The Cold Dead Hands

Real Change

This was written at the behest of Jon Roffe for the ASCP

The dominant currents of contemporary philosophy are too appropriate to the law of the world (A. Badiou, Happiness)


A century of cures to Plato – he who made education and philosophy inextricable – has left us with a two-fold impossibility: that of the idea and that of the subject. If anyone has read any educational theory you will know that it is heavily dependent on the philosophy of this cure and so, without much thought, takes up this double deposition.

It so happens that this deposition, rooted in the fetish of pure becoming is in accord with the demands of the contemporary state form to whose constant innovation there is no alternative and this is why educational theory of this type turns up in policy. All positions agree: no idea, no subject. That is: no idea which is not already guaranteed to exist and no subject which is not already assigned its place. So we have everywhere the discourse of what is what they are not or in other words, that of the plausible image.

Philosophically speaking, this proscription is supposed to rule out any surreptitious return to metaphysics and at the level of my concern rules out the fundamental question: what is education? What makes this question guilty of metaphysics is that it has the temerity to suggest that there are truths, thus, that which is not at all plausible. However, with regard to what Plato, the culprit here, seeks after with his ubiquitous what is X question, the received wisdom on this, that it seeks after definition, is plain wrong.

The ‘what is X?’ question, variously, what is justice, what is love, what is knowledge, what is courage and so on displaces what he regards as the sophistic ethic concerning the relativist measure of all things. It asks something, or rather addresses something, which is never reducible to interest or perspective or to power. In fact, it functions in the dialogues more like an axiom than a question; an ‘idea-statement’ (to corrupt Heidegger as one should), insofar as, following Aristotle, it is ‘that which is necessary in order to learn something else’. In this sense, it is not a demand for a definition but its principle. It effectively points out that the discussion is lost in opinion and sophistry and appeals to that which is there, conditionally, that neither can know.


This question – and in the dialogues it is accompanied by the interventionist statements of Socrates, ‘I know nothing’ and ‘I do not teach’ – announces in the specific space of its deployment the necessity of division and the condition of any new re-collection. Separation from known knowledge, and a new orientation to what is at stake.

Truth is at stake for Plato but truths are not a matter of the definition of a thing but the thought demonstration of it and typically in Plato, the demonstration of the existence of that which is deemed by known knowledge to be impossible. Hence the beautiful contention concerning the just city: nowhere visible but not impossible.

Precisely in holding out for what is true, rather than what is ruled apparent, Plato tries to think real change – which is to say, change in the very way change appears to be thought. Any other form of change falls within a clever typology of iteration or repetition thus making exist differently what is already seen to exist. The axiom for this is from Ecclesiastes.

‘Idea’ is Plato’s name for this impossibility and as such gives thought its other orientation. Its realisation is a matter of what he allusively calls participation. Participation is his name for the subjectivation of anyone whatsoever as subject. Thus for Plato, true change is subjective participation in the idea – that is, to make real what is impossible to the knowledge of the state. In Plato, education is the name of this articulation between idea and subject – it is no-ways else visible.


With the recent rise of internet technologies a new round of change has been prescribed for education. This rhetoric of change does not constitute a real change in educational rhetoric itself given that change has been an imperative in discourses on education for over forty years now. Policy documents from Australia, the UK, Europe and the USA have been practically unanimous in insisting that as the key feature and facilitator of developments in the ‘new knowledge economy’ education must be ‘constantly’ reformed to meet the demands of the ‘rapidly changing global economy’.

New media technology has simply extended and intensified this discursive framework concerning the future of global educational change. Let me give some examples, drawn from a wide range of what we might call ‘eductationalism’ or what I elsewhere call pedagogy. Seemingly devoid of any historical perspective, a recent study notes that in the ‘[i]nformation age … learning itself is the most dramatic medium of […] change’. Another asserts that digital technology will usher in a ‘historic transformation’ both in the way education is delivered and in the way it is conceived such that there is the potential for ‘a fundamentally new paradigm.’

Moreover, the ‘technological revolution’ currently taking place in online education which ‘has the capacity not only to enable information input at a single site to reach anyone on the planet instantly, but allows for the sharing of information, work and data across borders and cultures’ is, by virtue of its educational effect, ‘a social revolution’. The ‘monopoly has begun to crumble’. ‘New organizations are being created to offer new kinds of degrees, in a manner and at a price that could completely disrupt the enduring college business model.’

