Keeping up with the Pavlovs

By Danny Hayward, 19 March 2014
Image: Grey rectangle on a white ground

Critics of the grand enterprise of 'crisis-driven' poverty management often take special umbrage at Michael Gove's educational 'Victorianism'. In this riposte, Danny Hayward blows away the ideological dust from Gove's project for pedagogical reform, revealing a repressive programme for bourgeois 'aesthetic education' whose subservience to the needs of domestic capital accumulation is in fact bang up to date 


In May 2013, UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove delivered a speech on the enduring and historic value of ‘bold narratives’. Under the ‘last government’, Gove declared, quality of education had fallen off, aspirations had shrivelled, and ‘standards’ had drifted downwards in inverse proportion to the rise of permissively liberal social attitudes.[1] The beneficiaries of this period of gilded age decadence were not, as one might have hoped, ‘the poor’, the ‘disadvantaged’, or the ‘disabled’, but the cabal of educationalists, politicians, and trade unionists who used the jargon of ‘diversity’ to delude themselves into believing that ‘flexible’ labour markets required ‘multiculturalism’ rather than diverse kinds of iron discipline. To this, in truth merely pious, wish, the collapse of global financial markets in 2008 issued a schoolmasterly correction, providing forward-looking traditionalists like Gove with a once in a lifetime opportunity to reassert the fundamentals: ‘self-control, self-reliance, respect for others ... how to defer gratification, how to cope with reverses … the importance of service to others’, slavishness and supinity. Where the danger is, there also grows the saving power, says the Vicar of Wakefield to the country squire.  


The renovation of conservative cultural values in the face of uncontrollable economic change is, of course, as old as generalised commodity production itself, and immortal spiritual standards have been busily consulted during all capitalist crises at least since Thomas Carlyle wrote his outsized polemics against the ‘Millites and the Millennarians’, amid the changing urban landscape of the late 1820s. But Gove’s speech of May 2013 did nevertheless succeed in articulating a recognisably modern problem. The great disadvantage for the present-day student, says Gove, is that he or she is never taught ‘the story of our island’. Fed on a steady stream of infantilising play exercises, intoxicated with the false belief that the classroom ought to be a non-hierarchical environment, and distracted by the churn of ‘relevant’ data streaming across their tweet decks, modern day students are never exposed to ‘the Great Tradition of English literature’, the ‘canon of transcendent works’; and in consequence they remain wretchedly ignorant of all of the permanent and universal accomplishments of those few men and women who, for a short time in the nineteenth century, were able to respond to capitalist development by ‘transcending’ into their chambers and writing peevish omnibus novels about the downturn in spiritual values.


More than anyone else in the Conservative cabinet, Gove is a dramatist of how things were. In his public persona he is a caricature of the Great Tradition personified, a kind of Alfred, Lord Tennyson for middle managers, a Matthew Arnold if only Matthew Arnold had spent his whole life listening for the melancholy, long, withdrawing beep of his car lock in a parking garage, a new Edmund Burke if only Edmund Burke had been vacuum packed. His is the Britain of the Raj, the Anglican Church, the wartime spirit, ‘the benign empire’, the reassuring familiarities, the mindless spiritual yearning. Because his whole inexorable shtick is to romanticise the imperial patrician past, the world we have lost, it makes perfect sense to assume that Gove’s speechifying on ‘classroom culture’ is essentially, and not only expressively, retrograde; an interpretation that can then validate the more general despairing assumption that, in times of rising unemployment, inequality, and capitalist ‘deregulation’, the only way for culture is down


Is it true? Do the current transformations in state-regulated pedagogy really indicate a more general recidivism in the everyday ‘culture’ of bourgeois society?[2] Or is there something else to be read out of Gove’s classroom proclivities? The idea that we are now in a period in which the ‘gains’ associated with previous eras of capitalist development are no longer achievable is, at present, exceptionally widespread, though not yet widespread enough to mean anything very certain; but does this also mean that the daily experience of capitalist social relations will come to resemble – the past?  


