Next week, as part of our show with Cinenova, Light Industry will be presenting a screening of Scuola Senza Fine, a documentary which came out of the experimental “150 Hours” courses in Italy. The article below is offered as a related reading.
From a Blue Collar School to a Women’s University
The 1970s in Italy were a time of extraordinary cultural, social and political experimentation. One of the central traits of this time was the renewed tie formed among social processes, political action and different forms of cultural analysis and knowledge. The underlying hypothesis for experimentation was that political action was a way to understand reality. In this vision, learning and the theories explaining the formation of knowledge meant taking a political stand, and thus abandoning any attempt at neutrality. The most significant goal both for feminism and other social movements was to prevent a split between politics and intellect, academia and activism, praxis and theory. Several structures and forms of knowledge were experimented with in an attempt to reach this goal. “150 Hours” is the name that was given to a contractual improvement gained by Italian auto and steel workers in the 1970s.
Employers had to pay for 150 hours every three years for cultural and learning activities autonomously undertaken by each of their employees. The 150 hours clause was quickly adopted in other sectors: textile, construction, etc. All the unions decided to give absolute priority to remedial programs for older workers who had never had access to schooling, followed by wider programs aimed at granting all workers a high school diploma. The state was then asked to recognize such independent programs as “public school.” During the same period, unions organized independent “university” seminars and training sessions for top representatives of labour, political, and cultural groups. The main topics under discussion were political theory, economic analysis, international politics, labour health, etc. The same thrust that made possible the “150 hours” concession also pushed the public administration to offer teachers and logistical support to host workers’ evening programs in day-cares, elementary and secondary schools, and universities. Whereas the state sanctioned the primary school programs organized by the unions with its own diploma, it never granted the same recognition to secondary school programs. In only two years 100,000 workers returned to school. Programs were also opened almost immediately to the unemployed, home workers, and immigrants. This was different from the adult schooling promoted in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. It was an experiment managed directly by the unions’ cultural vanguards. They took responsibility for learning objectives, methods, and for negotiating the recognition of their programs with state authorities. The choice of curricula, the composition of the student body and teaching faculty amounted to a true political and cultural experiment. Pupils consisted of blue collar vanguards who had led the 1968 struggles together with the students, and the teachers were these same students who were coming back in mass to help their blue collar allies. This experiment was an attempt at reclaiming and modifying culture by the lower classes. The attempt was sustained by a rich Gramscian tradition, by the debate surrounding Brazil’s Paulo Freire’s exile to Geneva, but above all by the questioning of the Marxist tradition that occurred in those years.
One of the general objectives of the programs was put this way: “Strengthening collective control over labour conditions and production processes, reclaiming school education without capitulating to out-dated standards, questioning school’s social function and neutrality, definition of the intellectual’s role in relation to blue-collar and lower classes.” The goal of the experiment was to avoid over-simplifications and to select the best of the middle-class tradition, reinterpreting bourgeois culture, and locating its useful meaning from the point of view of alternative social and historical positions. Such a process of collective reflection appealed not only to independent intellectuals, teachers, and students, but also to traditional academics. They opened the doors of their institutes to blue collar workers, invited unionists to lecture in their universities, and put into question the goals and social power of their knowledge. The debate focused on how to form an alternative social consciousness. A whole series of questions were raised: “What is a worker’s consciousness?”, “How does class consciousness develop?”, “What is the role of action and reflection?”, “What kind of relationship should we establish with middle-class culture: acquisition, refusal, critique? What kind of critique?”. And then again: “What is the role of teachers, of the full-time intellectual, of the cultural organizer?”, “How should we go about building knowledge and historical truths while maintaining awareness of our partiality and non-neutrality?” And also: “What is the relationship among social struggles, the changes that such struggles produce, and the cultural interpretations of these transformations?” At that time, it was not uncommon for students and workers alike to read together the works of Marx, Sartre, Lukacs, Merleau-Ponty, Marcuse, etc. All classes were busy not only reading and debating the classics for the light they could shed on the formation of ideology, but also debating the individual experiences of the people attending courses. Oral histories, real-life anecdotes, the experiences of immigrants and factory workers were told in the first person and collected into texts. Such wealth of personal information was gathered with the intent of supporting the case made by formal academic subjects, like History, Sociology, the Physical Sciences, Labour Medicine, and Economics. These in turn offered new insights to unravel the patterns and meanings hiding behind different life experiences.
