Teaching the Actuality of Revolution

Aesthetics, Unlearning and the Sensations of Struggle

This book is available open access here

Barely an hour goes by, it seems, without another piece from the public intellectuals of the educational ‘global theory industry.’ Lacking any roots in the existing people’s struggles of the day, this industry’s educational ‘activist-scholars’ provide a radical cover for anti-communist and anti-revolutionary politics. Despite their constantly expanding list of neoliberalism’s ills and vague endorsements of unexamined social movements, they ultimately wage class struggle in the academy on behalf of imperialism. Recent historical research by Gabriel Rockhill explains why these intellectual commodities circulate so widely: they’re in line with the ruling classes’ project to ‘redefine the Left – in the words of cold warrior CIA agent Thomas Braden – as the ‘compatible,’ meaning non-communist, Left.’ In the educational arm of this industry, an abundance of ambiguous rhetoric camouflages the absence of any political alternatives and deflects from any precise inquiry into the role of education in reinforcing or resisting any political order.

Teaching the Actuality of Revolution not only presupposes the revolutionary project, but it follows a different path for pedagogical politics. In this opening cleared by Tyson E. Lewis, educational ‘politics does not begin with changing a student’s beliefs or raising critical consciousnesses’ and instead ‘has its fleshy roots in the pre-reflective, pre-cognitive erotics of perceptual foreplay wherein the potentiality for sensing differently – sensing otherwise than the disciplinary apparatus of learning dictates – is not sacrificed but rather nurtured.’ Although educational politics for me is about beliefs and ideas, it’s also about perceptions and sensations and, just as importantly, the interplay between the two. No sensations are pure, immediate or uninformed by what we think or believe, and the politics of any pedagogy form encased in concrete historical moments either reinforce the existing order of things or challenge them by opening up other possibilities. This provides an initial link between educational politics and aesthetics, as education necessarily reinforces, rearranges and/or challenges dominant regimes of perception, ways of seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing and tasting.

A critical analysis of capitalism and the struggle for socialism must attend to the aesthetic dimensions of both. Capitalism isn’t a purely economic system but is a broader perceptual apparatus. Capital is a perceptual ecological system, a dynamic and interactive network producing forms of ‘common sense,’ and just as capital is historically produced through struggle, so too are our perceptual capacities, orientations and regimes. ‘The sensuous world,’ Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology, ‘is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations… modifying its social system according to the changed needs.’ In this section of the manuscript, written between 1845–1846 but unpublished until 1932, they’re critiquing one of the Young Hegelians they’re breaking with, Ludwig Feuerbach. For Feuerbach, we achieve liberation by directly sensing the world as it is, by achieving ‘sensuous certainty.’ Marx and Engels reject the possibility of sensuous certainty because even the most basic object of our senses results from ‘social development, industry and commercial intercourse.’ Giving the cherry tree as an example of a ‘simple’ and ‘common’ sensuous object, they observe that the tree was ‘only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty.”’

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels clear new ground for the historical materialist and propose that our sensuous capacities, their organisation, and the entire sensuous world are historically produced. They even suggest that ‘so much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing.’ There’s no predetermined or unchanging relationship between any sensuous object and faculty. 

Sound, for example, interacts with our bodies through vibrations. We feel the vibrations of a booming base while riding in a car and see the vibrations of the musicians playing on a stage. The idea that listening is the essential property of the ear wouldn’t make sense before the widespread availability and affordability of the phonograph, the first accessible technology that separated music from the spatial, temporal and social context of its performance. In a 1923 Journal of Educational Method article, for example, educational theorist Stephen G. Rich writes that his experience using record players in schools ‘convinced me that the machine should be turned with its back to the audience’ and positioned in the corner of classrooms. ‘The usual procedure of having the machine face the audience,’ Rich proposes, ‘is only an unthinking inheritance from the days when we had no phonographs, and when we naturally had to look at the performer.’ The shape and structure of our sensations and that which we sense are determined by the different modes of production operative in the past, present and future of any social formation.

Capital: A Perceptual Ecology

My argument is that capital’s perceptual ecology is – and must be – continually reinforced through educational processes. Because the sensuous world is produced by ‘the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it,’ it can be transformed by ‘the communist materialist’ who ‘sees the necessity, and, at the same time, the condition, of a transformation both of industry and of the social structure.’ If this production rests on a specific educational modality, then we communist materialists ought to develop alternative aesthetic and pedagogical frameworks to produce them differently. Entering the class struggle aesthetically is important at this moment because, despite the endless proliferation of ever-more refined critiques of it, the reproduction of capital continues.