It may help to recall the immediate past with which Gove believes himself to be breaking. The arguments he most often singles out for ridicule can be found, perhaps most famously, in the response produced in 1999 to the UK Labour Government’s first education white paper.[3] The response, which was published under the premonitory title of All our Futures, asserted that for ‘excellence’ in education to be ‘achieved’, culture needed to be ‘harnessed’, ‘human resources’ needed to be developed, and teachers had to be made to understand that ‘creative education involves ... encouraging innovation’.[4] The authors of the report went on to imagine that, if only all of these platitudes could be laid out in a row, they might constitute a sort of information superhighway into the emerging intellectual property sectors. ‘The Intellectual Property Association in Washington has estimated these sectors to be worth $360 billion a year’, which means that they are


more valuable than automobiles, agriculture or aerospace. They are growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole and generating jobs at three times the underlying rate. The intellectual property sector is more significant when patents from science and technology are included: in pharmaceuticals, electronics, biotechnology, and information systems among others. These are all based on fundamental advances in the sciences and in engineering and are creative fields of huge significance.


These buzzwords and key terms are by now exceptionally well-known. They fertilised a whole industry of new cultural theory. The idea that national ‘value creation’ could be stimulated by ‘creativity’ in some poorly specified ‘Romantic’ sense, by the spiritual ‘eye’ and ‘ear’, as well as by the nerves and sinews, flourished into a body of dogma so vast that in comparison to it the Google Data Center looks no more commodious than the Vatican Library. Suddenly ‘artistic values’ were capitalist values, the history of aesthetics was a bibliography for senior management, and the ‘free play’ of the contemplative faculties was the principal engine for national growth malgre lui. All the old prejudices melted away in an instant. Workers discovered that communication was their greatest asset, Treasury officers came to understand that even GDP has its measure of negative capability, CEOs wrote sonnets about urns. Creativity, it was believed, was ‘valuable’ because it was essentially non-discursive, an aconceptual borderland stretching out beyond the industrial districts in which ‘old’ capitalist enterprise played out its zero-sum diminuendos. Gone were the tired old human computers of inputs and outputs, the innumerable bean counters, and the timid discounters of visceral motivation. In this, the brilliantly postdictible future, value creation would no longer involve the jaded subsumption of new objects under worn out categories, that dull old routinisation of a ‘determinate’ species of judgment whose inevitable outcome is only the eternal turnover of the same. Those naïve and sentimental practices, fit as they may have been for the childhood of capitalist enterprise, are to be swept aside in favour of a new kind of aesthetic thinking, a new aesthetic education of mankind, a pedagogy in which flexibility, adaptability, and the ‘free play of the faculties’ would at last be cut loose from any determinate position in the division of labour, disentangled from the stultifying demands of mechanical repetition, and released, as if in fulfilment of every eighteenth-century fantasy of a radically congruous commercial civilisation, into a world in which ‘widely socialised new knowledges and crafts’ would diffuse themselves across the face of the earth in an uncontrollable explosion of affluence.     


Speeches like Gove’s seem to indicate that this ideology has outlived its usefulness. The financial tumult of the period between 2001 and 2008–9 would appear to represent the total discrediting of ‘creativity’, ‘aesthetics’, and ‘culture’ as solutions for capitalist problems. What takes their place is something different, something more familiar – the old unfreedom, the simpler forms of compulsion, the brutality of yesteryear, ‘unvarnished’, as a concerned journalist might say, by any kind of juridical, discursive, or aesthetic mediation. We return, via the demarche of Middlemarch, to a world in which culture and ‘economy’ are perfectly separate.  


In what follows, I will argue that this is an ideology at least as flimsy and as untrue as the ideology that economic value springs unbidden out of the reflective imagination. Wipe away the dust already settling over Michael Gove’s speeches of 2013, and what you find is an impeccably modernist aesthetics of bourgeois pedagogy, the purpose of which is still the only purpose that the aesthetics of bourgeois pedagogy has ever had, viz., to force people to enjoy what they are compelled to do anyway, in obeisance to the commands of a society that has nothing to do with their interests. 


