Improvisation and Counter-Education / Ilan Gur-Ze’ev

Improvisation and Counter-Education
Ilan Gur-Ze’ev

All the contributors to the review of Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy Today – Toward a New Critical Language in Education agree with the editor that Critical Pedagogy is currently in an awkward condition. They vary in their optimism as to the vitality of Critical Pedagogy and its determination to overcome this crisis. The most optimistic of all is Kathleen Weiler, not despite but actually because of the rich internal struggle between its current modern and postmodern dimensions. It is worth noting that four of the respondents – Richard Khan, Philip Wexler, Dan Liston and Joe Kincheloe – refer to the centrality of the presence/absence/misrepresentation of religiosity and love in hegemonic Critical Pedagogy. Dan Liston, while finding the collection “arid, dry, and disembodied”, emphasizes the importance of radical love for a possible genuine Critical Pedagogy, which “entails work which is physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually painful”. Joe Kincheloe, on the other hand, finds in my work the acknowledgement of “life affirmation Eros”, and Richard Kahn, in his own way, sees in this collection and especially in my work a “messianic pedagogy” or an attempt that “seeks to realize a new critical language in education that will restore its radically utopian function”.


In reply to these critiques I would like to address the issues of love, embodiment and religiosity by considering Diaspora, exile, and nomadism, with special focus on the concept of improvisation. This is done so as to offer some guidelines for further development of the “constructive” aspects of Diasporic counter-education. I do not agree with Philip Wexler when he says here that the information society or the postmodern condition “creates a cultural shift toward resacralization, and toward shifting the terms of everyday social interaction toward a ‘mystical society'” but I do agree with him that religiosity is of vital importance for the possibility of counter-education. I will try to go into this in my response to Richard Kahn’s reconstruction of the messianic dimension and the presence of Benjamin, Adorno and Deleuze in my work. I will try to go into it here by presenting Diaspora as a philosophical concept, an existential imperative, and a historical-political reality. As such it is important to critically reconstruct it throughout human evolution, from the nomadic way of life before agricultural and urban civilizations to modern and post-modern forms of governmentality and quasi-Diaspora. Diaspora is to be reconstructed historically today in face of the disintegration of the welfare state and social and intellectual forms of stability; in face of the structural degeneration of the preconditions for ecological, national, ethnic, cultural and individual security; in face of the rapid disappearance of the preconditions for trust or even hope for objective-foundationalist epistemologies and justifiable ethics. Contrary to Wexler’s understanding of globalization or the postmodern condition as the era of “a mystical society” I am far from celebrating the present sophisticated mystification of Life and the cannibalism of the object that is directed against the subject. Of special importance to my mind is the diminishing room for an unsuspicious inner or exterior “voice” that will direct us, warn us or even remind us that at the end of the day there is meaning, there is a possible goal, there is something to be cherished or struggled for, and “I” am not a mere echo of contingent, dynamic power-relations. A serious critical reconstruction of these aspects of “Diaspora” should today ask about its meaning in face of fast de-territorialization and speeding capitalist-oriented life worlds such as cyberspace, which represent effective de-humanizing contingencies. It is not solely that the concept and the realities of Diaspora must change in face of de-territorialization and demolition of historical consciousness and time that has halted in its linear stream or in its cyclic movement, and currently races at a never-imagined speed in punctual, contingent, dynamism. It is the exile of Eros and the deconstruction of the preconditions for transcendence that make the historical difference in the nature, characteristics and potentialities of Diaspora today.


Central to the aim of conceptual and historical analysis of Diaspora in its various forms is the reality of oppressed, silenced and displaced populations. In modernity, the era of national governmentality, suffering and loss relate to ethnic or political exiles under the weight of hegemonic groups in modern national conflicts, but also to other kinds of exiles. They also relate to individual and deeper kinds of nomadism in face of the Genesis or the downfall from the Garden of Eden or the beginning of human history or individual biography, self-consciousness, alienation and trauma; modern homelessness might manifest itself also in self-decided displacement and in the powers of globalizing capitalism and its power of suggestion and re-creation of the “genuine autonomous self-constitutive individual” who, reduced to an efficient producer-consumer, “freely” decides to live as a strong nomad in a globalized world.  


