let’s take the culture back!GeSTIcULATED ConferenCeS: A cULTUreLy oFFenSIVe ConTreSS!

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Does modern formal education tend to emancipate the individual? Isn’t its very principle, its mode of operation, the opposite of this possible « liberation » through knowledge? And then, a school that helps you think — we already know it helps you spend — wouldn’t we know if it did? In spite of a certain ideological totalitarianism that makes it increasingly difficult to change the path that has been laid out (work-consumption-metrododo), we would not be where we are today if school helped us to ask ourselves the right questions, to question what is, to always weigh our interests, those of others, of the world they share and of the world we live in. of the splendid diversity that inhabits it. 
Through his definition of popular education and the cultural reappropriation it allows, Franck Lepage, a subversive iconoclast intellectual, brings us face to face with what we were trying to forget: politics is in culture, but culture has killed politics, arbitrarily separating its official creators from its passive spectators. 
Talented animator of gesticulated conferences, Franck Lepage gives us here his conception of what is, and should be, popular education.

What does a clandestine political explanation session with villagers in Chiapas have to do with a salt dough workshop at a children’s recreation center? None of them! Yet both refer to popular education. We are often asked about the definition of popular education. As if there was a definition…but there isn’t. Good for you! It is the strength of this concept that it does not allow itself to be locked into a definition. The day there is a definition of popular education, it will be dead. This polysemous concept, (which carries many different meanings, which means many different things), encompasses perfectly contradictory ideas and practices and is therefore available and appropriable for struggle and action. Youppie!

and first of all, what do we call « popular education »? 

Let us at least say that popular education is not the education of the people, but an education whose form and modalities are popular. In the game of definitions, we can risk several, from the least political to the most political; from the least learned to the most learned… 

-Vague educational definition: popular education would include « all forms of education outside of school ». Here we have the typical definition of popular education as an extracurricular niche, as a socio-educational market. Catch-all concept. This includes all forms of pedagogy related to socio-educational activities. This definition is not only apolitical, it is anti-political. It is not ours. It is understandable, but it structures hundreds of associations which certainly do a deserving socio-educational work but which have great difficulty in making politics! 

-Definition of social practices such as mutual education (« peer education ») close to Canadian community animation, popular education resembles here the knowledge exchange networks: you teach me how to change an engine, I teach you how to sew! Yes, but who will teach me about class struggle? 

-Procedural scholarly definition of the « educational sciences » type: « popular education is an educational practice in which the recipient of the educational act is associated with the definition of the content of legitimate knowledge transmitted » (SIC)…this definition has the merit of approaching the question of the legitimacy of knowledge: what is knowledge, what is legitimate knowledge, what is popular knowledge? What is useless knowledge, what is dead knowledge (Marignan: 1515), what is useful knowledge for collective action? Is anger a knowledge? Does the rage of a young immigrant from the suburbs in front of the blocked employment horizon for him or the humiliating practices of his teachers constitute knowledge for him? Does the experience of thirty-five years of social action in a city for a social worker constitute knowledge? 

-As you can see, our definition of popular education is political: for us « mutual political emancipation » would be a good definition. We could also talk about the work of culture in social and political transformation. On the condition that we agree on the word culture and on the expression social transformation! 

what do we call « culture »? 

In the 19th century, by tearing men and women away from their trade (peasants, craftsmen), their traditions, or their family or village community, and by chaining them to machines in cities as simple auxiliaries of these machines, industrial capitalism achieved a massive cultural expropriation. Millions of people find themselves deprived of culture, that is, of identity and self-consciousness, mere slaves in factories. Machinism no longer allows them to think about what they do or what they are. Their value, in their own eyes and in the eyes of society, is almost nil in this new value system. They are at best simple automatons in a survival situation, at worst a bunch of scoundrels who will justify their elimination by the honest people, the good people, (the people who have good) during the Paris Commune. 

When you do the same thing twelve hours a day for thirty-five years, you don’t have a profession (you only have a job). Food workers who have been hanging chickens seven hours a day for thirty-five years have no « job ». They will build their culture outside of their job, in their social, leisure or militant life. Generally speaking, today’s management, by eliminating the way of thinking about one’s work and replacing it with a set of standardized procedures, in the name of a so-called quality approach that is nothing more than a productivity approach, achieves a re-proletarianization of the people. The same system of cultural expropriation is still at work. 