Image: A young (un)Kantian




As has often been noted, Gove’s interest in ‘old’ educational values such as ‘drilling’, the pedagogical importance of ‘facts’, and the immeasurable value of the national cultural heritage, are often justified with reference to works of popular educational psychology. In particular Gove seems to have taken an interest in the claim, presented in Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School?, that ‘content is not enough to keep your [or a student’s] attention’.[5] ‘I would not recommend ... trying to make the subject matter relevant to the students’ interests’, writes Willingham.[6] ‘[S]tudent interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning’.[7]


Instead of ‘interests’, which are here debased to mean something like ‘preoccupations’, teachers should seek to establish formal means for the improvement of learning outcomes.  For behavioural psychologists like Willingham, ‘our’ Great Tradition, rich as it is in long and intricately pathetic stories about the fate of the soul in the ‘Age of Machinery’, is, if only we can force students to attend to it, an excellent means to provide them with the practice they need in ‘causal bridging inferences’; and causal bridging inferences, i.e., judgments about causation, are essential to, are the very oil for the springs of, the high-tech clockwork of the individual ‘memory system’.[8]


Over the last forty years, in the period in which ‘capitalism’ was being reconceptualised as a kind of gigantic reflective judgment, clinical psychologists have produced a large body of literature on the aesthetics of cognition. The great ambition of this literature, which is often published in journals of behavioural or developmental psychology, is quite openly ‘instrumental’, in the very basic sense that its paramount intention is to improve educational, economic, and social ‘outcomes’ as these are assessed from the standpoint of the state. Its view of ‘aesthetics’ stands in an apparent contradiction with the version familiar from late twentieth century ‘creative’ managerial literature, now sometimes repurposed in cultural theory to serve as the basis for nugatory ‘periodisations’ of capitalist historical progress. The basic lines of argument in this research are as follows:


  1.  Like specie money, the psychological concept of ‘interest’ is two-sided. ‘Interest’ can be divided into ‘topic’ interest, relating to a subject matter or ‘domain’; and ‘cognitive’ interest, derivable from the formal processes of cognition involved in the conception of an object.[9]
  2.  ‘Readers naturally want to feel interest’, just as, in the utilitarian psychology of Jeremy Bentham, individuals ‘naturally’ wish to feel pleasure.[10] ‘Cognitive’ interest can be raised by various kinds of obstructions, lacunae, and difficulty, and indeed often must be so raised, if an object is to be permanently imprinted into the human ‘memory system’. In other words, ‘comprehension and memory performances will generally increase’ when the mind is presented with the sorts of obstacles and uncertainties that ‘art’ in general, and narrative art in particular, might be expected to induce. Art is the great maximiser of human memory performances.
  3. In the ‘cognitive processing’ of causal sequences, the mind will experience more ‘interest’ wherever it is given a certain amount of work to perform on its own behalf. Artworks, speech acts, or didactic exercises that are gracious enough to allow an addressee to perform ‘cognitive bridging inferences’ will in general prove to be more ‘interesting’ than performances where the links in a causal chain are already preestablished.
  4.  Inevitably, ‘beyond a certain level of novelty, complex stimuli are rated as very interesting but unpleasant’. Therefore the mind ‘naturally’ prefers to make ‘medium-difficulty’ inferences. This natural preference can be explained with reference to a pneumatic theory of pleasure and aversion, according to which the mind ‘enjoys’ experiences of (e.g.) ‘suspense’ on the basis that these experiences present it with the occasion to anticipate a pleasurable resolution. Alternatively, more sceptical researchers can decline to offer an explanation, and can assert instead that the ‘natural’ preference for moderate difficulty is merely the observed result of clinical research.


