In The Cracks of Learning (Situating Us)

As a preamble, I’d like to clarify that every­thing I attempt to contribute in the following text on the subject of pedagogy is a recollection of ideas that have been collectively produced and experienced through convivial gatherings, dialogues, inquiries, critical reflec­tions, readings, and actions with many friends with whom I experimented in various processes of creating communities of learners.[1] From each of their voices and presences, different perspectives and talents, urgencies and desires, I learned how the ‘pedagogical process’ can unfold and impact us intellectually, emotionally, bodily, both individually and as social and political subjects, leading to the possibility of transformation. I am not an expert, nor a theorist or specialist in the discipline; I have experienced (at both sides of the classroom) the traditional institu­tional higher education system, as well as a de­schooled, unlearning, creative environment. I also have experienced a mix between the two, where it was possible to include an experiential and ‘unconferenced’ approach in a formal context, as some institutions are developing an interest in the so-­called ‘third pedagogy.’

I am an ‘educated’ white woman from the global north, who enjoys the process of learning as an important part of self-development, and considers the role of culture fundamental in a healthy society. With the privilege of means and time, I am now committed to co­-creating spaces where investigations are possible, where people can bring their stories and various tools to the service of an emerging collective, a community of seekers and creators, involved in building an alternative, more just, ecological, and not necessarily anthropocentric world, outside of capitalistic relations. It is urgent to study, to learn, to prac­tice, to prepare ourselves to attempt this task. We need to know that we don’t know, to un-­learn in order to learn, and to re-­learn with others; in the disruptive process of re-­imagining, taking into account the pedagogical process is crucial. The formation of temporary autonomous zones[2] of learning is a constitutional step for the change we are called upon to produce, in times of social and environmen­tal catastrophe.

There are many people and communities worldwide reclaiming the right to self-­organize learning and other fundamental areas of life, addressing pedagogy as politics, exchanging tools, and building a network of trans­-local solidarity. It is in this larger framework that I consider the question of pedagogy seminal in our times of struggle, and it is in this legacy that I hope to inscribe my search, with gratitude and admiration for all who, in the present as in the past, contribute to the creation of those ‘brave spaces’ where sharing knowledge differently is a way to create a different world.


The human being, as far as we know, is the only species born in intentionally linguistic communities, language being that peculiar superstructure that creates and repro­duces the ‘deontic powers’[3] around which our civilization is organized. The act of naming, which informs ways of thinking, is not neutral and is based on stratifications of conventions that are historically determined. Our lan­guage contains assumptions and continually reproduces the worldview it projects. This is, in a sense, the paradox that literacy and pedagogy share, as the latter can be the very discipline that reiterates a vertical, authoritarian experience, and, at the same time, offers the possibility of emancipation, freedom, and justice.

When arguing that it is urgent to rethink the edu­cation system (reforming it would not be enough), we are stating the necessity of a radical shift that may occur through the creation of a different language, opening up a new imaginary from which different narratives can arise.

If we take a trip into the archeology of meanings, in the context of the Western history of educational insti­tutions, the semantic and epistemological structures that inform pedagogy (mostly focused on the act of teaching rather than the process of learning) imply an uneven relationship between the ones who ‘know’ and the ones who don’t, leading to an intrinsically violent approach for the sake of ‘shaping,’ ‘instructing,’ ‘training,’ ‘developing’ the ignorant. We can find many examples in most verbs and nouns related to education that reveal the nature and structure of teaching as an asymmetrical process of knowledge transfer.[4] Foucault included schools (together with prisons and mental hospitals) among the institutionnes totales erected to repress and control the social system, through which so many physical, psychological, emotional, cognitive, and cultural traumas have been perpetuated and oppression has been reproduced. The Residential Schools in Canada are a perfect example of this apparatus, where the systematic repression of indigenous language, culture, and cosmogony, together with physical violence inflicted upon First Nation communities, have exterminated and deeply wounded them, and continues to harmfully impact society at large. Language has a quintessential role in any attempt to decolonize the production of culture, the educational institutions, and the pedagogical process. In some indige­nous native languages, only a collective subject exists: the ‘we’ form, which means that people always speak from and including the community. Let us simply take into consider­ation what a dramatic change in the entire system of social relations was brought about by the introduction of the ‘I’ person, as well as the relative concept of individual interest, which was a product of Spanish/European colonization.