Some key figures – or perhaps I should say players given how much ink is wasted on the desultory notion of play in this area – in digital media and online learning speak constantly and credulously of the potential of internet technologies ‘to [change] just about everything about how we think about […] education’ given that it is now possible to create ‘a never-tiring, self-regulating, self-improving system that supports learning through formative on-demand feedback’.

Much of this discourse has concentrated in the discussions of MOOCs.1 ‘A MOOC’, one expert claims, ‘integrates the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources.  It is a ‘course’ that is ‘open, participatory, distributed’ - life-long networked learning. It is ‘not a school or just a course,’ but an ‘event’: by which one ‘connects and collaborates’ – ‘engaging in the learning process itself’ but ‘in a structured way’.

Choice, this expert says, retroactively confirmed via ‘participation’, is ‘built in’. It is ‘a key feature all the way through…. And even success is your choice ‘just like real life’. These events of ‘rhizomatic community engagement’ are said to be effecting a ‘campus tsunami’, a ‘historic transformation’ and an ‘education revolution’. (Not to mention of course that the prospects for data mining see investment houses and universities teaming up, salivating over the chance to own more property.)

That MOOCs, conceived as an event, are said to nevertheless build on ‘established distance learning models’ but remain distinct in terms of access and by the forms of participation required to make them work, brings to the surface a division well known in contemporary philosophy between situations, events and consequences or the thinking of continuity and discontinuity or even being and becoming.

At stake in this division is the possibility of the new itself — that is, for the advent of something and the participation in it required to make it not simply a repetition of the old in the guise of a difference — and, in my reading, finally, of any possible subject not constituted in some way by the ‘continuities’ of known knowledge.

Thus, if the MOOC is both event and real change at once, ostensibly sufficient in itself to change the ‘educational paradigm’, we have no subject except as pure emergence and thus participation or engagement or what have you is inscrutable and inescapable. Whether it issues from some conception of unknowable being or from the inexorable logic of the market no subjective participation is required. Rather, one is subject to a rule of unfolding and thus conformity determines existence. Knowledge does not know what it is not. But presenting a continuity as a discontinuity is inherent to sophistic wisdom.


The problem here, really, is the subjective weakness of these ‘new’ technologies and not their overweening power. This weakness is precisely expressed in their filial subservience to the prevailing discourses on education, the very ‘object’ they suppose they are overcoming.  (But note, this is not a mistake.) The rhetorical exuberance seems, as in ancient times, to go hand in hand with a casual and inconsistent use of terms and a concomitant conceptual free for all.

Hence, change, reform, transformation, revolution, disruption, paradigm shift, and so on, are used as synonyms and without reflection on their use. Change is known.

What is clearly the case, given the lack of conceptual clarity and situational enquiry which, clearly, is built in to discourses on what is education, is that these discourses of change act as limits to rather than an extension of educational change and when one factors in the depth of the capital and ideological investments in these technologies it is difficult to see these changes reproducing anything but what Plato calls in the Republic, a ‘queer sort of education’ and thus a queer sort of subject (R. 493c).

In my terms, such an education – which is not one – creates a subjective incapacity. Thus, one who knows that to unknow knowledge is impossible. There is, then, a lack of education in the discourse of education itself. Or to put it another way, this discourse produces explicitly this lack – this lack of what it is.

And given this ‘revolutionary’ education is our global enterprise, a matter of human right no less, which no-one may resist, lest they be barbarous or evil, it is the knowledge of all. Since at least Marx, the great thinker of the nexus of technology, knowledge and capital, we know that there are at last two ways to think this ‘all’: in terms of globalisation and in terms of universalism. Globalisation is the knowing expression of what can be done with this for all; universalism is the true expression of what this for all can do.


The underlying assumption of this entire rhetoric of instants is that it knows already what education is. Hence, paradoxically, in the midst of all this change, education – such as it is assumed known – is unchangeable. What will and must in fact continually change – and thus difference is mistaken for the new – is the technique for its manipulation or instrumentalisation relevant to the demands of a logic extrinsic to it.  

