The Toponomy of the Classroom
Certain spaces produce certain practices. We are tempted to think in dichotomies: for example, form and content, but often overlook a third element—space. The same occurs in education, where we often think of what is taught and how it is taught, overlooking where it is taught. This article thinks through how spaces produce certain kinds of practices, following guidelines set by Michel Foucault. I will compare the most prevalent educational spaces to engaged practices and wonder what spaces engaged practices need.
The Toponomy of the Classroom
In his essay ‘Of Other Spaces,’ Foucault writes that ‘we do not live in a kind of void […] we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.’1 Put differently, he states that all spaces are different and produce different relationalities with all other spaces, as they simultaneously produce the subjects within a certain space. Foucault adds that a curious property of any space is that it is ‘in relation with all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise, or invent a set of relations.’ 2 ‘Invent’ here is an important word—any space makes relations among all else. We usually only regard form and content within a space (what happens within it), but often forget the third: the space itself. Space postulates the context within which form and content take place. Foucault reminds us of this.
As an arts student, the faculty and discipline you choose comes with a certain set of spaces within which the student’s practice is to develop. It seems common sense to state that the dance student will require a different space for education than a fine arts student, although these disciplines would not exclude each other. In that regard, these spaces are utilities. Therefore, the spaces in which a practice is taught prescribe the boundaries of the practice produced. As the somewhat odd title of this article describes, this regards the laws (nomos) of place (topos), which always encapsulate form and content.
In this article, I will delve into how the physical embodiment of educational spaces define a certain artistic practice. Such spaces are offered with the assumptions of preferred practice: a dance student should dance; a fine arts student should paint (or sculpt, etc.). Should a new view of a certain practice arise (say, the engaged practice), we would need to rethink the spaces in which it is to develop, which is exactly what I will attempt in this article. This question, however, quickly stumbles upon obvious issues, because the engaged practice is not solely involved with itself as painting or dancing might be, but instead always builds on something outside of itself. There is no space in which it can stay to pursue practice.
The door, henceforth, will be the most important metaphor in this article because the door dissolves the border between spaces; it is the thing with which other spaces make their delineating aspect stop and another start. But for engaged practice, this ‘door’ is the delineating aspect: it is what defines the core of its practice. The goal of this article, therefore, is to find a way to turn the structure of how spaces produce practices upside down, so that spaces can be formulated according to the practice a student is developing, especially in relation to engaged artistic practices. Because those engaged practices are always completely constructed—every project anew—in accordance with a certain issue and their elements.
To Change Pedagogy, We Need to Change the Spaces in Which Teaching Takes Place
Before delving into educational spaces, we might ask: ‘Why are spaces the way they are?’ For the most part, this depends on what ought to take place in a space itself, but most explicitly what takes place outside of those spaces. As Foucault affirms, one of the primary functions of spaces ‘is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains.’3 This is also why in education everyone always speaks about ‘after art academy.’ This is thus a cultural factor because a single space is to function in the whole of spaces within a culture—making it function in precisely the same way that prisons and courts of law are spaces that make the rule of law function. Nevertheless, culture’s spaces are prescriptive.4 Although spaces in their current state are historically contingent, they do have a specific function in our time that cannot be thought outside of it. Spaces, as Foucault puts it, are not isolated from all other spaces, yet most spaces are not reducible to all other spaces, hence they have a specific function. These spaces, such as the classroom, are thus ‘other’ than other spaces because they are to perform a function different to the functions of other spaces. Therefore, there exists no un-functional, neutral, ‘empty’ space, which some might argue the artist’s studio is.
A second issue underlying the cultural factor defining spaces, therefore, is authority. Because spaces have a function, they have a specific function that delineates what is ‘expected.’ This function is designed, although not by a single person or institution but by the institution of a culture (discourse). This means that there must be checks and balances that define if a space is ‘up to’ the function that is ascribed to it. Think of the formal design plan, building rules, accreditations and fire checks, but also the (maintenance of) inventories and (rate of) cleaning. Cleaning, for example, is not a surplus luxury here. If a court of law is not kept well, it begins to allow the idea that law itself might be tainted.