There’s a tension between pedagogy and politics, at least as I see and define them in our current era. Politics is the struggle for power that combines direction, ideological content, and organisational and mass struggle. Pedagogy names the forms and relations of education. Pedagogy takes diverse and even contradictory forms, so it isn’t determined entirely by a political platform. Politics, by contrast, is binary as it’s a struggle for the power to realise a definite partisan program. At the same time, my wager is that pedagogy can contribute to political struggles by offering educational forms organisers can utilise at various levels with the appropriate and correct content. In other words, I’m not saying that we should isolate education’s form from its content, let alone elevate the former over the latter. Both the what and how of education are politically decisive, but my interest in this book is primarily in pedagogical form. That said, the same pedagogical form can either reinforce or challenge capitalism depending on its deployment in a particular conjuncture.

The conjuncture is a concrete analysis of a particular situation. Yet this isn’t a simple investigation into the events, situations, or characteristics of a moment or era. In the conjunctural analysis, the various elements of the situation ‘become real or potential forces in the struggle for the historical objective, and their relations become relations of force.’ What makes the conjuncture unique is that it encompasses the existing factors – whether they be political groupings and ideologies, social conditions or modes of production, state or global actors – relative to the revolutionary project. This approach works within a marxist framework to identify the pedagogical, political, tactical and strategic elements, whether they be manifest or latent, existing or possible, to achieve the actuality of revolution, and the conjuncture as it’s determined by the objective of revolution determines the relations between aesthetics, education and politics at any given moment. Yet there is also something pedagogical about the conjunctural analysis itself. Marxist theory is predicated on the unexpected twists and turns of the movement and develops as the class struggle reflects on itself, a reflection, in turn, that depends on our pedagogical tactics and educational philosophies.

The class struggle’s terrain encompasses the production and reproduction of our perceptions, aesthetic relations and sensual worlds, and the knowledge that produces and is produced by each. In our conjuncture, after decades of near unrestrained US imperialism, Jennifer Ponce de León astutely observes that the possibility of other worlds is ‘aesthetically rendered invisible, impossible, or forever deferred.’ Oppositional struggles should engage with the existing but repressed possibilities that permeate our global struggle, for which pedagogy offers a hinge. Although pedagogy is pivotal in marxist history and in Marx’s own work, it’s generally underexamined. My intention is neither to provide a formula for the ‘correct’ marxist pedagogy or the ‘real’ or ‘true’ pedagogical relationship between aesthetics and politics, nor is it to tell organisers what to do or how to teach. Instead, I want to contribute to the collective development of common theories, concepts and practices for revolutionaries in the US to use as we plan, practice, reflect on and refine (or redefine) the pedagogical dimensions of the movement overall, including its organisations, activities, publications and formal education.

The Conjuncture of the Educational Intervention

There’s no binary between theory and practice in marxism. It’s not as if marxism is something you ‘apply’ or ‘use’ to analyse a situation. Even the term ‘praxis’ is ambiguous in this regard, for theory is a form of practice, although one that is clearly distinct from others. Still, just as the conjuncture requires a Marxist theory, so too does Marxist theory and pedagogy require a concrete analysis of the concrete situation. As a generalised reflection on the class struggle in concrete times and places, marxist theory and practice begin with an analysis of the conjuncture. Marxist theory is a materialist intervention in the class struggle in a concrete context and situation for definite political goals.

Under what conjuncture do the aesthetic and pedagogical theories offered in the following pages intervene? One that’s unique and daunting. As communist organiser and theorist Brian Becker notes, ‘the greatest danger to a revolutionary process is not the experience of a political downturn, such as we have experienced during the past decades.’ In the history of the international workers’ movement, setbacks are more common than advances. Our conjuncture is unprecedented and overwhelming. It’s greater than a defeat: it is ‘that the theory of revolutionary Marxism and the entire vision of workers’ power has been discredited and isolated from the people’s struggles.’ Historically, practical political activity retracted after such defeats – as it always does and always will – although marxist theory persisted and, in fact, advanced, as revolutionaries deepened inquiry to advance the struggle. After the overthrow and dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc socialist states, marxism was wiped from and discredited in the people’s movements.

