Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves: Exclusions and Student Subjectivities
reviewed by Michael W. Apple - February 12, 2007
Title: Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves: Exclusions and Student Subjectivities
Author(s): Deborah Youdell
Publisher: Springer Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1402045484 , Pages: 215, Year: 2006
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I was giving a series of lectures in eastern Europe a few years after the first editions of Ideology and Curriculum (1979; 1990; 2004) and Education and Power (1982; 1985; 1995) were published. It may surprise some of the readers of this review (and it certainly surprised me) that I was introduced as the first postmodernist and poststructuralist in education. The focus in Ideology and Curriculum on how language practices constituted students and what students ultimately became in schools was seen as opening a door to further examination of the discursive creation of identities. My critical examination in Education and Power of the ways in which technical/administrative knowledge and discourse circulated at multiple levels in education and the larger society and on its relative autonomy from simple economic needs was interpreted as well as an opening to later Foucauldian discussions of disciplinary power and micro-politics.
It was an interesting experience for me to hear these attributions. My own self-understanding is that while most of my work was and is clearly within a more structural (but not reductive and essentializing) understanding of educational realities, many of the intuitions that I first had in these volumes were indeed (somewhat) similar to those now seen in some aspects of postmodernisms and post-structuralisms. (The plural is important here I believe, since there are many different tendencies within these approaches, some interestingly political and others cynically disempowering.) Of course, each generation may have similar intuitions but may also find different vocabularies and traditions to articulate its concerns. And I certainly have a good deal of respect for those who have turned to some aspects of, say, poststructuralism and who have not in the process, as some people have, evacuated a sense of the intense politics surrounding schooling and its relationship to the generation of structured oppressions.
Indeed, anyone reading some of my later work (Apple, 1996; 2000; 2006) can see that I have incorporated selected aspects of poststructural theories and approaches into a largely Gramscian inspired framework of analysis. Issues surrounding the construction of identities, the role of struggles over discourse and culture, and similar concerns sit side by side with a more gritty and material analysis of the realities of class relations, racial dynamics, and gendered specificities. And all of these are then situated within an understanding that we live under capitalist logics, something that makes a huge difference in what education does and can do.
I hope that you will forgive the focus on the personal in the first paragraphs of this review. But I mention all of this because it bears on my positive reactions to Deborah Youdells new book, Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves. Youdell has already made significant contributions in other books. For instance, she is the co-author of the award-winning Rationing Education (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000), one of the best volumes on the ways in which strict regimes of accountability such as national testing combined with an emphasis on marketization lead to the production of increased inequalities in spite of the claims that such things will lead to better educational outcomes. Well before the inception of No Child Left Behind, based on their research in England, Youdell and her colleague David Gillborn gave us warnings about what might happen. And they were correct.
Her current book is an in-depth critical analysis of the ways in which identities are formed in schools and on how students struggle over the ways in which such identities are produced. It is based on detailed qualitative research in both England and Australia, and focuses on how student exclusions are produced in the daily interactions of schools with multi-ethnic populations. Of course, there is a long tradition of work on the processes of exclusion in schools and on how students learn who they are and can be in classrooms. What sets Youdell apart from this tradition is her sophisticated grounding in poststructural theories and her use of these theories to illuminate the actual ways such processes work in the lives of concrete students. Here is Youdells description of her aims and position.
The book takes up the notion of exclusions but understands these in a different way, insisting that they must be engaged as ongoing exclusionary processes. In this frame, it is not a case of identifying students in a state of, or at risk of becoming, educationally excluded and intervening in this. Rather it is a case of identifying how educational exclusions are produced through the mundane and day-to-day processes and practices of educational institutions. Thinking about educational exclusion in this way also insists that it cannot be used to describe the student who is out of school or deemed to be disengaged inside school. Instead, it demands that the micro exclusions that take place in the most mundane moments everyday inside schools cannot be understood as simply being experienced by students. Rather these must be understood as constitutive of the student, constitutions whose cumulative effects coagulate to limit who a student can be, or even if s/he can be a student at all. (pp. 12-13)
This is an ambitious agenda. It involves examining what is taken for granted in schools, how such taken for granted assumptions work in creating (constituting) what it means to be a student, who gets to be good or bad, smart and stupid, well-behaved or a problem, and so on. These constitutive processes serve to create exclusions based on class, race/ethnicity, and gender and sexuality. Based on this, the book goes on to ask:
Why are these categories so important, and why do they seem so inescapable? Would social exclusion and educational equity be better served by jettisoning these categorizations? Might this be a viable possibility and how else might we think about the subjects of schooling? (p. 29)
Youdell then connects these concerns about the micro-politics of daily life in schools to a concern with the politics of hegemonic relations in the larger society. While there were times I wished she had gone further into the connections between micro and macro relations, she does a fine job of demonstrating that, for instance, students are already engaged in practices that challenge the terms of educational exclusions by shifting the meanings of school discourses and insisting that previously disavowed discourses function in school contexts (p. 31). This focus on what I would usually call the counter-hegemonic practices of students (Apple & Buras, 2006) will make the book even more interesting to those readers who want to go further into how various groups of students partly act back on the ways in which they are seen in school contexts (see, e.g., Dance, 2002; Dyson, 1997).
Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves draws together resources from Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Bourdieu, and others. Because of this, it can at first seem tough going for those who are unfamiliar with these traditions. Let me suggest, however, that the reader persist. Indeed, I can think of no recent book that synthesizes these kinds of authors so well, presents their core claims so clearly, and applies them in such a consistent way as this book. Too many people have used Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Bourdieu, and others to obfuscate the reality of schools, students, teachers, curricula, testing, and so on. It often seems that some of those researchers who are so enamored with postmodern and poststructural theories believe that dealing with the realities of such thingsthe actual stuff of educationis a form of pollution, something to be shunned at all costs so that they can pursue an agenda of being members of the unattached intelligentsia. Such innocuous skepticism criticizes and deconstructs everything, but stands for nothing. At times, one is tempted to ask a simple question: Why are you in education?
Unlike these others, Youdell does have a political and educational agenda that is not simply deconstructive. She does want to deconstruct, expose, and then unsettle and displace the commonsense discourses that create exclusions in schools. But she wants something else as wellan education that is not reduced to the working out of (supposedly) efficient markets logics and (supposedly) efficient regimes of testing. And she stands for an education that does not deny through its daily practices the possibilities of self-formation on the part of students who today are all too often denied the chance to co-create an education worthy of its name.
Youdell might have gone further in specifying what this might look like. Although she mentions them, she could for example have more closely connected her more critical sociological analysis with the growing literature on critically democratic policies and practices in Brazil and elsewhere, for example (see, e.g., Apple & Beane 2007; Apple et al., 2003). Doing so would have given her book a bit more bite at the end. But by saying this, I do not mean to be unfair. What she has given us is both a thoughtful and insightful analysis of the daily realities of so many students inside schools and a set of tools and perspectives that can assist us in thinking more critically about the complex functions of our actions in education. When used wiselyand when expressly connected with an appropriately critical social, cultural, and political sensitivitysuch tools and perspectives may then not serve to obfuscate or to pull us away from a concern with the gritty realities of classrooms. Rather, they may enable us to make closer connections between our struggles to build a responsive education for all of our students and our struggles for a society that is less exploitative.
Whether I may or may not have been the first postmodernist and poststructuralist in education is up to others to decide, although it may be a bit of a stretch. Certainly, my own understanding is that I am not in a church so I am not worried about heresy. If structural and poststructural understandings in (tense) combination are useful, as I believe they are, then so be itas long as they are jointly participating in a clear and collective political/educational project and are part of the formation of what I have elsewhere called a decentered unity. What is clear, however, is that Deborah Youdell would be part of that decentered unity and that her work has much to offer if it is placed within the multiple struggles in which we are engaged.
Apple, M. W. (1979, 1990, 2004). Ideology and curriculum. New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W. (1982, 1985, 1995). Education and power. New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W. (1996). Cultural politics and education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Apple, M. W. (2000) Official knowledge (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W. (2006). Educating the right way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality (2nd ed.) New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W., et al. (2003). The state and the politics of knowledge. New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W., & Buras, K. L. (Eds.). (2006). The subaltern speak: Curriculum, power, and educational struggles. New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). Democratic schools: Lessons for a powerful education (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Dance, L. J. (2002). Tough fronts: The impact of street culture on schooling. New York: Routledge.
Dyson, A. H. (1997). Writing superheroes: contemporary childhood, popular culture, and classroom literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gillborn, D., & Youdell, D. (2000). Rationing education. Philadelphia: Open University Press.