Testing is not a moral agent

As part of the Twin Peaks seminar, organised by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I was asked to give a 12 minute response to the following provocation.

“Will the growth of large scale assessments and global metrics distract us from a future of reconciliACTION and social justice?”

 There is a particular genius at work in asking an Australian to speak to Excursion 3 – commenting on the commitment to reconciliACTION and social justice in Canada because this a) requires detailed understanding the complex history of Canada as a postcolonial nation and b) given where Australia finds itself in regards to treatment of those seeking asylum, the treatment of our indigenous Australians and too many other examples. Given this, one might well suggest I’d be better served looking after my own backyard.

But I’m an academic which necessarily means I love the sound of my own voice, so I’ll blunder on as is my wont.

I’d like to begin my presentation by stressing that a test is not, and can never be considered, a moral agent. This obvious statement is necessary because it is really common to see the framing of standardised tests as actors that are causing a variety of ills in our schools and classrooms. While I don’t disagree that testing focuses attention in the school and classroom, and there are often undesirable consequences from that focus, I think we need to remember that ultimately it acts as a catalyst, or a surface, where what we think and believe meets what we actually desire. People have to be responsible for social justice, not tests.

I would rewrite the question to ask “How is it that we have convinced ourselves that large scale assessments and global metrics distract us from a future of reconciliACTION and social justice?”

So, when I started to think about the above question, I recognise there is a very strong belief in the education community that tests and metrics stop us being the better version of ourselves that we all aspire too. Better teachers, better academics, better school communities. However, it seems to me that the key words are ‘distract us’. How is it that principals, teachers and education communities that largely share a vision of education as a common good and seek to create the best possible conditions for students to experience a holistic education become distracted?

We might equally ask, how is it that those driving public ambitions for education, the construction of an educated, thoughtful and contributing citizenry is meeting, and being mediated by, the private ambitions that have come to represent the ways that we are governed? If tests and metrics so easily distract us from these public ambitions, I do wonder at the strength of those ambitions.

For example, one way of thinking about this is through the notion of equity, itself often parsed as a social justice concern, that requires a point of comparison to judge whether or not a system is equitable. If we were to ask the question ‘what is the best possible use of ILSA data’ it may be that we decide it is as a tool to enable the measurement of equity (such as the impacts that resourcing, funding, geolocation) have on student achievement. Of course, we can’t really ask this question if we see these tests as powerful moral agents stopping us from doing all the good things.

The point here is that a test could add to the justice within your system (with the obvious caveat that it rarely does). And this is the interesting thing to think about, why is it that after years of testing of education systems we still struggle to translate results into meaningful policy, instead constructing narrow and hostile conversations within our systems about who is winning and losing, who is to blame,

So my questions, intended to provoke, are as follows:

  • Is the reason that we blame tests for a variety of ills because we want to be distracted from the messy business of dealing with our complex histories as postcolonial nations.
  • What is this ‘social justice’ that is so fragile, so easily distracted by the imposition of an assessment regime.
  • What if everyone within the system thinks they are doing social justice in one form or another – from the politicians, to the test designers, to the media reporting on those tests, to the classroom teacher trying to make sense of the results to inform her practice – whose social justice are we talking about here?

We should stop treating tests like moral agents that can define the future. I agree with David Rutkowski’s point about agency, perhaps we’d be well-advised to think about what is enabled, and what we don’t have to do, when we cede our agency to tests and ask whether we really breath a sigh of relief that it is our responsibility we can explain away. The desire for a testing regime is a symptom, not a cause, and it seems to me if you better understand those individual and collective desires at work, you may understand why it is that reconciliACTION and social justice remain distractable.


On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I had the pleasure to be invited to participate in the National Assessments in the Age of Global Metrics symposium at Deakin University. This symposium was organised by Deakin University’s Research for Educational Impact (REDI) in collaboration with Laboratory of International Assessment Studies. The aims of the symposium are to “bring together scholars and practitioners from around the world to examine models of national assessments and explore how they are affecting the policy discourse and the practices of education in different parts of the world.”

The aims of the symposium were to address the following questions.

  • How are national and sub-national assessments evolving in the age of global metrics?
  • What is the relationship between national assessments and ILSAs?
  • What effects are they having?
  • What can we learn from the experiences over the past couple of decades?

What I liked about this event was that it aimed to bring together academics from diverse backgrounds to engage in dialogue, and maybe even learn from each other, in the fields of large-scale international assessments. And it was a bit of a star cast with presentations from Ray Adams (ACER), Sara Ruto (PAL), Anil Kanjee (Tshwane University of Technology), Sue Thompson (ACER), Hans Wagemaker (ex-IEA), Sam Sellar (MMU), and Barry McGaw (ex-ACARA). Ray Adams’ presentation was very interesting, making the case for homogenising ILSAs using criteria to enable a form of meta-standardisation and I may blog on this at some stage once I have thought about this further.

On the Tuesday morning there was a panel discussion that addressed the question ‘What’s the point of national assessments’. One of the participants was Barry McGaw, who was one of the architects of Australia’s NAPLAN and MySchool intervention, an area I have done a fair bit of work in. I must admit, during the presentation I was a bit annoyed, and when there was a chance for discussion, I asked a few questions. Because this was live-streamed, there were a number of people who tweeted out that I’d asked some questions, and I got lots of responses as to what they were. Here’s my list of questions:

  1. If NAPLAN is impactful, and I think on this we agree, why is it only ever impactful in positive ways such as in the anecdote that you shared? Why aren’t we equally interested in the negative impacts including trying to understand all of those schools that have gone backwards?
  2. Given the objective of this event, I am wondering which qualitative researchers you have read on the effects of NAPLAN that informed your attempts to make the assessments better through designing responses to the unintended consequences of the assessment?
  3. Results across Australia have flatlined since 2010*, how do you justify that NAPLAN has been a success in its own terms?
  4. I’m always concerned when people mischaracterise the unattended consequences of tests as being ‘teaching to the test’. It would be better to see a hierarchy of unintended consequences ranging from:
    1. making decisions about people’s livelihoods such as whether to renew contracts for teachers based on NAPLAN results
    2. making decisions about who to enroll in a school or a particular program based on NAPLAN results
    3. a narrowed curriculum focus where some subjects are largely ignored, or worse, not taught at all so that schools can focus on NAPLAN prep
    4. teaching to the test which may or may not be a problem depending upon how closely the test aligns with curriculum etc
  5. The problem with the branched design for online tests is not whether students will like it or not, it is a) whether schools have the computational capacity to run the tests, extending to whether or not BYOD schools advantage/disadvantage some students depending upon the type of device they use, problems of internet connection in rural and remote schools, bandwidth in large school etc. I am interested how you characterise this as a success?**

I was unimpressed with the answers I got, but I imagine that’s my problem. I think that psychometricians do rigorous research and have important insights into education systems that need to be taken seriously, but I equally think that qualitative fieldwork is desperately needed to advance the validity of this assessments, and when you shut that insight down you only damage your own assessments in the long run.