The defeat of previous revolutionary movements was always the product of struggle. The Soviet Union’s overthrow was so catastrophic, however, as a result of ‘the character and form of the defeat.’ While mobilisations occurred, there were ‘no long-lasting barricades, no prolonged fighting in the streets’ as, in general, ‘confusion, passivity and inertness were widespread.’ Because the breakup of the Soviet Union happened without any real struggle (as forces inside the state dismantled it), this tragic setback didn’t stimulate a new wave of revolutionary praxis but profoundly fractured the continuity of marxism. ‘The organisational lessons from previous generations of struggle,’ as Becker points out, ‘have been suppressed. If some people have criticised the idealism of the 1960s and 1970s generation – for prematurely believing that revolution was imminent – today’s problem is the opposite and far more challenging: the assumption that socialist revolution will never happen, and the masses will always be oppressed.’

In the US, and much of the world, the working class and oppressed have increased our practical political activity, although marxist theory is no longer the guiding thread of our movements. Most obviously, with the Bernie Sanders phenomena, socialism – but not quite marxist theory – is once again becoming ascendant. The practical, political and ideological conjuncture is shifting in ways favourable to overcoming the interruption in the ideological continuity of our movements. Upticks in spontaneous struggles are becoming more and more common, creating educational opportunities for more and more people in the sensations of struggle, the feeling of revolutionary possibility and the knowledge of revolutionary theory. The tasks before us are, in large part, then, aesthetic and pedagogical.

Mapping the Book

Much intellectual work on marxism (and education) focuses on demystifying the ‘false’ appearances by unveiling their ‘true’ reality. The first chapter demonstrates the limits of these projects by demonstrating how capital is an aesthetic ecological regime that’s about cognition and sensation, or knowledge and aesthetics. Our class struggle needs to cultivate an aesthetic encounter with alternative lifeworlds in the present and to enunciate the educational resources involved as we contend with the aesthetics of our reasoning and criticism, such as the perceptual effect of our writing. The first chapter maps the aesthetics of capital and the class struggle to claim that Marx’s method and aesthetic pedagogy correspond to – and work against – the forces of capital. Drawing a constellation of the perceptual ecology of contemporary capitalism, I delineate how capital shapes our sensuous capacities and tendencies. Turning to the relations between art, politics and pedagogy, I argue that, through our collective work and action in the world, we learn and relearn the right modes of perceiving and knowing the world, ourselves and each other. I pick up on a latent – sometimes explicit but still underdeveloped – pedagogical project in recent scholarship on marxism and aesthetics that encompasses collective mapping and the production of sensations of possibility. I then address how the political objectives of Marx’s Capital are taught through a particular form of aesthetic pedagogy, focusing, in particular, on the fetishism of commodities and so-called primitive accumulation.

Having outlined the broader setting, the second chapter takes up the function of pedagogy in the reproduction of capital. I address teaching and connect the reigning praxis of teaching as the facilitation of learning to the maintenance of capital’s rule, showing how we’re schooled to sense the world through the lenses of commodity exchange, individuality, and optimisation, all of which limit our collective imaginary, channel our outrage into appropriate channels, and keep us fragmented and divided. In response, I advance teaching as the organisation of unlearning through moments of breakdown, which makes the familiar strange, disidentifies us with capitalist ideology, and pushes us into new perceptual apparatuses.

As the second chapter discusses the different educational processes of learning and unlearning, the third chapter explores the different methods of thinking involved in both. I focus on Louis Althusser’s analysis of certain artists and artworks to analyse his thinking on aesthetics and politics. He positions art as that which produces the sensorial experience of knowledge in the making, or the immersion in the disjuncture of thought through which we experience a revolutionary alternative in the present moment. My engagement with Althusser goes against the grain of the standard and widespread (mis)interpretations of his theory and pedagogy. As I draw out in this chapter and the next, the lesson I learn from Althusser is different: it teaches me to sense and think about a radical equality by moving pedagogy and politics from the cognitive to the aesthetic, by moving from the ahistorical temporality of capitalism to the Historical moment of revolution.

The fourth chapter moves to sound and the matter of listening and silence. I start with a pedagogical problem Althusser identifies in his short unpublished text, What Is To Be Done? where he suggests that the insufficiency of the workers’ struggle in Europe at the time resulted from its failure to conceptualise the totality of the class antagonisms. He introduces but abandons the necessity to teach the ability to listen adequately. Correct listening, interestingly, includes the ability to listen for what neither we nor our fellow class members know. We sense the radical indeterminacy of Althusser’s theory and pedagogy as he asks us to listen for a silence beyond cognition. Theoretically, I develop a model of symptomatic listening and distinguish hearing from listening to help flesh out the kind of sonic relation he’s after.

