[xmca] social spaces redux

From: Jay Lemke (jaylemke@umich.edu)
Date: Sat Mar 31 2007 - 12:41:01 PST

After a long absence from xmca, and, not incidentally, from my home
during major repairs this winter, I wanted to comment a little on the
discussion of social spaces, leading off from the MCA article by
Hirst and Vadeboncoeur.

There is much that I appreciated about the article, particularly the
critique of neoliberal managerialism and the commodification of
teaching and learning (in universities as well as schools, moreso in
Australia and the UK than yet in the US). At the same time, there is
also a critique of a sort-of planned-to-fail effort to engage
students with other languages and cultures (on the cheap, and knowing
there would be significant ethnocentric resistance). These are
powerful critiques, illuminated by telling glimpses into case studies
of real teachers, students, and well-intended go-betweens.

Most of the discussion on xmca, however, has been about the
theoretical frameworks and how to understand their potential
integration. The authors as much as any of us are seeking better ways
of articulating various perspectives.

They seem to have chosen the language of "spaces" as a gesture
towards the integration they are seeking. As someone pointed out,
mathematically, spaces can comprise almost any set of anything(s)
with some defined relationships among them. (Though the French
structuralists who brought this term to the human sciences were
honoring mathematics rather than the hardened sciences.)

The article begins with very physical, material notions of space
(classrooms, school buildings) and returns to these (transportation
to/from and locations of "reengagement centers" for youth). It refers
in various places to the new social geography (Harvey, Soja,
Lefebvre; see Crang & Thrift, _Thinking Space_ for an overview),
which has sought to complement historical materialism with the
spatial-geographical aspects of the material conditions of lives,
cultures, and injustices.

But at the same time, the authors want not to limit the spaces that
afford and constrain our lives to only their bare material
dimensions: walls, desks, roads, bus lines. They want to include the
activities (e.g. participation structures in classrooms) that fill
these spaces and make them human, cultural places. Because it is
these lived spaces they are concerned about; it is the lived spaces
that are being commodified, managerialized, and made into living
hells for those of us who live in them. For the Indonesian
teacher-without-institutional-support, for the not-quite-reengaged
young-people-without-buses. They worry about the
"territorialization" of educational spaces by
governments-for-industry, which dis-place us in the very places that
ought to be ours.

So I would not be too quick to radically dichotomize material spaces
and social-activity-networks, taking the one to be legitimately real
and the other a mere metaphor of "social space". Social spaces are
unfactorizable unities of material conditions and cultural meanings,
of people-artifacts-activities-places, of
people-doing-meaningfully-with-stuff-in-situ and across filled and
lived time and space. While I don't know that he has directly
addressed spatiality and placeness, Latour does offer in his ANT
networks some ways of carefully conceptualizing these unities of what
our Cartesian traditions have tried to purify into radically
heterogeneous components with different ontological statuses. And I
think that CHAT, too, has always sought to undo the separation of the
material and the "ideal", not by privileging the material, but by
understanding that the material is as much the product of the
cultural as the other way around.

Social spaces are real because they are sites of struggle. Thanks
again to Jen and Liz for richly describing the reality of that struggle.


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
Email. JayLemke@UMich.edu
Website. <http://www.umich.edu/~jaylemke%A0>www.umich.edu/~jaylemke
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