* At the end of the session, John Ainley from ACER came over and suggested to me that there had been significant improvement in Year 3 Reading and Year 5 Numeracy, with a bump in 2016 and 2017. I conceded the point, I stopped researching NAPLAN in 2015 so I hadn’t updated my trendlines. Across the other domains, however, they have remained fairly stable since 2010. This is known as the ‘wash back effect’ in the assessment literature.

** I had this question down to ask, but felt I had gone on too long so didn’t ask it.


Today, I intend to spend my 6 minutes discussing Vision 8: Teaching is delegated to computers to argue that this is both a past desire and a possible future that we need to contend with, particularly if we continue to allow conversations about learning to be framed within economic terms such as efficiency and effectiveness. Taking an historical approach, I will show that teaching machines do and have existed for a long time, and these machines have always presented themselves in the language of efficiency and effectiveness. If we don’t want to be taught by machines, maybe this is something that we should consider.

In the education technology industry there is a widely held belief that technical, or digital, personalisation of learning is the next ‘revolution’. Pearson, one of the largest edu-businesses in the world positioned itself in 2014 to take advantage of the emerging ‘digital ocean’ of Big Data ‘transforming’ learning in schools and classrooms. Corporations, philanthropic organisations, not-for profits are just some of the policy actors devoting significant energy and resources pursuing personalised learning in classrooms using adaptive technologies. Universities are heavily engaging in this space, promoting personalised learning solutions, learning analytics and adaptive platforms to solve various problems, including student drop-out rates, more effective and efficient forms of tutoring and the monitoring of student experience.

Teaching machines and personal learning – the story of the analogue

Of course, those digital and adaptive technologies have an analogue antecedent. In the early part of the 20th century there was much interest in the creation of teaching machines. While teaching machines may be difficult to define, given that there are many technologies or machines that exist in schools and classrooms that do not specifically teach, the standard definition is “an automatic or self-controlling device that (a) presents a unit of information, (b) provides some means for the learner to respond to the information, and (c) provides feedback about the correctness of the learner’s responses” (Benjamin, 1988, p. 704).

The most well known purveyor of teaching machines was B.F. Skinner, the behavioural psychologist, but the earliest patented teaching machine that satisfies the above requirements was developed and patented was by Sidney Pressey in 1928. This machine – the Machine for Intelligence Tests –used a large rotating drum to expose written material in a small window (Benjamin, 1988, p. 705). Students were presented with multiple choice questions with four alternative answers. Pressey’s machine could operate in a testing or teaching mode. In the testing mode, the machine recorded student responses and recorded the correct answers on a counter on the back of the machines. In the teaching mode, a lever was raised on the back that prevented the drum rolling onto the next question in the viewing panel until the correct answer had been entered (Benjamin, 1988, p. 705). In the teaching mode, students could attempt each question multiple time. The counter on the back recorded the number of attempts each students had made.

What is notable about Pressey’s teaching machine is that it is predicated on behavioural psychology and contemporary views on what constitutes learning – a moral imprimatur to be both efficient and precise. The machine could, if desired, be set to a reward dial that determined how many correct responses a student would need to gain candy as a reward (Benjamin, 1988, p. 706). The logic of Pressey’s machine was that efficient machines operating on behaviourist principles could make learning more effective. However, most telling is what Pressey wrote in his 1933 book Psychology and the New Education.

There must be an “industrial revolution” in education, in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education. Work in the schools of the future will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and the characteristics of the learning process… for the freeing of teacher and pupil from educational drudgery and incompetence. (pp. 582-

The key logics here are individualism, efficiency and the ‘freeing’ of teachers and pupils from education drudgery. What it demonstrates is that teaching machines have long manifested the desires of their creators for solutions to education problems such as increased student engagement, forms of personalised instruction and learning and for more efficient learning as demonstrated through the precise and correct movement, or speed, that a student manifests in these machinic tasks. Of course, Pressey’s machine (and those of his contemporaries) should be seen as analogue machines, in that they specified singular paths and patterns (ie spaces) through which a student progresses. The Pressey example shows that the desire for personal, efficient technologies to accelerate learning in ways that free the students from drudgery and, presumably, from the incompetence of the teacher, are neither new nor novel. It is almost as though these desires are hardwired into the problem of education and the history of solutionism in schools and other educational institutions.

Digital Personalisation – the story of adaptive technologies

If we move forward to the new millennium, advances in computational capacity, software design and the creation of networked infrastructure have created renewed interest in the possibilities of adaptive learning solutions. Personalised learning encompasses many digital promises in education, but its appeal stems largely from the seductive message of the uniqueness of each learner, the promise of learning experiences that will be able to adapt to these individuals with the promise of improved efficiency. Learning personalisation is the modification of resources and environments using adaptive technologies “with the goal that learners remain invested and continue to seek the highest level of knowledge possible for them in each specific field of knowledge” (Thompson & Cook, 2017, p. 746). Adaptive learning systems are “education technologies that can respond to a student’s interactions in real-time by automatically providing the student with individual support” (EdSurge, 2016, p. 15). Adaptive technologies, then, are responsive to the learner, with the promise that continually adapting and updating the content, human-computer interactions and the tasks that each learner confronts improve engagement and motivation. The promise is of improved, if not complete, learner investment, as the learning content, environment and tasks are continually updated and responsive to the profiles/patterns of the learner. ITS are descendants of the behaviourist psychology that informed the early teaching machines. Technological advances, including the ability to make decisions, to analyse and respond to learner dispositions, assess levels of motivation and competence and devise the next challenge are effected in ‘real time’. Many ITS aim to deliver personalised learning experiences to students.

Implications for education governance

Edtech has long been seen as a key driver of how schools might change. This is big business, the edtech industry is adept at marketing solutions to education problems. The next suite of technologies being marketed to systems and institutions are adaptive and ‘real-time’, promising rapid feedback and predictive applications. If, as Rhodes (1996) suggests, a new governing structure has emerged in public policy, there is much to gain through examining those “socio-cybernetic systems” at work.

There is something of a double potential here. On the one hand, personalising technologies in schools have the potential to merely reinforce the programmatic mass consumption that Stiegler sees as disastrous for culture and the human. In this model, personalising technologies act to reinforce this system such as through a standardisable approach to personalisation. Tech solutions are sold to schools and school systems, promising quicker, faster, more efficient tools that will adapt to learners levels of motivation, to keep them moving, obedient, compliant so to speak. There are a number of dangers with this model. First, it may be that technicising engagement in this manner forecloses possibilities to think, to be bored, to communicate that may be central to the actualisation of learning itself. Second, there is the possibility that what we will get is not tools to help us think better, but a homogenising technics that in effect standardises a hyper-individualism when the problems that confront us require form of collective consideration and action. Third, these technologies may shut down possibilities to understand the future as it might be, the temporal beings co-constituted by this mode of technics will always harkening to a past inscribed into the algorithms and code at the outset.