The students whose ‘creative’ learning outcomes are ‘maximised’ according to the principles of a behavioural psychology will not be exempted from the ‘tyranny’ of formal logic, determinate judgment, or the sequential labour of inference. ‘Aesthetics’ has nothing to do with the ‘suspension’ of determinate judgment. On the contrary, it is the special role of a pedagogy of cognitive judgment to ‘intensify’ in a student the desire to judge determinately; and it achieves this goal by making the performance of judgment intrinsically (‘cognitively’) more ‘interesting’. The resulting intensification of desire is itself a means to an end, or, rather, to two, since its role is to bring about the optimisation of information acquisition in the classroom environment, and, at a more general level, to ‘encourage’ the cognitive ‘development’ of the individual student.


Formalism is essential to this development. ‘Cognitive interest’ is analytically separated from ‘topic’ interest in order to define a field of aesthetic experience which is categorically distinct from anything we might conceive of as a personal commitment, inclination, or need. All of these merely pathological inclinations are a species of ‘relevance’, an abstract managerial category which, over the last eighteen months, has become one of Gove’s preferred targets of commination. The formalism of the institutional psychology on which he indirectly draws is expressed in its assertion that the maximisation of ‘learning’ outcomes can be achieved by the establishment of an interest type that has nothing to do with the desires or preferences of the person to whom ‘interest’ is ascribed. This may seem to suggest the separation or the ‘autonomy’ of the learning process from economic affairs, but it doesn’t require Georgi Plekhanov to see that in a world where the majority of people are forced to perform work in relation to which they feel little or no personal concern, the primacy of economic ends is reaffirmed even by the cultivation of those kinds of formal or ‘cognitive’ interest that appear to contradict it. 


We thus arrive at something like a new conjuncture. While the propagandists of capital’s auto-transcendence continue to celebrate or decry its sublimation into a state of perfected ‘formlessness’, ‘informality’, and conceptual indeterminacy, the formalism implicit in the ideological ‘science’ of behavioural psychology is ‘mandated’ at the national policy level. This is why Gove’s ‘neo-Victorianism’ proves in the end to be impeccably modernist. His pedagogical programme registers a belated recognition by the state that the management of the decline of the national capital (‘our civilisation’) can benefit from the virtues of mandatory cognitive ‘difficulty’, and that the desiccated Eliotian dictum, that culture in our civilisation must always be difficult, has a definite economic application. Moderate formal difficulty is interesting, it compensates for the painful tediousness of those subjects to which contemporary students are compulsorily exposed, and therefore it reintroduces aesthetic categories back into the system of accumulation whose crisis was alleged to involve its purification from any speculative cultural admixture.


In some respects this is perfectly familiar. Bourgeois politicians have always justified their actions with recourse to the principle of perfect transparency.[11] However bad your situation may be, so the saying goes, at least you can recognise this, that you have the privilege of knowing how bad it is. Contorted in this manner into a term of justification, transparency is innately duplicitous, which is to say that its purpose is to serve as a kind of imaginary compensation for exactly that ‘regrettable necessity’ which the plain-dealing politician professes honestly to disclose. This ‘logic’, or, if one prefers, this reflex of justification, is reiterated even where it appears to be absent, for every time that Michael Gove et al project into the theatre of televisual political ‘debate’ the fundamental values of ‘tradition’, the whole purpose of the exercise is to reassure the ‘British nation’ that it knows exactly what it has coming to it.


The delicate irony of this position, which establishes its commonsensical credentials by dismissing the view that capitalist economics could ever become a sub-branch of aesthetics, is that its most passionate advocate in the British ruling classes is a great admirer of a pedagogy the novelty of which derives from its revaluation of aesthetics for the modern classroom; a revaluation it intends to achieve, moreover, by means of a kind of fastidiously clinical modernism.


Westward look!, the land is bright, writes the ecstatically-swivel eyed Victorian, Arthur Hugh Clough. But the Victorian Michael Gove only quotes Clough in order to disguise the fact that he is looking straight forwards. 


Image: Humboldt x Fechner = GDP.




