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Gert J. J. Biesta
Department of Educational Sciences
Utrecht University

The question of the possibility of a critical pedagogy is immediately connected

with the question of the possibility of education. What makes education possible, so
I want to argue, is its impossibility. Hence, the only possible future for a critical
pedagogy is an impossible future.
Although critical pedagogy has many faces and histories, the varieties of critical
pedagogy in general agree in their emphasis on the political character of education.
Critical pedagogies claim that education is not a natural, ahistorical phenomenon
but that it should be understood in its sociohistorical and political context. More-
over, critical pedagogies are in one way or another committed to the imperative of
transforming the larger social order in the interest of justice, equality, democracy,
and human freedom.
As a critical theory of education this emancipatory interest translates into a
(critical)analysis of educational practices and theories meant to expose the way in
which these practices and theories support unequal relationships. The central
assumption here is that liberation can be brought about when people have an
adequate understanding of their own situation. Critical pedagogies not only attempt
to provide such understanding, but they also consider education to be one of the main
practices in modern society through which people can develop their capacity for
critical reflexivity. As a critical educational practice, critical pedagogy is therefore
also one of the central means in the struggle for justice and liberation.
Over the past decades critical pedagogy has come to flourish, especially in North
America.2The history of the North American critical tradition goes back to the
1. Interestingly enough, phrases like demystification and liberation from dogmatism can be found in
one of the founding documents of German critical pedagogy and in one of the most recent defenses of the
North American version. See Klaus Mollenhauer,Erziehung und Emnnzipation [Education andEmancipation]
( 1964:reprint, Munchen: JuventaVerlag, 1976),67;see also Peter McLaren, Revolutionary Multiculturalism:
Pedagogies of Dissent for the New Millennium (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 19971, 218.
2. I will confine myself in this essay to the North American tradition. With respect to European critical
pedagogy, three general remarks can be made. First of all it should he notcd that critical pedagogy in Europe
has especially been developed in Germany. Second, the history of German critical pedagogy is closely
related to the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, drawing its main inspiration from the work of
Horkheirner, Adorno, and Hahcrmas; sce Helmut Peukert, Kritische Theorie und Pldagogik, Zeitschriff
f u r Piidagogik 30, no. 2 (1983): 195-219. Third, although there are still authors working in the critical
tradition (partly inspired by North American critical pedagogy), German critical pedagogy had its heyday
in the 1960s and 1970s.

EDUCATIONAL THEORY / Fall 1998 / Volume 48 / Number 4

0 1998 Board of Trustees / University of Illinois

progressivism of John Dewey and the more radical efforts of social reconstruction-
ism. In the 1970s, important impulses came from the new sociology of education,
which focused on the role of schooling in the reproduction of inequality. Around
1980 scholars such as Michael Apple and Henry Giroux pushed this debate one step
further with their criticism of the deterministic character of the base-superstructure
model of reproduction. They argued for a focus on the cultural mediations between
the material conditions of an unequal society and the formation of the consciousness
of individuals in that society. Critical scholarship during the 1980s revealed a
growing concern with the possibilities of positive pedagogical action (for example,
Girouxs call for a language of possibility) and a shift from class as the only
difference that makes a difference, to a recognition of the importance of race and
In the last decade, critical pedagogy has shown an increased interest in questions
of culture, both inside and outside the schools; in issues concerning identity and
identity politics; and in multicultural education. On the theoretical plane the major
development has been the engagement with feminist scholarship and with
poststructural, postmodern, and postcolonial theories. It has also been during the last
decade that criticalpedagogyhas itself become an object of critique. On the one hand,
questions have been raised about the actual influence of critical pedagogy on
classroom practice, and about the possibility of using critical pedagogy in the
classroom. On the other hand, the possibility of the very project of a critical pedagogy
has been challenged. To the extent to which critical pedagogy incorporates Enlight-
enment ideals - and the idea of emancipation through critical reflexivity is the
central mission of Enlightenment -it has especially been the postmodern critique
of the Enlightenment project that has raised fundamental questions about the
possibility of critical pedagogy.
Although I think that it is an overstatement to say that critical pedagogy today
is in a state of crisis, I do think that it is important to draw up the balance sheet and
to decide upon the possible future for critical pedagogy - not in the least since its
ambitions seem to go as far as the next millennium.3 The essays by Peter McLaren
and Ilan Gur-Zeevprovide an excellent occasion for doing so, not only because they
identify some crucial problems in the current state of critical pedagogy, but also
because their solutions point in quite different directions.
In this essay1 want to address some of their concerns. My aim is not to articulate
a new program or a new direction for critical pedagogy. I only want to suggest a
particular point of view -which focuses on the importance of the recognition of the
impossibility of critical education (whichis not what isnot possible but what cannot
be foreseen and calculated as a possibility but literally takes us by surprise) -from

3. See McLaren, Revolutionary M u l t i c u l t i ~ r a h s m

GERT BIESTAis Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Sciences at Utrecht University, PO
BOX 80.140, 3508 TC Utrecht, Th c Netherlands. His primary areas of scholarship are pragmatism,
postmodernism, critical pedagogy, and philosophy and methodology of the social sciences.
BIESTA Suggestions for the Future of Critical Pedagogy 501

which1hope meaningful questions can be raised about the direction in which critical
pedagogy is heading, and more specifically the direction in which McLaren and Gur-
Zeev want critical pedagogy to go.
As I see it, McLarens main question is whether the theoretical tools of
contemporary critical pedagogy are still adequate to provide a critical analysis of the
current state of education. He contends that this is not the case. McLaren argues that
any analysis of the current state of education must pay attention to the effects of the
new capitalism - which is a global and transnational capitalism - and of its
political bedfellow, neoliberalism. He shows how new capitalism has invaded,
distorted, and deformed every sphere of life, including the sphere of education, by
making capital the paragon of all social relationships. McLaren argues that what
is new about todays capitalism, namely, its global or transnational character, not
only makes its predatory power unprecedented in history, but also has made it much
more resistant to democratic control.
On one level McLaren blames the educational Left for having become so
infatuated with more conservative forms of avant-garde apostasy found in certain
incarnations of French postmodernist theoretical advances that it has more or less
become blind to issues of class and economic inequality. The insertion of
postmodemism has led to a preoccupation with questions of identity politics,
primarily around the issues of gender and ethnicity. It has caused a retreat from
historical materialism and metatheory as dated systems of intelligibility, so that
class struggle is now seen as an outdated issue. McLaren concludes that the
educational Left - insofar as it has been influenced by postmodern nihilism and
relativism - is no longer able to address the most urgent issues concerning
education in an age of global capitalism.
But the problem with postmodem critical pedagogy is not only that it has
forgotten the question of class. McLaren also suggests that postmodern critical
pedagogy, because of its emphasis on values such as diversity and inclusion, has
become an ally of new capitalism and neoliberal educational policy, at least by
offering a language that can easily be coopted by the new capitalism. Instead of being
a critical device against the new capitalism, postmodern critical pedagogy in fact
plays into its hands.
Against this background McLaren concludes that a renewed agenda for critical
pedagogy must include strategies of addressing and redressing economic distribu-
tion, and that it must be centered around the transformation of property relations
and the creation of a just system of appropriation and distribution of social wealth.
This, so he claims, requires that critical pedagogy return to a historical materialist
approach to educational reform to serve as a point of departure for a politics of
resistance and counter-hegemonic struggle.
Gur-Zeevs evaluation of the current state of critical pedagogy starts from a
different angle. One of the main problems he sees with the critical pedagogy
developed by Paulo Freire and Giroux is its inability to escape the normalizing
502 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y 48 1 NUMBER

character of traditional pedagogy. With respect to Freire, Gur-Zeev points to the

dangerous implications of his non-critical preference for the self-evident knowl-
edge of the oppressed to that of the oppressors. What guarantees, so he asks, that the
self-evident knowledge of the marginalized and repressed is less false than that which
their oppressors hold as valid? It is this easy optimism, and the positive
utopianism in which it is expressed, that makes Freire forget these questions. As a
result his liberatory pedagogy turns into a potentially violent form of counter-
Gur-Zeevscritique of Girouxs version of critical pedagogy concerns its posi-
tive utopianism, its hasty optimism, and its arrogance as to the possibility of
liberating the repressed and constituting a better world within current reality. He
also criticizes the modernistic attitudes in Girouxs pedagogy, which not only
manifest themselves in his ideas about the possibility of an alternative, dialogical
relation between students and teachers, but, if I see it correctly, also are at stake in
the patriarchal character of Girouxs own theorizing.
The interesting thing about Cur-Zeevsessay is his claim that there exists a part
of critical theory - the part developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in
their Dialectic of Enlightenment - that has problematized precisely this modern,
instrumental dimension of critical pedag~gy.~ This part has, however, been over-
looked by many supporters and opponents of critical pedagogy. Gur-Zeevargues that
a critical pedagogy that wants to combat instrumental rationality by more instru-
mental rationality, remains part of the problem it wants to solve. As he puts it: A
pedagogy that overemphasizes the importance of the effectiveness of revolutionary
praxis and whose yardstick is power is not to be counted as part of critical education
or critical pedagogy. Although Gur-Zeev sees many similarities between the
critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno and the work of Michel Foucault, he argues
that there remains one decisive difference in that critical theory still has a utopian
dimension - albeit a negative utopianism - while the work of Foucault and other
postmodernists, so he claims, is decisively anti-utopian.
Negative utopianism provides the starting point for Cur-Zeevs nonrepressive
form of critical pedagogy called counter-education. Counter-education radically
differs from the conception of education of critical pedagogy, because it refuses all
versions of educational violence and has no positive alternative to false conscious-
ness, such as the memory or knowledge of the marginalized and oppressed. Yet, if I
see it correctly, counter-education also has a positive dimension, in that it wants to
educate to decipher reality, and wants to struggle for the development of the
reflective potential of human beings and their ability for articulation of their worlds
as a realization of their reason. And, because its aim is to strive for conditions under
which everyone will be able to become part of the human dialogue, to work toward
the possibility that the human subject will be able to stand up and confront the
forgetfulness of being.

4. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. rohn Cumming (New York:
Herder and Herder, 1972).
BIESTA Suggestions for t h e Future of Critical Pedagogy 503

McLaren and Gur-Zeev present critical educators with two different options.
McLaren wants to bring the critical project back to its Marxist roots because, so he
claims, only such a perspective can provide the proper level of abstraction to grasp
the situation we are in. Gur-Zeev, on the other hand, raises questions about the
critical project itself and suggests that we should change the terms -though not the
general direction - of the project. Rather than suggesting a simple way out, I want
at this point to introduce some further considerations about the possibility and the
possible future of critical pedagogy.

One of the most basic questions in any discussion about education -a question
so basic that it is easily overlooked -is the question of the possibility of education.
This question is especially important for critical pedagogy, not only since it has
chosen education as the primary means for social change, but also because it
explicitly wants to educate the educator.
Is education possible? According to Sigmund Freud it is not. In the last text he
wrote, he refers to education as one of those impossible professions - the other
two being analysis and government - in which one can be sure beforehand of
achieving unsatisfying results.sFreud is not alone in his opinion. Much educational
research presumably still is driven by the wish to find the secret formula so that
education can be made into a technique with a predictable, positive outcome. In this
view, the fact that such a formula has not yet been found is simply seen as an
indication that our knowledge is still incomplete.
Yet the impossibility of education, the fact that it cannot be conceived as a
technique, that its outcome cannot be predicted, can also be seen as an essential
characteristic of all human interaction, education included. This is, for example, the
way in which Hannah Arendt conceives of human action and interaction. For Arendt,
to act means to take an initiative, to begin. Action corresponds to the human
condition of natality. With each birth, so she argues, something uniquely new
comes into the world.6This new beginning can make itself felt in the world.. .because
the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of
acting. Interaction is therefore a process in which we act upon beings who are
capable of their own actions.RThis makes human interaction boundless and
inherently unpredictable. I9