However, as Stiegler argues, the double potential of technology is that it also has the potential to deliver what he terms “singularisation”. One of the ways of thinking about this is to consider how it is that culture can interrupt (or catch up) with the ultrarapid technological change that students, schools and school personnel are increasingly contending with. As Stiegler argues, what is needed is an engaged politics of technology:

such a politics must be a politics of technics, a practical thought of becoming capable of furnishing it with an idea projecting into the future in which becoming is an agent… A politics of technics should be able to elaborate practical ideas capable of asking and regularizing the question as to what must be done within the practical domain. (Stiegler, 2011, pp. 198-9)

This does not mean that the speed at which this technology operates, its ‘real-time’ analysis and decision-making, and using engagement as a tool to keep people moving aren’t problematic. However, it does suggest an interesting line of inquiry for studies in the socio-cybernetic systems of educational governance.

On concussion

It is always important to assemble the ‘facts’ pertaining to the truth when beginning a story lest one be accused of causing the downfall of Western civilisation. F


So here they are:

  1. I was in Canada
  2. Canada has lots of snow
  3. Sometimes precipitation turns to ice
  4. I have lived my whole life in Australia
  5. Australia does not have lots of snow, and even less ice (if one is happy to exclude the methamphetamine which gives people such alluring smiles)
  6. Being from Australia I am strikingly unused to snow

Now that the crisis of Western civilisation has been averted (take that you pomo mofos) I feel that the preliminary moves of this post has been concluded, and we can move onto the narrative. Cue ominous music.


I was invited to Banff by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) to take part in two events, their Twin Peaks Summit, a kind of meeting of academics and teacher unionists to swap ideas on the pressing issues in education around the globe, and uLead2017, a conference for over 1100 school leaders from Canada and around the world.

Both events are held annually in Banff. I don’t want to make you jealous, but it is a petty nice place (refer to facts #2 and #5 above).


The winter in Alberta has been long and cold, and there was snow forecast when I arrived. While the poor Albertans have turned up their collars over the winter, I wanted it to snow. My Canadian friends just shook their heads when I wanted to go outside in the snow to catch falling snowflakes in my mouth.

Twin Peaks finished on Saturday evening, and uLead 2017 did not begin until Sound evening at 6.30pm, so a colleague of mine (let’s call him Sam because that is his name) decided it would be a perfect day for a walk. Except it was snowing, but we figured that snow was really just angel kisses (see fact #6 above) so we attired ourselves appropriately and got ready to embark on our walk. On the way we, being prudent and recognising that we don’t really know much about snow in Banff (see fact #6 above), asked the concierge at our hotel for advice as to which would be the best short trails to experience the angel kisses natural beauty. He suggested two trails, a 5km hike up the mountain or the 2.5km trail into town.

Now, those amongst us who know Banff at all will probably have remarked on how many Australians there are that work in Banff in hospitality. Our concierge was a nice lad from Adelaide (see fact #6 above).

We initially started the climb up the mountain but found that as the snow was getting heavier, we didn’t think it was a good survival strategy to find yourself exposed on a Canadian mountain top. So after about a kilometer we decided to turn around and try the low trail into town. Initially it began very well, but as we got about a third of the way in, the trail became very icy and treacherous. As the trail descended from the hotel to the town, this made walking extremely difficult, and deep snow drifts on either side made it almost impossible to walk on the sides of the path away from the ice. Figuring that there must only be a small icy section, otherwise why would the concierge have said this walk was safe (I know, I know, fact #6), we continued on slipping, sliding, scrambling for footing.

After a while it became apparent that the whole trail was ice, and this was really bad news. See, we had descended so far that climbing up an icy path was just not physically possible, and going cross-country to try to find a road seemed an even worse idea. So we had to go on, increasingly concerned about our precarious footing.

Sam and I gave a presentation at the University of Calgary on the 6th of April, before catching a lift with one of their academics up to Banff on the Friday for Twin Peaks. During the trip this academic told us that she had just returned to work after a bad fall on an icy path that had caused significant head injuries and brain trauma. Ice is dangerous.

So, it appears that I slipped on the ice. I say appears because I have no memory or sensation of it. One moment I was standing upright, the next the back of my head was making a weird, wet concussive sound, like punching an uncooked pork roast wrapped in a dripping hessian sack. So there was this sound, pain in the back of my head and I was lying on the ground, wondering at this strange turn of events. How was it possible that I was lying on my back when I had intended to stand up. Who was punching uncooked pork, and why would they do this? Why would you wet it? Why did my head pork-sack hurt?

Now it seemed that this mental investigation of the pork roast pugilist was processed over a long period of time as I calm and rationally went through the options. Then it dawned on me. I had gone ‘guts-up’, ‘arse-over-tit’ etc, the noise was my head hitting the ground and this was the reason that I was lying on the ice.

At the same time sensation returned, there was a loud ringing in my ears, I couldn’t feel my legs and while I could feel my hands there was such an intense tingling in them it overrode my ability to move them. And both my fists were clenched with my arms stiffly extended at about 30 degrees. I was a strange soldier lying at attention, waiting to take orders that never came.

There was obviously a sense of concern, or panic at this. I had played enough sport to know that tingling in your limbs after an upper body trauma was rarely a good thing. Yet there was also another sense. My initial impression was that my body was ‘locked-down’, unable to move, and I had been ejected somewhat from it, and was hovering nearby, looking at the scene somewhat sardonically and saying; “Look what you’ve done here, you big duffer!”

At this time I thought I should tell my colleague that I had fallen and couldn’t seem to move, but try as I might I couldn’t get my mouth to move. I could think the words, send them towards my mouth, but nothing would come out. Or more precisely, my mouth would not move.

When I was a young bloke, I had a job cleaning a school gym at 5am Monday-Thursday. As it was a polished wood floor and had to be cleaned with a mop soaked in turps it needed to be done early so that the smell had dissipated before classes started. I used to get up at 4.30am, run the 5kms there, clean the gym and then wander home. Often when I would get home I’d have an hour or so before I would have to get up to go to uni, so I’d lie on my bed while I waited. Occasionally the strangest thing would happen, I would fall asleep with my eyes open, I’d be conscious but unable to move, a phenomena known as sleep paralysis. I’d know that if I could just move something, a finger, a hand, my leg, I would waken from this trance-like state and return to a more normal consciousness. And this required a sort of triumph of will, as I would try to force movement. And time seemed to move so slowly.

Hovering, sardonic me was remembering sleep paralysis somewhat wistfully, while locked-in me was struggling to will movement, specifically to alert my colleague to my predicament. And finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I was able to make a noise, to break this paralysis, a triumph of the will indeed.