New ‘discoveries’ relating to the manipulation of intransigent human subjects usually take a long time to find their market application, and the history of pedagogical formalism is no different. Its origins are usually identified in the 1860s – not, as it turns out, in the work of any school of Victorian psychologists, but in the writings of a Saxon physicist-turned-aesthetician, Gustav Fechner. Fechner’s essential contribution was to assert that there exists an exact and demonstrable mathematical relationship between bodily and conscious states, or, in other words, that mental experiences were capable of being quantified and then explained with reference to external causes. The method that Fechner designed to demonstrate this position, which he quaintly identified as an aesthetics von unten [from below], involved taking clinical subjects into his ‘laboratory’, showing them various objects, and then asking ‘how much they “liked”’ particular stimuli.[12] Subjects would rank the various objects that they were given to look at in order of ‘pleasantness’, and these rankings would be used as the basis for quantitative judgments about the relationship between stimuli and experience.


The potential applications of this theory have taken a long time to come to light. It never occurred to Fechner that it might be possible to isolate ‘formal’ features of objects, to determine how much subjects ‘liked’ these, and then to use the formal features that they liked the most to compensate for obligatory unpleasant ‘contents’; but then, of course, Fechner was writing in simpler times, before the emergence of anything like an ‘industrial’ psychology, and his personal proclivities for a kind of fanciful Naturphilosophie will have precluded him from any too obsessive concern with the social utility of his experimental methodology. A more difficult question to answer is this: why is it that the aesthetic approach to the management of social displeasure only began to achieve prominence as a tool in ‘developmental psychology’ in the last few decades, when other concepts belonging to the ‘behavioural sciences’ have been rammed down the throats of educationalists ever since the Ford Foundation instituted the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and gave to that discipline its dismal capitalist modus operandi? 


The answer, I want to propose, is that bourgeois society has until recently always had a perfectly adequate model with which to conceive of the necessity of social unhappiness. Right from the rosy dawn of bourgeois educational theory in the late 17th and 18th centuries, this problematic has always been approached in terms of the future. As Maria Edgeworth wrote in 1798 in her book Practical Education, in her chapter on ‘rewards and punishments’:


The past is irrevocable; all that remains, is to provide for the future. It would be absurd, after an offence has already been committed, to increase the sum of misery in the world, by inflicting pain upon the offender, unless that pain were afterwards to be productive of happiness to society, either by preventing the criminal from repeating his offence, or by deterring others from similar enormities.[13]


Edgeworth’s account is a brilliant condensation of the progressivist liberal educationalist’s belief in the priority of futurity, viz., the only place where presently necessary suffering can be economically ‘redeemed’. The main attitudes of bourgeois pedagogy are here succinctly brought to expression: (1) ‘punishment’ is a rational process carried out to diminish the total ‘sum’ of present and future global misery, an immense and no doubt devastatingly sad kind of heap, which nevertheless is capable of strict quantification, analysis, and, to a certain extent, melioration, so long as (2) morbid characters can be prevented from unnecessarily adding to this numerically exact sum of ‘misery’ by dwelling irrationally on the incalculable, i.e., ‘absurd’ facts of past suffering, about which (3) nothing can be done, because these facts are ‘irrevocable’, that is, incapable of being evoked, or, called back, that is, best forgotten, except in (4) those exceptional circumstances where the decision to recall past misery, crimes, or other ‘similar enormities’ facilitates strategic intervention with respect to, and therefore also (5) the production of (6) ‘the happiness of society’, a still more immense and still more strictly calculable ‘heap’, later to be proxied using an estimation of total value output, GDP, whose aggregate growth it is the destiny of bourgeois society to promote. 


Whatever refinements the last 220 years have enacted upon this model (and the continuing sophistication of neoclassical economics have ensured that there have been many), the general structure has remained essentially the same. Pain now can be tolerated on condition that the patient is promised a reward later, somewhere further down the line, and even the majority of the species who are decisively excluded from the kind of ‘career’ that can offer some erotically vague prospect of future advancement are constantly enjoined to accept their circumstances for the benefit of their children, in whom, the thought goes, they can imagine they have some kind of property.


