[F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.[i]
In the last line of Middlemarch, George Eliot offers a reflection on the life of Dorothea Brooke, whose sense of obligation led her to serve the dry scholarship of her husband Casaubon, but whose creativity and passion meant that she fell in love with Will Ladislaw’s energy, idealism and cultural activism.
For Eliot, a translator of Spinoza, Dorothea’s inner conflict shows that human relationships must be understood emotionally and ethically, and in ways that challenged the conventional moral virtues of her time. It was her ‘unhistoric acts’ – acts that will never be written into official histories - that made a difference to the world, marking social change through a quiet poetics of participation.
The idea that political participation is a poetic act was, of course, codified by the Romantics and found further expression in Eliot’s social realism. What Eliot understood was that an ethics of social participation is not only dependent on abstract ideals, imagination and vision – Shelley’s argument in A Defence of Poetry - it is both sited and situated, enacted in the small and intimate moments of everyday life in which an idea or vision is turned to practical politics.
Of course the only examples that we can know are those that have been documented by historians, passed down in folklore or across generations of family history, but many of us know that the actions of a good teacher, a kind aunt or helpful stranger changed or enhanced the course of a life. A good life, in this context, is not immortalised in either great poetry or grand monuments to heroic men, but is defined by how we go about our daily lives, our unremarkable habits and routines of life. The moment of death marks the beginning of being forgotten. People may be unremembered and their tombs unvisited, Eliot suggests, but their acts are all the more significant because they have participated in her optimistic vision of ‘the growing good of the world’ through small gestures and quotidian practices.
It is this sense of lives that are lived and forgotten that is perhaps felt most acutely in an abandoned graveyard; the dash that separates two dates on a tombstone symbolises, as the poet Sylvia Plath observed, the whole span of a life. Visiting unvisited tombs presses political questions about an everyday
ethics of participation, about what we are each doing in the dash – the dent marked in stone– the time between the date we already know and the unknown date that will balance the asymmetry. It is here that a poetics of participation might provide an opportunity to get a grip, at least temporarily, on life (and death) as a dance between the human and non-human, in which the materiality of existence is marked as temporary and contingent. Nowhere is this dance more poetic and more physical than in a patch of land where the dead are buried.
A poetics of participation that acknowledges the dance between the human and the nonhuman, that recognises the ethical force of unheroic and unhistoric acts, requires a new set of pedagogical vocabularies, and new ways of learning. I am searching for a poetic pedagogy that understands that ‘the growing good of the world’ is an organic process, experienced both intellectually and in the unreflexive practices of everyday life, as enactment, embodiment and inhabitation.
This moves beyond the dialecticism associated with conventional Marxist critical pedagogies or humanist theories of social constructivist learning. It opens questions about how the values and practices of educators and activists who have been long associated with equality might be recast for contemporary work.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples might be found in the work of the theatre director Augusto Boal, who has influenced generations of activists. Boal’s ways of working were influenced by Paulo Freire’s idea that education should aim to makes people ‘more human’, and his trademark ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ was build on this premise.[ii] Theatre of the Oppressed often involves actors dramatising social issues, resolved through debate with the audience, who are asked to try out their solutions in improvised performance. Boal describes these people as ‘spectators’, and it is interesting in this context that it is the spectator whom Boal casts as ‘inhuman’; spectatorship, in this conceptualisation, equates with passivity, and a lack of participation in Boal’s particular idea of a performative pedagogy provides him sufficient evidence for people’s inhumanity.
This opens a political gap between rhetoric and practice, and in all the many theatre-events inspired by Boal’s pedagogy I have witnessed across the world, I have rarely seen participation that is equitable. It is flawed, often, by two issues; first, that it is led by theatre-makers, facilitators or educators who may have very different backgrounds from their audiences, and who bring their own particular vision of ‘humanity’ to the performance that may well be at odds with the local community. Performers command the power of attention, and the dramaturgical structure may have the effect of coercing an audience into particular points of view. It is unsurprising, in this context, that Boal’s methods have been applied to corporate management training as well as political activism. Second, it takes a particular kind of courage to get up in front of an audience and improvise in role, and it is almost inevitably the case that audience members who are already confident in this setting volunteer to participate. The first may be recognisably prejudicial, albeit unintentionally so, and the second also fails to acknowledge the affective force of atmosphere, mood and environment, of human and nonhuman interaction.
The unvisited tomb, and the dash between the dates, serve as metaphors that prompt questions about what is meant by an everyday ethics of participation. In Eliot’s novel, understanding how to participate in the world is represented as a daily challenge, often fraught with contradiction and emotional tension. As Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison suggest, “we come to know and enact a world from inhabiting it, from becoming attuned to its differences and juxtapositions, from a training of our senses, dispositions and expectations”.[iii]
This way of thinking represents a radical inversion of social constructivist pedagogies, in which meaning is projected onto the (socially constructed) world. A poetics of participation depends not only on thought, but also involves training the senses. Neither poetry nor participation are intrinsically morally beneficial, but the poetic can capture and magnify the small details of life, pausing on ambiguities, and turning its intimacies and patterns of living into metaphor and symbol. The poetic life is ‘distilled’, to borrow the words of African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks; it holds the world still, allowing us to pay attention. This affective process of observation and inhabitation invites new insights, as George Eliot notes with characteristic candour, illuminating the aesthetic and performative patterns of ordinary life that are necessary to imagining social change, but are sometimes too painful to bear:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the best of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.[iv]
[i] Eliot, G. (1874) Middlemarch, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
[ii] Boal, A. (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed London: Pluto Press.
[iii] Anderson, B. & Harrison, P. (eds.) (2010) Taking Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography, Farnham: Ashgate, p.9.
[iv] Eliot, G. (1874) Middlemarch, p.145.
This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.
Get our weekly email