Selves, sounds, containers, and Neo’s cat


Reflecting on my observations in the reception class (read more about my field study here), I come to think about the pupils and their struggles to come to some kind of grasps with what is expected from them. It’s evident that in this specific context, there are some adults that are trying to make them understand what to do, when and how, but it is not at all evident that the pupils manage to comply. This is probably at play to some extend in a standard class – indeed probably in all social contexts – but it’s my impression that it is very acute in the reception class.

I am thinking about this problem of someone not doing what is expected, and I want to expand on it by drawing on the metaphor of the container. I am not sure, where this text will bring me, but let’s jump right into it, shall we?

In a standard class, composed mostly by kids who have grown up in Denmark, and who therefore probably have a rather clear image about what it means to go to school ‘the Danish way’, when a kid is not doing what is expected, it can probably in most cases be boiled down to a matter of either not being able or not willing to comply. In most cases, I guess that what is being expected is rather clear to everyone involved. To me, a useful way of thinking about these things is to think about them in terms of a game. In the standard class, everyone knows the rules of the game, but each participant play the game more or less well, and with more or less commitment. In the reception class, maybe a lot of what is going on is that the participants think they know the rules of the game, but in actuality, they are playing different games with different sets of rules.

A way to approach this is through Wenger’s theory of legitimate peripheral participation. This is a theory that makes a connection between ‘learning’ and ‘sociality’, and the key idea is that ‘learning’ takes place in an individual in his/her process of becoming a part of the given ‘sociality’. Learning, and in extension establishing social – and I would also add emotional – relations with others, happens, in Wenger’s optics, as you are approaching some kind of social center. In this way, learning and being social are two interdependent parts of the same process, and this process has a clear direction: towards the (social) center.

I think Wenger’s theory can be very useful in describing the processes that are going on in the standard classroom, and to some extend in the reception class as well. The thing about the reception class is that new pupils are starting all the time. In the class I am studying, at my arrival, there were thus 3 new pupils who had started the week before. That is two weeks ago. A new pupil is going to start next week. It would obviously be interesting to ask what happens in these pupil’s process of becoming part of the sociality of the class, and – in extension – acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to be part of a Danish school class.

These are very relevant perspectives, and they are also very useful when it comes to questions like policy making, pedagogy etc. The people involved in the organisation and decision making around the reception class, understood as an institution, of course need knowledge about the processes through which an ‘input’ – in the form of the not-yet competent child – can be transformed into an expected ‘output’ – the pupil who is ready to take part in a standard class.

One of the core elements of Wenger’s theory is the idea of the negotiation of meaning. In the process of ‘approaching the center’, so to speak, the participants are trying to come to some kind of common understanding of what is going on. Returning to the idea of a game, I would translate this into to a process where the participants are negotiating, first, which game their are playing; then they are coming to some kind of agreement about the how the rules of this game should be; finally, they ‘play ‘the game, which entails a whole range of instances of negotiating who breached which rules, in what way, at the expense of whom, etc. This is of course a simplification, and the process is not to be understood as sequential and linear as my description might suggest.

There is a lot more to Wenger’s theory and I might have gotten it all wrong, but nonetheless, if we stick to the idea of school as some kind of game that everyone involved is somehow playing, what is relevant to ask is what this specific activity of ‘playing’ school, Danish style, involves.

In order participate in the game, ‘playing school’, one has to accept the idea of a self, of an individual, and that this self or individual is somehow contained inside a recipient, a body. When ‘playing school’, one will understand that this container, the body with a self inside, is expected to be in certain places, to take certain postures and perform certain movements at certain times and in certain spaces. The default situation is one where the container is kept still and quiet on a chair. (Steen Nepper Larsen writes about this in this article , in Danish, from 2001). Furthermore, if one is joining the game of ‘playing school’, and one is doing it according to the rules, one must accept the idea that the recipient, that contains one’s ‘self’, also is a place that contains a processing device, called a brain, and that this processing device can store what is called knowledge and competences. In other words, one of the goals of the ‘game of school’ is to accumulate knowledge and competences in the individual pupil. According to this logic, the pupil starts out as an empty recepient, and the role of the teacher is to fill up this empty recipient, so that when the pupil leaves school, he or she can be considered a fully competent citizen, ready to be ‘a part of society’.