From Working Class to Individuals
The results of this experimentation presented many surprises. School classes slowly formed into “free ports” where both cultural norms and politically correct behaviour were put on hold. Listening passionately and investigating individual stories rather than studying abstract ideology became paramount. The mythological history of abstract conceptions like “class” was progressively replaced by the real histories of people, real-life experiences pushing ideology aside. This also meant that class unity began breaking down into differences and conflicts. “Vanguards” become “people” filled with contradictory desires of “integration” and “revolution.” The distance between the naive idealizations of the working class and the complex existence of real workers became evident. Also evident was Freire’s “internalization of the oppressor.” Teachers were disappointed, too, because they were expecting to find “the leadership of the working class” and instead they experienced the complexity and uneasiness of dealing with contradictory individuals. Their individuality was fragmenting the compactness of “the idea”, their differences were spreading the seeds of “disintegration.” When “consciousness” was let free to express itself without the constrains of politics, compromise, decision-making, and correctness, it displayed all its convoluted complexity. In the meantime, following the first wave of auto and steel workers, women started taking up courses: factory workers, many home workers, nurses, etc. bringing different voices to the working class. But there was a difference: whereas male workers at the end of the courses usually went back to their occupations, women did not want to leave the classes. They kept going back, even to attend the same course.
For the women, the courses proved to be places of pure discovery where there they could give voice to their consciousness and life-experiences free from cultural and political norms. It became clear that collective spaces could save women from unspeakable solitude, provide a forum to talk about unimaginable suffering, and create a social haven for women’s experiences. Collective spaces were used to study, party, eat together, sing and dance. Studying and the sharing of knowledge became conditions of survival. Those years were characterized also by an intense debate on the purpose of socialization within cultural processes. The years between 1976 and 1980 coincided with a second feminist wave. The “cloistered” period of strict self-actualization was followed by attempts to make the feminist movement more visible in society through contact with women of different experiences, class, and history.
Some of the “150 hours” course teachers were already feminists; others joined the movement, attracted by the power of the individual stories of women whose great wisdom was matched only by their great lack of formal acculturation. During some segments of the courses, the student body spontaneously divided into female and male components. Women started meeting by themselves, testing the kinds of rapport that could be established among researchers, academics, feminists and “ordinary” women, such as home-makers, factory workers, and uneducated women. These brought to the table an enormous wealth of experiences and solitary reflections on life. Their philosophy was formed at night, washing dishes, ironing shirts, tiding things up when everybody is asleep. It was formed, they said, “when everyone is gone, and our kids stop bringing us dirty laundry,” when the purpose of “service” of our lives becomes most apparent and “emptiness knocks at the door of our conscience.” It was at this juncture that women discovered a “desire for knowledge of the world” which was also a desire for “knowledge of the self”. Women started looking for the meaning of their lot with a renewed sense of urgency. A different project started to take shape within the interplay between experience and culture of the Marxist and Gramscian traditions, and within the debate about working-class consciousness.
Women’s “150 Hours”: “More Dust at Home, Less Dust in Our Brains”
Women’s problem was twofold: it was both institutional and cultural. On one hand, outlets needed to be created for women’s courses. Women’s courses had grown exponentially compared to those for male workers. On the other hand, feminists needed to formulate more specific hypothesis on the relationship between women and culture. From an institutional point of view, at the outset it was unions that provided the outlet women were looking for. Women-only primary and secondary courses were organized by the unions and recognized by the state. But slowly courses took a direction that was no longer accepted by traditional organizations. The situation deteriorated until women’s groups got into conflict both with the unions and the public administration. Women were asked what they were doing attending these courses. The unions accused them of “manufacturing divorces”, the state of “disrespect for knowledge.”