Diasporic philosophy and counter-education today should address these modern as well as postmodern forms of nomadism and exile and their history since the prehistoric forms of nomadism. They might reconstruct and reflect on the unique and new possibilities opened for some of us (not for all, since they are very selective and rely on the foundations of structural inequalities, selective distribution of loss and suffering and asymmetrical reach into reflective knowledge, intimacy and responsibility) in the era of globalization, nomadism and improvisation. But they cannot be content with conceptual analysis: following Marx, they should develop the potentials, the skills the knowledge and the ideals of today’s modern victims of exile, oppression, marginalization and silencing; and here too, improvisation is of vital importance for a worthy and even an “effective” encounter with modern forms of exile and the challenges of life in Diaspora.


Counter-education that addresses seriously the challenge of loss, exile, and the deceiving “home-returning” projects accepts that no positive Utopia awaits us as a non-dehumanizing telos or life possibilities to be realized by effort, suffering, innovation, courage and “the right religion/theory”. No positive Utopia awaits us as “truth”, “genuine life”, “worthy struggle”, “pleasure” or worthy/unavoidable self-annihilation. Loss is not to be recovered or compensated; not for the individual nor for any kind of “we”. And yet, Love of Life is the home of the Diasporic in the Socratic sense of Eros as an attracting absence of the beautiful. Counter-education should invite the Diasporic to the hospitality of Love of Life. Such hospitality denotes the absence of non-consensual creativity and calls for overcoming conventional morality and the other imperatives of the ethnocentric “we”, its self-evidence, its normality, its counter-resistance of the oppressed and its normalized patriotic citizenship.
Response-ability and respond-ability toward non-collective, toward pre-subjective and existential kinds of homelessness, toward erotic Diasporic existence, might offer new beginnings and a kind of becoming-toward-the-world as against becoming-swallowed-by-the-matrix; an awakening. Flourishing out of Love of Life, it might make possible an awakening, which will open the gate not to “emancipation” but to transcendence from the endless various and conflicting “home-returning” projects and their complementary forms of exile/exiling, nomadism and slumber dwelling.
The determination for Diasporic life and the possibilities opened by Diasporic counter-education is always ironic. It is never at home. It gives birth to something at all times immensely more important than the individuality of the Diasporic individual as in the relation of the artist to her great creation. It is creation. A symbol of Love of Life as creation that always transcends herself to the otherness of the Other as the Feminine to the Masculine and the born baby as an act of genesis, as Eros to the not-yet, as The Totally Other to the infinite not-yet fertilized potentials of each moment. The heart of improvisation is this movement within co-poiesis as a togetherness offered by Love of Life. It gives birth to the totally new and wholly unexpected that the Diasporic human faces its hospitality as alterity and togetherness; a form of non-instrumental playfulness that manifests erotic responsibility to Life at its best. It is an invitation which offers hospitality, the Not-Yet, not “home” but the Spirit of Diaspora that is not threatened by silence, by the absence of ethnocentristic-oriented dogma, rituals or psychic structure that is pre-organized and demands surrender and playing by the rules. It is silence that hosts here, the self-educated gaze, the eye that meets again genuine religiousness and the responsibility that is realized with, in front of, and in preparation for the participation of the Otherness of the Other as a friend, as a companion, as a worthy rival, as an unanswered question, as an indispensible manifestation of the entire cosmos and its holiness. As such, co-poiesis opens the gate to improvisation that is part of the reply and part and parcel of the most concrete, daily manifestation of the “femininity”, of the birth-giving spirit of the co-poiesis, which is so different from the “masculine”, instrumental “homes” and companionships. This dimension of improvisation reminds us of Levinas’ saying: “woman is the category of the future, the ecstasy of future. It is that human possibility which consists in saying that the life of another human being is more important than my own, that the Other comes before me, that the value of the Other is asserted before my own”. As such it is a conjunction of a special “knowledge”, a non-dominating, pre-rational dialogical knowledge, experience and aesthetic form, which is also a pre-ethical positioning.