I want to make clear that what I am saying here is not meant as a critique of the school or the teachers. Rather, I am trying to put words to an analysis based on how people in and around the school talk about and act out the processes through which an ‘individual’ is being ‘educated’.

The idea of the self as a container and schooling as a process of filling up this container with knowledge and competencies is very far from Wenger’s ideology of learning. Indeed, he would probably argue that this ‘container pedagogy’, as we might call it, does not result in learning, at least not in the sense that he understands it. If there is any kind of ‘real’ learning, taking place, Wenger would probably argue  that it is not because, but in spite of this pedagogy. However if we see the school through another of Wenger’s central terms, as a community of practice, what this specific community of practice is common about practicing is indeed a pedagogy of filling up containers. This is the game that the participants play, and excelling in this game means doing what’s expected. Doing what’s expected means putting ‘your’ container at the right place at the right time, and controlling what comes in, in the form of images, words etc., and out, in the form of sounds, movements etc., in the expected way. Mastering these competencies is embedded in the social fabric of the school class and its participants, and in this way, Wenger’s theory of legitimate peripheral participation is quite apt for describing what is going on. In spite of it self, so to speak.

What I am trying to get at is that although Wenger himself seems to value certain forms of learning over others, his theory of centrality appears to to be useful in any kind of situation, where there is an institution, – ie. a school or an organisation –  in which people are supposed to do certain things. In any institution, the logic of the institution seems to be embedded in the social fabric of the institution itself. Therefore, doing what’s expected will provide you with access to centrality, which means access to social accept, recognition, prestige, etc., as well as to resources, in the form of time, space, money, food, etc.

To sum it up, what I am trying to do here is to describe what I see as a certain logic going on in the Danish way of schooling (and elsewhere). Being a part of the institution of the school implies taking part in a certain game, where a certain idea of the individual and of learning is being played out. You might understand the rules of the game or not. You might accept them or not. You might play the game with more or less excellence. In whichever case you do not have a choice other than being a part of it.

These processes of acceptance, participation, excellence, etc. are rather easy to identify. The people involved are talking about them, and acting and reacting according to them all the time. This is what’s on the agenda of the meetings between teachers, and with school management, with the parents, etc. The pupils who seem not to understand what the rules of the game are, will have to eventually learn them. If this doesn’t happen, it’s because something’s wrong with them, and ‘a diagnosis’ is called for. For those who do seem know the rules, but nevertheless break them, some kind of correctional processes is needed. If this doesn’t help, a psychologist is called for, and in the final ressort, there’s the possibility of expelling the pupil.

These processes are rather commonplace, and a lot can be said, and has been said, not only about what is going on, but also about how the actions involved are reproducing certain forms of power relations, etc.

What I am interested in, and what I am trying to put into words here, has to do with situations in which someone not only does not understand or accept the rules of the game, but where they seem not to have any clue whatsoever as to what is going on. It seems to me that something along these lines is going on for at least some of the pupils in the reception class. And I am wondering if studying these things can help us understand things, among those who do understand and even accept, and maybe support the game, but where there is still some kind of struggle going on.

I think it makes sense to talk about the self as a container as a construction. This implies that other constructions might have been possible. I guess that at this place a full blown scholar would refer to Anthropology as a discipline that confirms this, and he or she would start talking about ‘other possible ontologies’. Or, as Tim Ingold says: “No way of being is the only possible one, and for every way we find or resolve to take, alternative ways could be taken that lead in different directions” (in this talk).  I suppose it also makes sense to talk about the process through which one is gradually becoming a part of the logic of the self as a container as a construction. In other words, the (individual) ‘development’ from a (non-competent, empty) child to an adult, who competently manages the logic of the self as a container, or – in Wenger’s terms, from a peripheral learner to a fully competent central actor – is not a development that can be expected to happen naturally in anyone, anywhere. Learning to act according to the logic of the self as a container is also a construction. This process is what a scholar would maybe talk about as a process of civilizing.