[pullquote]how can the metaphorical nature of language support a paradigmatic shift toward pedagogical relations that refuses to reproduce oppressive, patriarchal, extractive, colonial patterns?[/pullquote]Even without these extreme examples of cultural genocide, many educators consider what some call the mod­ern ‘factory schools’—with their principles of ‘common core,’ ‘skills and competencies,’ and standardized curricula and evaluations—as ways to imprison students’ imagination, in­struct them to accept social rules/roles without questioning, and direct their choices toward the current marketplace. Furthermore, when we use a language built on class, racial, gender or sexual bias, the assumptions and misconceptions encoded in words become internalized and are reproduced.

Thus, the question is: how can the metaphorical nature of language support a paradigmatic shift toward pedagogical relations that refuses to reproduce oppressive, patriarchal, extractive, colonial patterns?

Our elders say that in order to give birth to the world, we need to name it…. in this historical moment … the old concepts are falling down and new practices are being born, where the words that we have are no longer useful to name the new world; thinking of new spaces of learning, beyond the classical idea of ‘education’: of the master and the student; of the mere transfer of knowledge; of the educational bureaucracy; of the endless repetition of dogmas. We … use LEARN or LEARNING, reclaiming the verb that evokes the action … because we all learn in every moment, under diverse circumstances and in determined contexts, like the war in which we are currently situated.[5]

If we are ‘planetary subjects rather than global agents,’ in the words of Gayatri Spivak,[6] then our stories, objects, debts, wars, resources, languages, economies, and cultures are entangled, and our destiny is interrelated.

How can we allow the emergence of a counter-narrative, a space for a political and biological process of resilience? Could pedagogy be a way to learn how to rename-­rebirth the world?

The way we learn today is very much related to the way we live under the capitalistic paradigm, where the production of knowledge is a financial enterprise. When we analyze the model of American universities, exported around the globe, it becomes clear that these institutions function as corporations, organized around private financial forces and structurally propagating debt that students will take an average of twenty to thirty years to repay. If the right to study is the right to be free and have access to equal possibilities, it seems now that only a few are able to have it, and at long­-lasting cost. The right to be educated, central in welfare social policies, is today the right to contract debt, or one might say the freedom to become a slave as a chain of debt is voluntarily created. For some, this is clearly a larger strategy of subjugation, and it is one of the reasons why students today end up being depoliticized as they ‘manage’ their lives around debt and their academic career as a business, their education thereby becoming another commodity.[7]

How do we avoid the reductive, binary thinking that creates disciplined and passive individuals, in service to the hegemonic system, leading us and the planet to a permanent state of crisis and destruction? How can we create a post-neo­liberal education—one that resists the principle of profit, extraction, competitiveness, and exploitation?

The crisis that neoliberal forces will continuously gen­erate is also a crisis of the imagination: we seem unable to think and even dream about the possibility to live differently, forced to function in a system embedded in almost every aspect of our lives. ‘Being aware of the gravity of the current situation, the question about education or learning changes radically. Learning is translated into survival, learning to learn in a context of war is fundamentally learning to defend and create life.’[8]