Of course, it really only sounded like a gurgle, and my colleague though it was my death-rattle, so I don’t think he was as pleased as I was. I tried again, and managed a “mmmmmwahawms”, the sound most reminiscent of crossing the 40 marshmallow threshold when playing ‘Fluffy Bunnies’.

Slowly feeling came back into my hands, I could speak again, and was able to sit up while feeling returned to my legs. Then we continued to inch our way down the path and eventually walked into he hospital. Where they charged me $865 for a 30 min hospital visit and $411 for a doctor to give me a concussion test that took 5 minutes before saying I had concussion but could go. Of course, this will be covered by work insurance, so I’m not really complaining.

Now, the point to this blog. Already I am forgetting the event. My experiences and sensations are being replaced by images. I am remembering a non-embodied version of hitting my head (forever known as a pork-sack – thanks @chalkhands), I’ve no doubt that in the last 2-3 days I’ve lost significant affective recollection which was so powerful, so pronounced as I lay there for what seems like an hour, but with my colleague suggested was about 90 seconds. Time, heh?

By writing this down I am creating a form of external memory, what Steigler would call a memory prosthesis:

Derrida’s student, Bernard Stiegler, built on his teacher’s arguments about the supplement, stressing the prosthesis of writing and memory: “What is exceeded is the essential fallibility of a person’s memory that, as living, is mortal; the supplement of writing allows that person to confide the trace of his or her intuitions, which become as a result transmissible, to future generations” (Stiegler 245). Within the concept of the supplement, Stiegler compounds living and dead, interior and exterior. His argument returns to the double nature of prosthesis as extension and amputation when he writes, “the supplement, marking the default of origin, does nothing but try and fill this default in; and yet, in doing so, it can only affirm it as necessary…” (260). Like Derrida, Stiegler does not use the supplement as a device for separating the artificial and the real, but rather as a concept that is inseparable from existence, and in which many seeming oppositions collapse together.

And if I’m honest, I want to remember the strangeness of it all, and this prosthetic amputation/extension will have to do. But it is already unsatisfying, such are words I guess. The event eludes its truth, we remember each event as images haunted by the body.

POSTSCRIPT: I flew home Air Canada and arrived in Brisbane at 8.30am Easter Sunday. During the flight I experienced some mild discomfort behind my left knee. By Tuesday morning, as the pain was getting worse, I took myself off to emergency pretty sure I had developed a DVT. This was confirmed, and I now have a 6 month course of treatment in front of me. The whole experience results in quite complex emotions – the stage shame of the body expressed in a frustration that you can’t just will it to be otherwise. 

On 44

Recently I turned 44. 44 is +2 to the meaning of life.

Perspectively, 44 appears to be a large number, I guess unless you are 44+ in which case it no doubt appears to be a normal or usual number. 44 is not a prime number, neither is it a Platonic number. It is not divisible by 12, so the strange duodecimal cult folks should walk away now. One could cast around for adjectives. Shit seems apropos. But a particularly fragrant attractive shit, not all bad in its affect.

No doubt if you are 80-odd it may be that 44 is a number that you pine for; “I wish I was 44” etc. Numbers are like that, at least constructed numbers are, you have to give them meaning before they do anything meaningful. (Note: I’ve written lots on this in regards to testing, which is never the problem per se, it is always the process of interpretation, generalization, extrapolation which occurs in and through the normative processes of the language that we have). I wrote a book with colleagues which includes what I think is a meaningful approach to the use of those numbers that you can get a sneak peak here.

Anyhoo, I digress. I do this a lot, this is not intended as an academic blog, more a rumination on time and temporality (I also write on that. Some people like it. Some people think I am an idiot. I try to withhold judgement). So today I went to a sport specialist for THE consultation on my right knee. MRIs had been done. Film had been generated. Points of interest/concern had been raised. Hands had been shaked. (I know this should be shaken, but I’m writing for effect here). Lips had been pursed. Before I give you the diagnosis, I’d like to detour a little. But I would like to praise Science, given folks like me are presumed to be anti-Science. Wait for it:

Praise the Lord.

When I was younger, I was quite good at sport. Not super-Olympic-good, but on occasions didn’t look out of place playing with folks who were super-Olympic-good. Now I must give you a warning: the older I get the better I was, so best take what follows with a grain of salt. My main sport was hockey (field hockey to my USA friends) but I also played cricket, water polo and touch football at a reasonable level. I think it is quite hard to describe yourself as a sports person, no doubt we descend into an account of how we want to be seen rather than how we may have appeared to others. Perception is like that, the real exists somewhere beyond our ability to access it.

If I were pushed I would say that I was a strong, aggressive defender (read a guy that has less talent than the strikers and midfielders who waltz their way down the field, twiddling their sticks and getting the oohs and aahs from the crowd, only to be clubbed by a massive Neanderthal before they could score a goal). I mainly got the boos, but folks seemed to like playing with me. I always tried to be the first man back in a breakaway, to cop a body or ball or stick if needed. I wanted to be the guy that you wanted next to you in a trench, a silly idea because sport isn’t war and few things are like trench warfare. None of them are like hockey, yet I was apprentice of the signs (of culture) as Deleuze would say. Still am.

I played a lot, and for a long time. And in that time I picked up my share of injuries; two major ankle injuries (one a full dislocation requiring surgery, there is still free-floating bone masses floating about), around 35 stitches in my head from 6 different incidents of being collected by hockey sticks), three broken fingers and two broken toes. That’s not a bad catalogue, and probably not unusual for many players.

But in 1999 I was playing hockey in Geraldton. I’ll let you do the sums as to how old I was #numeracy. For those of you that don’t know, it is a regional centre about 420ks north of Perth. A fabulous place. It was my first teaching post, I was given a position in 1996 and stayed until the end of 1999. (Young teacher folks who are thinking about a country placement, I recommend it). Anyhow, I played hockey and water polo in the town, played and coached a few teams including their representative teams (Mens/Womens/Juniors) and had lots of fun.

In 1999 the team I coached, Saints, was headed for the title. We were top of the ladder, had won the Challenge (mid-season) Cup, and were playing well. The week before the finals, I was taking a free hit, and tried to pivot on my right leg, but my foot got stuck in the artificial turf. The upshot is that my body turned, and my lower right leg didn’t. I’ve always been a hefty lad, at my fittest my playing weight was 98kgs, so a lot of force traveled down and released itself through my right knee. I still remember the sound, like pulling apart the lamb leg joint in your Sunday roast. Knee trouble, I had dislocated my kneecap. My immediate thought was that someone had snuck up behind me and hit me as hard as they could with their hockey stick across the knee, such was the concussive impact, but when I looked around as I fell to the turf there was no one near me. And the pain… I don’t remember that fondly. Punching the ground waiting for it to go away but it wouldn’t. Wave after wave after wave… each as intense as what had come before.

