Shaking the Status Quo*

Notes on Unlearning

It is difficult to imagine unlearning. One thing that stands in our way is our initial understanding of the word. Is it even possible to simply leave dominant knowledge behind? My immediate answer is “no,” for two reasons. First, there is no way back. There is no path that leads us to a time or place before the history of relations of power and violence that are responsible for what we know today. Secondly, unlearning is not an easy task. For these reasons, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at how it is discussed in postcolonial theory.


Public Movement, How Long is Now?, intervention Rothschild Boulevard - Allenby Street , Tel Aviv, 16. August 2011. Photo: Eyal Vexler
Public Movement, How Long is Now?, intervention, Rothschild Boulevard – Allenby Street, Tel Aviv, 16. August 2011. Photo: Eyal Vexler


Before we can directly proceed to unlearning, we first have to understand that learning is the result of hegemonic relations.  Recognizing this enables us to reflect on the knowledge and skills we have learned. I further propose an understanding of unlearning as a critical position that blocks what Achille Mbembe calls “frivolous ignorance:”1 the powerful ability to profit from the fact that some knowledges and abilities remain silenced, hidden, and unknown.

The processes of unlearning that I try to understand in this text can only happen as collective practices. They create a parallel practice of knowing, learning, and unlearning together that is neither completely defined by institutions nor completely outside of them. It is sometimes using institutions, sometimes appropriating them, sometimes just acting anyway and wherever it finds place. For this work in the “mezosfera,” I propose to use the term of the para-institution. The para-institution is as much related to existing knowledges and its institutions, to the institutional potential for change and continuity, as to social movements outside of the institution. This complicated in-between relation—that is neither against the institution nor completely defined by it—can be described with the Greek prefix “para” which means “side by side” as well as “beyond.” While in Greek it is more related to deviation than to contradiction, in Latin the prefix assumes the meaning “contra.” Now, if we conceive of the para-institution as something that is simultaneously inside and outside, and in a parasitic relationship to the institution, then a form of subversion may take place—one that robs the institution (of its power to endow meaning and definitions as well as its infrastructure). What is lost, however, in understanding the para-institutional only as a mode of refusal is the possibility of establishing any kind of permanence (which is, in fact, precisely the strength of the institutional). In contrast to this, I propose a para-institutional practice that seeks to do more than such a subversive position, one that does not refrain from the radical-democratic necessity of countering hegemony. I would like to think about the para-institution as a context of unlearning—in which the core of the status quo is as much inhabited as it is shaken and disturbed from within. In order to do that, I suggest taking a (de)tour via the following art intervention.


First Blockade Unlearning Learning


The location is Tel Aviv, at the corner of Rothschild and Allenby Street, on August 16, 2011. The crossing is blocked. The political art performance How Long Is Now?2 by the artist collective Public Movement is blocking the  intersection with a particular folk dance.3 The popular circle dance Od lo ahavti dai is from the 1970s and widely known in Israel. It is a group dance that evokes the strength and hope of building a Jewish state, and is taught to children early on in kindergarten. The intervention blocks traffic for the duration of the dance, which is two and a half minutes. The occupation of the crossing re-appropriates a familiar choreography and enacts a bodily knowledge of the dance that is specific to Israel. Although the onlookers might be surprised that the action is taking place there, the dance is nonetheless familiar to them, and because they know it by heart, they could even join in if they felt like it.


Public Movement, How Long Is Now? Intervention, Rothschild Boulevard –Allenby Street, Tel Aviv, August 16, 2011


What scene is unfolding here? As the courage and energy of the dance is suddenly and unavoidably employed in both an unexpected and unintended manner, the blockade creates awareness and makes it possible to reflect upon something previously taken as simply self-evident. Obstructing the intersection brings the people who see it to acknowledge that they know the dance. Why does it seem familiar? How and when did they learn it? What function did learning the dance serve, and what role has this collective choreography played in Israeli society? Knowing and recognizing the dance evokes the boundaries between the individual and one’s collective learning processes. Which kind of learning, which conscious/unconscious, individual/collective forms of knowledge make this dance well-known? The fact that these and other questions are raised allows us to understand that it is not only a street crossing that has been blocked. It also makes apparent that the awareness of and the ability to perform the dance is something that is both collective and learned. The action thereby deconstructs and simultaneously actively re-appropriates a learned bodily knowledge of the nation.

