Inviting in the Figure of the Political Child

IMG_6911A few weeks ago we held our third reading group discussion. Dr Rebecca Webb, our colleague in the Department of Education, had suggested we engage with the work of French philosopher Jacques Rancière and provided us with a chapter from the work of Biesta & Bingham (2010, 49-72) to get us warmed up, which draws on the aesthetics and poetics of Rancière’s work. Below Rebecca has kindly summarised what she finds useful and inspiring about Ranciere’s work when it comes to thinking about the categories and experiences of childhood and politics.

So, it was my suggestion that we should call upon the work of Jacques Rancière to see where this might take us by way of adding something ‘else’ to thinking though politics/the political in relation to children and childhood as part of our Connectors Reading Group. This was not entirely selfless. I have been intrigued by the writing of Rancière for some time. I called upon it as part of my reading for my own doctoral thesis alongside the work of Judith Butler. I did this in order to ‘push’ at (my) possible readings of the ‘political’ child as the subject of the of the discourse of the UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools agenda in an English primary school, as part of an ethnographic study of the practising of ‘children’s rights’. I had become intrigued by the way in which the discourse of rights was often spoken of as emancipatory and participatory by those with adult responsibilities for the children, at the same time that it was performed in ways that required children to become socialised into already decided, allocated and rather polite ‘middle-class’ subject positions (which – by and large – the children did very well.) However, I had also witnessed the energetic, inventive, fun, lively, and slightly subversive individual and collective ‘political’ acts/actions of the children which I came to read as ‘dissensual’ – challenging the idea of the ‘good citizen’ whose subjectivity has been already determined and set out by the discourse of ‘rights’ within the framework of the school’s ‘rights and respect’ policy[1].

In this third chapter of Bingham and Biesta, we are introduced to ‘Barbara’, a demanding and wonderfully inventive, toddler who is engaging with noise-making, babbling and speech in an apprenticeship of learning which in Rancière’s view is ‘as difficult as learning will ever be’ (Bingham & Biesta, ibid, 56). The point of the detailed description of aspects of Barbara’s linguistic prowess is to highlight her, not as a subject of ‘normal’ (or otherwise) psychological educational linguistic development, but rather as a political figure. And here, Rancière’s idea of ‘politics’ as dissensus becomes crucial. Politics is that which exists ‘because those who have no right to be counted as speaking beings make themselves of some account’ (Rancière, 1999, 27) generating disorder: it is an intersubjective mode of acting that disturbs what is already in place in order to make a demand. And – most – importantly, it announces ‘the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being’ (Rancière, 2003, 30). Barbara’s use of language makes known her requirements. It is a performative ‘forced-entry’ (Bingham & Biesta, ibid, p.59) which highlights Barbara as a figure of equality by virtue of her desire to announce herself and to make herself understood in the adult world of those who already make sense to one another.

This reading of ‘Barbara’ seems profoundly important for those of us within institutions of education which demands ever more voraciously, that we describe and prescribe a consensus; that we set out – in advance – exactly what and how we should make sense of a psychological reading of Barbara’s intellectual mastery at every stage of her schooling odyssey. We know, of course, that this desire to capture and prefigure ‘learning’ is not only that which is demanded within our English school system. It is increasingly required of us within the university sector as we are asked to set out – in advance – what educational emancipation should look like – on our virtual learning sites; within our handbooks; and weekly aims of lectures and seminars we deliver.

What I enjoy so much about Barbara, and our introduction to her as a political child, is that we are invited to think about her as making demands of us as an equal, asserting her right to disrupt the prefigured ‘normal’ of learning. Further, this engagement with her asks us to re-think what a performative equality of intersubjectivity might require of us as adults and educators. After all, as Rancière reminds us:

the student [and the toddler Barbara we might say] learns something as an effect of his master’s mastery, but does not learn his master’s knowledge’ (Rancière, 2007a, quoted in Bingham & Biesta, ibid, 53).

In our engagements with young people in which we hope for both their participation and emancipation, we can and should embrace the possibilities of entirely new readings and reactions to what it is that we have to say, embracing interruptions and disruptions of our all too tidy pre-prescribed outcomes, intentions and impacts for the sake of ‘the political’.



[1] For detail of some these dissensual acts, see chapters 6 and 7 of thesis, Webb, R. (2014) Doing the Rights Thing: an ethnography of a dominant discourse of rights in a primary school in England.

One response to “Inviting in the Figure of the Political Child

  1. Pingback: Multimodal reflections on the making connections workshop·