Reification & The Swamp

The Swamp

“The necrophilous person loves all that does not grow, all that is mechanical.  The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things.” (Fromm, as quoted in Freire, 72)

The inherent danger in reification is that when we attempt to explain or describe a concept, we could transform what is fluid or living into a static thing.  When we theorize about education, for example, which is a very fluid and complex concept, it is tempting to try to make the reality of education—i.e. education-in-practice—fit into our static theories and definitions about education, rather than the other way around.  This is what Freire called “oppression—overwhelming control. . . nourished by love of death, not life.”  And Fromm: “he loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life” (ibid).

Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola problematize book-love.  Quoting several writers, they argue that books objectify cultures and worlds by encouraging people to imagine linear, concrete selves.  The book, after all, is literally an object; one that we can hold in our hands and pick up or put down at will.  It contains and confines a narrative between its two covers.  The book itself, then, is a reification of the concepts and ideas held within.  Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola quote Classen:  “In a literate society, therefore, knowledge—and by extension, the cosmos—is devitalized, de-personalized, and reified.  The literate world is a silent, still world” (Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola, 359).

We reify precisely because it gives us a feeling of control over that which we don’t exactly understand.  When Carol Kuhlthau studied the research process of high school students, she noted that “at the beginning, questions of mechanics—how much and in what form—often deflected the more intellectual questions leading to construction and personal learning” (43).  Students naturally want to apply parameters to an otherwise confusing task.  Once their task is constrained by some boundaries, they develop a sense of control that gives them the courage to proceed with their research.  Kuhlthau discovered that students often struggle to perform research because they have no “uncertainty tolerance.”  Their understanding of the task of information seeking is different from their actual experience.  The onset of the research process is therefore fraught with doubt, confusion and fear.  Ideally, students will reach a point of hypothesis formulation which will help them “grasp” their subject and push through their doubt and confusion—but even hypothesis formulation is a reification of sorts, allowing students to put boundaries around and thus objectify otherwise complex issues.

Donald Schön identifies the students’ conflict between imagined and real practice as a major dilemma of professional education:  “The practitioner must choose.  Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems and nonrigorous inquiry?” (Schön, 3).  From within the confines of the Ivory Tower, the scholar invents definitions to reify concepts that are otherwise fluid and complex.  Indeed, the reality of the Swamp is that these concepts are messy and indeterminate, and practitioners who would rather be theorists will often struggle in an indeterminate zone where uncertainty, uniqueness and value conflict prevail.

Michael J. Reddy admires Schön’s work, but believes that “missing is the application of Schön’s wisdom—this paradigm-consciousness—to human communication itself” (Reddy, 1).  Reddy uses “the conduit metaphor” to describe how reification plays a part in the semantic structures of the English language.  According to Reddy, English speakers imagine that their ideas are like “objects” which can be packed up and sent, via the conduit of language, to the person with whom they are trying to communicate.  The recipient will then unpack the “objects,” receiving exactly what the speaker intended to send.  But it is not that simple.  Every person carries his or her own set of cultural and historical baggage and will therefore interpret the message differently.  Misunderstandings will result.  Language is merely an imperfect, discrete medium for conveying meaning in a fluid, dynamic world.  Schön’s dilemma of the Ivory Tower and the Swamp applies not only to scholars working out theoretical concepts, then, but to all humans who wish they could bundle-up or “reify” their thoughts for others to receive and understand.

Indeed, all humans who know language have their own internal thoughts and narratives.  Many of us want to share our narratives, and some of us even believe we should impose our ways of thinking and understanding on others.  This is, in fact, a classic dynamic between teacher and student, in which the teacher is the narrator and the student is the receptacle.  This kind of teacher-student relationship is what Freire calls a “narrative sickness.”  Here the teacher actually reifies his students, treating them as discrete objects that can be filled up with ideas.  In this conception of teaching, also known as the “banking concept” of education, “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Freire, 68).  Freire argues that this dialectic is what creates opposites, others, slaves.

“Problem-posing” is Freire’s alternative to the “banking concept” of education.  In this model, neither teacher nor student is threatened with reification.  Whereas the “banking concept” objectifies and dehumanizes, “problem-posing” humanizes.  Teacher-students and student-teachers emerge, whom through solidarity and dialogue work through complex problems together.  As the teacher teaches, he learns from his students, who are also learning from and teaching him.  “Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication” (Freire ,72).  In reality, there is only the Swamp.


2 thoughts on “Reification & The Swamp

  1. great ideas here.

    it requires a great deal of effort and intent to place so much trust in this “problem-posing” model. what is the history of this “banking concept” model? how long has it been in existence? was it a model based on something innately true? what has been the examination process on this?

    i could be wrong here, most of what i read here is pretty heavy. dense, that is. but definitely interesting.

    it reminds me of some mantra on the five laws of library science by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan …

    The library is a living organism.

    Cool stuff, Rachel! 🙂

  2. Mmhmmm, “problem-posing”! Do you know about Paolo Freire? He was a brilliant educator who lived in Brazil throughout the mid-twentieth century, and he believed that many Brazilians were being oppressed by their educators, who were supposed to be liberating them but were actually failing. The problem was that the educators devalued their students’ culture and tried to stuff a new culture inside of them, instead of helping them develop a critical consciousness (“banking” vs “problem-posing”) There’s a really awesome book of Freire’s stuff translated into English, The Paulo Freire Reader translated by Myra Bergman Ramos and edited by Freire & Macedo.

    bell hooks was pretty influenced by Friere, she talks about it a little bit in “Teaching to Transgress.” It’s pretty funny, she writes about how she was thinking she would be disappointed by Freire when she met him in person because he was an old white man, but she actually ended up being pretty impressed!

    But my favorite so far is a single chapter from a book called Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. Anne Wysocki & Johndan Johnson-Eilola wrote a chapter called “Blinded by the letter: Why are we using literacy as a metaphor for everything else?” which talks about the American obsession with cowboys and pretty much deconstructs the practice of literacy instruction as we know it. It’s the same problem of educators who stuff their culture into students instead of having conversations with them, or “problem-posing.”

    I talk a little bit more about Freire, Wysocki & Johnson-Eilola in a paper called “Public Praxis” that I put up here awhile ago, but it’s definitely very “hey library guys” and less “hey everyone else.” I could definitely talk about this for hours though : )

    I ❤ Ranganathan!

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