Thus, if instrumentalised, no matter the technique, it is instrumentalised for something else, for something else beyond education itself. This something else, then, must presume to mark the limits of education itself. Which is to say, it takes the form of a known knowledge; a knowledge off limits to education. But there is another, further twist, for this knowledge of education, which in order to maintain itself must constantly alter its techniques in order to appear as the current knowledge of education, is constrained by an altogether immanent aspect of education: that it is fundamentally about change itself.

In other words, the knowledge of education as a technique changes in order that the intrinsic capacity of education for change is rendered the impossible of knowledge as such, and from within the debates on education itself. The current ‘debates’ about education (or perhaps now ‘conversations’) are themselves being instrumentalised by the knowledge of education they presume, defer to and support in their efforts to instrumentalise education – theory, policy and practice – in support of that knowledge. We have an instrumentalisation of an instrumentalisation.

And this doubling takes place in order precisely to forestall the transformative effects of education as such – known to be troublesome for all states throughout history. Such effects are the immanent truths of any possible concept of education and, for all that, to adopt a notion of Boris Groys, are as such withdrawn from the market or the logic of capital, which provides the temporal horizon of our contemporary knowledge.


Education is something like a site relative to capitalist knowledge: it marks a divested point, an emptiness in the territory of capital. It remains over, and this indeed with regard to any ‘state knowledge’, ‘for the purpose of creating something that was meant for eternity and not for time’. This is a purpose for which there is no time today.

What is understood by change, and what type of subject is conceived, supposed and created with regard to this technological conception of educational change? Of course, these two questions are themselves somewhat supplementary to the question invoked at the level of the concept: what is education?  This question, which cannot be answered with regard to technique alone, is always foreclosed in debate precisely because to even pose it, as noted, supposes a distinct orientation to the knowledge of education. In other words it supposes the existence of a point immanent to knowledge yet other than on knowledge’s terms that is demonstrable, has a trajectory, consequences and an orientation that can be traced and established as consistent under varying conditions and relative to distinct situations.

Whereas previously, education changed individuals to maintain stasis here the rhetorics of change educates the educators in the impossibility of any change to it. In other words, those who profess educational change, the techno-cognoscenti being only the latest dull iteration, assume and thus don't think two things: that change is all and thus the same, and that education, being un-knowable as such, it must not escape the logic of change.

There can be no theory of change immanent to education: that would be to say there was some truth of it, something invariant we can demonstrate of it, which is not only impossible to think, so the educated discourses on education tell us, but would also be to acknowledge that in education there is this risk of non-knowledge: the risk it might not be what we assume it to be and therefore that the subject might be something other than it prescribes. 

Hence it must remain an assumption and thus subject to external delimitation as object. By refusing to think what education is or that this can be thought, it can be whatever it needs to be at anytime which in turn can be determined as what is proper to it. The impossibility of true change is the necessary condition that all is change. The latter is the condition of the exaltation of technique and hence, downstream, in education discourse, spurious platitudes dictate: adaptability, flexibility, resilience, wellbeing.

Logics of true change

Clearly, what I am calling education or rather the change that is properly effective as education is a matter of truths, that they exist, and not the conformity of technique.

In Logics of Worlds, precisely to interrupt this consensus – bounded on the one side by a knowledge of limits and on the other by the impossibility of anything but there being knowledge – Alain Badiou elaborates a formal typology of change correlated to the event and with regard to the subjective production in a world of some truth. The underlying Platonic ethic is that ‘the only education is an education by truths’. Thus before looking at this idea of change let me mark the important distinction between truths and knowledge.

Logics of Worlds opens with Badiou wondering what it is we think about our situation today, especially when we are not ‘monitoring’ ourselves (a suitably pedagogical term). He asks ‘what is our natural belief’ – ‘in keeping’, he says, ‘with the rule of an inculcated nature’. He contends that ‘natural belief is condensed in a single statement: There are only bodies and languages’. This is the axiom of ‘democratic materialism,’ our world today – the knowledge that fashions us as individuals.

Against this, Badiou proposes a counter axiom: ‘there are bodies and languages except that there are truths’. Truths are exceptions to the inculcated, pedagogical rule of democratic materialism and as such, they are not reducible to or recoupable by knowledge – sensory, experiential, linguistic or technological. The modes of change constitutive of the knowledge of ‘bodies and languages’ are irreducible to the form of change that has done with this knowledge itself. This latter form of change is exceptional or inexistent to knowledge tout court, the knowledge that gives order and currency to this world.