This mass of proletarians, their attempt to understand little by little who they are, (almost nothing, then little by little a social class conscious of itself) we will call it « popular education ». One could say political education, and this is the « cultural » dimension of the labor movement. The slow work of the 19th century workers’ movement, which consisted precisely in acquiring a culture… in making « class ». This gave rise to systems of organization (unions, labor exchanges, mutual aid funds, etc.) and to debates that would seem curious today (refusal to send their children to the bourgeoisie’s school). The culture is then the whole of the strategies that an individual mobilizes to resist in the domination. One could also say that popular education is the work of culture in social transformation. On the condition that we understand the word culture as the political understanding of domination and that we understand the word social transformation as the means of resisting this domination towards ever more equality. Why not revolution? 

This is where the gesture of claiming one’s experience and claiming to make it a cultural object takes on its full meaning in the gesticulated conferences.

not all management is good 

Good news: Something is happening in the cultural field… sufficiently strange and subversive that none of these famous « cultural places » always worried about novelty will risk it. 

Once the cultural expropriation has been accomplished, the bourgeoisie has imposed a conception of culture totally cut off from life, from work, from the relations of domination; a playful culture of which the mawkishness of contemporary art gives a rather good idea. From this point on, « Culture » becomes a system organized in such a way that those who produce it and those who receive it are never confused. So there are people whose job is to elaborate representations of society, and an undifferentiated crowd called « public », invited to come and contemplate the mystery(1). One speaks then of « meeting » so that each one remains in its place, and not to mix the dabblers and the soviets, one relegated the dangerous question of the practices under the inoffensive title of amateurism and one invented the sociocultural one to hold the rabble at distance of the sacred one. Confusion indeed if everyone would elaborate and then expose the representations that they would judge legitimate instead of the experts. It is clear that one of the three mainsprings of capitalism is the professionalization of all activity, which is itself a condition of the commodity(2). Culture belongs to the cultural! 

Let’s imagine for a moment that a so-called « social worker » (horror) invests a theater stage and starts to tell us the conditions of refusal of a file of social minima !!! Antigone would turn in her grave. Let’s go further: let a craftsman reveal to us the underbelly of the carpenter’s trade, a physiotherapist or a doctor the liberal economy of the body, a teacher the nightmare of the school in the process of merchandising or a counselor of the local mission for employment, the obscenity of the « insertion » of the young people…and let’s imagine that we push the bad taste to the point of baptizing these monstrosities « gesticulated conferences »… It would be an intrusion in the culture. Worse, a profanation: the irruption of the banality in the place of the sacred. As if the universal did not live in Athens any more but in a file of social insurance. This infamy, a hundred gesticulators already will have dared it at the end of the year 2014. What is initiated there is subversive, when the cultural system consists in proposing only transgression, instead of subversion (3). One then sees people who have never set foot in a theater blithely taking seats to hear about things that concern them! The world upside down! 

To propose to a person to transform his or her personal experience of domination into a shareable political object is thus a profoundly cultural act. Here the intimate meets the universal. One could define the gesticulated conference as the meeting between hot and cold knowledge. This does not give a lukewarm knowledge, it gives a storm! The « hot » knowledge: « illegitimate » knowledge, popular knowledge, political knowledge, knowledge of experience…knowledge useful for collective action…hence the idea of « inculture », or « unauthorized political tale »… If you have to be part of the university to be allowed to speak publicly on a subject, then what you have understood during 20 years of activity is not worth much and has only the despised status of « moods ». 

Cold » knowledge: The university publishes excellent political and sociological analyses on all the subjects we need… Boltanski and Bourdieu on the culture of capitalism, Castels on the social, Eme and Wuhl on insertion, Dubet on the school, Donzelot on the City…how is it that this knowledge is of no use in mobilization and collective action(4)? The social « actors » do not read or hardly read the production of intellectuals, which itself does not meet or hardly meets the work of the social actors. One might argue that social workers should go to conferences, but when will conferences take an interest in the work of the social worker? And when will we have the chance to be told, explained, and analyzed the work of a social worker, which — it must be said — we know nothing about! 

The idea of the gesticulated conference is that of a transmission, which is NEVER authorized, never organized: the transmission of the collective (i.e. political) experience that we store up throughout our experience. The gesticulated conference is a weapon that the people give to themselves. It is a deliberately poor form, so as not to be parasitized by « cultural » considerations where aesthetics would take precedence over politics. To allow others to enter our subjectivity and to reach the universal and thus the political. To unveil the systems of domination at work as we have experienced them and to gather useful knowledge for collective action.