The more important the function of a space is regarded in a cultural or even political sense, the more it is ‘checked’—almost like a machine in a factory. A prison, for example, is checked more intensively than a living room because if it fails as a space, the prisoners will stop being prisoners and possibly become fugitives. Obviously, the living room has different function in our culture to the prison, and thus follows other protocols, even though it might sometimes also function as a prison. So, by checks and balances, authorities—such as the accreditation committee, the facility services, and even the teachers themselves—maintain the function of the classroom so that the students stay students and the teacher stays a teacher, so that the scheme of ‘education’ remains in order. Changing pedagogy is impossible without changing the spaces in which teaching takes place.
The Toponomy of the Classroom
The most common space for education is the archetypical ‘classroom,’ which will be well known to all (arts) students. This is often the domain of theoretical discourse for the simple reason that the setup of a classroom evokes a theoretical practice. Let me explain. Most classrooms have a rectangular shape and allow about 30 students inside, plus, of course, a (single) teacher. The teacher occupies a relatively larger space than each student individually (bigger table, more luxurious chair), placed at a specific location on the topography of the classroom—often furthest from the door. The students, by that manner, enter the domain of the teacher, not the other way around.
This consequently emphasises the role of the teacher and creates a hierarchical difference that underpins the epistemological disposition of the students: this space is about knowledge, not necessarily about understanding. Thus, they come to the teacher, ‘need’ something from the teacher, which, by grace of the hierarchical difference, the teacher has to throw down, drawn from the abstract cloud of thought, to the material plains of the classroom. In collaboration with the rectangular space which always directs perspective along the longer lines to the shorter planes, this produces a ‘stage’ effect, where the teacher is ‘on stage’ and those who are not on stage become a receptive ‘audience.’ The teacher performs knowledge as if it were a didactic play; they perform it because of the qualities of the space that stimulates such practice.
Any performance has an audience. Audience stems, after all, from the ‘the condition of listening.’ Without listening—which is semantically coded to speech—there would be no way to convey knowledge, taking into account the phonocentricity of Western culture as Derrida puts it. To listen is something deliberately different to reading, which might be illustrated by the utterance ‘listen!’, an utterance that always implies a moral commandment, and if read, has the subject-dependent ‘interpretation.’ Why? Because the speaker is present when speaking; the writer is not present when reading. Speaking creates the possibility for a whole set of mechanisms of control, and even though the library feels like a more controlled environment, it is not exactly because the writer is not present. If someone were to speak, the punishment is exactly meant to avoid control because speech imposes listening, while text does not.
If reading were the core method of the transferral of knowledge, the space would change to a library, for example, which is always slowed down, and precisely deprived of speech, whereas speech is amplified in the classroom. If learning by practice were the core method of the transferral of knowledge, the question of ‘what space?’ would be linked to the practice pursued in the same way. This structure also works the other way around, especially with practice-based learning, by which I am trying to say that the space in which one learns also produces the practice that is learned. If you were to expose arts students to an industrial kitchen, it would not be controversial to expect they might do something with food or pots and pans. Nevertheless, we still approach the space of learning as if this were a controversial statement because students are to develop a practice that differs from any other one in a homogeneous space. Hence, their spatial requirements also change.
Sometimes, the relatively larger space granted to the lecturer is given an elevation, becoming in that case a traditional stage like in the theatre, sometimes enforced with a trapeze that bends around the speaker forcing the students to look at the speaker, as if it were a magnifying glass. This setup creates something like the fourth wall by the sheer topography of the space, although it is not broken by the performer (the lecturer) but by the students. Therefore, it is an inverted fourth wall. In this pseudo two-directional interaction, the teacher projects downwards on to the students a certain discourse, even though it flows upwards in the trapeze. Occasionally, through the act of interpellation, when a student asks for something as ‘help’ by lifting their hand—yet another script of conduct—thus breaking through the inverted fourth wall, the one-directional ‘lecture’ is paused to allow a response from the lecturer, rather than fellow audience members. If a student is to answer, it will always be mediated by the lecturer: ‘Ah, maybe Sarah can answer your question?’
The one on the classroom stage, the lecturer, is backed by media and technologies that allow them to produce a lecture—technologies that are meant to support the job the lecturer is to perform. A screen or blackboard and a computer, spatially ‘backing’ the lecturer. These specific media support the ‘representation’ of certain practices in a certain form: most commonly in the form of PowerPoints with images and/or text. The students are facilitated in the activity that they are expected to perform by chairs and often also a table, on which they can put their preferred medium for taking notes because in this setup, the table is meant to enable notetaking—not to share dinner, obviously, which the table is meant for in a different kind of space.