In the 60 years separating the emergence of post-war Anglo-American behavioural psychology from the collapse of global financial markets in 2008, the bourgeois paradigm of delayed gratification was the principal means by which psychologists studied the management of imposed displeasure. The alternative view, that displeasure might be formally manipulated, remained a minority tradition. ‘During the past two decades’, begins an article from the Journal of Developmental Psychology published sometime in the late 1970s, ‘psychologists have devoted considerable experimental and theoretical effort to explaining the dynamics of voluntary delay of gratification’.[14] ‘The dynamic inconsistency of preference is well documented’, write two behavioural psychologists from the University of Southern California, 30 years later, ‘but its basis remains controversial’.[15]


The publication, without controversy, of Willingham’s book on pedagogical formalism, and the ‘traditionalist’ uptake of that work by the representatives of the UK state, represents a kind of tipping of the scales. The appeal of this work for Gove and company, its timeliness, is not its ‘backwards-looking’ endorsement of obsolete social values. The formal aesthetics of behavioural psychology does not derive its appeal from its conservatism but from its short-term economism, and also from the fact that its re-launch takes place at exactly the moment in which global capital is engaging in an enormous project of re-evaluation with respect to its practices of reward. As real wages decline across every imaginable axis of geography and class bar one, the task of ‘getting people to do work that they don’t want to do’ is subjected to new and ‘creative’ solutions. In a flash, ‘Sweet, reluctant, amorous delay’ is no longer the most promising strategy in the global management of human dissatisfaction, frustration, and unhappiness. Formal aesthetics is the alternative, the more hopeful because the less tried. It promises that what is ‘topically’ dull, mechanical, repetitive, badly paid, or just physically destructive, can be made, translated, into a limitless source of formal or ‘cognitive’ enjoyment; a dream of accumulation; or a source of pleasurable uncertainty or suspense. This aspirant paradigm shift, which is positively spoiling to be proclaimed as a new epoch, stage, or ‘regime’ of accumulation, is premised on the belief that aesthetics can do more to take the edges off the contradictions of the mode of production than even Schiller might have prophesied in the most sublimely inflammatory frenzy. The global solution to plebeian dissatisfaction is to be more postmodern than anything a Baudrillard could ever have anticipated; more discursive than any account of the signifier in structural linguistics. No material transformation for the resolution of capitalist crisis is required: no collapse, no fire sales, no reconsolidation, no class struggle. Instead, the ‘heuristic’ division of experiences of attraction, desire, or commitment into ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ interest promises to realise the ambition that the beneficiaries of existing social relations have always secretly maintained, to split the subjects of capitalist social relations in two, to detach ‘experience’ from social activity, and to allow the former to drift away, convulsed in raptures of moderate pleasure, while the latter continues exactly as it has always been, in the service of the interests to which it has always been subordinated.


The beneficiaries of existing social relations would dearly love it if this formalism were to be – what modernist artists have always hoped to discover – the true form, the real pleasure, of our time.[16] They would love this, not only because it would mean another step forward in the long attempt, carried out over several centuries, scientifically to conceal the existing facts of social domination, but also because it would make the true form of pleasure into the kind of form in which the bourgeoisie has always been most interested, viz., the wage form, the form which justifies the exploitation of that ‘peculiar commodity, which has no other repository than human flesh and blood’.[17]


If only economics could be fully aestheticised, so the thought goes, the bourgeois could be as generous as he liked, could distribute pleasure with exactly that kind of ‘bona fide feudal prodigality’ which, as one vulgar Marxist had the effrontery to assert, ‘the capitalist never possesses’; and he could do this because his workers would be remunerated, not by money, or by de jure control over the products of other people’s labour, but by the form which is imparted to their experience within the work process itself.[18] This fantasy, if only it could be made to come true, would represent the final abolition of ‘economics’ in its modern sense, as that part of social life whose independence is defined by its inability to be ‘fixed’, pacified, or smoothed over by any merely symbolic means.


