Blurred or Entangled: On the nature of our commitments

Essays

It may seem futile to begin to argue about the language we use, but I happen to believe that it does make a practical difference to how we describe the world and then how we try to shape it. I note that Chris Shannaghan’s recent blog once again picks up the language of hybridity and blurredness and suggests that neither does justice to the situations with which he is engaged. Rather than disagreeing with him I want to move the debate on as, despite my reference to a recent shared publication, “Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing,” and the way in which that builds upon the “blurred” theme, I now prefer to use the term “entangled”. In what ways might this be an advance for an engaged public theology?

The strength of the blurred analogy is that it reflects the state of confusion and uncertainty that is often encountered once one takes the risk of entering unknown and unfamiliar territory. Crossing the boundary into other cultures, disciplines, faiths and ways of being creates that sort of “cloud of unknowing” characteristic of the liminal or in-between space, the threshold into a different world. The weakness is that it says nothing about the specifics of the new relationships which then develop. I have in my mind instead the picture of a thicket, a thorny and enveloping growth in which one finds oneself entangled, and from which it is not easy to extract oneself and stand outside. The blurredness may quickly be displaced by a sharp discomfort as one begins to penetrate more deeply into the complex structure of an organic entanglement where one is caught up, but by no means in control. This imagery I derive from such  thinkers as Deleuze and Guattari (in “AThousand Plateaus” amongst other publications); Bruno Latour (“Reassembling the Social”) and Tim Ingold (“Being Alive”). The point of this (and “the point” itself suggests the sharp-edged and uncomfortable nature of this engagement), is that one is then forced into examining the exact nature of the different strands and “lines of flight”, and then to face the challenge of working out or reassembling, how they fit together in this particular situation. So one gets well beyond the generality and therefore the weakness of just saying “it is blurred” and into the specifics and the detail of each individual context.

I could give examples, and I hope that the one I will offer, which is itself very specific to a UK context, will give a “feel” for what I mean. Education in the UK has either been provided by the state or obtained privately by those with the means to do so. The public provision has been seen as the commitment to a welfare state where there should be – in theory- equality of access to a high standard of education and thus some level of equal opportunity. Under successive governments, both New Labour and now the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, there has been a move towards less state-dependent provision of education through what is being called Academy status. Formerly state schools at both Secondary and Primary level are being encouraged to enter this new world and to leave behind the former relationship with Local Authorities who have provided the support services and funding for much that has happened before. This is complicated by the fact that, in the UK, the Church of England in particular, still has a large stake in some of these schools, through their supposedly Christian ethos and the appointment of suitable staff and governors.

What is happening now through the Academy process is effectively a privatisation of a former public service, opening up the education system to businesses and other interested parties to engage with and take over either individual schools or federations of schools. In my context, which is that of small rural schools feeding into a larger Secondary school, it is obvious that no one small school is large enough to become an Academy, hence it is some version of the federation option that is the most viable. This raises a host of difficult challenges and issues for those of us directly involved – I am on the governing body of two of these schools by virtue of being the priest in the area and the fact that they are Voluntary Aided i.e. Church Schools. This is indeed a thicket, a sharp and uncomfortable entanglement that we are now entering, difficult to unravel and see from the outside. I note from within the US context a critique of the influence of commercial values in education in Michael Sandel’s new book “What money can’t buy: the Moral limits of Markets” (Allen Lane, 2012).

Amongst the issues we have to address are the following: the role of the Diocese which appears to be supporting the Academy process (although it claims to be neutral) and appears to see this as an opportunity to strengthen church control or influence in the developing system; the concern that a federation in this area would put together schools from both a church and non-church background and also with very different cultures and clientele, but without any thought as to how this is to work in practice or differences to be contained or resolved; another concern that a commercial or business model of operation could well lead to the closure of the less viable schools (financially or educationally unviable) but which play an important role within their own locality; a governance system which appears to wrest control from the local level and place it in the hands of a more remote and unrepresentative unelected body. There is more, but this is just to offer some sense of the entanglements we now find ourselves in by virtue of a central government policy over which we have no control and which we fear may steamroller us into a situation that nobody locally appears to want. What price for democracy?

It is because we need to engage in the specific detail of each “matter of concern” as Latour would describe it, that we need the language of entanglement to do greater justice to the challenges we face. Where do ethical values, let alone faith-based ones, impinge on these entanglements? Sandel calls for an open debate on which services, goods and social practices are appropriately determined by the market (P202), and whilst this would indeed be an advance, I am not sure it does justice to the complexity of the issue. Latour would argue that critique is not a matter of standing back and taking a critical distance from matters of concern, but rather of becoming more closely entangled with the various strands and issues that are involved. What we need to understand and articulate is that each strand or thorn itself contains certain values or ethical commitments, so ethics is not something to be brought into the discussion “after the event”, but is always already embedded in every matter of concern we encounter. We need to get closer to the “facts of the matter” in order to fully understand what is happening. Therein lies a further development of this approach. It is the language of entanglement that more accurately reflects the complexity of individual situations or matters of concern. What still remains though is the question of how and where particular groups express and take forward their own values within this process. On that issue I prefer to turn to the work of others such as the philosopher Badiou, who has interesting insights into the nature of fidelity, and these resonate, for me, with a faith-based contribution to so many of our public concerns. What I am pursuing then is the notion of entangled fidelities.

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