This example shows that learning does not simply mean acquiring a set of knowledge and skills, but also that, to some effect, we also perform existing power relations. We study the power relations by making use of this knowledge and by passing it on to others. In turn, we are also able to use this knowledge to question and shift power relations around. Antonio Gramsci underscores the correlation of power and education:4 as an instrument that secures hegemony) or the formation (Bildung) of opposition (of education as a weapon in counter-hegemonic organization).] “every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship,”5 Gramsci, an “organic intellectual” and part of the Italian Communist Party since the 1930s, clearly states that the fact that power relations are the way that they are cannot solely be attributed to economics and discipline, as they are also learned. Learning is therefore both a discursive and performative praxis. We learn what appears to be important and unimportant, how to order and differentiate things, and what belongs together and what does not. In connection to this, Paul Mecheril speaks of “racism in places of education,”6 and points out that the formative/educational function of racism is that it creates order/structures. He looks at the “natio-ethno-cultural” orders/structures of belonging that differentiate and position persons in ways that ascribe them different values of recognition and possibilities for acting. He pairs this with the question of “how education plays a part in (re-)producing this order, and which possibilities exist and can be developed in order to change and undermine this order.”7

The knowledge we learn creates difference and also entails a corporeal dimension. We learn to move through the world “as men,” “as women,” “as citizens.” We also learn who “we” are, who “the others” are—and through everything that we learn—we learn there is still a lot we do not learn. We also learn that not all knowledge equals power (and that ignorance and stupidity are even considered an asset or essential for some forms of power). We learn which knowledge brings power and what we are not supposed to know in the first place. We learn, for instance, that some languages are less important than others. With this, we learn to accept, for instance, that someone who speaks seven African and three European languages may still not be considered “educated,” and we are therefore less surprised when their residency permit is denied, or if they do not feel at home anywhere.

In line with this, Black activist and theorist Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur writes: “school and especially the classroom have been ingrained in my memory as intensely contentious sites that are extremely challenging in terms of self-assertion. By self-assertion I mean the assertion of the multiple layers of one’s own isolated Black Self inside what I am able to identify today as a stark white space.”8 A consequence of this for learning institutions that are situated in heterogeneous societies yet still largely base their education on monocultural (read: white, western, national, dominant culture-based) curricula is that certain forms of knowledge are always considered more valid than others within learning situations.   Even a lack of knowledge in some situations may be considered beneficial. On this topic, cultural and education worker Rubia Salgado notes: “It is not enough to reflect upon the alleged/conscious/unconscious knowledge about migrants, it is also necessary to take a closer look at the absent knowledge about migrants. This would lead teachers to engage with the ‘privileged distance’ they have to the reality of the migrants learning in their classroom. This privileged distance allows the teachers to refrain from receiving knowledge from or about the learners.”9

We learn to speak, write, calculate, put things in order, and how to deal with everything else that comes along with this. In this way, power is not only based on knowledge, but also on conscious and profitable ignorance. In postcolonial theory, this powerful knowledge about the other and its associated power of ignorance, or “socially-rewarded sanctioned ignorance,”10 is called “epistemic violence.”11 Violence itself thus lies within knowledge, in the orders and distinctions it creates, in its blind spots. As these seemingly self-evident orders and processes remain shielded from view within, it is extremely important to find ways to question the things we have learned to take as obvious. In this respect, when we have a clear understanding of the connection between power relations and learning processes, we can also see that these things were not always the way they are and they do not necessarily have to be this way. We can change them by learning differently.12


Second Blockade: Learning Unlearning


From both a teaching and a learning perspective, engaging with power relations in order to change them, as Gayatri Spivak puts it, is an equally unglamorous and necessary task of current critical educational practices. Spivak uses the term “unlearning” to describe the process of actively unlearning the powerful divisions and always-already known power relations—specifically from the site of the periphery.13 Concerning this, María do Mar Castro Varela and Nikita Dhawan write:

Post-colonial pedagogy problematizes the ‘learned ignorance’ and complicity with imperialist and nationalist projects implicit in most educational programs. This, according to Cherokee activist and artist Jimmie Durham, necessarily calls for a ‘positive destruction.’ Thus, looking forward will only be possible by virtue of a simultaneous orientation toward the here-and-now and the past. Those who want to learn how to build a future need to address the violence at the root of how they came to be who they are. How did we become those who we now believe ourselves to be? Which position do we occupy in the world? And at whose expense?14