It would be a political and theoretical error to conclude from the above that decentring the subject and embracing contingency are universally revolutionary in themselves precisely because capital operates as an ecological network. The fifth chapter explains that uncertainty and unpredictability are sources of accumulation for capital in our current conjuncture. Turning to one of Althusser’s contemporaries, against whom he’s often pitted, I analyse Henri Lefebvre’s project of attuning our class to the rhythms of everyday life in place of capital’s domination over the times and spaces of our world. Lefebvre says capitalism is reproduced partially through the tyranny of abstract rhythms over concrete rhythms – the tick of the clock versus the movements of people and the Earth. Contemporary US capitalism, however, achieved Lefebvre’s project by finding sources of accumulation in the shifting and flexible rhythms of everyday life. Post-Fordism appropriates the opening of unforeseen and uncalculated new desires, events and knowledges by placing them under the demand for production and actualisation so that real revolutionary breaks seem impossible. Building on Jason Wozniak’s work, I position arrhythmia–the break in rhythms–as an initiation into the actuality of revolution.

The conclusion returns to a pedagogical project that comes at the end of Rockhill’s book on art and politics: the mapping of the conjuncture in which art and politics emerge. Fredric Jameson’s pedagogy of ‘cognitive mapping’ enters here as an aesthetic and political endeavour to teach a different aesthetic through the production of maps that relay different sensorial regimes beyond our visceral and cognitive amplitudes. Cognitive mapping involves charting out our location within the totality of capital, learning about contradictions and, through that very effort, unlearning the perceptual order of capital. We experience our inability to know the world as cognitive mapping is an impossible task. Taking up Fred Moten’s critique of Jameson’s misreading of the historical Black liberation struggle, I address Jameson’s emphasis on and isolation of sight and the eye, proposing a perceptual mapping that reorders the senses so we can feel the ongoing struggle over their historical production and unlearn capital’s perceptual ecology so we might construct and learn a different one. While brief, I hope that the conclusion can place some of the necessarily abstract concepts in the book back into the context of totality and make them more accessible through what serves as both a concrete practice and a general model.

I end here with an important reminder: The socialist project has, through organised and coordinated efforts, produced aesthetic regimes where use-value got the upper hand over exchange-value, determining the rhythms of life and creating collective, common subjects. This process occurred throughout all arenas of life and the social, from international relations built on solidarity to cooperative economic planning guided by people’s needs rather than profits, from urban planning and housing construction to dynamic musical cultures where workers from different nationalities and races became collective artists and blurred the lines between intellectual and physical labour, between amateur and professional. I do this not only to reaffirm the actuality of revolution but to locate contemporary organising within the long and complicated history of the marxist movement. But if you don’t make it that far, at least remember this: Exploitation and oppression are not natural or permanent but social and transitory. Revolutions are not only possible but actual, not only a future aspiration but also an indisputable accomplishment. We still don’t know what our class is capable of inventing and unleashing.

This is not only a political point but a pedagogical one. How can we – and why would we – engage in the struggle if we didn’t believe in the ability of our people to take power and reorganise society if we didn’t presume our collective competence? This educational philosophy that anchors this book can be traced back in the marxist movement to the founding of the International where, as Marx and Engels recall, ‘we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself… Hence, we cannot cooperate with men who say openly that the works are too uneducated to emancipate themselves.’ A (if not the) central ingredient in forging a vehicle for the working and oppressed can take power has always been the genuine belief in the people to take history into their own hands, which in itself validates that educational theory is foundational for the class struggle.

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Full Citation Information:
Ford, D. R. (2023). Teaching the Actuality of Revolution: Aesthetics, Unlearning and the Sensations of Struggle. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/teaching-the-actuality-of-revolution/

Derek R. Ford

Derek R. Ford is a teacher, organiser and theorist currently working as associate professor of education studies at DePauw University, where they teach and research about the connection between educational theory and contemporary politics. Their work has appeared in academic journals, including Cultural Politics and Educational Philosophy & Theory, as well as a diversity of popular outlets such as Black Agenda Report, Monthly Review and Popular Resistance. They also hosted the popular podcast series Reading ‘Capital’ with Comrades.

They’re associate editor of Postdigital Science & Education and deputy editor of the Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies. Ford is the editor of Liberation School and a contributing editor at the Hampton Institute and serves on the editorial collective of the International Manifesto Group, in addition to organising with the Indianapolis Liberation Centre and the ANSWER Coalition. You can contact them here.

Recent works by Derek include: