Taking a step into the abyss: reading The Fool’s quest as learner’s journey

I recently read an article by a co-author of one of my first papers. Actually, she was more than a co-author; an inspiration and a mentor would be a more accurate description. The paper, just out at the time of writing is a sort of retrospective on the scholarship of Problem-based Learning (PBL) that brings the topic up to date with some new challenges for the 21st C. What caught my eye was the section in which Professor Savin-Baden (2020) portrays the facilitator of a PBL classroom as a clown, court jester or fool. Suggesting that in some senses The Fool is also a wiseman (Savin-Baden 2020, 7) who through humour (satire) provides a critical commentary upon the world.

This triggered my interest as I have recently been involved with a transmedia storytelling project that drew heavily on the symbology of the Tarot as a central element of the story. Of course, most people will be familiar with the Tarot and one of the key characters in the cards of the Major Arcana, that of The Fool. Usually read as a tale of an innocent embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the archetype seems more akin to the role of learner than teacher; though, for sure, the roles are interchangeable. Taking this as a starting point I took a dive into the writings of Inna Semetsky an edusemiotitian and Deleuzian scholar who has been on my reading list for some time. Semetsky has written widely about the Tarot and its value as an educational analogy and it seemed as though the time was right to tackle what is honestly speaking, extremely theoretically dense material.

What follows is an attempt to make sense of this material and to wrap my head around the jargon. It may make sense; it probably makes some grave terminological errors but if you are not willing to fail then you will never learn anything. Which is kind of the point made below.

Making Sense of Edusemiotics (a first attempt)

For Semetsky, The Fool is on a journey to ‘become something other, something more than it is now’ starting at the point of ‘what might be’ and becoming-other through an encounter(s) with ‘what is’ to arrive at ‘what would be’ (1999, 59). She explains that from nothing, or zero, a sort of pre-conscious, pre-firstness, The Fool wanders through series of encounters, entering into a world of choices within which dwell the ‘seeds of all future possibilities’ (Semetsky 1999, 60). A process of creative becoming unfolds as each encounter initiates a ‘transformation into other signs’ (Semetsky 1999, 60), each transformation a rebirth and a reconfiguring of possibilities. Or, to put it another way, each transformation produces a new subjectivity leading towards individuation, in which the subject comes into fruition (a continual and ongoing process).

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This is not portrayed as a linear, cyclic process, as often imagined by those who hold up the Tarot as an example of a mythic journey. It is shown to be multi-dimensional with each encounter a point in space from which any other point can be reached. When the cards are laid out on a table, a multiplicity of relations is set before the fool who can pass through each point in any combination of possible relations. The fool proceeds rhizomatically, following the logic of abductive reasoning (or muddling through cf. Hanney 2016), each encounter with an archetype from the Major and Minor Arcana, a potential life lesson. Semetsky wants us to see each card in the Arcana as representative of the “propositional attitudes […] which […] encompass such common semantic categories as beliefs, fears, desires, and hopes” (Semetsky 2004, 6), each encounter a problem to be solved and a lesson to be learned. She describes this as model for experiential learning and, following Deleuze (1988), suggests that: experience is constituted through relations of subjectivity that emerge when we are impelled to ‘think’ by encounters that are meaningful in the affective domain of the psyche. New concepts, ideas and frameworks are formulated in order to make sense of encounters with things in the world, our experiences. If theory is a model of the world, then the process of becoming-other requires a continual reconstituting of that model as consequence of each encounter.

It is worth taking a moment to think through how the becoming model of learning is presented in this material as different from a being model of learning. Perhaps the easiest way to represent the position Semetsky takes is to think of being as employing the logic of the verb ‘to be’ (is); this gives primacy to ‘objects, things, states, events’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54), and proposes a world of static, discrete and concrete entities. Whereas, according to Semetsky, abductive logic proceeds by use of the operator ‘and’ with its emphasis on dynamic ‘processes, [active] verbs, activity, the construction of entities, and the role of language, meaning, and interpretation’ (Linehan and Kavanagh 2006, 54). Each encounter adds to The Fool’s individuation through this process of becoming-other. Each new subjectivity adds to the previous subjectivity and within each transformation exists the earlier transformations (think Dr Who here) as the relations of subjectivity extend rhizomatically: “process is the basis for the production of subjectivity” (Semetsky 2004, 3).

For Semetsky, individuation as a process of subject formation comes about through the lessons learnt along a journey into the symbolic world (2004, 7). In this reading the subject is an assemblage of signs, that are in relationship with one another because of the encounter with other signs. Semetsky wants us to think of the subject as a constantly transforming assemblage (subject), which is always becoming-other (than itself). A kind of cartography in which the subject maps, or overlays a model of the world, onto a plane of immanence, folding into themselves each new subjectivity. As each new identity is brought into consciousness the subject internalises that which exists outside. Deleuze summarises; “I do not encounter myself on the outside, I find the other in me” (Deleuze 1988, 98).

Phew… that is hard work!

In the classic Rider Waite image of The Fool, the character is at the edge of a precipice, the abyss. That is where I feel I am now, at the edge of an abyss, staring down the rabbit hole. What I will find is going to be messy, uncertain, it is going to involve risk and failure. But it feels as though it is worth the ride.

Footnotes

  1. For a detailed account of the steps the fool takes on their journey and the archetypal characteristics of each of the sign systems embodied by the cards of the Major Acarna see Semetsky (2004, 8-10).
  2. The featured image is adapted from Semetsky who adapted it from Barrow (2000).
  3. Inline image of the 22 x Major Arcana tarot cards illustrated by https://hivebyaka.com/.

References

Barrow, John D. (2000). The Book of Nothing. New York: Vintage Books.

Deleuze, G. (1988), Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press.

Savin-baden, M. (2020). What Are Problem-Based Pedagogies?, Journal of Problem Based Learning [Epub ahead of print], pp 1–8. https://doi.org/10.24313/jpbl.2020.00199

Hanney, R. (2016), ‘Taking a stance: resistance, faking and Muddling Through’, Journal of Media Practice 17: 1, pp.4-20.

Linehan, Carol, and Donncha Kavanagh. 2006. “From project ontologies to communities of virtue.” In Making projects critical, edited by Damian E. Hodgson and Svetlana Cicmil, 51-67. Basingstoke: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Semetsky, I. (1999). The Adventures of a Postmodern Fool, or the Semiotics of Learning, 477–495. https://doi.org/10.5840/cpsem19997

Semetsky, I., & Ph, D. (2004). The Phenomenology of Tarot , or : The Further Adventures of a Postmodern Fool Deleuze and Guattari ’ s transcendental empiricism and a-signifying semiotics. Self, 1–14.

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