Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

This is – in the vaugeest sense – a response to Martin Weller’s thoughts on “Open Education and the un-enlightenment” that I’m putting here just to stop people speculating that I’ve been replaced by a robot that only talks about citations and Yacht Rock.  In deference to the post-fact world, I am not citing authorities in this post*.

Are we living in a “post-fact” world? And is this a new development, or a more prominent iteration of a previously identified trend?

From Brexit to Corbyn, Trump to Saunders, media commentators have been bashing us over the head with a half-brick labelled “post-fact” or “the new populism” as a way to give us a handle on a world in which the arbiters of information are continually under suspicion.

This itself represents a failure of higher education, as there already exists a theoretical toolkit to deal with this very state of affairs, and it has been widely taught at undergraduate level since at least the late 80s.

Post-modernism is what a group of academics in the latter half of the C20th decided to label our growing cultural distrust of the grand narrative, coupled with the cultural theory informed (and, to a lesser extent post-structuralist) approaches to analysing reality using techniques developed to discuss fiction.

What this has resulted in is a conspiracisation of reality – where explanations from those in positions of power are distrusted, and the tools and tropes of fiction are used to propose plausible alternate possibilities. If you like, it is the scientific method if you removed the basis in scholarly literature and abandoned the concept of falsifiablility.

I’m going to use the idea of the conspiracy theory as a way to understand what is going on, and I am using the term without an implict value judgement. To me, a conspiracy theory:

  • Is a narrative of resistance – it implicitly distrusts received wisdom from any external source. It puts the case of a group party to hidden truth against a (postulated) far better resourced group that actively hides this truth, on behalf of an unaware mass population.
  • Is non-falsifiable – counterfactuals are simply distrusted rather than incorporated, significant counterfactuals are seen as a means to “suppress the truth”. Attack or ridicule are seen as an admission of culpability.
  • Is coherent – it sets up and positions itself with relation to dichotomous relationships, it attempts to explain a wide range of activity in a unified and non-contradictory way. (Conspiracy theories often use tools from fiction, such as plot structures, tropes, motivational fallacies and structural critiques of culture – in order to do this)
  • Is evangelical – ideas are designed to be spread memetically, codes and systems of reference are used to identify others and cohere a group culture.
  • Is plastic – the theory narrative will shift to encompass new ideas, or align with other theories. If a component of a theory is thoroughly repudiated, it is routed around.

Open Education itself is a conspiracy, if you like. Evil publishers are profiting from the unequal distribution of information, where they do take steps to address this they are “openwashing”. They do this because they hate learning where a profit is not made. If we attain a critical mass, open education will replace the textbook publishing industry.

If you are sitting there thinking “who, us?”, ask yourself what information would falsify your belief in open education. What information would falsify your other beliefs?

So I’m making a semiotic shift by proposing another way to think about the “post-factual” within work on post-modernity, cultural theory and (in particular) the study of conspiracy theories – and I’m suggesting we also examine our own practice and beliefs with these tools.

In essence, we live in a culture that loves to tell itself stories – comprised of similarly prolix sub-cultures. The sub-culture that constructs the most compelling narrative becomes the dominant culture, and then other sub-cultures attempt to develop narratives in opposition that attempt to displace this.

Stories can be compelling without being true. And the fact that people chose to base their lives around compelling stories is neither unusual nor concerning. As a sub-culture (which I’m going to go ahead and put all of us gathered here in, though not on an exclusive mono-cultural basis* – structuralism! wheeee!) “the elite” privileges certain forms of “truth” within a narrative based on a deliberately developed high standard of proof.

I like high standards of proof, because I like being confident that other members of the “elite” sub-culture (that’s you, dear reader) will validate my contribution to a narrative. This is why it is so horribly hard to write this post without using references or appeals to authority – I have to get over the idea that the esteemed Prof Weller is going to trash my contributions.

Others do not have to, or indeed intend to, appeal to the “elite” sub-culture in constructing or contributing to a narrative. This doesn’t mean that proof or authority isn’t used, just that these may not be in a form that we are used to dealing with or responding to.

If we want to understand why we keep losing arguments (getting to the nub of the matter) we need to get better at understanding how these arguments work and how strategies to win them work. Or we need to come up with another form of argument that works for us better than it does for other people. Or we need to get better at widening our little group to include other people.


* if you must, Frederick Jameson’s “Post-modernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism” is a useful starting point, David Aaranovich’s “Voodoo Histories” is good on the nature of the conspiracy theories, Helene Cixous’ “Le Rire de la Meduse” is an underpinning set of ideas on multiple cultural narratives that more people should read, and any decent UK Cultural Studies anthology would be worth a look for a grounding in the ideas of the field.

