Music education through the lens of Levinas (i)

Last week saw over 1,000 music educators gather at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society for Music Education in Glasgow. There were keynote speakers, symposia on a range of topics, concerts, poster sessions and the reading of research papers. There was an embarrassment of riches.

During August I will serialise one of the research papers- Kathryn Jourdan’s ”Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music classroom and beyond”.

In this Kathryn presents an ethically grounded perspective on music education. I hope you will find it challenging and thought-provoking. Following the fourth installment I will place the whole in the scholarly articles section of the blog site with full referencing.

ISME paper July 2016

Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music

classroom and beyond

Kathryn Jourdan

  • Introduction

This paper aims to give a brief overview of my recent PhD research.   The central focus of the paper concerns the field work I undertook in a Scottish high school.

At the heart of my presentation is an attempt to briefly unpack two strands of Levinas’ philosophy, strands which provide tools with which to explore my observations in school. Through this lens, I present what I have termed pupils’ practices of facing which I conceive of as agential. From these are drawn the paper’s conclusions, which propose an underpinning, ethical orientation to anchor a diversity of approaches within music education.

I aim to give glimpses of different stages of the research process through a small number of examples.

A series of questions emerged for me, as I went from playing in a symphony orchestra and working in inner city schools on creative projects, to teaching practice in the music classroom of an affluent rural secondary school:

‘How do young people encounter difference in the music classroom?’

‘What sort of responsibility does the music teacher have in these encounters?’

‘Is it even ethical to use another’s music in the classroom?’

Ten years after these formative experiences I went back to university to explore these questions.

For my Master’s fieldwork I visited a setting on the fringes of Britain where, for geographic and historical reasons, encountering difference has become a habit of daily life. At Shetland’s main High School in Lerwick, and in the wider community, I observed some inspiring practice, where music-making, rooted in a thriving local tradition, provides a mode of encounter, enabling a welcoming–in of the stranger, bringing fresh sounds and perspectives which open up the world and enrich local musical expressions.

As I moved into doctoral study, I began to trace the development in the research literature over the past few decades of conceptualisations of music-making as relationship, then as ethical relating, which gives agency to the participants.

Christopher Small’s influential work on ‘musicking’ suggests that it is from within the local, situated set of relationships, which come into being when people make music together, that musical meaning arises, where ‘ideal’ relationships as understood by the particular community who are making music together are ‘modelled’.

More recently, Lee Higgins has drawn upon the work of Derrida – someone close to Levinas – to build a conception of community music-making as an act of hospitality, welcoming others in to cross the threshold, inviting them to come to belong.

Using the language of ‘virtue ethics’ Wayne Bowman sees experiences in music-making as ‘ethical resources’:

‘as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, ‘What kind of person is it good to be?’

And critically, Bowman challenges the division between intrinsic and extrinsic values, between the inherent and instrumental benefits of music education, which have been debated since Plato’s time. Something can only be of value if it is a contributory good to human thriving.

Drawing upon these building conceptualisations from the literature I sought to investigate how ethical encounters through music-making might work.   And in exploring notions of ‘the other’ I came across the writings of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and formed my first research question:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                                

  • Levinas

Levinas is known for his exhortation to us to ‘look into the face of the Other’.

A rather clumsy term, the ‘other’ has long been used in social science to denote those marginalised or ‘othered’ by social practices.

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as a constituent of selfconsciousness – the self needs the other in order to define itself.

So notions of the ‘Other’ have come to suggest ‘that which is not us’, whether it be the one we see face-to-face or the distant Other as radically different from our self, whose difference is crucial to the very formation of ourselves, our own subjectivity.

In Levinas’ philosophy the relation to the Other becomes the first concern before all else – pre-ontological, or ethics as first philosophy – except Levinas uses the term ‘ethics’ not in a traditional sense as a code of morality or moral decision-making, but rather as a relation of our unending responsibility to the Other, in whose face we perceive an ethical call.

In his first major work, Totality and Infinity Levinas draws out two contrasting orientations to the Other:

  1. In the first, Totality, we seek to make the Other the ‘Same’, categorising in order to control, and to dominate.   It was in response to the dehumanising processes of the Holocaust that Levinas, sensing a ‘crisis of humanism’, was motivated to find a path towards a ‘new humanism’, seeing that the ‘totalising’ orientation of our Western philosophical tradition has led again and again to colonisation, oppression and destruction (Katz, 2012a; 2012b).
  2. Levinas exhorts us to take on a fresh orientation, where we perceive Infinity in the face of the Other. The Other is profoundly different from us, but for whom we are unendingly, ethically responsible, and who ‘teaches’ us, always bringing us ‘more than we contain’. Levinas talks of the ‘face’ to suggest a whole which overflows perceptions of features and which cannot be categorised or fully grasped. In the face of the Other we glimpse an infinity, he says.

Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.

The notion that radical otherness, diversity, is essential for us to be able to come to know is one that we would do well to dwell on in our current political times.

Levinas writes that language is born out of this relation; ‘The beginning of language is in the face’ (Levinas, 1988: 169-170).

To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces (Levinas, 1961: 76).

Language is understood by Levinas as a reaching out to the Other, a primordially ethical act before it is a communication of any specific meaning.

  • Levinas and education

So what might this mean for education?

Levinas published his first major philosophical work after many years as a teacher, and saw teaching as transformative – ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’ (Levinas, 1969: 171).

Philosopher of education Paul Standish’s view, following Levinas, is that the content of the curriculum may be seen as a form of relation to the Other. He writes that

Subjects are language to the extent that they are ways of thinking and reasoning about the world that have passed down through the generations, where this thinking and reasoning essentially is language (Standish, 2008: 65).

The role of the teacher, according to Levinas, is not that of the Socratic midwife attending at the birth of knowledge in the learner. The teacher’s role is rather to point beyond, drawing pupils further into the infinity of the subject and the questions it raises.

Standish writes, ‘To cast the teacher as the conduit to the Other in this way, through the language to which she gives the learner access, is to see herself oriented by her own relation to the Other’.

  • And music education…

So what does this mean for our understanding of music education and of music-making if we are to ground our practice in a profound responsibility for the Other, listening out for, and hearing the voice of the Other

And if we seek to eschew totalising practices in order to remain radically open to infinity?

What might such ‘practices of facing’ look or sound like in the music classroom?

  • In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?


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