It is part of an improvised-courageous facing the dangerous waters of the river of fear of ambivalence and rival “truths”, strivings, and the fear of landing on the demanding never-satisfied banks of loss. It is not rational/irrational in the sense established by hegemonic philosophical and political discussions, nor is it ethically justifiable in normalized paths. It is pre-rational and pre-ethical, yet it has a form; it is aesthetically “justified”, allowing ethics and rational deliberation. It is also beyond “negative” and “positive” Utopia. Still, improvisation does represent hope and manifests the possibility of The Totally Other.


Diasporic togetherness as actualized in the dynamics of improvisation does not call us to return “home” to sentimentalist-ethnocentric collective alternatives or to anti-humanist mechanical “solutions” and compensations for the loss incubated by departing from nothingness, “homeland” or “the one”.
Improvisation manifests the dialectics of response-ability and respond-ability. It is not “constructive” nor is it merely “negative”. It is far from a manifestation of “resistance” to oppression or suffering and loss. In the context of Diasporic counter-education it plays a special role as part of Love of Life and co-poiesis that challenges the matrix of whose manifestations traditional critical pedagogy is part and parcel.


Improvisation represents a creative-speculative attunement, a different kind of gaze and response-ability that makes possible responsibility that offers co-poiesis in the infinity of the moment, each moment anew. It involves a kind of intimacy with the richness of the cosmos and its inviting dynamics, impulses, drives and meaning-creation. Here hospitality enables creative compassion, where the alterity of the otherness of the Other is an unavoidable partner in creative realization
of playful Love of Life that strives not back “home” but eternally toward the Not-Yet, the unknown and the happiness or suffering of the Other as alterity and companion.


Improvisation, when true to itself, transcends any limited context, border, dogma, regulations, drives, habits and fears – dwelling in the infinity of the moment and the ecstasies of the here and now. It is essentially dynamic, overcoming itself and the immanence that makes welcome the drive for transgression; it offers holiness each moment anew. It is a mimesis of Genesis; it dwells within the erotic unknown, attuned to the music of the not-yet gazing at the manifestations of Life, playfully responding to it in the right manner before any rational calculation and regardless of the will or direction of any colonizing power/temptation. Its acknowledged-blessed homelessness transcends suffering and fear into worthy suffering and responsibility as creative Love of Life, peace that does not serve the victory of violence that has successfully silenced its victims.


It offers Diaspora as a gate for an alternative togetherness. Diaspora as an openness and uncontrolled mutual creativity that is responsible for and generous to the otherness of the Other and reaches out to give birth to the unknown and to self-overcoming as self-constitution without an egoistic “I” initiating the colonization of the Other, the response to the otherness or the self-sacrifice of the victimizing kind. The otherness of the other, the insecurity, the non-consensus and refusal of the self-evidence and other manifestations of the invitation to the “home-returning” project, back to nothingness, are here of vital importance – not a threat in the light of which one runs away back “home”, to well established conventions, to the lost Gemeinschaft or to well fortified alternative Platonic caves.


Improvisation is not rhetorical, rational and ethical in the traditional Western concept of knowledge and intersubjectivity. It offers a pre-rational and pre-ethical quest for the true, the beautiful and the right in a manner that transcends Western binary subject-object, body-spirit, natural-human, human-Godly dichotomies. These separations parallel Western detachment of the aesthetic, the ethical, the intellectual, the bodily and the political – detachments that are reflected also in the saying of the psyche and in somatic silence. Diasporic counter-education introduces improvisation as happy playfulness that weaves anew the symbolic, the existential, the musical and the intellectual creative attunement; a reply of responsible-playfulness to alterity, to suffering and to anti-erotic pleasures as a serious play, as co-poieses; serious play as the wind of the wings of hope manifesting the concreteness of the presence of Love. It is an ahistorical moment – in a way an anti-historical moment. Within its never-set horizons art becomes a form of life in a specific, material historical moment that seeks or creates bodily conduct and genuine togetherness with the cosmos in its most specific, even microscopic, manifestations in the infinity of the instant.