** cos I’m an articulate extroverted middle-class able-bodied white heterosexual cis male western European with a university education that participates on a well-paid basis in an information economy – although this makes me FUCKING AWESOME at being a member of the “elite” it does not describe everyone who may subscribe to “elite” values here. Which in itself is a pretty brutal critique of “elite” culture…



21 thoughts on “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

  1. The evangelical approach has been grating with me – it divides the world into The Saviors and The Saved, and demonizes anyone/anything that doesn’t fit the narrative of The Saviors. That’s not how to foster a strong community where people work together to solve big problems. That’s how a community is divided, splintered, pushed into factions each desperately trying to validate their own position as being Saviours in some way that matters most to them. I don’t know. Maybe it’s middle age creeping up on me, but I just can’t see things as black and white anymore. There is no US vs. THEM – we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not. Whatever this is. It seems as though so much energy is dedicated to picking the right team, and then defending that team no matter what evidence is available – discrediting the information rather than the beliefs that it falsifies (because that would then call the correctness of The Team, who are Saviours, and then what ELSE are they wrong about, and who am I anyway? OMG! NO! LAMESTREAM MEDIA! CORPORATE EVILS! They’re LYING LIARS! Etc.)

  2. This all makes good sense to me, as does D’Arcy’s comment above. We’ve got really complex systems built on layers of historical legacy (much of which is really, really ugly). The only thing I know for sure is that path from this mess to something better will not be a straight line.

    Now, if you could just please advocate for shared datasets as a place for “us” to start challenging our assumptions and finding common ground with “them”, it would be appreciated 😉

  3. I have had this tab open in my browser for some time now (could be hours or days) but am unsure how this is the first time I read you. So maybe my response will be overenthusiastic as this is probably the kind of thing you normally write. Here goes:
    So this is brilliantly argued and even without appeal to authority, it is still argued in our elite ways (the ones we use for blogs to make them academic and not for academic articles where we need to cite those authorities). I love the example of open education as narrative of resistance as conspiracy theory that does exactly everything we “accuse” those we disagree with as doing… In that sense, critical pedagogy is conspiracy theory. Oh wait, that’s what positivists in education and educational research really believe. In objective worlds and Truths instead of relative interpretations and truths.

    So here’s the thing, though. As much as I love this post and what it’s getting at… I have to say you cannot use a value-laden term like “conspiracy theory”, claim to have made it neutral, and just move forward. We don’t remove baggage from words that way and even though you are turning that term on your own self and critiquing “us” the “elite” (even recognizing urself as white male cis etc. and myself as….not…but definitely seeing myself as included because I know I am in there somewhere and am an academic etc) – would anyone who isn’t “us” be able to read this and nod? Can or would you write it in some location where “they” are meant to find it?

    I say this as I have a small project in my mind right now….where I am about to publish something in an Arab Higher ed magazine to call for ideas but where I also need to publish something somewhere Western to get these ideas heard…and where if I published any of it for a non-academic audience it would still sound like gibberish. Which is OK for THAT topic coz it’s academically focused. But are topics like Open Ed meant to address a broader audience (the learners over whose learning we feel responsible? Their parents?) and do we ever really address them in our discourses? This gives me a brilliant idea that I should blog about. One day 😉

    1. I’m reading this as a question about narrowcasting in online publication (apols if I’m taking things the wrong way). The post above represents pretty much how I communicate on a day to day basis – seriously, it does! ask @VivienRolfe! Obviously it is going to be in the language of the “elite” sub-culture I am postulating, as that is the sub-culture I most closely identify this. Why is interesting, as I’m an administrator not an academic….

      I do worry about taking on the voice of a culture I don’t have a connection to – it feels like ventriloquism, like cultural appropriation and inserting my voice as a proxy for an “authentic” intervention in a conversation. All I can do is flag where an intervention is needed, and then amplify that as best I can – when I overstep that, I do feel very uncomfortable.

      But “authenticity” is a concept that is increasingly giving me cause for concern – are we talking about lived (physical) experience or a decision (be it conscious, unconscious, serious, ironic…) to identify? Or – more likely – both, in some mixture. President-elect Trump’s “authenticity” is seen as an electoral advantage … what does that mean? Who or what is The Donald authentic to? How? Why?

      So if I’m problematising authenticity you’d better believe I’m on thin ice if I think I’m using “conspiracy theory” in a neutral sense to describe a set of narrative conventions! Using open education (or indeed, I love your suggestion of education theory) as an example is me trying to subvert that by applying it to a belief system that manyboth of my likely audience hold in order to give myself the Derridian space to play with the tension therein. But this is a trick I only know how to do within my own sub-cultural milieu. How anyone else would take it, I’m not sure.

      I’m glad you liked the post, and can only apologise that most of my writing is roughly as awful as this, and that I don’t tend to stick on a single subject for long.

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