The debate went on for two or three years until women’s groups decided to strive for a more radical form of autonomy. A new goal was set to give women’s courses both cultural and organizational autonomy. Independent organizations were formed in Rome and Milan. They were baptized “Free Universities of Women,” (“Free” according to the Berlin’s “Freie Universitat” model) referring both to a different type of cultural activity and to a different conceptual rigorousness compared to traditional academia. As if to underlie their new autonomy, courses were organized mainly in Milan’s working class districts, inside Women’s Health Advisory Bureaus, public health offices dealing with women’s bodies. From the point of view of cultural identity, a new chapter was opened in the movement history. Its opening page could start with this excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”:
and there came to my mind’s eye one of those long streets somewhere south of the river whose infinite rows are innumerably populated. With the eye of the imagination I saw a very ancient lady crossing the street on the arm of a middle-aged woman, her daughter, perhaps, both so respectably booted and furred that their dressing in the afternoon must be ritual, and the clothes themselves put away in a cupboard with camphor, year after year, throughout the summer months. They cross the road when the lamps are being lit (for the dusk is their favourite hour), as they must have done year after year. The elder is close on eighty; but if one asked her what her life has meant to her, she would say that she remembered the streets lit for the battle of Balaclava, or had heard the guns fire in Hyde Park for the birth of King Edward the Seventh. And if one asked her, longing to pin down the moment with date and season, but what were you doing on the fifth of April 1868, or the second of November 1875, she would look vague and say that she could remember nothing. For all the dinners cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.
All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said, addressing Mary Carmichael as if she were present; and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imagination the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet- sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows. All that you will have to explore, I said to Mary Carmichael, holding your torch firm in your hand.
The women studies programmes that were developed in those years outside universities rested on the following premises: opening up to the “pressure exercised by obscure lives,” identifying the purpose of knowledge, and of possible applications of culture from the point of view of women. Women’s presence changed the terms of the political debate, transforming it almost beyond recognition. The inclusion of voices excluded until then was thought necessary to modify the structure of knowledge, its epistemology. What came as a surprise was that the transformation did not stop at the structure of knowledge. The inclusion of new voices caused a mutation of what constituted knowledge itself. The voices that had been excluded were already secretly involved in the formation of knowledge as an indispensable “fantasmatic” object.
When the voices surfaced they opened up the boundaries of the entire knowledge field to its subconscious limits. Courses for male workers had to deal with the division of labour into manual and intellectual. In the case of men, the struggle for the “power of knowledge” was played out among socio-economic classes. For women, instead, the struggle for knowledge-as-power was played out on a different plain. The mastering of knowledge by women was conditional on “abandoning their own gender identity.” In order to move effortlessly within the parameters of any knowledge it is necessary to share its fundamental metaphors, its original images, and all the relational parables breathing life into that knowledge. The central point in women’s quest is related to the purpose of cultural activity in the formation of female subjectivity. Women from diverse cultural and academic backgrounds joined forces to carry out this exploration. The challenge was to fuse the research on women’s forms of knowledge with the political practice of bringing together women from a wide array of cultures and hierarchical positions.
The comparison of their diversity was carried out both in terms of the variety of women’s academic passions and in terms of where in a hierarchical scale such passions fit. Women questioned their own love for academic subjects, weary of the misogynist components of culture. Women asked themselves to what extent culture caused a departure from their own experiences. Culture was questioned from the point of view of people’s real-life experiences, and from the point of view of “lower cultures.” The relationship between life and opus, scientific or literary writing and private writing was also explored. Women speculated that the acts of teaching to and learning by women reawakened ancient mores that had been buried deep inside memory.
In order to better explain what women wanted to articulate in the classes, I must refer Evelyn Fox Keller’s work on the language of science. Fox Keller identified the basic metaphors with which science explains reality through examining the diaries and private images of scientists. Through her work, Fox Keller was also able to illuminate the core questions scientist were attempting to answer with their research. Emerging from her analysis are scientists’ underlying motives, Fox Keller discovered their drive for knowledge was tied to the drive for power over the female body. The female body was seen as something “to be penetrated in order to reveal its innermost secrets,” something to “comprehend and embrace,” something to be fully unveiled and investigated. Fox Keller recounts the story Barbara MacClintock, the eccentric biologist who first identified the DNA structure and whose discoveries were dismissed by the establishment due to her unusual visualization of scientific concepts. Fox Keller argues that women who are engaged in scientific thought walk along a fine line between self-recognition and alienation. In order to really accept and fully appropriate any language, “one must share its fundamental metaphors.” If a woman’s self is represented as “inert matter”, “blind and passive nature,” then as soon as she starts producing knowledge, she must accept an immediate and total devaluation of her gender identity. Women may try to live in a state of self-alienation, constantly deluding their own identity, but at what price? The alternative is to draw the line, somewhere.
