Finkielkraut blames postmodernism for elevating consumerism to the level of high culture, Peters posits that mass culture is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment values that the French critic is trying to restore.
Ironically, while Peters is quick to criticize others for attempting to restore "white, male, European" values and systems, he himself relies almost completely on work done by white, male, European intellectuals who teach at some of the most prestigious universities. What's more, the implicit criticism of mass culture does not gel with the attempt by many postmodernists to break down the categories of "high" and "low" culture and to cross the borders that seem to separate art, philosophy, and other cultural expressions.
A third criticism that applies both to Peters's argument and to postmodernism in general is that he preserves one of the fundamental fallacies that upheld the idea of modernism. Latour (1993) criticizes the postmoderns as failed modernists since they buy into the myth that the modern era marks an absolute break from the past while denouncing the universal subject position that made it possible for the moderns to claim that they differed in a fundamental way from primitive humanity. At times, Peters himself reveals postmodernism's dependence on notions of modernity, as in this passage where he discusses the need to move from temporal to spatial metaphors in educational theory. After citing a typically general passage from Foucault that asserts that the nineteenth century was dominated by considerations of time while the twentieth century would be characterized by considerations of space, Peters asserts:
Most of the sociological or anthropological theories that educationalists use as explanatory frameworks or paradigms are variants of European strands of thought that are heavily imbued with nineteenth-century historicist assumptions. In short, "modern" educational theory has all but ignored questions of space, of geography, of architecture. (p. 93)
Ironically, Peters uses a positivistic argument to "shame" educational theorists into examining issues of space. Postmodernists' "distrust of metanarratives" leads to a state of denial in which they can no longer recognize the extent to which they have bought into the overarching metanarrative of modernity. Peters signals his belief in a radical break with the past by peppering his book with a plethora of posts: postmodernism, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, post-Fordism, post-Marxism. While poststructuralism as Peters defines it is characterized by an "incredulity toward metanarratives," it certainly seems as if the poststructuralists posit themselves as having the final word. How does one achieve political reform without metanarratives? This is one of t
he major points of contention that separates the work of Jürgen Habermas from that of François Lyotard (whom Peters recognizes as a major influence). According to Habermas, we must not give up the "project of modernity" entirely until we have achieved the ultimate rationalization of government: the establishment of a truly representative political system. According to Peters and Lyotard, Habermas's project is suspect since it is dependent on Western notions of individuality and representation.
Peters cites two example to demonstrate the dangers of this type of rationalization, one drawn from history, the other drawn from literature. In the chapter entitled "After Auschwitz," Peters examines questions of institutional spaces from a post-Holocaust perspective. To use "After Auschwitz" as a metaphor is surprisingly insensitive from a writer who uses "she" as the indefinite third person pronoun. Peters is not the originator of this metaphor; he cites Theodor Adorno and Lyotard as sources for using "After Auschwitz" as a synecdoche for the Holocaust.
Peters builds his argument on Foucault's notion of "biopolitics," which holds that liberal governments gain control of the subject through a complex of controls surrounding the body. On this foundation, he builds a theory of the Holocaust that holds that the Nazis were the ultimate expression of a social policy that, in order to preserve the well-being of the greatest number of "citizens," constructed a "Volkskörper" (the body of the people), which it would seek to maintain at the expense of those who were excluded from this aggregate body. Peters suggests that "Auschwitz" must be considered "an inescapable horizon for the consideration of the relations of ethics, knowledge and public policy within the continuing process of modernization within neoliberal nation-states" (p. 125). Peters implies that in order to move beyond Auschwitz, we must renounce the project of acquiring knowledge of individuals (knowledge=power) and stop categorizing students in terms of class and ethnicity.
Peters is quick to use the Holocaust to taint post-World War II governments and educational systems, yet he does not acknowledge that two of the most influential poststructuralist thinkers, Maurice Blanchot and Paul De Man, were both supporters of fascism. Certainly he cannot be unaware of the debate that arose during the late eighties about whether poststructuralism was in some way complicit with a desire to cover up the personal histories of these philosophers. Does Peters think that this debate is irrelevant, or is he trying to deal with it circuitously by upholding poststructuralism as the only possible defense against rabid nationalism?
