Critical Ideas from the Periphery

By Martin Preston and Betzabé Torres-Olave

A year ago, free from the knowledge of what 2020 would have in store for us all, we invited people to join us in the idea of creating a collective place to discuss critical theories.

Inspired in part by the activities of the Standing Seminar in Critical Theory based at Bath University, we were interested in establishing a collaborative space in which to interact with different perspectives of critical theories, to build community around similar interests, and to foster creativity. Also, we were happy to have an excuse to see each other beyond our research interests, something perhaps we value even more at present. As Antonia Darder reminds us, there is an “importance of building communities of individuals who share a collective vision and recognize the importance of critical relationships of solidarity. They are comrades, compañeros and compañeras who share a revolutionary love for one another as brothers and sisters in struggle” (2017, p.64).

This is key since from different approaches, we are working within education which can be a vehicle to change ourselves and inevitably the relationships we build within the world. We hoped that in creating a space built on the recognition of others with similar dreams and hopes, we could learn from each other and progress further than if alone. We sought to draw on the rich and diverse interests and knowledge of those in our learning community. This is particularly important within the multidisciplinary department within which we are based, the University of Bristol’s School of Education, but also because we hoped to reach out beyond its boundaries.

Central to our idea was to go beyond those critical thinkers typically associated within European Critical Theory. We sought thinkers from different perspectives, locations, and where possible, those who were still contributing to critical theoretical approaches.

With this in mind, we initiated this collaborative process by facilitating the group to contribute names of authors or theories which we might be able to explore further:

Our first meeting was a success, success measured in our own way: we were not alone. Students and academics from across the university and beyond gathered to create something. Through a lluvia de ideas (rain of ideas) we came out with some topics to explore: Critical Race Theory, Feminist Critical Theories, Critical Theories in Education, Decoloniality, and Eco-feminist theory.

We named our group Critical Ideas from the Periphery. Why this name? Firstly, we thought that our group would not simply look to gather theories and collect schools of thought, but rather experiences and concepts formulated in our conversations and distilled in the act of co-creation. Moreover, many of the scholars introduced in our initial scoping task and some others who we will go onto explore in the next term, are not the common ones related to critical theory.

Equally, the name is aspirational, and one which we hope challenges us to seek out new and different understanding of the areas we cover. Just as significantly, many of us, whilst engaging with critical theories in our various research approaches, do not consider ourselves within one school of thought.

Lastly, the word periphery gives us perspective to look from far away and then to go closer and explore further.  Moreover, we would like to use the periphery also as a position, in the same way bell hooks uses the idea of margin: ‘place of radical openness is a margin—a profound edge.’ (1989, p.36) where we can create and resist confinement.

A Reflection on the Year

Space here does not allow for us to sufficiently convey the richness of the contributions from those who led on each of the sessions. However, there are some of things we learnt that we would like to share.

In our first session, we read Restoring our Humanity. The Dialectics of Revolutionary Praxis by Antonia Darder. We shared questions and thoughts around what is the role of knowledge for revolutionary praxis? How can we introduce these critical ideas of community, collective love and educational praxis in our lives as researchers, teachers, family members?

In the second session, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics by Kimberle Crenshaw, we reflected on intersectionality not just as a lens, but as a way of acting. We were challenged: ‘How do we actually use it in our praxis?’ We also reflected on the need to create alliances of solidarity with those under different conditions of oppression. Even though this could mean tensions and sacrifices, it is from there where we transform.

The third session was on feminism, and we moved to the south of the globe. We read A Manifesto in Four Themes by Rita Segato. In it, Segato invited us to understand patriarchy as a model of exploitation of territories and bodies that have been reproduced through other kinds of oppression. As she says “[e]conomic, political, colonial, and racial forms of supremacy are thus effectively replicas of the patriarchal order” (p.199). Under this order, women’s bodies are seen as inferior to those at the top of the hierarchy, men, or as she calls it, The Masculine Mandate. This mandate has trained men to be loyal to the dynamics of that group, which also oppresses them. In this session, we also reflected on how patriarchy as a form of domination is even replicated through the exploitation of our natural resources, where the non-human is seen as having a lower place in the hierarchical chain. 

How to face this masculine mandate? Politicising the private space, dismantling binarism, and creating bonds between us is one of the ways of facing many forms of hierarchisation and exploitation. Bonds that diverge from neoliberal and capitalist ideas, bonds that are embedded within a “communal rootedness.”