Arendts understanding of human interaction brings to the fore that education

can never be understood as a process where the teacher simply molds the student.
Any account of education has to take into account that what is presented by the
teacher is not passively taken in but actively used by the student. It is only because

5. Sigmund Freud, quoted in James Donald, Sentimental Educntion (London: Verso, 19921, 1.
6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1958J, 178.
7. Ibid., 9.
8. Ibid., 190.
9. Ibid., 190-91.

the student uses what is presented that education is possible. Yet, this use at the
very same time introduces unpredictability and transformation. As Michel de
Certeau puts it, it is through the use that an uncodeable difference insinuates itself
into the happy relation the system would like to have with the operations it claims
to administer.
Seen from the side of the system, this uncodeable difference is what causes the
system to fail. Seen from the point of view of education, however, this uncodeable
difference can be seen as the very sign of someone - some one, a singular being -
coming into presence. For Arendt, this is theraison d&treof action. In acting and
speaking, she argues, men.. .reveal actively their unique personal identities and
thus make their appearance in the human world.12This is not a process in which
some predetermined identity is brought into the open. Arendt stresses that no one
knows whom one reveals when one discloses ones self in word and deed. This only
becomes clear in the sphere of action. The agent that is disclosed in the act is
therefore, not an author or producer, but a subject in the twofold sense of the
word, namely, as one who began an action and as the one who suffers from its
consequences. I
It is at this point that the impossibility of education becomes politically
significant, because it is only when the temptation to replace acting with making
is resisted, that the risk of disclosure remains pos~ible.~ The attempt to replace
acting with making, which, according to Arendt, is manifest in the whole body of
argument against democracy, is therefore an attempt to abolish that space of
appearance which is the public realm. In this sense it is an argument against the
essentials of politics it~e1f.l~
If it is the case that the very possibility of education is sustained by its
impossibility, then it follows that the idea of critical pedagogy as a positive program
and project is problematic for two different reason. First, because such a program can
only be successful if it is able to control the use of what it tries to achieve. At this
point I agree with Gur-Zeevsconcern about the totalitarian tendencies of such an
enterprise. Second, because such a program would eventually imply an erasure of the
political realm, of the realm where the risk of disclosure is a possibility. This is the
main danger implied in the normalizing tendency of critical pedagogy.

10. Michel dc Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984),200.
An interesting example of the educational significance of this insight can be found in Louis M i r h , The
Socicfl Construction of Urban Schooling [Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1996).
11. See Jean-Luc Nancy, Introduction, in W h o Comes After the Subject! ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter
Connor, and Jean-LucNancy [NewYork: Routledge, 1991),7.I explore the pedagogical implications of this
idea in morc detail in Gert Biesta, Where are you?Where am I? Identity, Intersubjectivity and the Question
of Location, in A Report on Identity: Qz7estioning the Logic of Identity Within Educational Theory, ed.
Carl-Anders SafstrSni (Rapporter frdn Centrum for Didaktili, Intitutionen fSr Lararutbildning, Uppsala
Universitet, 1998), 15-41.
12. Arendt, The Human Condition, 179.
13. Ibid., 184.
14. Ibid., 220.
15. h i d .
BIESTA Suggestions for the Future of Critical Pedagogy 505

Although McLaren is clearly aware of the need for critical pedagogy to be critical
of its own universal, patriarchal, and Eurocentric assumptions, this does not prevent
him from enumerating a list of what must be done. Of course McLaren is right that
many things must be done. But the heart of critical pedagogy does not lie in the
execution of a program, as that would close the very space that critical pedagogy
wants to open up. In the end the only consistent way for critical pedagogy to proceed
-and at stake is not a theoretical consistency but a pedagogical and political one -
is by a perpetual challenge of all claims to authorityincluding the claims to authority
of critical pedagogy itself.
This implies that such a challenge cannot be put in the name of some superior
knowledge or privileged vision, not even, as Gur-Zeev correctly concludes, the
knowledge or vision of the marginalized or oppressed. It can only proceed, so I want
to suggest, on the basis of a fundamentalignorance. Such ignorance is neither naivete
nor skepticism. It just is an ignorance that does not claim to know how the future will
be or will have to be. It is an ignorance that does not show the way, but only issues
an invitation to set out on the journey. It is an ignorance that does not say what to
think of it, but only asks, What do you think about it?6 In short, it is an ignorance
that makes room for the possibility of disclosure. It is, therefore, an emancipatory

The idea that ignorance should play a role in critical pedagogy seems to
contradict a major idea of the critical tradition, which is that emancipation can be
brought about when people have an adequate understanding of, if not simply the
plain truth, about their own situation. This Enlightenment idea(1)occupies a central
place in McLarens essay as he argues that we need a specific perspective in order to
be able to grasp the current state we are in; and we need to grasp that state in order
not to be determined by it.
Although Gur-Zeev is profoundly critical of the project of critical pedagogy as
far as it concerns its positive utopianism, in one respect he also stays remarkably
close to the idea(1)of emancipation via reason. He argues, for example, that human
beings are called to decipher the current realm of self-evidence and to demystify the
codes and manipulations of the powers constituting their conceptual possibilities,
their life conditions, and their concrete limitations. It is the reflective potential of
human beings which, if I understand Gur-Zeevcorrectly, makes a transcendence
from the world possible.
Both McLaren and Gur-Zeev stress that knowledge is never neutral but that it
is always contaminated by power. McLaren draws the most traditional conclusion

16. I take the idea of the role of ignorance in einancipatory education and of the emancipatory potential of
the question What do you think about it? from Jacques Ranciire, The Ignormt Schoolninsterr Five
Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation [Stanford:Stanford University Press, 1991) ,3 6 .In a fascinating essay
on education as problematization, Jan Masschelein has explored the pedagogical implications of this
approach in much more detail, albeit from a slightly different angle. See Jan Masschelein, In Defence of
Education as Problematisation: Some Preliminary Remarks on a Strategy of Disarmament, in Adult
Education and Social Responsibility, ed. Danny Wildemeersch, Matthias Finger, and Theo Jansen
(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 19981, 144.
506 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y FALL1998 1 VVLUME

from this insight, which is that criticalists need to reveal how relationships of
subordination and domination are both expressed in and reproduced by specific
knowledge formations. The assumption here is that knowledge can be used to
illuminate how power works and, consequently, that it can be used to combat these
operations of power.
The main question with respect to this strategy is, of course, whether there is any
reason to believe that the knowledge produced by the criticalist is itself uncontami-
nated by the operations of power. The traditional answer, that is, the answer of the
Western tradition, is to refer this question back to the nature of human beings, to
their natural capacity of reflexivity (Aristotles rational animal), thereby trying to
safeguard the possibility for critique in an ontological way.17
McLaren sees the postmodern critique of this ontological safeguardingof critical
reflexivity mainly as an assault on the unified subject of the Enlightenment
tradition, as a result of which too much ground is lost for the critical project. Gur-
Zeev is more aware of the problematic character of the idea of a subject disconnected
from the games of power. He positions himself closer to Foucault and Martin
Heidegger who, so he says, enlighten the all-penetrating presence of powers and
conditions that constitute the human being, the conditions of his/her production,
his/her possibilities and limitations.
Yet I think that Gur-Zeev also misses the point of what Foucault has tried to
express in the concept - which is perhaps better not to be understood as a concept
- of power/knowledge. He presents Foucault as one who has contributed to the
Enlightenment task of demystification by revealing how knowledge is infatuated
with power. To my understanding, however, power/knowledge is not the ultimate
demystification, but a critique of the very possibility of demystification. It is
basically a critique of the Manichean foundations of the Enlightenment project in
that it puts a challenge to the idea that power and knowledge are (ontologically)
separate entities that are in a constant struggle, and that Enlightenment consists in
the victory of knowledge over power. Power/knowledge is not an attempt to show
that, as McLaren points out, power is everywhere and nowhere, but a critique of
the very terms in which Enlightenment has been conceived. The task is, as Foucault
puts it, to abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can
only exist where the power relations are suspended.8
The implication of this understanding of power/knowledge is that knowledge
can no longer be used to combat power. This is not to say that change is no longer
possible or that knowledge has become futile. It rather signifies the end of the
innocence of knowledge as a critical instrument, and thus the end of the possibility
of demystification. It urges us to recognize that we are always operating in a field of
power/knowledge against power/knowledge.

17. Sce also Gert J.J. Hiesta, Pedagogy Without Humanism: Foucault and the Subject of Education,
Interchange 29, no. 1 (1998):1-16
18. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Girth of the Prison ( N ew York: Vintage, 19751, 27
BIESTA Suggestions for t h e Future of Critical Pedagogy 507

Does the recognition of the impossibility of demystification mean that we have

become eternal prisoners of the system? This question only makes sense as long as
we believe that we can occupy a place outside the system from which the system can
be viewed. Foucault urges us to move beyond the inside-outside alternative. It is true,
he says, that we have to give up hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could
give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our
historical limits.19But this does not leadus to a limitlessrelativism. Foucault agrees
that criticism consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits:
But if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce
transgressing, it seems to me that the critical question today has to be turnedhack into apositive
one: in what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever
is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints!2D
What Foucault is arguing for is a practical critique that takes the form of a possible
transgression.21The critical practice of transgression is not meant to overcome
limits (not in the least because limits are not only constraining but always also
enabling).22Transgression is the practical and experimental illumination of lim-
its. 1123
Against this background I am inclined to conclude that the impossibility of
demystification opens up a whole domain in which critical pedagogy can operate at
least a bit more positively than Gur-Zeev thinks possible - and perhaps as
positively as McLaren hopes to be possible. The critical practice of transgression as
the experimental illumination of limits can take the form of counter-practice. A
counter-practice should not be designed out of an arrogance that it will be better (or
that one claims to know that it will be better; once again: ignorance)than what exists.
A counter-practice is only different. The critical task of a counter-practice can
therefore only be to show (toprove, Foucault says)that the way things were was only
one (limited)possibility. But this step is crucial, as it opens up the possibility of no
longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think. In this way, Foucault
argues, it is seeking to give a new impetus ...to the undefined work of freedom.24
In this sense critical pedagogy as counter-practice can open up that space of
appearance which is the political realm. It does not open up this realm in an
unlimited way, it does not constitute a utopia, it does not provide the great escape
of demystification. It only reveals one other possible power/knowledge constella-

19. Michel Foucault, What is Enlightenment! In T h e Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York:
Pantheon, 1984),47.
20. Ibid., 45.
21. Ibid.
22. See Jon Simons, Foucault and the Poliliciil [New York: Routledge, 1995),69.
23. Ibid. See also Michcl Foucault, A Preface to Transgression, in Language, Counter-memory, Practice,
cd. Donald F. Bouchard [lthaca: Corncll University Press, 1977), 33-38 and Roy Royne, Foucai71i and
Derrida: T h e Other Side of Reason (London: Routledge, 1990).
24. Foucault, What is Enlightenment! 46.
508 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y FALL1998 1 VOLUME


One crucial question has not yet been dealt with. The problem is this: Although
we do not want to restrict the possibility of disclosure beforehand, there is also no
reason to assume that any disclosure is just as good as any other just for the reason
that it is a disclosure. At this point I am inclined to agree with McLarens observation
that if postmodernism has nothing more to offer than an unqualified celebration of
differences,it then creates a situation where other forces -like the forces of the new
capitalism - can easily come in and take over. William Connolly puts the predica-
ment as follows: Without a set of standards...there is no possibility of ethical
discrimination, but the application of any such set.. .also does violence to those to
whom it is applied.25Does this mean, then, that what McLaren hints at - that a
totalizing vision remains as urgent today as it was thirty years ago, that critical
pedagogy needs to begrounded [ina historical materialist approach],and that it needs
to be informed by a principled ethics of compassion and social justice - is
inevitable if we do not want to let politics slide down to mere chaos?26Doescritical
pedagogy need a set of standards, does it need a criterion, a normative referent, a
utopia - even if it is only a provisional or a negative
In a certain sense the answer to this question has to be an unqualified yes.After
all critical pedagogy, in any of its forms, is not politically neutral but has an explicit
commitment. But what does it mean to be committed to something like justice (the
term both McLaren and Cur-Zeev seem comfortable with)?I want to suggest -and
here I will rely on Jacques Derrida, one of those postmodernists whom neither
McLaren nor Gur-Zeev seems to think offers work with any ethical and political
significance -that in the very name of justice, there has to be a commitment to the
impossibility of justice.28
One way to understand Derridas ideas about the impossibility of justice is by
reading them as the claim that justice can never be present. Justice, in its shortest
formula, is a concern for the other. It is a concern for the other as other, and hence
for the otherness of the other, which for that reason cannot be foreseen. Justice, in
short, always addresses itself to singularity, to the singularity of the other.29But
if this is so, then we are obliged in the very name of justice to keep the unforeseen
possibility of the incoming of the other, the surprise of the invention of the other,
open.30It is for this reason that Derrida argues that justice is an experience of the

25. William Connolly, IdentityIDifference (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 12.
26. I have addressed this question in a more general way in Gert J.J. Biesta, Postmodernisin and the
Repoliticization of Education, Interchange 26 (1995):161-83.
27. McLaren, Revolutionary Multiculturalism, 232. I doubt whether Gur-Zeevs plea for conditions under
which everyone will be able to hccome part of the human dialogue would still count as a negative utopia.
28. I deal with this in a more detailed way in Gert J.J.Biesta, Dcconstruction, Justice, and the Question
of Education, Zeitschrift fur Erziehungswissenschaft 1 (1998):395-411.
29. Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority, in Deconstruction and the
Possibility offusrice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson [London:Routledge,
30. Sec JacquesIlerrida, Psyche: Inventionsof the Other, in Keadingde Man Reading, ed. Lindsay Waters
and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis:Univcrsity of Minncsota Press, 1989).
BIESTA Suggestions for t h e Future of Critical Pedagogy 509

impossible, where (and this is crucial) the impossible is not that which is not
possible, but that which cannot be foreseen and calculated as a possibility, that
which exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth.,
The implications of this insight are not restricted to the determination of
whether a situation or a person is just -about which Derrida says that we can never
say this is just or even less I am just ...without immediately betraying justicei2
-but extend to the very definition of justice itself. Here again, we can say that it is
for the very sake of justice as a concern for what cannot be foreseen as a possibility,
that we can never decide once and (literally)for all what justice is. Justice is therefore
not a principle or a criterion (asthis would mean that we would know right now what
justice is), nor an ideal (as this would mean that we would now be able to describe
the future situation of justice), not even a regulative ideal (or what McLaren calls a
provisional utopia, as this would still require a decision on what justice is, although
with the implication that the ideal is not expected to be present in some future). It
belongs to the very structure of justice that it never can be present and therefore
never will be present. It is by necessity, as Derrida would say, a justice to come, which
means that it is always to come.3
The fact that justice is not a criterion or aprinciple means that it is not something
that we can have knowledge about and that we only need to apply to concrete
circumstances. Justice is not a matter of knowledge. Justice - if it has to do with
the other - is always incalculable, because once you relate to the other as the
other, then something incalculable comes on the scene. Tustice, in short, requires
judgment. But how, so it could be objected (and has been objected), can we judge if
we do not know what justice is? How can we decide if, as Derrida claims, at the basis
of our decisions lies a radical undecidability that continues to inhabit the deci-
Derridas response to this objection offers a way out of the predicament men-
tioned above, because it conceives of a possibility for ethical discrimination that
is preciselynot the application of a set of standards. The point is that undecidability
should be taken literally as that condition from which no course of action
necessarily follows. It is, therefore, the very condition that makes a decision
necessary in the first place. It is only here that ethics, politics, and responsibility,
if there are any, will begin: When the path is clear and given, when a certain
knowledge opens up the way in advance, the decision is already made, it might as
well be said that there is none to make; irresponsibly, and in good conscience, one