[pullquote]A utopian gesture is needed, not to project into an ideal future, but in the here and now.[/pullquote]We have to create spaces, no matter how temporary—since their autonomous, non-­institutionalized nature may dissolve and reform elsewhere—in which we can experi­ment with other types of relationships, re-­appropriating our material and immaterial conditions, as ways toward the communalization of life. We also need to think about pedagogy relationally, promoting more generative, inclusive, and coalitional learning. Early radical theorists such as Freire, Dewey, and Illich considered education central in the preparation for a systemic change in society, pre-cogniz­ing in their visions the cause-­and-­effect of industrial and postindustrial mentalities, resulting in ‘the end of the world as we know it.’[9]

As criticism is easily re­-absorbed by the system (Rancière suggests that ‘nothing else is left to criticize’[10]) we need to be creative in organizing another set of principles, testing our powers to be together and to transform col­lectively. Critical and radical pedagogies—oppositional knowledge, militant and convivial research,[11] insurgent autonomous zones of knowledge production, inquiries in solidarity—are not only tools to frame our analysis on an intellectual and theoretical level. They are calls to action: to plant seeds, to cross-­pollinate, to imagine what is not there yet. They reclaim a collective desire to re-­engage the world, preguntando caminamos (asking, we walk) as the Zapatistas would say, in an invitation to proceed—in our paths, research, or struggle—always posing questions, making queries, investigating. We need to embolden our­selves, overcome our own disillusion and skepticism, create spaces not only to contest, but also to take care and hope, to realize ‘a new topography of the possible’ (with Rancière again).[12] Spaces for reflection, imagination, practice.

A utopian gesture is needed, not to project into an ideal future, but in the here and now. It is already happen­ing: a maybe invisible and gentle planetary revolution, ‘an unfolding insurrection.’[13] Many people are resisting, creating viable alternatives, experimenting with forms of living based on mutual support, assuming responsibility for the regeneration of their communities. Reclaiming the right to a different way of being, going back to the essential question of what it means to be human.


To nurture a different pedagogy is one of the ways to coun­teract the dominant culture of destruction, the ontology of consumerism, the political apathy of our times. To create spaces for a plurality of voices, learning within diverse socio­cultural groups, from different traditions, languages, and personal stories, acknowledging our positions and privi­leges; to deconstruct predetermined structures and reflect on how we gather, how we organize time, space, resources, and communication, how we deal with expectations, how we make decisions, how we proceed in our inquiries; to exercise non­vertical structures—and by this I don’t mean having to erase the pedagogical differences that promote learning, but enabling each one in the process to occupy the position of guiding; to learn, intergenerationally, transversally, and without compartmentalizing disciplines, avoiding professionalism becoming a divide. These and many other challenges await us when we engage actively in a process of learning with others.

[pullquote]In Buddhism [emptiness] is a pregnant void, a space dense with unexpressed possibilities.[/pullquote]Learning requires taking risks, passing through disruption, stretching boundaries, going beyond our limits, building patience. It takes effort and courage to open up to others, to include conflict, to recognize commonalities and core differences, to build trust, to venture into the unknown and the uneasy. It can be painful to share an open­-ended process: we may critically reflect without ever actually undermining the system of rules and utilitarian ways we in­habit, without letting go of our habits and control, without relinquishing the pre-­made tools that govern our thinking and are supposed to facilitate our gatherings. It is especially difficult to balance the sense of individuality and collectivity; it involves negotiations, even within ourselves, and an ability to share our own fragility. We need practice, we need discipline to be undisciplined, trusting that the process will open up something powerful and beautiful and magical.

One question is how to invite ourselves and others into those ‘brave spaces.’[14] Rather than producing the illusion of safe spaces, we are going to expose ourselves to strong emotions, ruptures, contradiction and conflicts as natural outcomes of our different views. If it involves some suffering, this type of learning also produces healing, as from physical violence, whether it be like the experiences people have in high intensity war zones, or a more structural and systemic violence that penetrates across the world through systems of education, workplaces, or other oppressions that the ‘patrix’[15] reproduces. Indeed, those breakthrough moments reward us with solid relationships, intelligent friendships, memorable moments, bursts of laughter and liberating crying, celebrations, playfulness, unexpected discoveries, and a sense that deeper connections are restored. You become part of what the artist Emilio Fantin started to call an ‘invisible community.’ For this to happen, we need to allow the possibility of an empty space. Emptiness is often felt like a vacuum and it may generate insecurity and anxiety. In Buddhism it is a pregnant void, a space dense with unexpressed possibilities.