There are a lot of things that can be said about these processes, and a lot of critique can be raised about coercion and the relations of power that they engender. There are, however, questions that I can’t find the answer for, when reading these theories. Maybe I haven’t read enough, yet. Maybe Tim Ingold can help me find an answer. I just stumbled across his name in a text i read a few days ago, and for now, my access to Ingold’s thoughts is via videos on YouTube, – and there are many! What I am struggling with has to do with this: One thing is the children in the reception class who seem to be more or less clueless as to which ‘game’ everyone is playing. Maybe this is somehow because they have a ‘theory of self’ which is different from the one that is embedded in the institution. This is one thing.  Another thing is the ones who are seemingly playing the game of the self as a container, and playing it ‘well’. It seems to me that even though people are talking about what they are doing in a way that confirms the idea of the self as a container, and even though their words and actions succeed in reproducing this logic, there are still a lot of things going on in and around them that somehow doesn’t fit in. Even for people themselves.

This sounds very abstract, and I would like to try to concretize it more, by bringing in the question of sound. First, however, I think it makes sense to develop a little more on the notion of the self as a container, or rather: alternatives to it. In the talk I am watching on, Tim Ingold is talking about the Inuits and their notion of the soul. In the Inuit language, the word ‘inuit’ is the plural form of the word inuq, which – according to Ingold – means soul. I actually thought ‘inuit’ meant people, so this was new to me. So what does the plural form actually mean? Literally it would translate into ‘souls’. In the way the word is being used, it is often used as an addition to a word for a geographic place, in a way that could be translated as ‘soul life going on in [name of the place]’. Ingold’s point is that for the Inuit it doesn’t make sense to think about the notion of ‘soul life’ the way we usually would in a Western logic, as an accumulation of individual ‘souls’. Here, Ingold goes on to discuss some very complicated things about the relation between part and whole, and I won’t go more into this for now, mainly because it’s too abstract for me. What I do find useful in Ingold’s talk at this place is when he talks about the way the Inuit understand the ‘life of the soul’, as Ingold puts it, which I guess could be corresponding to the Western notion of ‘the self’, or maybe ‘personhood’. For the Inuit, Ingold says, “children are animated by the soul of their grandparents”. This means that adults tend to treat the children with the same kind of reverence that they would treat their parents. It also means, that “….The idea of ‘early years’, as though children were closer to some imaginary point of origin in the process of socialisation therefore makes absolutely no sense. Everyone at any moment is both older and younger than themselves”. (Here)

It seams that my text at this point would take us to a kind of logic where I now start talking about the implications of what we might call the Inuit conception of the self, when compared to what I have described as a conception of the self as a container. Indeed, an pedagogy build on an Inuit conception of self would be completely different, since a pupil, or a ‘life soul’ would not be seen as an empty container to fill up, but rather, maybe, as something that could contribute with something valuable, in and of itself.

It would be really interesting to go more in depth with this thought. For now i will leave it as it is, and instead  I would like to develop more on my probably not so clear ideas about ‘what doesn’t fit in’. I don’t think that an Inuit conception of the self  is necessarily better than the container conception of the self. Maybe Ingold does. That’s not so much my point anyhow. What interests me here has to do with the way, a conception of self is being played out, whether by Inuits or Westeners. All this talk about soul, life souls and soul life, is maybe making the whole thing sound all religious and metaphysical. This is probably also the way people in general would think when they hear about ‘primitive people’s beliefs’. For us, the Inuit’s are ‘believing’ that souls are ‘reincarnated’ between generations. Our own conceptions of the self, the ego, etc., on the contrary, are – as we see it – based on hard core science. Therefore, in our understanding, when they believe, we know. As I have mentioned above, to me, it is clear that our ideas about the self are constructions, and they are appearing to be real and true, because we have been confirming them over and over again so many times. In this sense, I think that our conception of the self is not less a matter of believe than the Inuit’s notion of a life soul. And conversely, the Inuit’s notion of a life soul is just as ‘scientific’ as our conception of the self. If what I just wrote makes sense, then it would also make sense to say that in the case of the conception of the self I am talking about here as ‘the self as a container’, not only can it be transformed into other conceptions of self, like for instance one that would resemble the Inuit version, and vice versa, but it also means that neither the Western nor the Inuit conception is necessarily better, more true or more real than the other. This is the ‘classical’ social constructivist description, and it helps me getting me somewhat further. However, something’s missing. I guess it lays somehow in the notion of a construction,  which for me denotes something that is already done and packaged. As if people were actually a 100 % into the construction they are living by, once they have been socialised into it, and that’s it. In the case of the construction of the self as a container, my intuition is that the people, I am observing in and around the reception class, although they are seemingly completely immersed in the ‘playing school’, in the container-self fashion, a lot of things are going on that seem to point to other conceptions of self, that are spilling over, so to speak, through cracks and fissures in the surfaces of the containers.