If we take these questions seriously, much of this ignorance would seem no longer profitable, even somewhat embarrassing. This example clearly shows that unlearning not only involves reflecting. Actively unlearning racism, sexism, and other powerful epistemological forms of discrimination not only entails becoming aware of them and understanding their inherent binary logic, but it also necessitates what can perhaps better be described using Foucault’s words as  “the revolt of subjugated knowledges.”15 By this, Foucault means that these epistemological struggles challenge the canon and its violent exclusions by expanding and shifting it around. According to Spivak, this happens when and because “the oppressed no longer remain silent, and the academic canon is irritated by deconstructionist and feminist readings.”16

If such contestations of the canon are understood as organic intellectual practice, in Antonio Gramsci’s sense, then unlearning does not primarily focus on the individual’s processes of un-learning. When we speak of unlearning, we are certainly not referring to a way of finding personal solutions, but to approaches that critically assess social relations. This critique is formulated in solidarity and/or from the perspective of knowledges that speak back to the canon because they are not acknowledged by it, but are oppressed or excluded from it to begin with. Actively working to transform the canon using reflective approaches of unlearning also involves a performative dimension. It is not ideology critique, but also going through the slow—sometimes strenuous and painful, other times invigorating and exciting—processes of transgression in order to unlearn the certainties, embedded in power relations, we have been trained to hold. In this sense, unlearning is also as an exercise where we slowly, gradually break with learned practices and habits of making difference based on dominant power relations that are already inscribed in our habits, bodies, and actions. This is indeed an incredibly difficult task, which is also riddled with uncertainties.

To illustrate this further, I would like to introduce another blockade. In front of the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv, the artist collective Public Movement is practicing the Dabkeh, an Arabic folk circle dance that is usually performed at weddings or festive activities. The dance is common for Palestinians. Appropriating it means to overstep a cultural border that is held high as much on the Jewish as on the Palestinian side. Many of the dancers have obvious difficulties with some of the dance steps.17 At first glance, this public dance rehearsal along with the Israeli performers’ missteps and difficulties may seem similar to the intervention described above. The difference is that in the first action, knowledge of the dance was taken for granted. Because the Israeli performers have no practice or intrinsic bodily knowledge of the Dabke, they first need to learn it. Being able to dance the Hora—the Israeli folk circle dance of which Od lo ahavti dai is one example—is not necessarily helpful, it even stands in the way—and part of this public process of learning another new circle dance is also unlearning the way to dance they already know.


Public Movement, Dabke rehearsal in front of the Habimah Theater, Tel Aviv, September 22, 2011.


Similar to Butler’s use of “undoing” in “undoing gender,”18 unlearning is a form of performative counter-learning that stands in contrast to the dominant performative learning. The new dance steps might get in conflict with the ones that are already known—and by this they might make us understand that the way we are used to dancing is not the only possible way. The nationally learned body language of the Hora is here challenged by other movements, other collectivities. Imagine we have now learned these dance steps, which, due to learning processes, are saturated with relations of power and violence. How can we problematize the national dimensions, the inherent power and violence, yet still perform the dance? How can we dance and simultaneously unlearn to dance, and therefore learn to dance differently? What I propose with the para-institutional is a performative act that allows one to inhabit an institution/dance and change it while dancing it.

I will now address the misunderstandings mentioned above. First, unlearning does not function like a delete button that erases powerful truths and histories of domination and the way they are produced. That would be absurd and probably even support the logic of the powerful discourses because they believe that they can simply ignore history whenever it suits them. Besides this, “unlearning”—a concept Spivak introduced (from the perspective of postcolonial theory and updating Gramsci’s theory of hegemony)—is not merely interested in finding ways to avoid hegemony, but instead to formulate counter-hegemonic processes. Unlearning therefore neither involves imagining going back to a time before the current power relations were in place, nor a clear-cut correction process. It is not about working through histories of violence in an effort to leave them behind, but about creating a different politics of history and a different kind of remembering. It is about naming and thereby socially transforming histories of violence and spaces of agency created by resistance and struggles for liberation, equality and independence. In this sense, it is a form of learning that actively rejects dominant, privileged, exclusionary, and violent forms of knowledge and acting—which we still often take for education and knowledge—sometimes it is also about the desire to suspend them for a moment, and even taking the time to do so. Even if unlearning is not exactly the act of ridding oneself of previous knowledge, it is still related to the slow and strenuous processes of our everyday struggle with the canon.19

Gayatri Spivak describes this kind of learning as an act of weaving invisible threads into the already existing texture. Unlearning therefore does not involve a disavowal of the histories of violence. It can certainly be a lengthy and tedious process—that can be just as promising, as it makes it possible for us to analyze and transform powerful forms of knowledge and patters of action, even if it is one small step at a time. The para-institution can thus also be conceived as a practice that does not flee or subvert the institutional, but rather inhabits it while at the same time challenging its basic assumptions. This entails a critique as a practice that is—in the thick of the institutional—envisaging another kind of institution in another kind of society, and making it already now.