Learning should be conceived as a holistic process, organically part of life, where everything that happens—even chaos itself—is part of the production of new knowledge, and where the material, the spiritual, and the intellectual parts of ourselves are activated. It should also include the knowledge and the wisdom of the body: we have channels for the energy to circulate, for us becoming vessels, learning also with our senses, instincts, emotions, in and from nature.

Living together, literally, could be a pedagogical tool as it helps to develop empathy and social cohesion and accelerates the possibility to learn from each other, sharing spaces and time: a lot of time, all the time, with no ‘in betweens,’[16] simply waking up, doing things, cooking, debating all night long, dancing, singing, visiting people, exploring, conducting ‘convivial investigations,’ creating, dismantling, reassembling . . . It produces a state of intimacy, a poetic way to be, which seems to have a (nano)political as well as aesthetic quality. Our bodies, initially separated, start to move together, a common pace slowly emerges, a rhythm generated by one single breath.[17] Reading a book with ten, twenty people can be transformative: you not only read it with them but through their voices, their (mother) tongues, their questions and interpretations, in a constant translation, a translation of the translation, from one language to the other, but also from one understanding to another. When you write a text with a group, negotiating every word, expanding the meaning, arguing, more nuances and subtleties emerge together with a sense of collective identification. Your voice starts to contain a multitude.

[pullquote]…radical love made of a thirst for justice, militant gentleness, and subversive soulfulness…[/pullquote]The pedagogical process becomes one of germination, a confluence of knowledges, in a context of dialectics and reciprocity. An ethos of care and compassion propagates, tensions unfold and may stay unresolved: we learn in that tension, maybe not to judge, but to expose and share, to dis­cuss without being prompted to react or provide a solution, ‘not either or, but both and more.’[18]

In this process you may feel lost, but then a direction emerges as you sense the foundation of a new constituency, something that stays with you even when you seem to be isolated or burnt ­out, or when you experience some failure. Mistakes, errors, false starts, controversies, are all very valuable learning allies, as they are occasions for revising our frameworks, fostering critical dialogues, stirring a de­sire for authenticity. And they provide a sense that together we are learning something new by being, doing, and living with all our contradictions. We need to exercise our agen­cies more, to refine our tools and languages, to choose better technologies. We should resist feeling overwhelmed by the task, as we are in a phase of pre-paration, a process of transformation (revolution?) that takes place in time, a time in which every moment has a value.

To be fragile but still open and trustworthy, full of hope into the collective process, is to be in a state of ‘vulnerable confidence.’[19] And it is exactly in this process with the other that a radical tenderness can appear, that commitment and support develop, friendships blossom, alliances form, people fall in love, heal, build, and weave their paths together. It is in those intimate contexts that a revolutionary, radical love made of a thirst for justice, militant gentleness, and subversive soulfulness can form. There we discover a way to fight the atomized, isolated, egocentric individual that we risk to become in times of spiritual starvation and political catastrophe, as Cornel West argues in his beautiful Black Prophetic Fire, a true love letter to the next generation.[20]

Our words, once fragmented, begin to collide, and a common horizon appears—one that always finishes and never finishes, and we live together, with no separation.

If teaching is a process of transcending[21] oneself into the other, then learning is becoming something more (or less).

(Inspired by preguntando caminamos with many)[22]

Re­-imagining is necessary, and when done collectively it is lovable. To re­-imagine we need a new language, the old one is not enough and is maybe the reason why we cannot yet re­-imagine. Our imagination is in a moment of crisis, or maybe just in between.