So how to dig deeper into these cracks and fissures, through which other conceptions of self are spilling over? I want to try out a model for thinking about these things, that I draw from a commonly tapped source, before I dig into the question of sound.

In The Matrix, there is a scene where Neo is for the first time part of the team of whatever they call themselves, and they are back in the ‘real world’, which is actually a computer generated virtual world. In this scene, the team is inside a building, and Neo sees a black cat, crossing in a hallway. A moment later, he looks back, and sees the exact same cat doing the exact same movements. He mentions this to a fellow team mate, who gets alarmed and starts shouting out orders. A moment later, all the exits of the building are blocked buy brick walls, and the team realizes that they have been caught. The explanation is that what Neo has experienced – what we in our ‘real’ world would term as a deja vu – in the logic of the movie is a sign that whoever it is who are doing the programming in this exact moment are reprogramming the program that they are part of. In this case because they are turning the building into a human trap. As I understand it, it’s a kind of tick, or glitch, that happens maybe because the CPU of the computer is overloaded. (More about deja vu and it’s significance in the Matrix here). What is going on, here, is that something we as spectators know from our everyday life experience, – a deja vu – is being used in the fiction to point to a fissure, an opening that reveals – if we interpret it right – that what we understand as real, what we perceive with our senses, in actuality is a construction.

Taken as a model to think with in connection with the question I am struggling with in this text, this model of a deja-vu-as-a-CPU-glitch needs to be stripped from some unwanted ‘attachments’. The heroes in the universe of the Matrix are obviously a very small handful of very special people, who have somehow managed to wake up and gain access to the true hidden truth behind appearances. This smells a whole lot like Marx’s false consciousness. Here, it might be useful to turn to David Graeber’s reworking of Marx’s theory and talk about partial consciousness. Graeber defines this as “[a theory] in which actors find it almost impossible to distinguish their own particular vantage on a situation from the overall structure of the situation itself. ” (Graeber (2001) An anthropological theory of value, p.60). In other words, I don’t find it fruitful to think about the access to knowledge about ‘what spills over through the cracks and fissures’ as something that only an avantgarde or elite has access to. In my case, this would mean that I, as the Researcher, with some kind of supernatural intellectual power, gained through my contact with some kind of Magical Academia, would be able to outsmart the ordinary folks, who don’t really understand what they are going around doing. I find the notion of partial consciousness much closer to the intuition I have about what’s going on in the field I am studying. Going back to the deja-vu-as-a-CPU-glitch model, it would then be from the position of Neo, that this phenomenon should be understood. Identifying and analyzing the fissures and cracks I am talking about is not, then, something that we need the expert for, but rather it is something that people are being conscious about, somehow, in their everyday lives. Although it’s not something that they are necessarily putting into words, or are acting according to. But it might be present to them, as a feeling, a longing (cf. Tim Ingold).