Improvisation “within” co-poiesis is a togetherness that is not pre-imposed or predicted-directed by someone or something: it is the manifestation of the spirit of freedom that meets the gate between silence and “voice”, between respond-ability and response-ability; Love of Life communicates joyfully. It accepts the invitation of alterity and of the Not-Yet, creates each moment anew, without being imprisoned in any predetermined model, interest, habit, or violating threats or temptations. Only the imperative of refusing shekels and resisting any exterior limitation enlightens improvisation worthy of the name. Because it is not the fruit of subjectification processes, and since it is prior to “genuine intersubjectivity”, it makes possible happy, responsible nomadism. It opens the gate to nomadism of an individual who is beyond subjectivism in the sense of “self-fulfillment”. A nomad who is with herself as she is with the moment, dwelling in the cosmos in a de-territorialized and ahistorical experience that is beyond her subjectivity, calculations and interests. In improvisation, she is partner to compassionate hospitality of a non-ethnocentric togetherness with the cosmos and with the Other – the Other as a homeless being who does not try to reeducate to a new “home”, dogma or self-forgetfulness. It refuses any control and manipulation, yet it is never relativistic and certainly rejects any form of nihilism, hate or “emancipatory” counter-violence.


While improvisation is uncontrolled and resists functionalist and “effective” realization, evaluation, representation and constitution, it is, at least partially, to be edified, cultivated, enhanced, improved, or at least called for. Self-constitution and self-education (which also includes much dislearning) meets here the role of teachability and learning with, for and from the partners. Here there is even room for the master as an important, serious challenge to address and overcome as part of a co-poiesis that facilitates transcendence.


Improvisation facilitates transcendence from the quest to return “home”, back to the infinity of nothingness and to the suggestive power of the harmony of meaninglessness. It is not a medium, not a “function”, not (as so popular in today’s high-tech) an instrument that might offer big business and successful individuals “maximization of benefits”, nor is it a fascinating entertainment or a reliable method for self-forgetfulness. 


Improvisation actualizes dancing with the otherness of Others who are partners, and alterity of the not-I within the “I” as well as with the Other that is not “within me” as a loss nor the Other as a mere loss to be possessed, re-educated or “loved” that allows “home-returning” to the One. Diasporic Life here challenges the traumatic-phallic-colonialist attitude to Life as represented since the Socratic project and the beginning of the history of Monotheism. It offers a kind of co-poiesis that is trans-subjective; it transcends intersubjective relations formed by linear subject-object dichotomies.


Diasporic co-poiesis offers different relations with central dimensions of Life and with central concepts and realities such as “touch”, “gaze”, “attunement” and response-ability/responsibility. In the form of improvisation it furthers an attempt to re-unite or at least rearticulate the relations between (pre-rational) thought and action, spirit/psyche and body, “I” and the otherness of the Other in a manner that transcends traditional Western relations of space and time. It also rearticulates the relations of the bodily and spiritual touch and infinity, readdressing the relations of the moment and eternity. It facilitates that which has been so difficult for Western thought and human life since the departure from Orphic poetry and primitive nomadism: totally being in the infinity of the moment, totally dwelling in Love of Life. And it does – or does not – do so in the most concrete, embodied, deep-rooted manifestations of the de-territorialized space shared with others. That is why it is of vital relevance to exile and to nomadism of various kinds, including the collective, historical, forced exile as we know it only too well in the 20th and the 21st centuries.