Can we imagine a place for letting the unexpected emerge in the cracks of the definite and the defined?

A different time is necessary. We need to build our own temporality, abandon the projection into the future and the insistence of a constant present. There are three genera­tions before, three generations ahead, and then us in the middle.

How can we become a meantime?

A different way of listening is needed. Practicing profound contemplation, silencing our hyperactive egos and letting go of control and work. By always doing something, we only accelerate and reproduce what already exists.

How can we allow ourselves to be bored, rest, or wonder?

Making circles is generative. Concentric circles, large circles, small circles and spirals. Making circles to discuss, meet, play, to dance and sing, to tell stories, to look at each other, to question, to find consentment. Making circles like the Zapatistas make assembleas, with the practical aim to solve a problem, and the practical result to create a community.

How to be many?

Having the children present. Letting them be and partic­ipate, and learning from them. Allowing the little older to take care of the little younger. Allowing mothers and fathers, but especially mothers, to participate and not be isolated and fragmented. It helps all of us to share responsibility, circulating the gift of children and growing up together.

How can we be those children?[23]

In the same way we need the presence and the wisdom of the elders. To grow older is needed.

How can we oppose a society that doesn’t allow us to grow older?

As my dear friend would say, we should always include dogs: dogs break our seriousness and always invite cuddles, playing, sweet names in our mother tongues, and running after a stick or a ball. Dogs are representatives for other species. To spend time with and cuddle a plant, or a rock, is an option too.

How can we fall in love again?

By extension, let us try not to forget all those wonderful
and not domesticated fish, wild horses, the family of beavers, and yes even the mice and the snails, soil­-seeds-­stones-­sand-­ straw-­skies-­snow­-sounds streams.
We are part of a larger system. Care, not exploit.
Ecoversities as solidarity.

How can we bring life back?

Practice intuition
self-­reflection, radical tenderness
build spaces of intimacy.

Practicing, what?
commoning, how?

practice slow and deep,
skinny dipping, laughing hard, singing loud,
take the risk,
cook for the whole village.

practice to leave and come back, to be lost
practice to a be a couple in a group, and a group in a couple
practice not knowing,
practice to walk with the dead,
practice to live and to die,

practice practice practice!

How we want to learn?


How do we want to live?

View or download this essay as a PDF: Situating Us – Alessandra Pomarico.

The text appeared originally with the title “situating us” in SLOW READER, a resource for design thinking and practice; eds. Ana Paula Pais & Carolyn F. Strauss; published by Valiz, Amsterdam. Purchase the book at


[1] In particular, Free Home University, an artistic and pedagogical ex­periment I co-­initiated with a group of artists in 2013, focused on sharing the learning by living together; and Ecoversities, an international network that aims to rethink more just and ecological forms of learning.

[2] The term is mostly associated with Hakim Bey, T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (New York: Autonomedia, 1991).

[3] John Searle explains how ‘status function declarations’ create and maintain realities; cases of linguistic shifts have been significant to enhance change: the man setting himself on fire, which ignited the Arab Spring, or what happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the struggle for abolitionism or women’s rights. When systems are undermined, a shift in the ‘institutional status function’ is necessary in order for our institutions to be collectively re-­legitimized. John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

[4] The Greek and Latin etymology of the word ‘pedagogue’ refers to the slave who escorted boys to school, in a relationship based on differences of power and status. The ‘educator’ represents ‘a foster father’ (caring with authority) and the ‘erudite’ is the one who ‘polishes the unskilled, the rude, the rough.’ ‘Education’ comes from educere, as in ‘bringing out, to draw out, extract, branch out.’ ‘To inform’ (as in neo-­Latin languages forming is used as an equivalent of educating) means ‘to give a shape’ or ‘having power to form or animate’ (whereby somebody presumably is without anima if not instructed); it shares a similar root with ‘to conform’ (to form according to the same rules). ‘Docile’ originally meant ‘the one who is easily taught’ (by a doctor who in Latin was the one who taught, as in ‘indoctrinate’ or in Doctorate, the highest point of scholarly education). ‘To teach’ in Neo Latin languages means to put ‘a sign on.’