The role of the table in this specific space might also explain why it is regarded as ‘wrong’ for students to eat during lectures. Here again we see the table has no inherent function in itself; its form and content are encapsulated by the third element of space. The space makes the functionality of all that which is inside, and how those inside this space are to perform; and by that act, it co-produces the spaces outside of it too because we ought to learn in school what we are to perform outside of it. This also results in us not practising what we have learned where we have learned it.
Permission and Role-Playing
Depending on the style of the teacher, and perhaps the age of the pupils, one has to ask permission to break the role one is to perform in this space—for example, to go to the toilet or to leave earlier or come in later. This is because space also delineates time. As Foucault exemplifies, some spaces indefinitely accumulate time, such as museums or libraries: ‘The will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes […] that is itself outside of time.’5 The act of asking for permission breaks the code of conduct the student and even the teacher are to perform for a certain time in this classroom space, which is exactly why one needs to ask for ‘permission’ because that encapsulates that break and makes it not dangerous. Although I believe that to relate a classroom to the prison is possibly a bit too extreme, they do function according to similar codes of conduct because both spaces have an obligatory character.
The roots of the word ‘school’ mean ‘free time,’ and ironically, within that freeness, the student imprisons themselves.6 If a prisoner wants to make a call to a lawyer, to partake in daytime activity, or start the process of early leave or any other act that does not simply play the inmate-in-a-cell-role and thus breaks with the plain functionality of the space, the inmate has to ask permission from the one who represents authority in this space. This is an act for which all kinds of scripts can be utilised, and bureaucracy kicks in. The jailor represents authority rather than ‘having’ it because they play the role they’re expected to play, just as much as the inmate. The jailor does not formulate their own role, they ‘play’ it. The same counts for the teacher in the classroom, who becomes someone else outside of it. Although they might not ‘have’ authority on the lectured subject, it is their role to perform the ‘representation’ of authority on this given topic. This is why many lectures are referential. They project outwards.
If the teacher gives this away by acknowledging the lack of knowledge on a topic, the representation of authority that has supported and maintained the role of ‘teacher’ risks being lost. Students will protest (‘We’re paying for this, aren’t we!?’), just as much as the inmates will attempt a break out when the jailor does not perform their job according to the code of conduct that represents the authority they have over the inmates. This is yet another prescriptive element of spaces, which function on the level of subjects and identities.
In this manner, spaces are extremely prescriptive and maintain being so throughout life after school. We might teach democracy in a fully dictatorial setting. The role that one is to play in a space produces a practice—a way of doing and acting. In these dialectics, the students are students because the teacher is a teacher. No teacher without students, no students without a teacher. The thing that facilitates these dialectics is the classroom, the space itself. It is the framework in which this roleplay can come into being, the medium by which the scenario plays out. Space is the third element in the triangle with form and content.
The Location of the Classroom
The setup of this classroom is designed for the reproduction of theoretical discourse—that other representative materials, such as images, can be supported through the lecture technologies. The word ‘representative’ is important here because if we are to regard the location of the classroom, it is always separated from the things which it talks about in its space. As Foucault puts it: ‘These places are outside of all places, even though they have location in reality.’7 In the classroom, the lecturer always talks about something that is not present at the same instance, which produces exactly the hypothetical character necessary for learning. It is thus an intentional space, built upon the idea that cognition needs distance in order to appropriate something ‘other’ or ‘external’ into one’s own knowledge. It therefore ‘points’ outwards and draws inwards. This happens not only quite literally in the classroom, when, for example, an image of an art installation is shown and talked about (the installation itself is not present and the image is thus representative, and that is a quality for learning because the lack of presence (i.e., its absence) diminishes the obligatory aspect of presence); but also, quite a bit more tellingly, in the learning minds—something that is not yet present there is brought in.
