The logic of the gaze: education, spectatorship and the art of aesthetic governing

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Wednesday, 15 March, 1-2 pm (CMB Conference room 2.15)

Sotiria Grek, senior lecturer in Social Policy


The logic of the gaze: education, spectatorship and the art of aesthetic governing

Using Sweden as a case study, the aim of this paper is to take a historical perspective in order to explore the ways in which national systems and their innovations were influenced, constructed and traded through the use of education comparisons. More specifically, the paper will explore education comparisons through ‘aesthetic governing’; this is a new concept we use in order to denote the governing of education through representation and visual means. Our starting point is that although a lot of scholarly work has placed emphasis on the role of numbers in the making of nations, we know less about the role of images and representations in the governing of education within the nation but also transnationally.

The paper draws on research originating in the project ‘From Paris to PISA: Governing Education by Comparison, 1867-2015’; it examines the role of the national in the emergence of a transnational education policy field, as exemplified in the making of the European and global education policy space. By focusing on Sweden, a country considered a leading education state for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it aims to produce significant knowledge about the logics of comparison, its main actors and its techniques and effects. The title of the project alludes to two significant loci where international comparisons of school systems occurred: a physical one, Paris, as a host for several international exhibitions in the late 19th century, and, on the other hand, a symbolic policy space; that is the influential PISA-study carried out by OECD since 2000. Starting our investigation in Paris in 1867 and ending with PISA 2015, we trace significant changes in the role of international comparisons in educational policy-making. Within this timeframe, Sweden has always been in a fluid space of comparison, engaged in both internal and external policy learning and travel. Nevertheless, although most of literature in the field of education governance has so far focused on the role of numbers and data in the making of governing knowledge, this paper aims to explore a relatively ignored, yet crucial, aspect of how comparisons are made and communicated: that is, through the use of the image, either in the late 19th c.- early 20th century as the physical and ‘real’ space of the world exhibitions, or in the use of the first statistical representations, again in the exhibition space, of the 1930s, all the way to data visualisation techniques and the rise of big data of the early 21st century.

In order to explore the role of the visual in producing governing knowledge, the paper makes use of the concept of ‘diagrammatic thinking’ as discussed by the American pragmatist philosopher CS Peirce (1839-1914) and Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), a prolific writer on philosophy, film, literature and fine art. Whereas Peirce described the diagram as ‘an aid to knowledge’ that works primarily through representation, the Deleuzian project disrupts this reading, and uses the concept of the diagram as constitutive of new realities. In the paper, I will show what this may mean in conceptualising aesthetic governing and the very different ways that the image has been used in producing governing knowledge historically and at present.

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