[5] Edgardo García, in his Learning to Learn in a Context of War: Notes on the 1st Ecoversities Gathering, translated by Gerardo Lopez Amaro. The entire article can be found on the online platform (accessed April 19, 2016).

[6] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[7] In Governing by Debt, Maurizio Lazzarato points out that in 2012 students in the US had borrowed and still owed $904 billion, a number equal to over half of the public debt of Italy and France. He explains how the cultural hegemony of neoliberal universities is organized, and situates the new class struggle as a struggle between creditors and debtors. The access to credit as a way to access debt, and debt as a new technique of power, ‘the technique most adequate to the production of neoliberalism’s homo economicus.’ Maurizio Lazzarato, Governing by Debt (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(E); MIT Press, 2015).

[8] Edgardo García, op. cit. (note 5).

[9] The End of the World as We Know It, title of the dark and poetical song by R.E.M.

[10] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009).

[11] More on the concepts of convivial research, insurgent learning, ecology of knowledge, epistemological diversity, and convergent spaces for temporary zones of autonomous knowledge production in Manuel Callagan, ‘In Defense of Conviviality and the Collective Subject’, Polis 33 (2012), (accessed April 19, 2016).

[12] Rancière, op. cit. (note 10).

[13] As in Gustavo Esteva, ‘Commoning in the New Society’, Community Development Journal 49 (January 2014) suppl. 1, i144­i159.

[14] This notion appears in Lisa M. Landreman (ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013), with many reflections on the common practice of setting ground rules, especially when working around issues of social justice.

[15] The expression, from Andrew Langford at Gaia University, is used to describe a weaving matrix of violence that includes patriarchy and colonialism. This relates to the necessity of healing in order not to be the oppressed or oppressors in our ways of relating and of knowing. This is something we all need to take care of—in taking care of each other.

[16] The expression is from Rene Gabri, an artist from whom I learned the importance of deconstructing our habits and the beauty of abandon­ing ourselves to dérives, conviviality, and a situationist, unorthodox approach in order for a new imaginary to emerge.

[17] In The Use of Bodies, Giorgio Agamben refers to the concept of ‘use’ (as ontologically opposite to the concept of ‘action’) where bodies are no longer subjects, but forms of life. Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[18] An expression of Vanessa de Oliviera Andreotti, who challenges binary thinking with the task to bridge Western and indigenous systems of knowledge.

[19] Udi Mandel in conversation with Kelly Teamey, after the 2015 Ecoversities gathering in Tamera, Portugal. A synthesis of the experience, through theirs and many other voices, can be found online here:­teamey­udi­mandel/are­eco­versities­future­for­higher­education (accessed April 19, 2016).

[20] The notion of radical love resonates with Derrida’s notion of ‘politics of friendship’ and Spivak’s ‘ethics of friendship,’ and the need for a praxis built around solidarity. In Black Prophetic Fire, West, in the theological of liberation’s tradition, reclaims this notion along with those of truth, justice, freedom, sacrifice, death as a reaction to systems of oppression, including capitalism. Cornell West, Black Prophetic Fire (Boston: Beacon Press, Boston, 2014).

[21] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari bring forth this notion in Mille Plateaux (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980).

[22] This exercise in the form of a poem was written as a response to the question, ‘What did we learn during the Ecoversities meeting in Tamera?’ Contents refer to that particular experience and practice, and to some tools and words that emerged by being together. In particular, learning with the Earth, through different knowledge systems, and including conflict. A strong point was also the necessity to abandon established instruments of facilitation, preferring to start from personal narratives.

[23] An expression borrowed from the artist Ayreen Anastas in the context of Free Home University.

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