HERVE VARENNE

Work in process as of 2013

 

These are drafts and fragments towards one book exploring further the approach to education that I have sketched in my recent papers (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). These explored some of the issues left implicit in the earlier Successful Failure (with R.P. McDermott, 1998).

 


From 2007

At one point, I imagined a book that might have been titled Agents of America and would have played with notions of 'agency' given that most of us, in what way or another, to a greater or lesser event, in certain parts of our life at least, as, also always, "agents" of the State coopted and coopting in patterns that may disable, whatever our private beliefs or cognitions.

This is the basic argument of the paper "Culture as disability" (with R.P. McDermott, 1995). The title of this paper, however, somewhat hides the argument. The issue is not (dis-) ability. It is the identification of the person as (dis-)abled and the opportunities opened or closed to make the (dis-) ability (un-)consequential for various purposes.

Much of the ‘critical' research on the social construction of disabilities has emphasized the process whereby inabilities are handicapped to become disabilities. I am more interested in the reverse, that is the way inabilities are handicapped to become abilities–for example how the inability to read through the relative automatic processes of early childhood become an ‘ability' through various activities that propel someone as "knowing how to read for certain intent and purposes" (I am trying to capture here that none of us ever fully reach ‘learning how to read' everything and in all ways). Indeed I am even more concerned with the entry into more complex statuses: from that of teenager, to that of grandparent, or to that of teacher, or psychiatrist, etc.

This concern with ‘getting to be known as', say, 'a teacher' (not to mention a ‘good' or ‘experienced' teacher), explains my interest in "communities of practice" (Wenger 1998) and "legitimate peripheral and full participation" in these communities (Lave and Wenger 1991). But, as I explore it in one of these fragments (1999), I want to push these theories so that they start, and end, with ignorance rather than learning. What if "learning how to ..." was really, at first if not for the whole time, "passing as ..." carried onward by the trust that those who place you in a particular position (community of practice) have in your legitimacy. "Knowing" in that sense would become a by-product of participation (and the Peter principle a fundamental one).

This concern with passing explains my interest in ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967), particularly in its "structuralist" (rather than interactionist) interpretation (Hilbert 1992). If the enabling community comes first, then we must possess powerful analyses of these communities and particularly of the remnants of earlier constitutive practices.

Together, these concerns leads me to wonder about the "agents" who are given the authority to sanction with consequences as they participate.

This, in turn explains my continued interest in theories of ‘America' as a historical culture, a dominating, hegemonic, and still quite ‘live' fact for all those who are caught within its processes, whether as peripheral or full participants. The lectures at Beijing Normal University (2001), as well as the Emory lecture (2000), thus develop Chapter VIII in Successful Failure.

February 5, 2013