2015 ESRI SEMINAR SERIES BEGINS with philosopher Robert Pfaller, and a lively discussion about higher education futures.

Yesterday, Robert Pflaller, Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria, gave the 2015 ESRI Seminar Series inaugural lecture to an at-room-capacity audience of researchers, lectures and students in MMU’s new Birley

Housed at Birley, ESRI is home to eclectic research/ers, and world-leading social and education research. Curated by Stephanie Daza and Alexandre Pais, the 2015 seminar series aims to engage scholars, practitioners, and artists in provocative conversations about education as a process that permeates all dimensions of human activity, rather than merely as compulsory and formal schooling. Guests will put their own scholarly agenda, project, practice, or questions in conversation with education. By working the gaps among disciplines, we seek to provoke insights beyond disciplinary boundaries.

In the first lecture, Professor Pfaller argued that a right-wing neoliberal, postmodernity has resulted in a bureaucratic higher education of repressive apparatuses (e.g. permanent assessment, evaluation and control). By co-opting and reapprorpriating “the left,” he suggested that the 1990s (Bologna) reforms have undone the university, as an exemplary space of freedom of thought, as well as movements for increased access and equity in the 1960s-70s. In the process, he argued, a new form of “little” student-subject has emerged. “Weak and in need of projection,” instead of a capable and agentic subject, this student must be kept safe from the dangers of a creative and challenging education. According to Pfaller, who drew on Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, the infantilisation of the student means that large numbers of students in today’s HE institutions are actually being uneducated, especially through evaluation systems that reinforce hierarchies and cater to student (as customer/consumer) needs to be comfortable and unprovoked. Pfaller posits that neoliberal privateers capitalized on left and postmodern ideologies and ‘under the pretext of opening the universities to the “uneducated”, the agents of the university reforms have accomplished the neoliberal aim: excluding the masses from higher education, by providing them with cheap drill and meaningless certificates.’

The Q&A developed around how we got here and where we can go. The central theme of the discussion asked: what has happened, is happening, and will happen next in the vacuum left by the loss of “big narratives” and “emancipated citizens”? As Professor Harry Torrance, ESRI Director, noted, the lecture resonates with the challenge for higher education of how legitimacy and authority is being (and will be) produced and sustained in the 21st Century. The discussion pondered why/how the above vacuum is being filled with neoliberal procedural bureaucracy and not more vitality? What is the responsibility and “response ability” of postmodernity? Or, as Professor Maggie MacLure, noted, might we also wonder about Bruno Latour’s idea that we’ve never been modern in the first place and that the focus on critique keeps the gaze on the past and not the future, as if there was such a “golden age”. MacLure also reminded us that student subjects are not fixed, but often more agentic than imagined. Dr. Geoff Bright, ESRI, provided examples in his reflection of HE over the past 40-50 years, noting that universities in the 1960s-70s were privileged spaces and that empirical ethnographic research shows how reforms, changes, and resistance cannot be merely generalized. The discussion continued over dinner at local café Kim by the Sea, where Professor Pfaller continued to listen patiently and entertain questions generously, as he had all week during his Manchester visit.

Of note, Professor Pfaller’s visit to Manchester was made possible through the joint effort of ESRI MMU and Critical Global Politics at the University of Manchester, where he gave a different, but equally provocative, lecture Tuesday on The Unbearable Enjoyment of the Other: Postmodern Sensibility and the Politics of Anxiety. Founding member of the Viennese psychoanalytic research group “stuzzicadenti”, Robert Pfaller was awarded “The Missing Link” prize in 2007 for connecting psychoanalysis with other scientific disciplines in the German edition of his book The Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners , which is now available in English (“Die Illusionen der anderen. Ueber das Lustprinzip in der Kultur. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2002). He is the author of seven additional books.

The seminars are held in 4.65 Birley at 4PM; the schedule follows:

Sverker Lundin – Ambivalence towards mathematics as a driving force behind mathematics education (11 February)

Alfie Bown – TBA (25 February)

Ansgar Allen – Prospects for the educated nihilist: Cynicism, suicide and failure (11 March)

Sarah McNicol – The muddled and the mundane: life story through comics (1 April)

Paola Valero and Kenneth Mølbjerg Jørgensen – TBA (29 April)

Rodrigo Constanzo – DF Score: Improv Pedagogy (13 May)

Judy Wu – Digital Narratives and Oral Histories: Tools for Pedagogy and Knowledge Production (3 June) 

David Menendez – Employability in Education Studies: A student-lecturer collaborative enquiry (10 June) 

Cheryl Matias – “Land of the free and the home of the modern racist”: Race, Whiteness, and the Emotional Death of American “Freedom” (Monday 22 June)

Stephanie Daza and Alexandre Pais

Provocative Matters, Monsters and Random Decompositions: an ESRI ‘Theories and Methodologies’ day