Our work with uneducated women basically confirmed Fox Keller’s theories. It seemed to us that women instinctively reacted to the female images secretly carried inside any tradition. And that through the analysis of women’s idiosyncrasies expressed toward academic subjects, it was possible to unearth cultural artifacts buried deep inside the history of knowledge. Participants were called in to be observers and to gather together all the discoveries being made about women’s knowledge. The observers’ task was to record and analyze all the “symptoms” of uneasiness, restlessness, or excitement surfacing during class activities. This kind of observation amounted to the extension of self-consciousness to the realm of intellectual analysis. The reenactment of the mythical relation between man and woman leading to the foundation of everyday processes of knowledge were staged right in front of the observers’ eyes. It also seemed that, just as in consciousness-raising groups, the absence of the male body allowed women to experience the lingering power of a “ghostly” male presence, so that the knowledge “filtered” through women did not eliminate the male imprint left on knowledge. Knowledge mediated by women actually made the male imprint even more evident. This awareness led to the study of the operative modes of knowledge, rather than “women’s studies.” Such modes were steeped in masculinity, female passivity, and misogyny. It was a misogyny that women sometimes could not even detect, perpetuating it in the very act of carrying out “women’s studies” about their own gender.
We felt as if were watching women’s history of knowledge unfold in slow motion in front us: its blossoming, closures, initiations, the price of its success, and the reasons for its failures. The pedagogical relationship among women was also full of surprises. The term “crossed maternity” was coined to describe the relationship between women-teachers and women-students.
An educational course or class is first of all an environment. It can be described as a complex forum crossed by a variety of currents and tensions giving place to a force-field. Different women come into contact. They are different by social condition, cultural history, time constrains, life situations and emotional attachments. Often time, young and single women find themselves leading older women with children and families along their cultural journey. The younger women’s intention is to select the best parts, the essential core of a cultural quest started many years before.
Cultural acquisition is the stated goal of the courses, but it occurs inside a relationship so involving that it cannot be displaced by the objects of culture. Intellectual work cannot be separated from emotional ties. As a consequence, as female teachers and students produce knowledge, they also interrogate themselves about their relationships, sexual identities, representations of the self, and their active or passive roles. The genesis of new symbols comes again from ancient routes. Both teachers and students go through similar experiences. Women’s presence reactivates dormant memories, reconnecting with the emotional pathways which lead women both to new modes of thoughts and to new relationships with different thought-modes. A double process takes place: on one hand, teachers painfully re-live the trials and tribulations of their own cultural history in relation to their gender. On the other hand, students are able to learn under the understanding eye of other women, now seeing their gender as the legitimate subject of knowledge and thought.
Through learning, women get aquatinted with the world of culture. The world of culture is often times the only realm in which women can escape their own suffocating inner world. The world of culture becomes the world, projected through female images. Teaching also involves tracing back the history of cultural acquisition in the company of a mother figure. The act of teaching women gets charged with all the cultural messages relating to women and in the process such messages become entrenched. Thought unfolds itself as subjugation, control, revenge, oblivion, and so on. A real-life mother has a presence and a body that our wishes cannot remodel, cancel, or “dress up.” It is they who point to the obstinate persistence of our gender, forcing us to look at the whole of our history. If women who are learning evoke the cumbersome weight of the female body, they also guarantee that the female figure will not disappear within the cultural process. Women who are good listeners immediately and mercilessly perceive the relationship tying the teacher with her knowledge.
Such attentive women act as mirrors, revealing both original interpretations of knowledge and the teachers’ subjugation to tradition, their acceptance of culture as an act against themselves. What happened then in this scenario where the deep structures of male and female identities were staged, as if in a theatre? The first striking event is the reawakening of desire, a “sparkly feeling” as one woman defined it, like an awakening. What is waking up is the possibility to access reality and a less painful symbolization of it. But it’s a type of awakening rooted in the past, not in the future. It amounts to the suspension of a sentence, the reopening of a story that was never finished, the tying back of old threads. It is an awakening shared by those who sought refuge in symbols and who chose traditional female routes. The renewed tie to which I am referring is that between women’s drives and the will for knowledge. The shadow usually cast by women’s traditionally passive destiny upon their own desires, mind, and body is momentarily blown away. Action goes back to its neutral point, before the polarization of characters fixes individual features into stereotypical historical identities. The mere presence of another woman eliminating the split in female identity seem possible. This is the split responsible for setting mind and body against each other, replicating countless times the sexual dualism of “opposite” or what is the same, “complimentary.” A whole society which had remained submerged comes to the surface.
