Towards a Pedagogy of Autonormativity


  1. Self-Organization


At Goldsmiths in London, in the late 2000s, a group of students from the curating and fine art program came together under the assumption that there was a necessity to collectively rethink the structural and operational differences and overlaps of their respective fields. The intention was not directed towards a universalizing homogenization under a higher-order conceptual meta-framework such as cultural practice but, rather, a careful reading and modeling of porosity and entanglement from a multiplicity of perspectives – of how curatorial and artistic practices are co-constitutive, that is to say, how a novel manifestation and localization of one invariably informs the other. This implied an approach that, while recognizing difference, aspired to leave behind any, if vague, hierarchical and binary notions that necessarily emerge through categorization and classification. It seemed urgent to come together as practitioners to tackle ideas of collective agency and common goals, within and beyond, if never outside, the institution. We probably would have thought of ourselves as self-organized, and perhaps rightfully so: the theoretical framework at the time was heavily oriented towards speculative realism, and the discourse around postanthropocentrism that ensued seemed to us to necessitate new forms of institutional critique, the implications of which particularly pertained to academic institutions, the quasi-pharmacological nature thereof as both facilitating and limiting, and the production of subjects. For us, thus, curatorial and artistic practice, knowledge production and pedagogy seemed inseparable. At the time, there were several precedents that were influential, and in which some of us had been involved, for instance Utopia Station (Venice, 2003), Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices (Stockholm, 2005) and unitednationsplaza (Berlin, 2007).


From a scientific, computationalist perspective, self-organization might be primarily associated with pattern-formation processes, systems, and complexity. And, while such notions are informative for potentially any application and novel creation of the concept and method of self-organization, it was Kant who gave it a pertinent, political underpinning in the Critique of Judgment, as the philosopher Yuk Hui has pointed out, through the affirmation of “community (Gemeinschaft) and reciprocity (Wechselwirkung)” (Y. Hui, 2017). Much of the discourse around self-organization and cultural production goes back to this Kantian foundation, to which one might add the commons as the framework within which community manifests and commoning, then, as the politics of how the commons come into being and how they can be sustained and defended. This notion of maintenance is critical, as self-organization is necessarily process-based. As such, it is closely related to autopoiesis, whose frame of reference in the life sciences indicates a system that operates, produces and regenerates out of itself, both in relation to its environment or associated milieu (the Kantian Wechselwirkung) and to “self-determination” (the Kantian Gemeinschaft).


In the following, I propose to explore a third evolutionary concept that stands in close connection to both self-organization and autopoiesis, and which, I argue, might open up new perspectives on and possibilities for radical pedagogies: Autonormativity, which, for Gilbert Simondon, is the logic of how morality and technicity are intertwined and interdependent in their unfolding over time (Simondon, 2015). Technicity is the specific ability of humans to create an operational schema that can act as an interface between human organization and natural potentials: Nature – Technics – Culture

  1. Listening


For Mary Kelly, the question regarding pedagogy and feminism, one of the primary associations that one might infer from her larger practice as an artist and educator, is not a question of “content” but, rather, one of “tactic” (Kelly, 2018). This already highlights a critical point that is closely related to what Simondon calls transduction: Structure and operation, substrate and information, that is, form and content/function are never to be considered as separate. It echoes Jean-Luc Godard’s (and, by extension, Thomas Hirschhorn’s) remark of prioritizing “making films (art) politically” over “political films (art)”. And it is likewise at the heart of the political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s claim that “all art is political” (though not necessarily critical, that is, intentional) (Mouffe, 2018).


But to come back to Kelly: When she founded the Interdisciplinary Studio at UCLA, listening as “The Method” became a pedagogical strategy, not so much in opposition to, say, Michael Asher’s hours-long practice of inquiry at CalArts, but, rather, as prior to it, as preceding and, likewise, circumnavigating the “violence of interpretation” (Kelly, 2018) (in reference to Gayatri Spivak). Take, as an example, pronouns. The act of stating one’s preferred pronouns is precisely so as to counteract the liberal notion of individual freedom, in this case, of interpretation, in favor of the right of the subject to assert their gender identity. To be interpreted is, in a sense, to be appropriated. Listening, according to Kelly, is thus not a practice of interpretation but one of decipherment and, perhaps, translation. It has the potential to “acknowledge difference unconditionally” (Kelly, 2018) as a queer ontogenetic strategy that recognizes identities as fluid potentialities. The politics of listening is a feminist approach to education insofar as it highlights voices on the margins, those that are easily silenced because they deviate from the norms and values of the dominant culture. However, listening should not be mistaken as being neutral and receptive only. On the contrary, and this is a lesson to be taken from quantum mechanics, listening, like observing, is an active practice of fact-creation and world-making. Still, while to listen means to actively participate in emergence, it likewise means to relinquish the violence of fact-imposition. From this perspective, curators, artists and educators could equally be understood as “helpmates to emergence” (Kousoulas, 2022).