31. Dcrrida, Force of Law, 27

32. Ibid., 10.
3.3. Ibid., 27.
34. The Villanova Roundtable. A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, in DeconsLrucrion in a Nnrshell,
cd. John Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 19971, 17.
35. Jacques Derrida, Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism, in Deconstruction and Pragmatism,
ed. Chantal Mouffe [London: Routledge, 19961, 87.
36. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s1 [London: Verso, 19961, 78.
510 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y FALL1998 / VOLUME 48 1 NUMBER 4

simply applies or implements a pr~gram.~ A critical pedagogy committed to justice

will, therefore, have to articulate this commitment out of a recognition of the
impossibility of justice. This implies that it cannot know in advance where the
dividing line between the tolerable and the intolerable will be. It requires a decision,
a decision which at the very same time is necessary (itcan, for the sake of justice, not
wait) and impossible (as it has no ground).
On the level of practice this means, once more, that a critical pedagogy cannot
proceed by saying,This is just, do as I do. The only thing it can do -and to my mind
must do - is to invite a judgment by asking, What do you think about it?3X This
question (andhere I tend to agree with Gur-Zeev)is nonrepressive in that it does not
prescribe how to judge, but simply opens up the possibility for ones own
judgment. Although the nonrepressive character of this act could be taken as a sign
that this is an event of emancipation, I want to stress -and here I strongly disagree
with Gur-Zeev-that this question is in the most profound sense a violent question.
Derrida refers to this violence as transcendental violence, in order to express
that this violence is a condition for the very possibility of the coming into presence
of the ~ubject.~ While in this sense this violence is a necessary violence, it still is a
violence because the subject which is summoned into existence will never have been
able to ask for its own subjectivity. Here we touch upon a limit for all education.
In the preceding pages I have argued that a critical pedagogy that wants to be
pedagogically and politically consistent will have to reckon with three impossibili-
ties: the impossibility of education, the impossibility of demystification, and the
impossibility of justice. In all cases impossibility does not denote what is not
possible, but that which does not appear to be possible. Impossibility is therefore not
the opposite of the possible: impossibility releases the po~sible.~ The recognition of
the impossibility of education releases the possibility of disclosure. The recognition
of the impossibility of demystification releases the possibility of transgression. The
impossibility of justice releases the possibility of the incoming of the other. From
here, the only conclusion that can be drawn about the future of critical pedagogy is
that it will be an impossible future. That will be the real revol~tion.~
37. Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Todays Europe (Blooinington:Indiana University
Press, 1992),41.
38. See once more Masschelein, In Defence of Education as Problematisation.
39. See for this notion JacquesDerrida, Wrlting and Difference(Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1978),
79-153. I havc discussed the question of the violent character of education in more detall in Where Are
You! Where Am I? For a rather similar and quite inspiring approach of the question of the violence of
architecture sce Bernhard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge:MIT Press, 1994).
40. See Richard Beardsworth, Derrida and the Political (London: Routledge, 1996),26.
41. Gert 7.7. Biesta, Revolutions that as yet have no Model: Performance Pedagogy and its Audience, in
Philosophy of Education 1997, ed. Susan Laird (Urbana, Ill.: Philosophy of Education Society, 1998), 198-

I WISH TO THANK Jan Masschelein, Carsten Ljunggren, Nick Burbules, Peter McLarcn, Lou MirOn, Raf
Vanderstraeten and Carl-Anders Safstrom for inspiring conversations and exchanges on the topic of this