I had to be stretchered off the ground, the ambulance came, was given one of those awesome green whistles and then was trolleyed off the pitch speaking shit to all the players. Green whistles are like that.

Shoutout to Meggsy if you’re about. The players had to lift me off the ground, Meggsy was holding my right leg (with the dislocation) and decided I was whinging too much so let go. They are pretty hard in the country.

I went and saw the doctor who reminded RICE. Being a diligent soul, I rested, I iced, I compressed, I elevated. I got a blood clot. I was whisked off to hospital, I’ll always remember the surgeon draining 160 mls of blood and detritus ie. little bits of cartilage and bone, from my knee using a massive needle and squirting them out into a kidney shaped dish. Pretty gross. The body fat congealed on the surface of the dish. Remember that you are but dust etc.

I was admitted to St Johns in Geraldton where I spent two weeks unable to move, with a shared room with a man called Bill. Now, Bill was an elderly gent who was suffering from Alzheimers and no doubt some other aliments, I woke fairly regularly to the scream of a nurse as Old Bill thumped her when he was woken up to get his medication in the middle of the night.

Seriously, pay nurses more and value their contribution.

Ultimately, it took 18 months to make a recovery. Incidentally, given the size and danger of the clot, I was getting blood tests and injections that averaged out at every 15 minutes for the first 24 hours. Cured my fear on injections, so wasn’t all bad. The upshot was that I came back and played hockey for another 5 years before retiring and going and playing suburban AFL football for another 3 with the mighty Brentwood Bulldogs. I quit playing team sports when my daughter was born in 2010 and took up swimming, getting 3 State records for my age group. I have always liked sport.

So, to return to the point of the story, today I got my results. I need an immediate operation for cartilage damage, but I have extreme osteoarthritis in my right knee that will mean that I’ll need a knee replacement in the future. How long? Worst case scenario within 5 years, most likely within 15. If I’m lucky I might push it out to 20.

The thing is, I want to go for a run, I want to keep fit, I want to continue to go to the gym and do my squats, deadlifts and powercleans. But most of all I want to be young again, to the extent that it means pre-injured (without the pain of social awkwardness and worry if you would ever lose your virginity). But I also don’t want to be 18 again, the nervousness of feeling alone, the awkwardness of romance, the unsettled politics, the desire for acceptance offset always by the physicality and the possibility. Well, everyone wants to be physically 18 and mentally/emotionally 75; it is an idiot’s game. But I find myself wanting at least some of it.

And I think about Foucault’s notion of the accidents of history, about the dangers of seeing what happens as a logical, linear series judged from the perspective of which you look backwards, or on Deleuze’s notion of what constitutes an event, and I marvel at how we story our lives, our choices, our experiences. Our numbers.

44. What a number.



On ‘The Image of Thought’

A chapter on the emergence of subjectivity (after the heavy history of philosophy of ‘Difference in Itself’)

Remember the motor of Deleuze’s writing is investigating what is the nature of thinking.

Objective misrecognition of difference (history of philosophy) vs the subjective (implicit presuppositions) that shape how we think the world. There are two senses of this dogmatic image: natural and philosophical.

Natural = the set of presuppositions: ‘Everybody knows that…’ the image of thought is in play. Habitual ways of thinking that tend to cliche the world = theater of thinking/the image of thought.

Philosophical = an attack on doxa, cliche, myth, superstition but philosophers have also bought into these cliches at a second, higher level. Philosopher erect from mistakes, everyday slippages to recreate as presuppositions/principle, a rule for thinking as such. Philosophers do this as well, but their second order is extrapolation cloaked within the trappings of a specific language that masks their presuppositions.

We would do better to ask what is a subjective or implicit presupposition: it has the form of ‘Everybody knows…’. Everybody knows, in a pre-philosophical and pre-conceptual manner… everybody knows what it means to think and to be. . . . As a result, when the philosopher says ‘I think therefore I am’, he can assume that the universality of his premises – namely, what it means to be and to think… – will be implicitly understood, and that no one can deny that to doubt is to think, and to think is to be… Everybody knows, no one can deny, is the form of representation and the discourse of the representative. p.130

Genetic character:

  • explain the genesis of the philosophical errors via extrapolation from natural presuppositions. Real meaning of philosophical critique is a critique of tracing.
  • explain the genesis of the natural dogmatic image of thought of the basis of the nature of thinking itself.

Kant: how do we explain how it is that Leibniz came to think as he did? What were his presuppositions? How would we trace this?

Thought does not have a form, a set of quintessential elements that we can lay out.

It would find its difference or its true beginning, not in an agreement with the pre-philosophical Image but in a rigorous struggle against this Image, which it would denounce as non-philosophical. As a result, it would discover its authentic repetition in a thought without Image, even at the cost of the greatest destructions and the greatest demoralisations, and a philosophical obstinacy with no ally but paradox, one which would have to renounce both the form of representation and the element of common sense. As though thought could begin to think, and continually begin again, only when liberated from the Image and its postulates. p.132

The philosopher has to play the role of the idiot, of being uncertain.

On the contrary, it is a question of someone – if only one – with the necessary modesty not managing to know what everybody knows, and modestly denying what everybody is supposed to recognise. Someone who neither allows himself to be represented nor wishes to represent anything. Not an individual endowed with good will and a natural capacity for thought, but an individual full of ill will who does not manage to think, either naturally or conceptually. Only such an individual is without  presuppositions. Only such an individual effectively begins and effectively repeats. For this individual the subjective presuppositions are no less prejudices than the objective presuppositions. p.130

Eight postulates of the image of thought*. Postulates are not propositions, they are “propositional themes that remind implicit and are understood in a pre-philosophical manner” p.131

  1. The Postulate of the Principle, or the Cogitatio natural universalis: (The good will of the thinker and the good nature of thought.) Postulate 1: The element of the thought, the good will of the thinker and the good nature of thought. Thought naturally seeks the truth. Belief that everyone can think, and it is natural to think. This is a natural postulate. (False)
  2. The Postulate of the Ideal, or Common Sense: (Common sense as the concordia facultatum and good sense as the distribution that guarantees this accord.) Postulate 2 of common sense: the harmonious activity of faculties in thought. Indebted to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. a) capacity (powers) in thought b) plural and different in kind remembering, speaking, knowing, understanding etc c) together constitutive of experience and knowledge (recognition) d) necessarily in relation to an encounter with reality that knowledge comes to be. (False)
  3. The Postulate of the Model, or of Recognition: (Recognition presupposes the harmonious exercise of our faculties on an object that is supposedly identical for each of these faculties, and the consequent possibility of error in the distribution when one faculty confuses one of its objects with a different object of another faculty.)
  4. The Postulate of the Element, or Representation: (Difference is subordinated to the complementary dimensions of the Same and the Similar, the Analogous and the Opposed.) Counter-Postulate of Involuntary Thought/Fourth postulate: the element of representation – Differential theory of the faculties – The discordant functioning of the faculties: the violence and limits of each – Ambiguity of Platonism – Thinking: its genesis in thought
    • Thought happens in us because something happens to us. Something in the world forces us to think.”

