Applying Post Concepts: Theorizing Voice and Power with Foucault, Butler, and Deleuze and Guattari
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Over the last decade, we have seen an emerging corpus of literature on student voice at classroom, school, university, and system level that draw from poststructural theories. More than just a capacity of students to talk about schooling practices as informants, student voice involves student participation and agency in regard to both pedagogical decision-making and school governance. It is produced through relations of power within the particular situated contexts of schools. Student voice work has been used in teacher education as a tool to gauge efficiencies (schooling improvement) and address power asymmetries (student participation and activism) (Mayes et al. 2017). It is appropriate to question the motivation for and justification of participatory voice projects as a part of schooling reform. To what degree do students exercise agency and influence matters that affect their own lives and the well-being of others?
Although “giving voice” to marginalized groups has been inherent in emancipatory and radical approaches to education, post theories (where there is recognition of multiple perspectives and all knowledge curation is seen as partial and located) can be used to complexify and challenge simplistic and unproblematic conceptions of “empowering” students through student voice research and pedagogy.
Post epistemologies value instability and recognize the complexity and fluidity of power and subjectivities in schoolings’ relational spaces. Power is not a hierarchical construct but rather is relational, circulating, and reconstituting in social arrangements (Foucault 1980). This fluid notion of power contrasts a binary conception of power where it is something that can be possessed or not possessed. Subjectivities are the positions that individuals (students, peers, teachers, leaders) hold within relations of power. Post conceptions of voice can both trouble-dominant cultural models at work within education contexts and provide frameworks with which to explore the discourses that fashion how subjects become recognized, overlooked, or cast as abject. Discourses are societal and institutional frameworks through which people position themselves and are positioned by others.
This entry outlines how theorizing voice and power through the frameworks of four philosophers, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Giles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, can inform pre-service and in-service teacher education. The theories of these post philosophers furnish teachers and teacher educators with useful concepts pertaining to power, subjectivities, and discursive configurations that can be used to explore the dynamics associated with student engagement and participation.
Foucault: Governmentality and Biopower
Since the late 1980s, feminist poststructuralist scholars have critiqued both hierarchical conceptions of power, as something someone has more of than another person, and the imposition of “empowerment” (that one can give power to another) that has emerged from the critical pedagogy movement. The work of Michel Foucault, a French historian and philosopher, has been used to theorize that power is productive and dynamic, circulating in the networks of student voice micro-relations which are inherent in everyday schooling contexts. Foucauldian readings of student voice leverage critiques of the neoliberal logics of consumer culture in education and processes of compliance that groom teachers and students to conform to dominant schooling practices. Governmental power is aligned with the monitoring and management of students and educators.
The use of Foucauldian theory offers possibilities to challenge economic modes of power that evoke student voice as transactions to support schooling governmentality. It is ironic therefore that student voice that purports to support learner agency and empowerment actually is embedded in schooling processes that are entrenched in adult angsts about the production of ideal future citizens – how to make students conform to social mores, values, and morals. The governmentality of student voice work in schools can extend a neoliberal agenda that aligns with the goals of global competition effected through the application of technical measures aimed to promote efficiency and effectiveness. This is a salient student voice critique that is pertinent to teacher education. Nevertheless Foucault’s concept of governmentality can be mobilized to question schooling power relations and disrupt simplistic, hegemonic education hierarchies and relationships.
In schools, governmentality involves processes for disciplining individual bodies, including promoting technologies of the self where subjects discipline themselves. Biopower is used as a mechanism by those in positions of authority to achieve control over populations and the subjugation of individuals. It is produced, negotiated, and/or resisted on an ongoing basis by all subjects who live in advanced capitalist societies. Students, teachers, leaders, and teacher educators are worked on through both governmental technologies of the self, where subjects discipline themselves, and pastoral forms of control where reforms happen in communities who exert a collective pressure. From a biopolitical perspective, student voice is put to use in schooling through quality assurance processes. Thus student voice is produced through both the governmentality of school mechanisms and the biopower that circulates through schooling relations that create and govern practices and discourses. Biopower is present both when educators (teachers and school leaders) gather voice for school improvement purposes and in sophisticated participatory projects which focus on the constitution of “ideal citizens.” Participatory student voice projects therefore need to be located within their sociopolitical and historical contexts so that the biopolitical machinations can be closely investigated.
Foucauldian Student Voice Work in Schools
It is easy to valorize participatory projects and fail to problematize them politically. Foucauldian theory can be used to critique participation initiatives and the way that, despite being well intentioned, they can support indirect government. Therefore the claim that voice can be emancipatory is problematic, because all voice work within schools exists within systems of the government. The enactment of student voice work is often a means of exerting disciplinary power over the bodies of students by adult authorities, who themselves are not always critically reflexive and are also produced within the biopolitical discourses of schools. When power is deployed in such indirect ways, through mechanisms for generating “voice,” it is often not recognized as endemic.
