Performing Dissident Thinking through Writing: Using the Proprioceptive Question to Break out of the Classroom

Performing Dissident Thinking through Writing: Using the Proprioceptive Question to Break out of the Classroom

Kaitlin A. Briggs (University of Southern Maine, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-495-6.ch016
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Theoretically informed by Julia Kristeva’s linkage of political dissidence with thinking, this chapter explores a deconstructive tool used to develop dissident thinking through writing in the post-secondary classroom: the “Proprioceptive Question,” a central feature of Metcalf and Simon’s Proprioceptive Writing™ (2002). After this method’s fundamentals are addressed, the devaluing of subjectivity throughout schooling, as played out through literacy learning, is surveyed. Analysis of the Proprioceptive Question in terms of its discursive components and examples of its academic uses follow in order to understand what makes this question such a powerful method for developing subjective engagement in the university setting. Just as dissidents separate from existing regimes to organize their opposition, this chapter concludes that student writers via the Proprioceptive Question create space between themselves and their thought content to challenge their own ideas. Thus the question serves as a form of political intervention, a disruptive pedagogical practice.
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The notion of the dissident was formulated in the post-World War II era behind the Iron Curtain, where Soviet bloc intellectuals, critics, and particularly writers - the most famous being Solzhenitsyn - often disappeared, some placed under house arrest, others forced into psychiatric facilities and labor camps or permanently exiled, stripped of citizenship. These dissidents wrote in opposition to regime writers whose work supported the “ideological state apparatus” (Althusser, 1971). In the 1960s, as they took to the streets, American and European university students adopted the “dissident function”- a term later used by Bulgarian theorist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (1986a, p. 294). Against these cross-cultural backdrops, Kristeva published her 1977 essay “A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident” in which she remarks that: “true dissidence today is perhaps simply what it has always been: thought” (p. 299).

In the post Berlin Wall era, as the age of information technology has taken root with a rapidity and pervasiveness few could foresee, Western student dissidence has progressively dissipated, along with the Soviet dissident writer/regime writer binary and the harsh realities it produced. Yet Kristeva’s coupling of dissidence and thinking has relevance particularly for educational settings in our new century’s second decade. It is thinking - dissident thinking versus regime thinking - that must now provide opposition, engage cultural criticism, and structure a path to new social and political formations. Deleuze and Guattari (1987), for example, in their critique of Western, “arborescent” thought (p. 15) articulate an alternative reality based on “nomad thought” (Massumi, 1987, p. xii) with its rhizomatic outcroppings and “lines of flight” arriving and departing (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 3). An elaboration of Foucault’s “outside thought” (Massumi, 1987, p. xiii), uncultivated nomadic thought travels without restriction in and around existing trees of thought, accepted knowledge, and dominant cultural values.

Teachers as cultural workers (Friere, 1998) are charged with developing engaged, participatory, democratic citizens who can ask questions and think nomadically but who must also be prepared to master appropriate skills in order to enter the free market, global economy where out-of-the-box thinking may be highly valued. However, teaching critical, nomadic thinking is easier said than done. Educators may ask: what does critical, nomadic, outsider, or dissident thinking look like in practice? And can it even be taught in school, a place where students learn skills but also a place defined by norms and the need to conform? Teachers as cultural workers, teaching for transformative learning (O’Sullivan, Morrell, & O’Connor, 2002), may value dissident thinking, but it remains nonetheless elusive, an abstraction, perhaps an impossibility to teach and to enact.

This chapter explores critical, in-class language practice as a way to crack through that impossibility, in particular an adaptation of Metcalf and Simon’s (2002) process writing method, Proprioceptive Writing™, for the post-secondary classroom. This writing method centers on the use of a deconstructive tool, the Proprioceptive Question, as a way for writers to explore and contest meaning and to activate dissident thinking - in writing. In her essay, Kristeva describes three types of dissidents (1986, p. 295). The first reflects those Soviet bloc dissident writers who constitute opposition within a system, but who, Kristeva explains, are insiders nonetheless and thus caught in Hegel’s master/slave binary because of that positioning. The psychoanalyst who counters religious practice forms the second type of dissident. But Kristeva’s third type of dissident best speaks to conceptualizing a disruptive pedagogical writing practice: the experimental writer, who undermines “the law of symbolic language” (Moi, 1986, p. 292) to create new syntheses, however temporary or enduring, through which “the master discourses begin to drift and the simple rational coherence of cultural and institutional codes breaks down” (Kristeva, 1986a, p. 294).

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