  • We do not yet know what Pedagogy can do


If listening as a practice of education and knowledge production is dependent on and implicit of an emergent, process-based ethics, perhaps a rethinking and further development of autonormativity as sketched out before can help integrate it into a larger and more general conceptual framework. A pedagogy of autonormativity attempts to counteract, and, indeed, decolonize “hylomorphic” approaches to education that are underpinned by a mere transfer of “facts”, similar to the application of form to allegedly inert and “transparent” matter, as is characteristic of Eurocentric genealogies of creation (transparency in this sense has a colonial underpinning as has been pointed out by Edouard Glissant in his defense of opacity, as in the right of a subject to indeterminacy versus the imperative of the colonizer for it to render itself entirely visible (Glissant, 1997). Trinh Minh Ha has, likewise, argued for an “agential difference” rather than a difference-to-be-assimilated (Minh Ha, 1997)). Autonormativity, in the Simondonian sense, is a generative normativity that is embedded in a process out of which it, in turn, emerges and regenerates. To expand on the initial definition provided earlier, it describes the autogenous morality by which humans create an associated milieu by integrating the alien (nature) in their operational schema.  It is localized, inseparable from process and not preexistent: “the norm is derived from the act”. It can, thus, be a shared pedagogy that is autogenetic and self-organizing and, thus, a pedagogy of community, commons, and, in particular, one of marginality: a situated normativity outside of the norm. Using an architectural analogy and emphasizing ontogenetic becoming over fact-imposition, it prioritizes notions of growing and emergence over those of building. Ultimately, the assumption is that a pedagogy of autonormativity is closely connected to a pedagogy of immanence, in the Spinozist sense: We do not know what education is, nor do we know yet what it can do; only through the act of engaging in it can it emerge. Pedagogy could then be conceived as being underpinned by a third kind of knowledge, which, for Spinoza, is intuition as the divine perspective of knowing everything all at once. I propose to rethink this third kind of knowledge, that is intuition, through a radical empiricist lens: when the divine becomes the common, and sacredness or love becomes a space of shared purpose, constitutive relationality, encompassing the human and more-than-human, becomes an indispensable strategy. Might this be one way of approaching commoning, or, shall we say, composting?


The developmental and computational biologist Michael Levin has argued that one of the most important questions in biology, perhaps science in general, is how cells cooperate in light of larger-scale goals, such as the regeneration of a limb (Levin, 2022). Regeneration could be understood, in a Deleuzian sense, as the dynamic of autonormativity, but in contrast to a Hegelian model of binary oppositions, it is entirely based on immanence. Simondon uses the example of a hiker lost in the forest: With no sense of orientation and direction, she makes one step, one act that constitutes the emergent norm for those that follow. Each further step, each repetition and regeneration, situates her more firmly in the forest as her becoming associated milieu. David Harvey has referred to the ethics of growth and regeneration, in recourse to Marx, as a “virtuous infinity” – that which might be implied by sustainability if the term had not lost all its meaning (Harvey, 2018). I suggest that both curating and artistic practice are concerned with proposing new ways of life based on such virtuous infinities, and that such an approach needs to be reflected in new pedagogies and a continuous renewal of the institution. However, and this is the challenge, this autonormative dynamic cannot be centered around the human only. Rather, it must be based on the coexistence of a multiplicity of forms of cognition, human and non-human, organic and synthetic, and, perhaps most importantly, the intersections thereof. To do so, it will be necessary, as the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has pointed out, to recognize non-anthropocentric forms of technology, that is, specific technicities of how non-human life develops operational schemas to integrate the world in its own particular ways (E. V. d. C. Y. Hui, 2021). Finding ways of accessing the world in difference and sameness, and to do so productively and in coexistence, might be a first step towards a commoning and a pedagogy beyond-the-human.





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