The second example that Peters cites to undermine the Habermasian critique of postmodernism is Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. If this metaphor is less problematic than "After Auschwitz," it is also much more obscure. The Glass Bead Game describes a future world in which Academia has become a great, competitive game in which quasi-religious scholars create complex knowledge structures using a symbolic language that transcends all national and disciplinary boundaries. Peters posits this universal language as the end point of Habermas's brand of modernism, in which all peoples will be able to communicate with one another and register their opinions. The problem with this utopia, as Peters sees it, is that the end product does not reflect diversity but rather forces a worldwide uniformity of expression.
Against this example of the future university, Peters offers the counter-example of the Internet Globewide Network Academy, "an on-line university with no physical site" (p. 174). Citing Roy Ascott (1994), who is the director of another distance learning program, the Centre for Advance Inquiry into the Interactive Arts, Peters suggests that this academic setting "would be a global community in which each member has more or less equal power and authority in access to knowledge and in the means of its configuration and distribution; a community concerned with art and the advancement of learning through collaborative inquiry and shared experience" (p. v). This is the closest Peters gets to providing the reader with a model of a postmodernist learning environment. He ignores the numerous distance-learning programs that are affiliated with established universities and offer conventionally structured courses in a predictable number of disciplines. Though these courses may disrupt some conventions, this medium does not guarantee a total upheaval of the top-down structuring of the traditional classroom.
More importantly, online instruction does not provide the settings for extracurricular discussions and student organization that enrich the educational experience while providing opportunities for more marginalized students to establish peer groups. Peters does not recognize these dystopian aspects of distance learning partly because he distrusts the idea of community. In the final chapter, "Monoculturalism, Multiculturalism and Democracy: The Politics of Difference or Recognition?" Peters compares and contrasts poststructuralism and multiculturalism, pitting them both against the rise of conservative ideas about humanities education put forward by Alan Bloom and his ilk. Peters eloquently and correctly demonstrates the way in which the supposedly traditional values in American education are actually a relatively recent construction based on a collage of borrowed European traditions. Against this movement, both poststructuralism and multiculturalism seek to demonstrate the extent to which the "universal" concept of the individual is actually a specifically Western cultural construct.
What separates poststructuralists from multiculturalists, according to Peters, is the extent to which they can "extricate themselves from the norms of Enlightenment politics" (p. 179). Whereas multiculturalists must, to some extent, accept the idea of community as a defense against the hegemonic culture, poststructuralists are free to posit the inconsistencies of identity politics. Peters ends this chapter and the book by quoting Mark Poster:
Poster concludes by maintaining that postmodernism is still a fledgling position, one that names a set of changes (e.g., the demise of colonialism and the advent of electronically mediated communication) that "revolutionize the structures of modernity" and that "anticipates [sic] a future in which these tendencies" become dominant (1992, p. 579). In this situation, he suggests, "multiculturalism must choose between Habermasian universalism that denies their enunciative position altogether and postmodernist differentialism that affirms that position but cannot fully defend that affirmation." (Poster, 1992, p. 579, as cited in Peters, p. 191)
For members of marginalized groups, the announcement of the demise of colonialism might seem premature. The choice that Peters offers them at the conclusion of this polemic might seem unattractive since he asks them to forgo identity politics in order to gain the dubious support of the poststructuralists.
Poststructuralism, Politics and Education is a provocative book that also provides a clear insight into the ideas that cluster around the terms poststructuralism and postmodernism. Peters also supplies a cogent theoretical framework for resisting the corporate takeover of education. The polemic is more problematic when it addresses the views and concerns of the marginalized groups that coalesce around the term multiculturalism. For those facing more direct forms of political oppression, Peters's anxieties about the questionable outcomes of seemingly innocuous government policies may seem overstated.
Ascott, R. (1994). Time for a planetary collegium. The Times Higher Education (Multimedia Supplement), 4, p. v.
Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.