Our fourth session, coming just days after the UK went into lockdown, saw us meet online for the first time. It was the beginning of a time of many uncertainties and a welcome opportunity to meet with others and share ideas, albeit remotely. Not only because of the pandemic, but because of different struggles and injustices that were starting to gain more attention, including in the academic world.

For this session, we read The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century by Ramón Grosfoguel. The reading was especially timely as it problematised how non-western perspectives provide new opportunities, spaces, and hopes for the creation of knowledge. Epistemic diversity offers the opportunity to understand the world in a richer way overcoming the single (male-western) perspective that favours one side of history.

During the fifth session, we read Virus: all that is solid melts into air. In the article Boaventura de Sousa Santos covers a lot of ground in the context of the onset of the pandemic and the implications for our societies. de Sousa Santos outlines a state of permanent crisis for the world created under neoliberal capitalism. In this state, a sense of security is generated for the classes able to benefit from social provisions such as healthcare, whilst those denied it are victimised. For de Sousa Santos the pandemic crisis has simultaneously revealed the failure of such a system whilst interrupting the notion of security and ‘common sense’ of the minority who benefited from it. Such an event, he asserts, provides the opportunity for a ‘common awareness of planetary, democratic-like communion’, even in the very act of our enforced solitude.

Centrally de Sousa Santos points to the window which the COVID pandemic and resulting lockdowns have revealed into ‘alternative mode(s) of life’. A window often hidden to us through entrenched political and economic systems. In concluding, he points to the ‘shadows that visibility creates’ within a sociology of absences. Poignantly, he invokes the case of ‘migrants and refugees’, people on the Greek island of Lesvos residing in ‘camps’ (detention centres) such as Moria. These places, where people are more vulnerable to the Coronavirus and other diseases are within Europe, and yet are perhaps more invisible than ever before. Thus, it is not a coincidence that de Sousa Santos chose Marx’s phrase “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (p. 38) for the title of his article.

The sixth session approached the area of Eco-feminism, a theory significantly tied to the activist experiences of its most significant contributors as well as to movements such as the Chipko in India or the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. We discussed two distinct, though interrelated, approaches to eco-feminism: essentialist or radical and Marxist or existentialist. Drawing on contributions from some of the most prominent contributors such as Vandana Shiva, Mary Meller, Maria Mies and others, we focused on the work of Ariel Salleh. Reading Salleh’s 2008 ‘Ecofeminism as Sociology’, we delved into their discussion on the place of reproductive labour and its knowledges in the formation of an ‘ecologically literate sociology’.

Freire Cem

Our central focus over the coming year will be in anticipation of the centenary of the Brazilian Educator and critical activist Paulo Freire. As well as restarting our readings, we are looking forward to hosting a series of activities, events and opportunities for collective thinking under the name #Freire100. This is also the name Education International is giving to the celebration. By doing this we would like to not only disseminate Paulo Freire’s contributions to the philosophy of education but also discuss how his work has influenced our own as students, teachers, researchers, and as humans in the world. We seek to question how his ideas are relevant as we all venture into the post-pandemic future. In doing so, having a place to talk about his ideas on autonomy, liberation, humanity, hope, community, and so many others, is a good excuse to imagine collectively how best to put these ideas into practice.  We aim to create ethical and democratic relationships with others, at the school, university, nature, and beyond following Freire’s idea that “the pursuit of full humanity, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity” (Freire, 1970/2006, p.85).

Excitingly, the group continues to grow, as do the number of those who wish to bring something to share. If you would like to lead an activity with the group around any of the subjects we have discussed or simply wish to connect, do get in touch.

Contacts: Betzabé or Martin at BristolCIP@gmail.com

References

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167.

Darder, A., (2017). Reinventing Paulo Freire: A pedagogy of Love, Westview Press

de Sousa, B. (2020). Virus: all that is solid melts in the air, Open Democracy, https://bit.ly/3l2zPXL

Freire, P. (1970/2006). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.

Grosfoguel, R. (2013). The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, 11(1), 73-90.

hooks, bell. (1989). Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness. Framework, The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36, 15–23.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1847/1977). The Communist Manifesto. In K. Marx, & F. Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, Lawrence and Wishart.

Salleh, A. (2003). Ecofeminism as Sociology, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 14(1), 61-74.

Segato, R. (2018). A manifesto in four themes, Critical Times, 1(1), 198–211.

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