All truths of that kind are hypothetical, since they presuppose all that is in question and are incapable of giving birth in thought to the act of thinking. In fact, concepts only ever designate possibilities. They lack the claws of absolute necessity – in other words, of an original violence inflicted upon thought; the claws of a strangeness or an enmity which alone would awaken thought from its natural stupor or eternal possibility: there is only involuntary thought, aroused but constrained within thought, and all the more absolutely necessary for being born, illegitimately, of fortuitousness in the world. Thought is primarily trespass and violence, the enemy, and nothing presupposes philosophy: everything begins with misosophy. Do not count upon thought to ensure the relative necessity of what it thinks. Rather, count upon the contingency of an encounter with that which forces thought to raise up and educate the absolute necessity of an act of thought or a passion to think.” p.139

“Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. What is encountered may be Socrates, a temple or a demon. It may be grasped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering. In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived.” p.139

  • The first faculty…
  • faculties in their transcendent-transcendental operation. Thought is a shock. It is monomaniacal rather than harmonious. It cannot be characterised as recognition, because we can’t recognise the world. Kant was the first to provide an example of the ‘discordant harmony’ between the faculties p.146. It manages to push around the other faculties, another shock to other ways of thinking. e) the genesis of the faculties, how is it that a certain capacity fro thought arise in the first place.
  1. The Postulate of the Negative, or of Error: (Error expresses everything that can go wrong in thought, but only as a product of external ) Only extrinsic factors can result in ‘wrong’ thoughts -> Descartes Kant=reason itself wanders off the path, nothing stops it doing this illusion is always available for thought.
    • Two locations in D&R (not the same stupidity)
      • The true form of the negative in thought: thought’s absence
      • as thought’s original state: thought has no nature, but begins through a sensible encounter of shock.
    • Madness
  2. The Postulate of the Logical Function, or the Proposition: (Designation or Denotation [theory of reference] is taken to be the locus of truth, sense being no more than a neutralized double or the infinite doubling of the proposition.) Sixth postulate: the privilege of designation – Sense and proposition – The paradoxes of sense – Sense and problem –
    • in propositional terms (according to the image), though is propositional in nature: S is P
    • Questions are taken as inversions of propositions: Is S P?
    • the proposed essential solvability of questions…
    • true and false are defined in terms of…
    • This image of thought structures our relation to society.
  1. The Postulate of the Modality, or Solutions: (Problems are materially traced from propositions, or are formally defined by the possibility of their being solved.)
  2. The Postulate of the End or the Result, or the Postulate of Knowledge: (The subordination of learning to knowledge, and of culture [or paideia] to method.)
    • There is a natural method for proceeding to truth. BUT
    • There is no such thing as method, thought is socially formed. Thinking is organized socio-politically.
    • What is the status of learning? Is learning the passage from non-knowledge to knowledge? No. It is not a voluntary act. We are apprentices, every shock that we encounter. The apprenticeship is never finished. We can’t think about learning to think as passing from one lesser state to a more advanced sense. Genuine learning is an encounter with problems that grip us.


* I am indebted to this post by John Protevi that helped me organize these postulates as the lecture by Jon Roffe moved very quickly. His notes are well worth a read.




This week I am attending a ‘summer school’ organised by the Queensland School of Continental philosophy focusing on one of the more complex philosophical texts of the 21st century, Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. The course is run by Dr Jon Roffe, a philosopher currently plying his trade at UNSW. The summer school consists of 5 x 2 hour presentations run at night at Griffith University. Each 2 hour presentation aims to focus on one specific chapter or section of the book. My plan is to use this blog as a place to rewrite my notes, and then come back to them and slowly work them up to more intelligible posts. I expect that this will take a few weeks, this is a complex book that ranges across the history of Western philosophy and asks a pretty intriguing question: how can we think of difference in itself, without recourse to what Deleuze calls the four mediations of aspects to ‘reason’ which function to affect representation:

identity, in the form of the undetermined concept; analogy, in the relation between ultimate determinable concepts; opposition, in the relation between determinations within concepts; resemblance, in the determined object of the concept itself. These forms are like the four heads or the four shackles of mediation p.29

The first session, which focuses on Chapter 1: Difference in Itself can be found here.

The second session, which focuses on Chapter X: The Image of Thought, can be found here.

On ‘Difference in Itself’

Difference and Repetition was Deleuze’s PhD thesis that he completed in 1968 but only defended in 1969 due to a recurrence of tuberculosis that was to effect him for his life.

The book is structured around four distinct, yet related aims.

  1. To read the history of philosophy from the point of view of difference
    1. What do philosophers make of difference?
    2. What does their use of difference allow us to think?
    3. It is a woven text, pulling threads out of the history of philosopher and then stitching them together.
  2. To effect a critical reconstruction
    1. Difference is always thought in relation to identity
    2. Repetition is understood as the repetition of the Same
    3. But for Deleuze, there are profound meanings hidden beneath these superficial assumptions. He wants to critique the subordination of difference to identity in the form of the concept. Through this critique, Deleuze wants to construct a new concept of repetition, the condition for our everyday selves.
  3. This new concept of difference, or difference-in-itself, is what Deleuze calls Being. The new conception of repetition is time. Thus, the book may be considered to be a radical conception of Being IN Time, an obvious play on Heidegger’s Zeit and Zine (assuming Deleuze was across Heidegger in 1968, something that was discussed after the lecture).
  4. Finally, it is important to think about the structure and style of the book. I’ll finish this later, perhaps with a rumination on free, indirect discourse (like Joyce) and the insistence on philosophy as storytelling.

Kant and the critique of representation

Deleuze is writing the book as a critique of the concept of representation that he finds in Kant, typical of what he sees as the problem of Western philosophy, namely the subordination of difference to identity. These problems are constructed in 4 distinct ways:

  1. Instead of a concept of difference, we get conceptual difference, or differences based on comparisons of form and identity.
  2. The phenomenological reduction of perceptions to the primacy of similarity based on experience.
  3. The difference between kinds of things (the category of being) where existence is always relative to a higher concept such as the form of analogy so common in philosophy.
  4. The logical register, or the opposition of predicates (such as the predicate fly/don’t fly logically extended to birds to indicate comparative difference.