Western tradition had difficulties with the body and with bodily touching the thing itself and the otherness of the Other away from the “home” of the traumatic “I”. The body has been conceived in various manners and degrees as the jail of the soul and a somatic treacherous rival to Spirit. Improvisation offers co-poiesis within which the somatic truths are re-legitimized toward serious playfulness with alterity. It calls us to learn to receive and reach out beyond the masculine-feminine dichotomies, giving hospitality and accepting hospitality of the otherness of the Other and the otherness of the not-I within the “I”; toward respond-ability in a home-less dwelling where Life offers impetus to human dwelling, which is very different from the various “home-returning” projects, dualistic-binary-linear manners of control, productivization and communication as we recognize them only too well throughout the history of instrumental rationality and monotheism.


Improvisation, here, offers not only negativity: it offers (re)birth. It brings forth responsibility, a mature, speculative ear for, gaze at, and touch of the newly-born each moment anew. De-territorializationed “here” offers us within the endlessness of improvisation a specific, the most specific and most concrete “here and now”; the here and now that offer not a false “home”, “nirvana” or “pleasure” – it offers nomadic hospitality, Diasporic hospitality of the co-poiesis kind, between the sacrificial Isaac, who is so compassionate, and his father Abraham, the sacrificer. Not forgiveness, nor assurances that the sacrifice of Isaac in line with the Godly imperative is worthy, right or holy – a creative, compassionate relation that calls for The Totally Other in its most concrete, bodily, deep-rooted, immediate-eternal improvised realization. Such (re)birth is a concrete communicative creativity that has its roots in the nomadic ethics, within the techno-scientific realities of globalizing capitalism, in the pre-rational com-passion as offered by Ettinger in the spirit of Levinas and the kind of togetherness that is to be educated to and trained by partners that show us/create with us new roads beyond the modern-postmodern struggle in education, assuredly beyond contextuality and the horizons of the powers that form our “self”; beyond the tradition of “critique” into the era of co-poiesis, improvisation and new forms of togetherness challenging the given reality and the presence of injustice and meaninglessness. Imagination, passion and response-ability meet here in a kind of togetherness that Unger comes very close to articulating for us: “In the setting of our non-instrumental relations to one another, we come to terms with our unlimited mutual need and fear. This coming into terms is a search. It is a quest for freedom – for the basic freedom that includes an assurance of being at home in the world… The most radical freedom is the freedom to be, to be a unique person in the world as it is”. Improvisation makes possible transcendence within the triumph of the context – not to manifest the omnipotnce of the immanence and homogeneity but to open the gate to transcendence and heterogeneity. It calls for the transformation of respond-ability into co-response-ability, of passion into com-passion, of quasi-poiesis into co-poiesis; a kind of togetherness that does not free any of us from Diasporic existence, or from the danger of self-forgetfulness, yet it opens the gate to serious playfulness with alterity in the Other and the “home-returning” quest within “our” self. It invites self-preparation and self-overcoming. It makes possible dislearning and self-education for focusing on and responding to the (possible, eternally awaited) appearance of The Totally Other;  a challenge to the quest for transgression and to sentimental Love – well beyond “critique”, “consensus” and other rich forms of affirming the “home-returning” invitation into nothingness.


Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, “Critical theory, critical pedagogy and diaspora today”, in: Ilan Gur-Ze’ev (ed.), Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy Today, Haifa: University of Haifa, 2005, p. 26.

 Ibid., p. 32.

 Co-poiesis is a concept first articulated by Bracha Ettinger. See: Bracha L. Ettinger, “Coppiesis”, Ephemera 5 (X) 2005, p.p. 703-713.

 Immanuel Levinas, Time Is the Breath of the Spirit – In Conversation with Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, translated by Joseph Simas and Carolyn Ducker, Oxford: Museum of Modern Art 1993, p. 9.

 Rosi Bridotti, Transpositions – On Nomadic Ethics, Cambridge: Polity Press 2006.

Bracha Ettinger, “Coppiesis”, Ephemera 5 (X) 2005, pp. 703-713.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Passion – An Essay on Personality, New York: The Free Press 1984, p. 109.

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