The lecture is not itself what it talks about and thus builds in a distance from its subjects, who become ‘objects of knowledge’—phenomenal imprints onto cognition. The lecture does not coincide with that which it talks about because if it did, it could not talk about it. The key word here is ‘about.’ In this setup, knowledge is always about something: ‘On the outside of; around the circumference of, enveloping; in the vicinity of.’8 If it coincided with its objects of knowledge, they could not be represented in the form of a lecture, nor be reproduced in the form of knowledge of the students, because intentionality needs distance. Hence, a difference is created here between the space of education and a now simulated ‘outside’—the feared ‘black hole,’ as many arts students often name it. Yet again this is functional for theoretical discourse in the archetypical classroom because it allows for abstraction—for being taken away from the material itself.
This weird creation of inside and outside is only countered by one peculiar trait of education, which is ‘education studies’ itself. Only in these programmes of education are the students educated in the same space in which they will themselves later educate, and the lecture talks about what it itself simultaneously enacts. However, it is silently accepted that a teacher might teach accidental examples about teaching in a very badly taught manner. This, again, has to do with the necessary hypothetical character of the space. Following the logic of the necessary ‘distance’ needed to see something so that the object of knowledge does not coincide with the space from which it is presented, one might argue that the classroom is the worst place where people can learn how to teach in a classroom.
However, this is only partially true because what teaching education does in this example is not only talking about how one should teach but also by doing it simultaneously, it performs it, rather than creating the hypothetical distance to an outside by lifting objects of knowledge inside. Hence, educational studies are practice-based learning. (This is also why, in essence, the authority of a teacher falls apart when the teacher proclaims something they do not perform themselves.)
As I mentioned earlier, it is exactly at the intermediary of this in-out construction of educational spaces where engaged practices are formulated. Therefore, the hypothetical character of such spaces is necessarily problematised—not only because the engaged practice is never only referential (it interferes with its subject) but also because in order to do so, the practice always needs to be formulated in an outside, somewhere other than where the form and content of the practice are found. This is the space, the context of a practice, which is thus dyssynchronous with it. The form and content of engaged practices relate to a space that does not encapsulate their form and content. So, form and content are not reflexive to space in which form and content are taught, but by the encapsulation outside of itself.
A way of contextualising this archetypical ‘classroom’ I have been discussing thus far is by looking at Foucault’s conception of ‘heterotopia,’ which is ‘a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.’9 Within the classroom, other spaces can be imported, questioned and understood in a way that can never be done from within that space that is imported itself. ‘The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.’10
The heterotopia, however, is not a unique place: every place has ‘heterotopian’ elements. Therefore, every space produces a different kind of ‘subject’ who partakes in that space, and thus also outside of it. The classroom produces students, the hospital produces patients and so forth, who all come with their expected ‘codes of conduct.’ With all those subjects produced by the infrastructures of that space, with its schoolboards, teachers, desks and chairs, different roles are also produced. You will act differently when you are a patient in a hospital, a visitor to a graveyard, or a student in a classroom.
The space thus produces a practice. This is in no way necessarily problematic: these roles are, above all, needed because that which is done in a space requires a way of doing. If you are to cook a meal, you are not going to play the role of the graveyard visitor—no meal would then be made, even though artistically it might be interesting. Similarly, if you want to learn something, there are ways in which you can do so and ways in which it is harder to do so. It is hard to learn theoretical physics while playing the role of a festival goer, even though it might be interesting artistically, precisely because it pinpoints the rigidness of a code of conduct.
These roles only become problematic when we expect different ‘practices’ to come forth from archetypical educational spaces without physically reformulating the roles a space produces that eventually underlie practices. It would be odd to ask the audience of a cabaret to act as if they are present at a funeral because it is not granite slabs and the sound of wailing that surround them but velvet chairs across a stage in a chorus of laughter. It would be similarly odd to ask students to perform as patients, even though they are sometimes treated as such. It would also be odd to ask the classroom-type students to perform an engaged practice.
What Space for Engagement?
So far, I have attempted to argue that space (as the embodiment of context) is the third element to form and content, and that it co-produces the practice that is pursued. Change a simple element within a space and its function shifts. Change the space itself and the function changes. Therefore, I invite the rethinking of the spaces in which we educate ourselves if we wish to educate ourselves into something else: engaged practitioners. The last important question, therefore, is what space is then needed for engaged practices? This is a question that regards surrounding: what does the engaged practitioner in development need to be surrounded with? What context co-produces or facilitates the practice pursued?