The ‘I think’ is the most general principle of representation – in other words, the source of these elements and of the unity of all these faculties: I conceive, I judge, I imagine, I remember and I perceive – as though these were the four branches of the Cogito. On precisely these branches, difference is crucified. They form quadripartite fetters under which only that which is identical, similar, analogous or opposed can be considered different: difference becomes an object of representation always in relation to a conceived identity a judged analogy, an imagined opposition or a perceived similitude. Under these four coincident figures, difference acquires a sufficient reason in the form of a principium comparationis. For this reason, the world of representation is characterised by its inability to conceive of difference in itself; and by the same token, its inability to conceive of repetition for itself, since the latter is grasped only by means of recognition, distribution, reproduction and resemblance in so far as these alienate the prefix RE in simple generalities of representation. The postulate of recognition was therefore a first step towards a much more general postulate of representation. p.138

The journey that Deleuze takes us on leads us through Aristotle, Hegel, Leibniz, Duns Scotus, Spinoza and Plato. All in the first chapter (as I said, it isn’t an easy read) to arrive at the argument that to understand difference as difference-in-itself we need to understand that Being is time, whereby atemporality (in the guise of the Creator who sits outside time) is no longer available. Reality is produced without reference to a higher ideal, there is only time, dynamism and eternal return. Reality, for Deleuze, is the reality of impermanence, and as a metaphysician the absolute is impermanence.

On Nietzsche and changing your mind

Social media is a space where we are often encouraged to ‘change our mind’ about beliefs that we may have had for some time. This can be through the exposure to new ways of thinking, new perspectives or evidence that we had not seen before, sadly it can all too often be encouragement through ridicule or the strange pile-on effect of a virtual tribalism. ‘Changing your mind’ has, it seems, become something of a virtue, I daresay we respond favourably to those who change their mind where that change agrees with what we think, and unfavourably to those who used to agree with us. Such is the nature of tribalism I guess, and if social media has been good at anything it has certainly been good at allowing people to find a tribe, and through that tribe to find or accentuate their voice. Of course the flipside to this tribalism is that honest conversations appear to be getting increasingly difficult, perhaps as is changing your mind, the dialectical exchange seems to be most difficult on platforms like Twitter. Where divergent views are shared and discussed, a conversation that doesn’t descend into vitriol elicits a congratulatory affirmation these days, so unusual it has become. But I digress, this isn’t a blog about Twitter, it is actually a blog about PISA.

Currently, online conversations about changing our mind are predicated on a theory of rationale choice. Opinion/evidence is presented, rumination and perhaps discussion ensues, we make a rationale choice to change our opinions and step towards the light as Plato would have it (even if it required a little coercion). I’ve seen a lot of this on edu-twitter, and no doubt been a part of it, the motivation seems to be that wrong thinking (being irrational from a particular viewpoint) requires a bit of tough love to turn us away from the shadows projected in the cave to see the real world waiting for us outside. Which is OK as long as we are the ones giving and not receiving the tough love I guess.

So I’ve been wondering about this phenomena for some time, and wondering why this perspectival rationality bugs me so much. It may be because it appears that the loudest, rather then the most reflective, voices win the day. Or it could be because I keep looking at a world that I clearly don’t understand, and remain worried about disaster.

Importantly, while we often define disaster as calamity or devastation, etymologically speaking it conceals another meaning. Disaster = no star to guide us. Now, while there may be many ways to think through what the absence of a star to guide us might mean, I think the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche is particularly useful.


Nietzsche (for those who don’t know) was a German philosopher who lived from 1844-1900. He infamously died bereft of his mental faculties, allegedly as a result of tertiary syphilis, although there is a view that this could have been a complete mental breakdown. While there is so much written about Nietzsche and his work that it is pointless trying to represent it, for this blog the important move of Nietzsche was his famous pronouncement of the death of God in his book The Gay Science. While this has often been taking to be a triumphant announcement in that Enlightenment tradition of an end of mythology and superstition, I think for Nietzsche this recognition called forth a deep mourning for the loss of that certainty that a celestial creator provides as the foundation for a sense of identity and the coherence of the world. Perhaps this explains Nietzsche’s famous quote “there are no facts, only interpretations” (Notebooks Summer 1886 – Fall 1887). This has been taken to mean many things, but I like the argument that it isn’t as important to understand how the world works, or to be rational as measured against a series of pre-existing norms as much as it is to find an interpretation that works for us. Of course this necessarily causes us some problems that I confess I don’t have the answers too, not least what we do about morality?

To return to the point about changing our minds (and in this section I am heavily indebted to the work of Daniel Smith, particularly his essay Klossowski’s Reading of Nietzsche: Impulses, Phantasms, Simulacra, Stereotypes) the death of God destroys the link to individuality as a rational expresser of that which is atemporal, in other words, that sits outside of time and/or experience. For Nietzsche, it is our impulses or drives that interpret the world, what we consider to be the soul is no more than “a vast confusion of contradictory desires”. This is what Nietzsche means when he says we are not individuals but multiplicities. (As a side-note I remain fascinated at the similarities and differences in Nietzsche’s philosophy and recent work in psychology and AI around free will, consciousness and reality. I hope to investigate this one day.)

As Smith outlines, “within ourselves we can be egoistic or altruistic, hard-hearted, magnanimous, just, lenient, insincere, can cause pain or give pleasure”. Each of these impulses is, for Nietzsche, motivated by an internal will to power.

Every drive is a kind of lust to rule, each one has its own perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm (Will to Power, 267).

When we are talking about the ‘I’, the rational self or our self-identity, we are really indicating which drive is in the ascendant within that multiplicity contained within us, that particular drive which is “strongest and sovereign” within us at that time. What we call our reason is, for Nietzsche, the system of relations of our passions or drives. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Something that you formally loved as a truth or probability now strikes you as an error, so you cast it off and fancy that it represents a victory for your reason… Perhaps this error was necessary for you then, when you were a different person – you always are a different person – as are all your present ‘truths’… What killed that opinion for you was your new life [that is, a new impulse] and not your reason: you no longer need it, and now it collapses and unreason crawls out of it into the light like a worm, When we criticize something, this is no arbitrary and impersonal event; it is, at least very often, evidence of vital energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin. We negate and must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm – something that we perhaps do not know or see as yet. (pp.245-6)

So, dear reader, what is the point of this blog? It is certainly not to throw scorn at people who change their mind. I do suspect that there is a drive within me to present alternate views that describe what this thing called the human condition may mean at this point in time that have no recourse to religion or rationality. I also suspect that I have become troubled by my stance on testing, its usefulness, what could be done. For those of you who don’t know, PISA results were released last night and Australia’s results have declined yet again. I find I have no stomach for the polarised debates that fill my time line. Something is going on, but I fear that we are no closer to finding out what it is, indeed even understanding how it is that this continues. In Australia, student results have declined in each test domain (reading, mathematics and science) in each test since 2000. It seems to me that with each iteration of the test the public responses that we read, that inform our opinions, have become either stultifyingly formulaic or dare I say it, stupider. We still don’t know why Australia did well in 2000 and 2003, yet find ourselves wanting to recreate a past that we’ve never understood! Such is the way of idiocy I suspect. I find myself angry, and frustrated, and wonder if I am casting off something that I formally loved, and felt was necessary, and am perhaps mourning what it is that has been killed.