Students, researchers, and educators who take up a Foucauldian notion of power to analyze classroom micro-relations can provide local solutions to local challenges (Mayes et al. 2017). Practitioners and researchers can make nuanced readings of how power operates, with micro-level technologies deployed in classrooms. This student voice work creates space for practices that align with democratic student participation ideals (Mayes et al. 2017).
Butler: Performativity and Matrices of Intelligibility
Judith Butler, an American philosopher and influential gender theorist, has argued that subjectivities are fluid and subjects act and in turn are acted upon in the discursive politics of particular social contexts. Student voice work takes account that student and teacher subject positions are an effect of discourse and these subjectivities are constituted through corporeal positionings which are not solely linguistic. Butler offers possibilities for thinking about the constructedness of subjectivity and voice. By deconstructing discourses that frame the realities of students’ and teachers’ in schools, it is possible to interrogate their emergence and operation (Butler 1993).
In Butlerian theory, power is a product of this discourse positioning that operates through discursive performativity. For Butler, performativity is a “citational practice” (Butler 1993, p. 2) where subjectivities develop through a continuous process of reiterating and resignifying their positions within frequently used discourses (Butler 1993). The term “citational” pertains to how norms are produced through discourses that regulate how students and educators perceive themselves, each other, and the world. Performativity provides a means to consider how speech acts (like enacting student voice practices by involving students as informants on schooling) bring discourses into being as micro and macro workings of power. The subject positions of “student” and “teacher” are produced through effects of power that are enacted in normative frameworks or matrices of intelligibility. These matrices make visible the performativity of citational practices. “Student” and “teacher” subjectivities are fluid, responsive to relationships, and open to multiple interpretations by others.
There are multiple and competing discourses available in schools, and students, teachers, and leaders navigate the matrices of intelligibility through which they become subjects. Butlerian notions of performativity and matrices of intelligibility enable educators and researchers to problematize power relations and essentialism in voice work where students are presumed to be able to give accounts of themselves and their experiences. Particular discursive matrices of intelligibility underpin various historical formations of student and teacher subjectivities and critical student voice work can be informed by close attention to these frameworks. Through citational practices, student and educators can become unwittingly complicit in sustaining hegemonic social structures.
Butlerian Student Voice Work in Schools
Analysis in Butlerian student voice work enables teachers and students to recognize how subjectivities are created through a range of different discursive practices. Butlerian theory can be used in teacher education to recognize how student voice is immersed within the complexity of matrices (including intersectionalities) of sexual orientation, social class, and gender. Resistance is possible through working within and against the dynamics of the multiple and competing discourses available that determine how students and teachers come to be subjects within multiple matrices of intelligibility. Students, teachers, and leaders are necessarily regulated by norms, even those that they oppose. Scrutiny of how social norms that are associated with student voice work produce teacher and student subjects can enable the critical interrogation of students’ and educators’ positioning in schooling discourses. Through recognizing this positioning and processes of power, students and teachers can creatively engage with constraints in order to trouble and disturb the pattern of power.
The notions of performativity and matrices of intelligibility can be used to provide insight into how children recognize and make sense of the power relations associated with the discursive practices embedded in schooling contexts. It is possible to undertake readings of how children act to accept, resist, subvert, and change or ignore a range of discourse positions. Individuals can reiterate and resignify the positions that constitute them as subjects, in doing so, reframing positions within the matrices of power and the discourses that produce them as viable subjects. By deconstructing discourses of student voice, as they are constituted and described in schooling settings, students themselves can interrogate how they are located within particular matrices of intelligibility.
Educators can also support students to mobilize the discursive resources to recognize and resist hegemonic positionings. Students and teachers therefore can accept, challenge, modify, and change social structures through both their refusal of discursive practices or elements of those practices and by practicing new and alternative forms of discourse. Constraints associated with existing structures and practices can be recognized and grappled with. Butlerian theory can be used to surface questions around how student voice work can serve to reify certain students – those subjects who are permitted to speak and take up authoritative positions in education settings. Recognizing that often voice projects are undertaken with “model students,” it is important to ensure that this work includes those who are difficult to hear and those whom educators may find challenging to listen to.
Discourses and practices can also operate in tension with one another, and therefore the making of subjects is never clear-cut. It is important for teacher education that there is recognition around how learners contend with the multiple contradictory meanings that are inscribed in their bodies and minds. Students engage in, reproduce, and contest power relations in schooling contexts, when they take action as embodied subjects – both dependent on social structures and simultaneously acting upon them. Although subjects are constituted in and through schooling discourses, they are not predetermined by them, a valued concept in teacher education where social mobility and social justice are valued.
Deleuze: Student Voice as Affect in the Cartographic Assemblage
Deleuzoguattarian student voice work departs from humanist conceptions of voice, focusing attention on how bodies (both human and nonhuman) juxtapose in relation with other bodies in schooling spaces. Matter is not passive, and there is power that lies in the productive spaces between bodies that can generate new forms of participatory relationships.