Earlier, I argued that it is the metaphor of the door—the passage; the border between borders—that inherently best fits engaged practices, especially because there is no fixed context engaged practices develop around: the context of engaged practices appears to be a multiplicity of contexts. There might be a theme, an interest, a subject, but the spatiality is always different because engaged projects are reflexive to what they engage with. Therefore, a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion might be that the space must be different with every practitioner, with every project. However, this is too broad of an answer. In order to make it more specific, I propose to go back to two terms: the opposite of staying and ‘outside.’
Let’s start with the first. Usually, it is reasonable to argue that the opposite of staying is leaving, but this is false. Staying implies a constant in spatiality; therefore, I want to oppose it with movement—the act of oscillating between spaces. Besides, leaving implies that one was present already; that one has resided in a space. The engaged practice does not stay in one place, or leave it necessarily, but is an ‘in-between space’: this is also why its form is reflexive. But it is consequently also always an outside: its spatial configuration might be the ‘hallway.’ Many argue that it is essential to engaged practitioners to become an inside of the social reality they are engaging with; to coincide with it. I believe this is, first of all, practically impossible. Social realities always withdraw themselves, even to people who are allegedly part of that social reality (not to mention that everyone is always intersectionally part of multiple realities, sometimes silently, sometimes explicitly).
A social reality is not an isolated, defined ‘thing’ you can purely be inside or outside of; thus, implying this unification of a practice with a social reality is important would not honour but instead reduce that social reality to the practice pursued into a secluded fixed thing. In other words, social realities do not have typical doors. The dissonance with one’s environment illustrates this withdrawal well: nobody feels completely dissolved into the surrounding one is part of. This is a quality because it introduces the earlier ‘hypothetical’ aspect we discussed—any reality is always a hypothetical reality. A hypothetical is in itself a theoretical doorway between what is and what is not; between fact and fiction; between present and absent; between inside and outside. The hypothetical is that there is always a distance between what one discusses or does and where one currently is. If these would coincide—inside and outside—everything becomes purely and solely the same, and therefore unquestionable.
Everything becomes like educational studies, which I used as an example earlier. It coincides in form with its subject and spatiality, which might also explain a familiar complaint that education never changes because it is not subjected to the hypotheticals that it produces itself in the classroom. This distance caused by withdrawal is not an evil to be fought; it is what produces the hypothetical, which is the force the engaged practitioner works with. On the other hand, the ‘outside’ position does not mean that no approach is needed to become an inside; the opposite is true because in this attempt to oscillate between inside and outside is where ‘engagement’ can be found. This is also why I speak of ‘oscillation’ between the two. It is the energy of attempting to become an inside while being and always staying an outside. Hence, my commandment is plain and simple: go outside (in the broad sense of the word)!
A pedagogical problem does arise here (which I will further delve into in the last article in this series), which regards safety, as I also touched on at the start of this article. Because engaged practitioners engage with social reality in which the law of real consequences reigns (as opposed to the purely hypothetical within educational spaces), the path of learning by mistake becomes problematised. In this spatiality of social realities, the hypothetical of engaged practices, controversially, is a real hypothetical. It is hypothetical and bears the qualities of it—that it intermediates between what is present and what is not—but with real consequences. Hence, ‘wrong’ or ‘mistake,’ which are so essential to learning, are at stake, and with good reason because one suddenly might do harm. Obviously, this always depends on the means by which such a conclusion might be reached; a wholehearted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is a rarity, as anyone in social realities will know. These questions will be further discussed in the last article of this series.
- Foucault, Michel, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.’ In Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité (1984). Translated by Jay Miskowiec.
Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,’ in Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, trans. Jay Miskowiec (1984), p. 3.
Foucault 1984, p. 8.
Foucault 1984, p. 4.
Foucault 1984, p. 7.
Obviously, we should question the concept of freedom here, which I do not do in this article. We could argue that we should make a distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom, whereby the latter attempts to take away all limiting factors and the first, positive freedom, assumes that freedom is a quality to be acquired, often through limiting that freedom, for example by making it mandatory up until the age of eighteen.
Foucault 1984, p. 4.
‘About,’ Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 13 December 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/about.
Foucault 1984, p. 3.
Foucault 1984, p. 4.