It is not a militant presentation, but a personal account, with autobiographical anecdotes, which illustrate and make « true » the analyses. The power of the anecdote is real. An analyzed political commentary of the issue at hand (the « hot » knowledge)…what I understood myself. My thoughts. Outside academic input on the issue (« cold » knowledge)… what others have said about it. You learn something. A historical dimension: historicity means remembering the room for manoeuvre, understanding how the problem was constructed. All of this results in embodied political theory, that is to say, precisely useful knowledge for collective action or, to put it another way, the work of culture in social and political transformation. When WE have all done our gesticulated conference, THEY will have lost. 

words of management 

In today’s system, conferences are David versus Goliath; David’s advantage in this fight is a multitude of free points of view, of stories; a multitude of voices asking questions, inventing solutions, while the colossus in front is more and more uniform and rigid. The gesticulated conferences are the hope of bringing him down. (Juliette R.) 

How to get the message across? With what legitimacy? And how can I denounce all these irresponsible practices that I witness? How do you open people’s eyes without alienating everyone and risking not being heard at all? Putting it together. Already! That’s it! This clever mix of experience and knowledge. This conviction is tinged with humor, irony but also self-mockery. That’s how to get my message across. A gesticulated conference. A beautiful package containing a very tangy candy. (Jeremy M.) 

To put oneself in the game, to bring one’s contradictions, to deliver one’s doubts, to highlight one’s mistakes, to better leave the possibility that each one seizes in turn the possibility to say, to tell oneself. Destroy expertise as truth, but use expertise mixed with experience to give back the legitimacy to think together. To make live around an individual history the desire to take back in hand our collective history and to start from there to deconstruct what was built without us to outline the possibility of being able to rebuild between us. (Benjamin C.) 

If a gesticulated conference is neither a new media, nor a new party, nor a new entertainment (the one that distracts), it is because it faces the monopoly of public speech confiscated by the dominant channels of Media, Politics and Culture. It is a tool that makes the popular word visible and audible. Popular word in a double sense. First, the common word, the word of everyone, of every day, of everyday life. And then, the popular word is also the proletarian word, that of the dominated, the stigmatized, the illegitimate. As much, it is possible to speak in his name, about him, to defend his cause. As much, it is at least unlikely to leave the popular to itself. (Hervé C .) 

When I gesticulate, it’s as if I’m shouting my doubts, even if I whisper and smile, even if I look confident… And what’s the point of shouting your doubts? You might as well shout out your convictions, right? Why shout out your questions, your accidents, your misunderstandings? Well, to break, destroy and crumble the foundations of technocracy. To open breaches, to find the flaws of this society that constantly relies on its experts. To assert, loudly and publicly, that humans doubt and know no certainties. To remind anyone who wants to hear that we are not machines, that we think and feel the world every second. (Noémie M.) 

Franck Lepage

Co-founder in 2007 of the popular education cooperative « le Pavé » in Rennes (scoplepave.org). Today, he is a lecturer at « la grenaille », the network of four popular education cooperatives in France (L’orage in Grenoble scoplorage.org, L’engrenage in Tours lengrenage.blogspot.fr and Le Vent debout in Toulouse ww.vent-debout.org

Notes et références
  1. Il serait plus juste de l’appeler « privé » ! L’espace public étant la réunion en un public de personnes privées faisant un usage public de leur raison critique, on comprend que les théâtres dans leur écrasante majorité – et à l’exception notable du Grand Parquet ne dessinent dans le noir de leur salle aucun espace public. ( note à l’attention des cuistres, des étudiants méritants et des philosophes allemands).
  2. Les deux autres conditions étant la hiérarchie et la forme argent. (note à l’attention des pédants, des curieux, ou des apprentis marxistes).
  3. La transgression est inoffensive, contrairement à la subversion. Uriner sur la scène à Avignon fait trembler le patronat sur les bases, on l’aura compris !! ! (note à l’attention des ennemis de l’art, des populistes et des apprentis psychanalystes).
  4. (ndLr) en Belgique et dans le cadre de la classe, changements pour l’égalité, dans son rapport «la remédiation scolaire, une politique du sparadrap », dressait un constat peu ou prou similaire : « Il est prioritaire de traduire en termes didactiques les résultats de recherches en sociologie, en didactique, dans le champ des neurosciences et de la psychologie cognitive, pour en faire des outils rigoureux applicables en classe ».
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