Letter to Linden West
Berlin, 26 September 2019
(I keep on being astonished by the similarity between our names. I remember we talked about what’s in a name when we first met in Como in April this year. Actually, I thought of changing my name. But that’s a different story. Or maybe not.)
I want to tell you about a new picture regarding my PhD that has been emerging over the last few days. It feels appropriate to write about it in a letter, because letters allow for multiple strands of life and meaning to flow together. Also, a letter acknowledges the relational nature of how ideas come into being, and how encounters with other people, including yourself, have shaped their development. It contains some personal elements, which might in certain academic contexts be considered inappropriate, but given your background in psychoanalysis, I trust that you will be able to cope.
As you know, the last year has been one of great shifts for me. Starting with my separation from the Oxford-based work/life/research context, moving to a new city, engaging with several projects next to my PhD, connecting to the ESREA (European Society for Research on the Education of Adults) discourse on transformative learning and adult education, finding a new practice-based frame for my doctorate, embarking on a journey with a new supervisor (you), experimenting with film as a medium to engage people in a different kind of consideration of transformative learning processes, and just recently, moving on from a long-term relationship. Yesterday, I marked my arrival at a point where changes are beginning to make sense and all is starting to converge by getting two tattoos.
There have been lots of first times with regards to my research work: taking part in an international project of educational activists aimed at making our work more transformative – and doing so by myself (Bridge 47 Transformative Learning Journey); entering the field of adult learning research and practice by writing an academic paper and presenting it at a conference on Adult Education and Struggles for Democracy in Precarious Times organised by the ESREA Active Democratic Citizenship and Adult Learning network in Linköping (Kirchgaesser, 2018); setting up the Do-It-Yourself Learning Spaces project in accordance with my own values, writing about it (Kirchgaesser, 2019) and presenting it at the Adult Education Research and Practice: Between the Welfare State and Neoliberalism conference, and receiving a prize for it. I did all these things in addition to my PhD, out of inner necessity – a phrase often used by my previous supervisor Shelley Sacks (2011, pp. 82-83), referring back to Kandinsky’s About the Spiritual in Art (1911/1977). In retrospect, it seems strange, but it felt as though my PhD project itself was something external, rather than an extension of myself – hence the need to engage with these other projects. It didn’t occur to me to include this work as part of my research at the time. I was following a different plan.
Parallel to these ‘professional’ developments, I have been grappling with questions about identity. In particular, how it is being shaped by normativity in society and in educational contexts (i.e. the university, conferences, etc.). Not having had any formal academic training until I started my PhD, and having something of an atypical learning history, I was unsure whether I would be in a position to make a valid contribution in this realm. I come from a practice-based arts background, meaning that I haven’t been bathed in the conventions of theoretical expression. And yet, I feel compelled to engage with them, to make them my own, to make them the medium of my art, to invigorate them with imagination. But I’m always looking at them as if from the outside. I never take them for granted. I’m beginning to realise that this might be an advantage. Un-fixing those conventions and reuniting theory and practice is a challenge I have set for myself. Consequently, engaging in a dialogue with the academic community is part of the work I want to do (and have started doing over the last year). It includes a reconsideration of writing style, authorship, disclosure of personal and professional interests, transparency about research processes, audience, context, and alternative forms of sharing knowledge.
Also, I have been working hard over the last year to unlearn conventions regarding gender and sexuality – both significant factors in the definition of identity. I have been particularly inspired by queer theory, which, like social sculpture and transformative learning theory, promotes an attitude to life that is based on the principle of fluidity, the importance of questioning categories, boxes, and taken for granted structures – not only in the domain of gender and sexuality, but as an all-encompassing, political practice. Practicing radical honesty (Kraus, 1997), following through on the implications of one’s thought processes, and taking responsibility by sharing them with others through dialogue, collaboration, and activism is part of that. I want to live up to all of this in the context of my PhD, because I have realised that my theory of social sculpture as outlined below demands it:
SOCIAL SCULPTURE = (LIFE ≜ ART) = (RESEARCH ≜ PRACTICE)
What I want to do is draw on all the different enquiries I have engaged with over the last few years – including the ones I thought of as life rather than as PhD-related – declare them as my practice, and make a case for why this makes sense in the context of this theory of social sculpture. I want to further explore and write about the connection between social sculpture theory and practice, transformative learning theory and practice, and queer theory. The outputs of this process will be a series of thinking pieces to be published on my blog www.artistsofsociety.com (all containing some kind of auto/biographical dimension), another academic paper to be conceived for the upcoming conference of the ESREA Life History and Biography network (Canterbury, February 2020), a contribution to the upcoming conference of the ESREA Transformative Processes in Learning and Education network (Athens, June 2020), one abstract for a paper for the ESREA Gender and Adult Learning network conference (Algarve, autumn 2021), and quite possibly one or two experimental films. Some of this work might involve collaboration and dialogue with other people, both from within and outside the academic realm. For now, I will discontinue the interviews about Earth Forum to make space for these new developments. I might come back to them later.
My friend Anne from Oxford – who contributed to the queer turn in my life and research – brought my attention to these quotes from The Four-Gated City by Doris Lessing (1969), which I think capture very well the transformative learning process I’ve been going through:
Life brings one back to points in oneself… Over and over again in different ways, saying without words: This is a place where you could learn if you wanted to. Are you going to learn this time or not? No? Very well then, I’ll … find ways of bringing you back to it again. When you are ready then. (p. 472)
That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. (p. 97)
Well, I hope I’m ready to learn this time. It certainly feels as though the pieces are coming together, and as though things are finding their new place after the re-constellating process of the last year in particular. With the proposal outlined in this letter, I feel like I will be able to do justice to what I’ve been doing both as part of and despite the PhD and pursue it as an extension and logical consequence of myself. Since you have encouraged me to take a more auto/biographical approach to my research, I hope you will support me in this endeavour.
With gratitude for your contribution to my learning,
Kandinsky, W. (1911/1977) Concerning the spiritual in art. Translated by M. Sadleir. New York: Dover Publications.
Kirchgaesser, [I.]A. (2018) 'Enabling Transformation of the Inner State to Change the Outer State: A Social Sculpture Perspective on Adult Education and Democracy in Challenging Times'. Presented at Adult Education and Struggles for Democracy in Precarious Times, Linköping, 19-20 October 2018.
Kirchgaesser, [I.]A. (2019) 'Renewal from the Margins: Change-Oriented Adult Education in Do-It-Yourself Learning Spaces'. Presented at ESREA 9th Triennial European Research Conference - Adult Education Research and Practice: Between the Welfare State and Neoliberalism, Belgrade, 19-22 September 2019.
Kraus, C. (1997) I Love Dick. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Lessing, D. (1969) The Four-Gated City. London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd.
Sacks, S. (2011) 'Social Sculpture and New Organs of Perception: New Practices and New Pedagogy for a Humane and Ecologically Viable Future'. In C. Lerm-Hayes & V. Walters (Eds.), Beuysian Legacies in Ireland and Beyond: Art, Culture and Politics (pp. 80-98). (European Studies in Culture and Policy, v. 6). Berlin: Lit.