A truth for Badiou is a generic, subjective and transformative procedure, or in other words, truths are dynamic and subjective interventions within situations or worlds of established knowledge, which manifest as real there what is a new orientation to this world whose effect is to displace this knowledge from within. Truths have to be established in fidelity to an event, which marks the real of exception. They are not what is adequate to or an instance of established knowledge.

Hence a true education is oriented to the world with regard to an established break with its knowledge, by what exposes there the site of its lack. In short, passing by the ontological demonstrations, there is always within any regime of knowledge its point of lack – its void-site in strict terms – around which it organises itself.

This ‘lack’ is relative to the ‘excess’ that any such knowledge produces as itself – this by its determination that non-knowledge is impossible – and also thus what it guards against: this lack is therefore a condition of its knowledge. In other words, knowledge cannot know the void or lack at its heart and must therefore produce as knowledge this non-knowledge.

What is at issue is the production of this lack as knowledge itself, that is, that this lack must not be known: that is the real horizon of this discourse or its genuine excess. While this excess is ‘incalculable’ and therefore cannot be known as such, it can and must be decided or risked! To decide, let me note, is absolutely consistent with what ontology formalises. Referring to this ontology Badiou says: the logic of the excess is real, insofar as it is impossible to limit it.

Truths are not thereby of being itself, but are totally contingent on the contingency of an event or the irruption in a situation or world of that which-is-not-being-qua-being. Truths are subjective productions, subtractive of being as of all knowledge of it. This distinction or coupling between truths and the knowledge which truths interrupt and avoid as a matter of course is discernible (if often ‘unconscious’) in all discourse when change or the ‘new’ is at stake.

Typology of worlds

Badiou conceives three types of change: modifications, facts and real change. They are distinguished in terms of their intensity or affect and their relation to the transcendental or established knowledge specific to their world. Modifications are akin to reform, facts to disruptions, and real change to transformation or the instance of the new truth of a world.

The transcendental is the ‘locus of the relations of identity and difference by means of which multiples make ‘worlds’’ (SM 75).2 This is a relation of order of a specific sort in so far as what appears does so in terms of intensity and intensity is a matter of relation – the relation of one multiple to another. What appears most intensely in a specific world determines the intensity of appearing of the other multiples marked to exist in that world. A world is structured in terms of a maximal intensity of appearing or existence, and a minimum. ‘The intensities of objects and relations are measured according to a singular temporal transcendental, which objectivates in their appearing multiplicities…’ (LW 359).

In a world, for example, where established knowledge provides the transcendental rule, those deemed knowledgeable by degree will appear more intensely than the unknowledgeable or ‘uneducated’. This is a reductive example but accurate enough, especially when we think about how this ‘distinction’ is wielded to exact the right to privilege. Most objects relative to a world, Badiou says, appear somewhere in the middle.

It is impossible here to flesh out the entire onto-logic but if we understand that to appear in a world is to appear for the transcendental of a world, thus relative to its knowledge then what we need to know is simply and critically: ‘[…] the appearing of a being in a world is the same thing as its modifications in that world, without any discontinuity and thus any singularity being required for the deployment of these modifications’. Thus a world stabilised by an established knowledge is always already the operation of a modification.

To be-there with some degree of intensity above the minimum – which is simply to inexist for a world (which is not to not be) – is to exist as and to consist in being modified or ‘changed’. In other words, then, modification, as the ‘rule governed appearing’ of difference as such is the norm of a world. It is the change such that nothing of that world changes.

The point is

Real change, which is what, Badiou – in the shadow no doubt of Thesis Eleven – wants to make thinkable is more than mere modification and distinct from a fact. However, while modifications are coincident with the transcendental or in Plato’s sense the innovations of known knowledge, a fact and a singularity or real change have in common what Badiou calls a ‘site’. In short, a site or event-site, marks the limit point within a world or situation of established knowledge.