Capitalism has always thrown up social types whose distinctive pleasure has been to transcend existing social relations in imagination. Usually these types belong to the ruling classes. They are the cloistered scholastic of the seventeenth century, expatiating on the animal soul over roast mutton in the college canteen; or the preromantic poet of the eighteenth, rejoicing in untamed nature in the designated part of the landscape garden in the family estate; or the liberal Anglican of the nineteenth, having a ‘spiritual crisis’ immediately before or after hiring an accountant; or the 1960s junior executive, ‘in heaven’ at a health spa. What all of these historical types share, apart from the fact that, like atom bombs and complex financial instruments, they never enter into the circuits of capitalist value production, is a kind of yearning – a fluttering, perhaps almost an ineffable desire for a certain level of abstraction, a transcendence that will lift them out of the world and carry them about as far from the facts of their humdrum, day-to-day existence as prices are from their basis in the expenditure of social labour. The movement of the bourgeois toward this level of abstraction, uncertainly, tentatively, step-by-step, without ever knowing whether (s)he will get there in the end, is the only source of upscale aesthetic satisfaction that might imaginably be transposed into the ‘experience’ of the proletarian for whom labour has all the pleasurable variety and none of the health benefits of a marathon on a treadmill.


However likely this transposition is to succeed – and one might begin by asking someone who has had the privilege of working within a ‘cognitively interesting’ productivity-targeting system, or of enjoying the moderate suspense of being fired from a zero-hour contract – this kind of uncertainty, this indeterminacy, this exquisite je ne sais quois, is assuredly the perfect mood in which to contemplate the future of a social relation in which ‘formal pleasure’ is meant to ameliorate the experience of being rooted to the spot. It is the perfect mood, because it is only in this experience of inert, unchanging expectation that an eternity of pointless, miserable repetition can be reshaped in consciousness into the kind of thing of which we might say, as if we wished that it would last forever, that we loved every single last minute of it.


A better aesthetics begins, somewhere, perhaps in a badly furnished classroom in an academy school in South London, with the strangely moving realisation that this mood is a colossal waste of time.


Danny Hayward <gatqaes AT> has learnt nothing



[2] The state’s current strategy for institutional structure at primary and secondary level is, of course, very much ‘forward looking’ in its pandering to the interests of private capital, its cost-cutting, and its hostility to organised labour, all of which are discussed in Matthew Charles’s article 'Lines in Class'.

[3] The White Paper, Excellence in Schools, is itself a primary document of managerial trend-setting, and is now available at

[4] The report can be accessed from the personal website of the Chairmen of the report committee, the ‘creativity expert’ Ken Robinson. See

[5] Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2009), p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 49.

[7] Ibid., p. 65.

[8] For an article that Willingham cites, see Sung-Il Kim ‘Causal bridging inference: A cause of story interestingness’, British Journal of Psychology, 90, 1.

[9] Most of the following quotes are from Campion, Martins, Wilhelm, ‘Contradictions and Predictions: Two Sources of Uncertainty That Raise the Cognitive Interest of Readers’, Discourse Processes, 46, 4. The basic distinctions are considerably more widespread. 

[10] Ibid.

[11] From the perspective of the Conservative government, the apparent contradiction between Gove’s educational ‘formalism’ and his ersatz Victorian tastes are positively win-win. If the acculturation of the population to the experience of ‘pure’ cognitive interest should involve imposing upon it a body of literature whose ‘content’ is concerned with the ‘transcendent’ values of 19th-century conservative moralism: so much the better. Students who, due to their relevant circumstances, prove incapable of flourishing in a ‘formalist’ educational environment, will at least have been exposed to the timeless rhetoric of moral abstemiousness before they drop out of school and into the penal-‘workfare’ apparatus in which this rhetoric flourishes like bacteria in a petri dish. Developments in the last 12 months suggest that, in the end, Gove is more interested in the virtues of classroom formalism than he is in the poetic merits of John Dryden: Do Michael Gove's GCSE Changes Pose a Threat to English Literature in Schools?.      