Concepts from the “toolbox” of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the activist and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari have been taken up in student voice scholarship to scrutinize the political dimensions of social relations in schools. It is notable that there is dearth of empirical analyses of student voice that draw from Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts (Mayes 2016). Aligning with the Foucauldian emphasis on micro-relations, a Deleuzian approach to voice attends to both subtle and overt motions of power within schooling assemblages (relational networks). Extending Foucault’s (1980) thesis about the multilayered structure of power, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) argue that there are ongoing connections forged through the multiplicities of assemblage dynamics.
Assemblage is the English translation for the French word “agencement,” or arrangement. Assemblages are patterns of interaction that help us to understand relationships between human and nonhuman bodies and the flows of affect across time and space. Affect is a force that produces change in relationships. In assemblages there are biological, emotional, psychological, social, physical, and political elements that intertwine. These entangled elements mobilize affect that produce student voice. Assemblages are multiplicitous – so full we cannot attend to all of their threads. However, by following the tendrils and their affects, cartographies of voice can be explored for their political influences and workings of power. Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts can be used alongside concepts developed by stakeholders in schools to create new ways of thinking and working with voice in both schools and research (Mayes et al. 2017). Those using Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy to do student voice work have license to be creative with their thinking as they place importance on the creation of new thought and material relationality to support student decision-making, schooling participation, and policy work.
Student voice work that draws from Deleuzoguattarian theory provides us with the concepts of becomings and embodied power as flows of affect within and across assemblages. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) draw on the work of Baruch Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher, to theorize power as “affect.” Affect describes pre-discursive experiential intensities that circulate between bodies (human and nonhuman). An analysis of affect in student voice work involves mapping flows of energy to analyze power relations between bodies in schooling settings. Voice is constituted in assemblages through flows of affect where biological, emotional, psychological, social, physical, and political dynamics combine and cohere to make it both possible and impossible to act, depending on the elements mobilized.
There is rhizomatic logic to Deleuzoguattarian student voice that prioritizes a range of networked relationships that are not always visible. Relations between elements that can include macro-schooling discourses, schooling cultures, norms for students’ behaviors, and pedagogic approaches are analyzed in schooling assemblages. These elements interplay to form rhizomatic entanglements with student voice produced as a discursive marker though the interconnections. Although voice can be teased out as a thread within an assemblage, it is inevitably co-constituted by all the other elements that it is in relation with. Student voices emerge through the power relations and the dynamism of collective assemblages. Thus voices have power to affect and to be affected through the interplay of mattering and spatiotemporal elements. An examination of power relations requires attention to the rhizomatic motions that interweave the elements of the assemblage.
Deleuzoguattarian Student Voice Work in Schools
Schooling assemblages furnish a range of entangled elements that can include bodies, subjectivities, relations, histories, temperature, lighting, and spaces – physical and social. In these assemblages, human bodies, chairs, tables, lights, and various media interconnect and form transversal bonds. Student voice therefore is produced in the in-between spaces of bodies and objects. Analyzing power in student voice involves considering how these rhizomatic dynamics work to together to produce the politics of particular spaces and times (spatiotemporal contexts). Student voice is immersed in the milieu in which it exists and is produced though a discursive-affective-material assembling that shifts across time and space. Mayes (2016) provides an example of how students’ voices can be produced within provisional shifting assemblages. In her school-based research work, she critiques how student voice can be used against students when it is collected and made into durable signs that reinscribe pedagogic control (in this particular instance characteristics of “respect” as a school-wide value). The discursive-affective-material assembling of voice work is used to perpetuate school values in ways that “modulate uncomfortable or dissenting views” (Mayes 2016, p. 225) and organize and reinforce particular political arrangements.
Post theories encapsulated by the theoretical work of Foucault, Butler, and Deleuze and Guattari can be used to problematize conventional power relations in student voice work. It transcends the savior narratives of hierarchical empowerment, so salient in the liberatory intents of humanist work associated with critical pedagogies. Post theories offer educators theoretical frameworks for navigating the complexities of power, mapping how it is mobilized and can be resisted, and what this means for student participation and activism. Through applying post theories that acknowledge how power, subjectivities, and discursive configurations are enacted in student voice work, students and educators can be challenged to reframe the politics of schooling.
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- Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia (trans: Massumi, B.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
- Foucault, M. (1980). The eye of power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/knowledge: Selected interviews & other writings 1972–1977 (pp. 146–165). New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
- Mayes, E. (2016). The lines of the voice: An ethnography of the ambivalent affects of student voice. (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). University of Sydney. Retrieved from https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/15274?mode=simple
- Mayes, E., Bakhshi, S., Wasner, V., Cook-Sather, A., Mohammad, M., Bishop, D. C., Groundwater-Smith, S., Prior, M., Nelson, E., McGregor, J., Carson, K., Webb, R., Flashman, L., McLaughlin, C., & Cowley, E. (2017). What can a conception of power do? Theories and images of power in student voice work. International Journal of Student Voice, 2(1). Retrieved from https://ijsv.psu.edu/?article=what-can-a-conception-of-power-do-theories-and-images-of-power-in-student-voice-work