If “the man/woman relationship is the most fundamental locus of all unequal relationships,” and if this relationship has “crept and multiplied in the deepest strata of consciousness and society,” then the slightest movement of symbolism makes it remerge in its defining elements. This dynamic generates a new way of relating to the instruments of thought, which consists of an interrogation into the quality of the subject/object relationship at the core of every academic field. Its questions about the female figure are buried in the thought typologies proper to every academic discipline. They are about redefining modes of abstractions and conceptualization and about the relationship life/culture and experience/knowledge.
The interrogation ultimately focuses on the crucial passage between the chaos of life and the orderly nature of thought. Simon Weil was obsessively in love with analogies, always setting them against Aristotelian concepts. She preferred analogies because they preserved reality in its original terms. The interrogation which I have discussed has the same purpose. It wants to reveal what has been removed from the act of thinking and why. And it aims at disclosing the extent to which such a removal has to do with the existence of sexual duality. The answer lies in the reenactment of the symptoms engraved in women’s feelings. The answer also lies in the sense of community constantly transforming struggles between body/feelings and mind/thought. Different languages, knowledges, and disciplines systematically contaminate one another. When analogies are randomly thrown around without respecting the division of knowledge into its traditional fields, such analogies confuse and shuffle languages around, stacking them in new ways and creating new meaning around another perspective. This perspective revolves around the concept of a subject who reunites and interrogates knowledges from a different point of view — from the point of view of other priorities, formulating questions which call for different answers.
Through the intellectual history of Barbara MacClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller has shown how MacClintock`s eccentricity lied in the way she used to formulate her questions and in their peculiar purposefulness, rather than in the results or the methods of her research. The same thing happened here. An occasionally irritating female common sense ruffled the system from the outside. This disarranging provoked an examination of the reasons for past personal and historical choices and of the needs that such choices addressed. This attitude indicates a sense of impossibility. It has to do with the awareness that women could only make a surreptitious use of codified knowledge, since they do not share its fundamental premises. Women are eternal migrants because they have not created any of the founding metaphors of knowledge. They are eternal guests because they do not inhabit the house of knowledge and do not share any of its preconditions. Women walk a difficult path, suspended between “non-authenticity and transgression.” This kind of bisexual scene featuring the male ghosts of knowledge leads to another scene, presenting women’s troubled relationship with other women.
Behind the exhilaration caused by women’s reunification lurches the need to elaborate the shapes taken by primary relationships. Women’s common journey is charged not only with happiness but also with violence. Fatigue, anger, and greediness that were never totally eliminated come back to the surface. Behind the trust awarded to other women, surfaces greediness and anger for a breast that will never give enough nourishment. Dependency, the desire to detach themselves, the awareness of not being able to live without each other, the envious subjugation that cannot let go of its envied object unless death do them apart are all part of the mix. The ambivalence running through mother/daughter relationships, and the question of motherhood as power among women affect all women. Receiving is accompanied by desire and horror for the body. Idealization masks the difficulty women have appreciating “smaller than life” women or real-life women.
Giving is coupled with a drive to control, whose purpose is to prevent both detachment and women’s rivalry. Mother and child constantly switch camps and roles: each one fantasizes about the other as the holder of a precious good that the other one does not have. Women’s mutual mothering causes fatigue. Giving is always set against the expectation of a reward. But as soon as women try regain their wholeness by mothering other women, they rediscover their own brokenness instead. Fatigue is also caused by always trying to impersonate a powerful being for the benefit of others. The limits set by this powerful being are seen with fear and rancour because they point to the “ordinary” women’s own limits and shortcomings. The same fatigue for mothering women originates in embodying the ideal of a passionate being while knowing all along that deep inside they are still broken, divided between delusions of power and powerlessness, male and female values. Coaching other women brings back childhood feelings of unmediated affection. Women wish to find the same spontaneity and ingenuity when expressing refusal or when discovering an inner well of inspiration, in tune with the image of their bodies, and going counter to acquired symbols. Hopes, requests, nourishment are then absolutely mutual and mirror-like, even if they are not always distinguishable.
Teachers are burdened with the embodiment of many characters, and the difficulty of trusting one’s own instincts. Teachers painfully question learning processes which contributed to their own loss of identity. Students are burdened with fears and desires of violent regression, and of both active and passive dependency. Maternal omnipotence in life appears as the only defense against the omnipotence of thought. The mythical scene becomes current again. The archetypal mother and father figures, always set against each other and unchangingly complementary, remerge under their ancient identities. They demand to be examined and interpreted in all their duplicity.