Beneath the site there is nothing – it marks the point of inexistence or an abnormality inadmissible to the logic of the state: it is present but not represented; its parts are un-knowable but, as he sets out in Logics of Worlds, is real.  A fact, then, is a site, Badiou says, ‘whose intensity of existence is not maximal’. It is not evental. It does not carry in its becoming the disruptive force necessary to effect a change in the logic or transcendental of that world itself. While a fact is not of the law as such, it cannot alter this law either. A fact points at change but is not itself real change. A fact as a weak singularity is recoverable for a world.

A strong singularity – which is an event – is ‘a site whose intensity of existence is maximal’ (372). If there is an event, it is the irruption of the properly inexistent or that which exists minimally for that world, such that what happens becomes the index of its happening: hence ‘singularity’. The minimally appearing element of that world comes to appear maximally – which, given the site has no known or presented elements, is patently illegal. So an appearing minimal of a site, of a sudden appears maximally.

What the event is and signifies is the non-impossibility of a change in that order – in the ‘unbroken phrasing of the world’. However, this is not enough – the world is not changed – except that an exception has been marked: that an exception is not impossible.

Thus, when the minimal becomes maximal the possibility exists that the entirety of the transcendental order be changed – nothing becomes everything. So if ‘nothing’ or rather the trace of the event comes to occupy this place, to present itself as the new point of orientation for this world, all established relations are up for grabs. This trace is the ‘eternal’ existence of the inexistent, the outline or statement, in the world, of the disappeared event. The event gives to the subject the chance of an other orientation than that deemed to exist. ‘The event is neither past nor future. It presents us with the present’ (LW 384): In other words, with the real idea whose possibility is not impossible.

These modes of change are articulated with a theory of the subject that is of course correlated to this idea manifest in an event: that true change or change by truths, is not impossible.

Typology of the subject

The three types of the subject derived from these modes of change, recognisable in any world, are the reactionary, obscurantist and faithful. The key is that each subjective type is also linked for a particular world to an event of that world. Subjects, then, are reactionary to, occlusive of or faithful to an event. These figures of the subject are the appearance of three forms of subjectivisation, relative to the ‘new subject body in the world’ an event makes possible.

That of the reactionary is of an ‘indifference: to act as though nothing has taken place or, more exactly, to be convinced that, were the event not to have occurred, things would be basically the same’. It ‘quashes what is new within the soft power of conservation’.

The subjectivisation of the occlusive ‘is hostility: to consider the new body as a malevolent foreign irruption that must be destroyed. In this hatred of the new, of all that is ‘modern’ and different from tradition, we recognise obscurantism’ (SM 91-2). Thus, the obscurantist changes or intensifies its forms of rhetoric or, if in a position to do so, its repressive capacities in order to make sure there is no fundamental change, while the reactive subject adapts to the world in terms of its ordinary modifications since ‘there is no alternative’.

Conceptions of education correlated to either of these forms of subjectivisation cannot be considered educational precisely because they refuse, as noted, to think the impossibility of their worlds and so pre-suppose a knowledge of the limits of knowledge as such – which cannot itself be known.

Moreover these two forms presented to us in the form of an opposition effectively exhaust the logic of our contemporary world and as I have intimated above, the logic of educational discourses thereby. This exhaustion is that which Gilles Chatelet memorably diagnoses as the desire ‘to live and think like pigs’. Which in speaking to the present of democratic materialism, I take also as alluding to some mockery of Protagoras by Socrates (Tht, 161c).

Real change

Real change is the upheaval in a world of the very logic that holds this animal exhaustion together, that provides its consistency, and is at the same time the force of the procedure by which a new truth of that world is set out for it point by point and by which a new body or subjective, collective formation for that world is constructed – one that draws on the equal capacity of all inhabitants of that world to not know its knowledge and thus to be truly educated.

Here is the crux. Badiou, in a Platonic gesture, establishes, via a universalisation of non-inclusion, the not-impossible belonging of all to the new truth of their world. Real change is correlated not to the management of innovation but to the non-knowledge of this same world, exposed in the event, whose consequences made manifest as a new truth of and for this world, are drawn by the subject. Real change is demonstrated every time as what is education.

Or to put this another way: Education must be prised from the cold dead hands of the educators.


While the MOOC might not have taken off, as such, what it signifies in the discourse has only intensified.


A. Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. L. Burchill.