Now, I finally want to get to the question of sound. Since the beginning of my field study, I have made it clear to the teachers that i would maybe like to do some video recording of the children. My plan was to start by getting acquainted to the place, and to establish a good contact with the kids and adults, in order to, later, maybe introduce the camera.The problem with video is that when I think about setting up a tripod and turning on the camera, I start imagining everyone getting super conscious about it, and I imagine the kids getting super curious about what has been filmed etc. I also know, however, that once the camera is there, people usually rather quickly start forgetting it and begin to behave as if it wasn’t there. However, in this first period, I have done some experiments with audio recording. With a background as a composer, I have listened to a huge number of field recordings in the past. This time, however, since the recordings are part of a different kind of project, I started listened slightly differently to them. I started thinking about what it would mean for the people who are taking part of these activities in the reception class, if they were only to take into account what they perceived through hearing. One of the things, I started listening for, was role people’s individual quality of voice is playing. On the one hand, I noticed that there are voices that – in and off themselves – seem to push the others to respond. There is for example this girl in the class. She is 7 year old, Urdu speaking, and a total beginner in Danish. She has this high pitch voice, a little squeaky, and she speaks in this very fast, singing way. At least in two instances (out of a very limited material), I have noticed another kid imitating her voice, – even though they don’t speak the same language. On the other hand, I came to think about the likeness of voices, and the difficulty in distinguishing between them. Especially when you don’t know them well – and new kids are coming all the time, I remind you. In general, getting access to what is going on, when only listening poses the problem of knowing who does what. It gets even more complicated when we are talking about actions. When hearing a  ‘tick tick tick’ from a corner of the room, where 3 kids are sitting it is near to impossible to know who made the sound, and how.

What does this mean? Cutting off the access to visual input is also cutting off access to a lot of information, that we usually draw on, when dealing with everyday life situations. It means that we have a hard time identifying actions, especially those, of course, who do not make a sound. It also makes it difficult to find out who does what and to whom. In other words, accessing a situation by only listening to it means a blurring out of agency and identity.

Going back to my initial thoughts, what is happening to the concept of the self as a container, when we are approaching it with our ears only? What happens, I would argue, is that we are forced to take on an entirely different approach to how we can conceive of what we could talk about as the boundaries between people. The thing is, that is is not meaningful say, that when I make a sound, the sound is in me. Nor is it in you, who are listening to me. I don’t think it makes sense, either, to say that the sound is in between us. Therefore I would say that we are having a hard time insisting on the self as a container, when experiencing the self making itself present as sound. This is also probably why one of the forms of interaction in the classroom that is calling for most correctional attention from the teacher is when someone is making sound when they are not supposed to. The conception of the self as a container seems therefore to be linked with a culture that favors a visual approach to life.

What about the question of agency? Since an auditive approach to everyday life blurs out the exact identification of who did what and how to whom or what, it challenges the idea of a conscious individual self, sitting inside a well defined container, making conscious decisions. It also challenges the idea of the individual pupil as a place where a uniform, centrally orchestrated set of competences, knowledges and skills are supposed to be stuffed. In the reception class, there is a new boy. He is 9 years old, but the teachers have told me that they consider him to be mentally  at the level of a 7 year old. Or younger. And that there is probably going to be the need for a diagnosis. This idea is fully compatible with the idea of the self as a container, since there must be some kind of not fully developed self sitting inside this boy, waiting to conform to what’s expected. When considering agency as something that is embedded in a conscious self sitting in a container fenced off, so to speak from other selves, the teachers will focus on the individual actions of an individual pupil. Accessing the world primarily through vision, the tendency will be to focus on movements stemming from what we perceive as an entity in itself, with clear visual boundaries in the form of limbs and body parts attached to an individual body. Accessing the same world auditively, or at least with a more balanced ‘perceptiual mix’, would maybe push focus away from individual agency with a specific individual source, from a center in a specific container self, and open up for a different conception of agency, that we could maybe talk about as distributed or decentral. Playing with this thought, in the case of the going-to-be-diagnosed boy, an approach based on a decentral conception of self and agency would maybe not call for a reaction directed towards an individual boy, contained in a body, identifiable by specific antropometric features. If a reaction would be called for at all.

These were the words for now. I know they were probably too many. If you are still hanging on, however,  you might have something to add or comment, which I would highly appreciate. Feel free to write your comments below!

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