Berndnaut Smilde, 2012

Just before the end of last term, Friday 12th December saw (and heard!) a characteristically ‘different’ ESRI event take place at Birley. Initiated by Liz Jones, Rachel Holmes, Geoff Bright and Stephanie Daza, the event aimed to pick up on what had been an established ESRI tradition at Disdbury – the ‘Friday @ 4.00’ sessions – and push the envelope just a wee bit further. Friday @ 4.00 had provided a space where contributors were free to offer preliminary or incomplete research ruminations to a broadly sympathetic audience in a relaxed atmosphere. Typically, the material could be ‘challenging’ and eventual adjournment to the pub was usually required. For this event, we jumped in a bit deeper and designed a full day event (nicely wrapped around lunch) made up of three paper presentations, small group discussion, and a Q and A panel. Completely new this time, however, the proceedings were topped off by a sonic improvisation performance running into the early evening…and then, of course, a return to format: the pub (well, Kim by the Sea, actually).










Prof Christina Huf (University of Bremen), makes a point in the panel discussion…and Chair Geoff Bright ponders it (photos: Liz Jones)

During the day, an invited group of about 15 grad students, teaching and research staff largely from around the Centre for the Cultural Studies of Children and Childhood (including a visitor, Christina Huf, Professor of Early Primary Education at the University of Bremen) gathered to hear and respond to papers given by Prof Liz Jones, Prof Rachel Holmes and Dr Stephanie Daza. Dr Geoff Bright offered some opening and closing remarks and chaired the sessions. Titles of papers give a flavor of the day. Liz’s paper Figure 1 and 2 as ‘event’: reconfiguring quality asked, us among other things, to (literally) turn two pieces of ethnographic date upside down; Rachel’s paper My Tongue on Your Theory: Bittersweet ‘quality’ (in) research seduced the listener into ‘embracing the monster’ snarling in a fragment of film data of the children’s game Catch a Girl Kiss a Girl. Stephanie, in (Why) Matter Matters: Learning to Learn STEM Culture in Qualitative Inquiry, dug at the heart of the matter(s) and queried ‘how, when, and why the materiality of the body, and the interdependent relationship between humans and the physical world has been un/noticed, un/heard, and un/seen over and over again’. Geoff’s opening remarks offered an invitation into an intentionally experimental, strange, unsettling, provocative, even outlandish domain “outside habitual and familiar parameters” (in Liz’s words) where ‘open minds and open ears’ would essential. During the day, not only would the commonplace vocabulary of educational practice such as quality, effectiveness, transparency, performance (a regime of ‘order words’ and ‘death sentences’ in Deleuze’s words) be vigorously challenged, but ‘data’ would be completely reconfigured – not least in the sonic performance.


A group including Stephanie’s son Santana (in the interesting hat!) listen to the sonic improvisation (photo Liz Jones)

In truth, the day – and the audience’s fruitful, thoughtful questionings and generous listening – linked quite firmly into long standing preoccupations and approaches of a number of ESRI staff, working themes that will be familiar to those, for example, who have attended the Summer Institute of Qualitative Research led by Prof Maggie Maclure. Liz examined ‘quality’ when aligned within Deleuze’s notion of the ‘event’ and, following Deleuze, boldly gave up on the ‘pretence of signifying and making meaning’, arguing instead for thinking of ‘quality’ as implicated within an assemblage where it is ‘always becoming’. Rachel’s paper similarly leaned on posthumanisms and new materialisms to ‘resist a fixed, knowable form of ‘quality’ (in) research, moving between the idea of ‘monster’ and the formlessness of ‘monstrosity’ to oppose the epistemological, ontological and ethical paradigms of reason. Stephanie noted that the recent re/turn to physical matter, and re/emphasis on the rejection of the mind-body split as something ‘new’ (e.g. new materialisms) raises many questions about the ir/relevance of (new) things, in a world of relationships of variations on repetitions. In a paper that drew on six years of empirical fieldwork into STEM Culture, she explored recent trends towards ontology, arts (and aesthetics) in STEM (making STEAM?), and how doing research in things rather than on things generates different senses of onto-epistemological processes.

The day ended with a performance of two improvised sound pieces by Geoff (sax), Stephanie (voice) and Richard Knight, a Manchester based improviser and composer (computer and no-input mixer). In seeking lines of flight from order and the ‘death Improv3-2sentence’ of conventional and commodified sonic vocabularies both of these pieces explored sonic routes similar to the papers. The first, Random Decomposition by Geoff, worked structure, freedom, chance and invention to spontaneously de-compose a composition as it was being performed. The second – an ongoing and ambitious project led by Richard and Stephanie – responded to amix live, unfolding visual score based on ‘data’ gathered during the day and processed in the moment. A fragment from some of Richard’s publicity captures the spirit of this collaboration: “Knight often utilises specifically controlled feedback as an instrument. The unique method uses mixing desks as sound sources: a typically passive audio device subverted to become an expressive instrument. Of most intrigue is the tenuous area between feedback and feedforward – the hazy and perplexing cusp between order and chaos”. That last phrase gets it beautifully and summarises perfectly the problematic that generated the day’s events.

Geoff Bright