What is this new life? And this feeling of being adrift, dear reader? I cannot tell…

If the point of this blog is about staring into the abyss, I hope you’ll forgive me what might appear to be a self-indulgent contribution. Thanks for playing along.


Christ Stopped at Eboli

In my youth I did many things. I expect this is true for all of us, I’ve no doubt that my many things are neither unique, original nor noteworthy.

However, one of the things that I did that I find myself increasingly returning to is my undergraduate studies, a bit of a surprise as they began 27 years ago at the University of Western Australia. To be honest after qualification I tended to put them to work in an applied way as a teacher of History and Literature and perhaps lost touch with the ideas and the concepts themselves. I suppose like many people, the transition from Year 12 to university was a bit of a shock. At school I’d done quite well studying Trigonometry and Calculus (Maths II), Probability and Statistics (Maths III), Physics, Chemistry, English Literature and History. When I went to university, my initial plan was to do 12 months of an Arts degree and then transfer into Law (back in those days at UWA there was no direct entrance to Law from Year 12, everyone had to do a year in another course and then apply for Law which used a competitive selection system based on 1st Year results). Of course, having this somewhat idealised view of what lawyers actually do which was more Perry Mason than contract paperwork, I found that I hated Law, loved Arts and returned to complete my BA.

When I returned, I had a decision to make about my ‘Major’ between three subjects that I really liked; History, English Literature and Philosophy. In the end I decided to pursue History with a focus on Europe from the Industrial Revolution to the present (sometimes called late modern European history) as I thought it would best integrate my love for Victorian Literature and Continental Philosophy as my Minor areas of study. Heidegger, Ford Maddox Ford and German unification. What a win! I graduated with an Honours in History from UWA. My thesis examined the suppression of the Catholic Church in Poland under Nazi occupation and how this was different to what happened in Italy under Mussolini.

The end result of my choices was a (somewhat forgotten) fascination with the history and philosophy of fascism, covering not just the German experience, but Spain, Italy, Hungary, England (the list could go on) and the abhorrent things that were done through the authorisation of a particular set of political philosophies. I was also amazed to discover that in 1930s Australia there was a proto-fascist group called the New Guard. Whilst fascist movements seizing political power might be relatively uncommon post-WWII, fascism itself is relatively common, and this continues to this day.

One debate that fascinated me was the distinction between Nazism and fascism. For example, if we were to compare Italian fascism and Nazism, we would find many similarities but marked differences in relation to theories of race, Anti-Semitism, corporatism and foreign policy. While Nazism is a particular version of fascism, not all fascisms are Nazisms. This is a distinction that is often lost in our contemporary debates, fascism and Nazism have become conflated in how we talk about political philosophy or various groups and movements. I would argue that it is possible to identify fascist movements, and call them such, without having to defend the point that they are versions of Hitler. At UWA the Head of School of History, Professor Richard Bosworth  argued that it was the Italian version of fascism as practiced by Mussolini that represented the purest form of the political philosophy.

One of the books we were asked to read was Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir written by Carlo Levi who was exiled to a remote part of Southern Italy by the fascists in the 1930s because of his political allegiances. The title refers to a common saying amongst the peasants that even Christ stopped before he got to Eboli. This area had been bypassed by Christianity, by modernity, even by politics to an extent. There is a scene where the narrator is astounded to find that there is almost no care, no positive or negative response, to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia because it did not matter to the villagers of Grassano and Gagliano. It was not a part of their world. However, at the end of the book, the narrator realises that 14 years of fascist rule had impacted how they thought about the world. As cut off as they were, they couldn’t avoid the logic of a fascist utopia in how they understood the future, and that this utopia was necessarily for and about them.

At bottom, as I now perceived, they were all unconscious worshipers of the State. Whether the State they worshiped was the Fascist State or the incarnation of quite another dream, they thought of it as something that transcended both its citizens and their lives. Whether it was tyrannical or paternalistic, dictatorial or democratic, it remained to them monolithic, centralized, and remote. This was why the political leaders and my peasants could never understand one another. The politicians oversimplified things, even while they clothed them in philosophical expressions. Their solutions were abstract and far removed from reality; they were schematic halfway measures, which were already out of date. Fifteen years of Fascism had erased the problem of the South from their minds and if now they thought of it again they saw it only as a part of some other difficulty, through the fictitious generalities of party and class and even race. Some saw it as a purely technical and economic matter. They spoke of public works, industrialization, and domestic absorption of the plethora of would-be emigrants, or else they resurrected the old Socialist slogan of “making Italy over.” Others saw the South burdened with an unfortunate historical heredity, a tradition of enslavement to the Bourbons which liberal democracy might little by little relieve. Some said that the question of the South was just one more case of capitalist oppression, which only rule by the proletariat could supplant. Others spoke of inherent racial inferiority, considering the South a dead weight on the economy of the North, and studied possible measures to be taken by the government to remedy this sad state of things. All of them agreed that the State should do something about it, something concretely useful, and beneficent, and legislative, and they were shocked when I told them that the State, as they conceived it, was the greatest obstacle to the accomplishment of anything. The State, I said, cannot solve the problem of the South, because the problem which we call by this name is none other than the problem of the State itself. There will always be an abyss between the State and the peasants, whether the State be Fascist, Liberal, Socialist or take on some new form in which the middle-class bureaucracy still survives.

What’s the point of all this? Probably two points. The first is that recently I’ve read so much about fascism/Nazism online in a series of debates about education that I think it is worthwhile contributing to this by adding a series of blogposts that carefully frame what fascism is to inform debate. I don’t agree with Godwin’s law that saying ‘fascism’ means that you’ve lost an argument so it should never happen (which is not what Godwin suggests but is certainly how it is applied in various social media forums). In our current political climate, I think it is more important that we can call out fascist thought and action where it can be justified (but I do acknowledge the point that it often used unwisely and indiscriminately as a form of ad hominem argument and this detracts from the ability to criticise what actually should be called out as fascism).

Second, with PISA results being released tomorrow, I wonder how we think about what the tests can do, why we rarely seem to direct acrimony and/or praise to the bureaucracies and the enabling conditions for education practice. I also wonder what is it that we think education policy can actually do, and whether or not the 15 years of PISA testing, to paraphrase Levy, have erased the problem of disadvantage so that we only see education as a technical and economic matter. Of course, the morality of efficiency, in regards to learning, achievement and a techno-rationalist belief in the purity of data remains hard to break. I wonder if we are really interested in taking this on, or whether being happy to vent on social media will forever be enough.

For my next post, I want to suggest Umberto Eco’s characteristics of ur-fascism as a heuristic for defining fascism. Thanks for playing along.