[12] The quote comes from Fechner’s 20th-century resuscitator, Daniel Berlyne, a British-American psychologist who in the mid-1950s was briefly a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, one of the first institutions to benefit from the Cold War largesse of the Ford Foundation. Berlyne’s own summary of the development of experimental aesthetics, and of behavioral psychology more generally, is included in his essay ‘The Vicissitudes of Aplopathematic and Thelematoscopic Pneumatology (or The Hydrology of Hedonism)’, in Pleasure, Reward, and Preference: Their Nature, Determinants, and Role in Behavior (eds. D. E. Berlyne and K. B. Madsen) (New York: Academic Press, 1973). The volume collects essays from a conference on behavioural psychology, at which, the editors announce, ‘[a]ll NATO countries except Iceland and Luxemburg were represented’. The self-deprecating prolixity of Berlyne’s title is typical of intellectuals keen to dramatise their own distance from the social applications to which their only apparently incomprehensible research is put.    

[13] Maria Edgeworth, Practical Education, 2 vols (London, 1798), I, p. 228.

[14] John R. Weisz, ‘Choosing Problem-Solving Rewards and Halloween Prizes: Delay of Gratification and Preference for Symbolic Reward as a Function of Development, Motivation, and Personal Investment’, Developmental Psychology, 14, 1: p. 66.

[15] J. R Monterosso, S. Luo, ‘An Argument Against Dual Valuation System Competition: Cognitive Capacities Supporting Future Orientation Mediate Rather Than Compete With Visceral Motivations’, Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 3, 1: p. 1.

[16] This is what Brecht claimed as the ambition of a revolutionary art in his Kleines Organon: 'when we confirm our capacity to be delighted by depictions from so many different ages', says Brecht, 'something which, for the children of those powerful ages themselves, would scarcely have been possible, must we not thereby generate the suspicion, that we've failed to uncover the special pleasures [speziellen Vergnugen], the proper entertainment [eigentliche Unterhaltung] of our own age?’ The Brecht that we get piped to us by post-Althusserian aestheticians is always the pedagogic Brecht, the Brecht of the Lehrstücke, the engagé Brecht with his blueprint on the table and his cognitive map tucked under his robot arm. It's the easiest Brecht for someone essentially uninterested in new practices of expressive art making to idolise, because, of all the Brechts that we might imagine recovering, this one is the most like an academic sociologist. But this reduction of Brecht to a kind of dramaturge for the social sciences is only one manifestation of a larger tendency. In the absence of autonomous proletarian culture, Marxists of all orientations assume instinctively that the only advantage they have on bourgeois science is their concept of the totality, which (they discursively continue) is inherently conceptual. The Brechtian answer to that assumption, I believe, or at least the only Brechtian answer I could take any pleasure in, is that this concept of totality is disablingly partial. 'Capitalist pleasure' is always involved in the production of the totality of social relations; it has never been more rationalised; and ‘political economy’ will never find an effective critique unless the movement from bourgeois forms to social contents can take into account the process by which the opposite movement is made ‘especially’ enjoyable. See Brecht, Schriften, 5 vols (Frankfurt: Aufbau-Verlag), V, p.354.

[17] Karl Marx, ‘Wage Labour and Capital’, in MECW, 50 volumes (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975–2004), 9, pp.197–228. Online at

[18] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1, Part 7: Chapter 24, Section 3, ‘Conversion of Surplus-Value into Capital’, MECW, 35, pp.587–95. Online at



Aesthetic Education Expanded is a series of 12 articles commissioned by Mute and published in collaboration with, Kontrapunkt, Multimedia Institute, and Berliner Gazette. It is funded by the European Commission. A central site with all contributions to the project can be found here: 

The series looks at the contemporary afterlife of the project of ‘aesthetic education’ initiated in the 19th century, from the violent imperatives of training and ‘lifelong learning’ imposed by capitalism in crisis to informal projects of resistance against neoliberal pedagogy and authoritarian repression.

Expanding the scope of the aesthetic in the tradition of Karl Marx to include everything from anti-austerity riots and poetry to alternative and self-instituted knowledge dissemination, the series encompasses artistic, theoretical and empirical investigations into the current state of mankind’s bad education.

Aesthetic Education Expanded attempts to open up an understanding of what is being done within and against capital’s massive assault on thought and action, whether in reading groups or on the streets of a world torn between self-cannibalisation and revolt.