Regulatory Discourses in Education: A Lacanian Perspective

Author(s) T. Brown, D. Atkinson, J. England
Publisher Peter Lang Pub Inc
Published 2005
Pages 282
Price £26.74
ISBN 3039105272
Reviewed by Dr Tamara Bibby
Institute of Education-University of London
Review published 12 February 2007

While not an easy read, this book provides an excellent introduction to some potential uses of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory – particularly in relation to theoretical explorations of teachers’ relationships to their own senses of professionalism, policy discourses and practitioner research. Anyone with an interest in these areas will find the book thought provoking and an excellent basis for reflexion, discussion and analysis.

Through an appraisal of the work of influential psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan, and those who develop his work (notably Slavoj Zizek), the authors present a creative reconceptualisation of topics currently dear to the hearts of many educational researchers. The book fulfils two purposes by being both pedagogic and presenting the results of research: it both introduces the reader to key Lacanian concepts, and simultaneously provides new, critical analytic takes on research data of a familiar, narrative type. Illustrative exemplifications and theoretical discussions are woven together through a shuttling back and forth between excerpts of data (taken from educational research and more general cultural events) and explorations of key Lacanian psychoanalytic, as well as other conceptual frames. This to-ing and fro-ing provides both illustrative, if contingent, definitions of key Lacanian vocabularies and new ‘readings’ of experiences in educational settings.

The book is subdivided into four sections. Section one considers the relationship that psychoanalysis might offer education in the understanding of both the human subject and pedagogic enterprises. Performances embodied in mathematics and recent art events are considered side by side throwing light on the ways we might understand identity and the business of communicative activities. Part two draws on data from research projects to consider the ways in which both Primary and Secondary PGCE students gradually become teachers. The role of recent policy initiatives and interactions with mentors and assessments are sites of exploration. The struggle to develop professional identities and to maintain relationships through which learning can take place are explored through the lenses of Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic and Real. In this section our understanding of these major theoretical psychoanalytic themes are developed through a growing understanding of both general educative processes and the stories of individual students. The way in which Lacan develops his understanding of the development and maintenance of discourses is also set out in this section. The third section uses the sophisticated reflective writings of three teachers (including one of the authors’ doctoral work). Their interactions with their teaching contexts and the flows of (mis)understandings, desire and fantasy are considered. The major themes of the previous sections are revisited here in new contexts and our understanding is developed – not only of the psychoanalytic theory, but also of the (im)possibilities of the pedagogic enterprise. Discussions of ethnicity and gender emerge importantly here. Finally, in the fourth section, a reading of events following the death of the Princess of Wales provides a context in which to reconsider the ways in which meanings, identities and subjectivities are developed through networks of social relations – not just for individuals caught up in that tragedy, but also for teachers and researchers caught in rather less public dances with identifications and intentions.

In an educational climate that might be characterised by increasing levels of panic (apparently plummeting standards, the meaning of the Muslim veil) and policy makers who increasingly snatch at populist answers (evidence based practice, tighter regulation and so on), those who remain in education might well feel infused with a sense of panic, a dread-sense of impending doom, and (perhaps) feel filled by a desire for flight or at least some confusion around how to be in these new contexts. Meanwhile, educational researchers continue to deconstruct policies, their implementation, and the effects of these changes on the lives and experiences of students and teachers alike, with little regard for the cycles of production that they themselves are caught up in.

One methodological reaction, notable in educational research, has been a turn to the narrative, to the stories that we might tell and thereby to new senses we might make, new people we might be. A central point of this book is that the multiple stories need not stem from (or lead to) a despairing gesture and relativistic terror that if all truths are equal then which will I turn to? But rather, the power of the multiple stories emerges in the knowledge that these are possible precisely because each is incomplete – no story I might tell, no rationale I might provide, no theory, no set of metaphors, no one great mind can completely encapsulate any event or an idea – language can never convey precisely what we might want to convey.

So, by the same token, a book like this also presents the reader with something of a conundrum; although such a complete effort suggests closure and rightness, this cannot be. Where is the lack, what is left unsaid in an analysis such as this? Is it, as the authors seem to suggest, always futile to try to make things ‘better’ (whatever ‘better’ might be for you)? Can we only ever stand and observe ourselves unconsciously constructing ourselves and our students or audiences in relation to discourses that thwart all our attempts at meaning while simultaneously calling us into being? Can any effort at change ever be worth while? Is there an irony at the heart of a Lacanian analysis of events that will inevitably negate any attempt to behave differently? I suspect this is where the authors and I might part company. This gap I perceive in the Lacanian story leaves us missing, what to me is a core aspect of our humanity. Steven Frosh states the issue eloquently:

I think postmodernism genuinely demonstrates the presence of ‘the unpresentable in presentation itself’, drawing attention to the not-quite-there, the movement-in-the-corner-of-the-mirror, the thing-we-wish-to-say-which-will-not-find-itself-in-words. What is the nature of this thing? […] the real has its locus in relationships, in what happens intersubjectively, which is to say, between you and I. While we prattle away in therapy, externalising this and reframing that, reflecting on one and narrativising the other, something either does or does not happen; a person feels heard or recognised, ignored or misunderstood. This does not necessarily mean that anything new can be named; it just means that something transformative has occurred because a bunch of people have tried to understand one another. The meaning here, the truth or new narrative, is a simple yet profound one: a gift has been given, a caring act has occurred, one person has found a way to connect with what is real, upsetting or exciting in another. (2002:103)

Although Janice England partially undertakes this move, it is in the lack of this last reflexive turn that the book, for me, misses its mark – the authors never explore what the writing of the book does to construct them as writers, us as readers, or to define their identities. They seem to speak into our thoughts without looking back at their end of the relationship. But that comment is bound to my story, my fantasies, my desires. For all this thing that I half-perceive Lacan and post-Lacanians as denying, an analysis of current practices that walks with these theorists remains powerful and necessary. For other psychoanalytic turns within education with this degree of seriousness and with this level of insight, we will have to wait. This exploration of regulatory discourses in education is an excellent, thought provoking, challenging read. Anyone interested in the effects of education and educational practices (including research) on subjectivities throughout all levels of educational endeavour cannot ignore this book.

Frosh, S. (2002). After Words: the personal in gender, culture and psychotherapy. Basingstoke: Palgrave.