*Versions of this text have been published in German: Nora Sternfeld, “Verlernen vermitteln,” Kunstpädagogische Positionen 30 (2014), In Hebrew: Sternfeld, Nora “Learning Unlearning,” in Museum: Use Value, ed. Drorit Gur-Aryeh (Tel Aviv: Petach Tikva Museum of Art, 2015): 27–35. In English: Nora Sternfeld, “Learning Unlearning,” Cumma Papers #20 (2016), In Spanish: Nora Sternfeld, “Learning Unlearning,” in ERRATA#16 Saber y poder en espacios del arte: pedagogías/curadurás críticas, ed. Gilberto Alzate Avendaño,  (Bogotá: Instituto Distrital de las Artes and Fundación Gilberto Alzate Avendaño), upcoming.



A contribution to issue #2: Inside the Mozosfera edited by Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács


About the author


Nora Sternfeld is an educator and curator. She is professor for curating and mediating art, director of the curatorial program CuMMA at the Aalto University in Helsinki ( and co-director of /ecm—educating/curating/managing—Master Program in exhibition theory and practice at the University of Applied Arts Vienna ( She is co-founder and part of trafo. K, Office for Art Education and Critical Knowledge Production based in Vienna (with Ines Garnitschnig, Renate Höllwart, and Elke Smodics) (www. Moreover, she is part of Freethought, a platform for research, education, and production based in London (with Irit Rogoff, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Mao Mollona, and Louis Moreno). In this context, she is one of the artistic directors of the Bergen Assembly 2016.



  1. See Achille Mbembe, Kritik der schwarzen Vernunft, trans. Michael Bischoff (2013; Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014), 131–137.
  2. Public Movement, How Long Is Now? Intervention Rothschild Boulevard –Allenby Street, August 16, 2011.
  3. I am indebted to Oliver Marchart for pointing out the relationship between learning and unlearning in Public Movement’s performances. See Oliver Marchart, “Dancing Politics. Political Reflections on Choreography, Dance and Protest,” in Dance, Politics & Co-Immunity. Current Perspectives on Politics and Communities in the Arts, eds. Stefan Hölscher and Gerald Siegmund (Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes 2013), 41–60, esp. 56–57. Also, Oliver Marchart, “Art, Dance and Political Intervention,” Lecture held at the conference Event as an Artistic, Cultural, and Political Practice, March 27, 2013.
  4. Antonio Gramsci developed a political understanding by drawing on the history of the progressive education movement with its radical politicization during the 1920s. As an activist , as a journalist, and speaker at worker’s organizations,  as well as a Marxist theorist incarcerated for many years in a fascist prison, Gramsci develops a kind of political thought that is strongly indebted to pondering the question of pedagogical relations. When Gramsci speaks of education/instruction, he largely refers to them politically in terms of the formation (Bildung) of hegemony (of education [Erziehung
  5. The Gramsci Reader. Selected Writings 19161935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 348 SPN, 348–51 (Q10,II§44).
  6. Cf . Paul Mecheril, “Rassismus als Bildungsraum,” Lecture at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, May 5, 2008. Part of the lecture series Kollektives Widerstandslernen organisieren by Petja Dimitrova, Eva Egermann, and Nora Sternfeld.
  7. Author’s translation. Paul Mecheril, “Migrationspädagogik. Hinführung zu einer Perspektive,” in Migrationspädagogik, eds. Paul Mecheril et al. (Weinheim, Basel: Beltz, 2010), 7–22, esp. 15.
  8. Author’s translation. Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, “Jenseits von Integration… Überlegungen zur Dekolonisierung des österreichischen Klassenzimmers,” in class works. Weiter Beiträge zu vermittelnder, künstlerischer und forschender Praxis, eds. Eva Egermann, Anna Pritz (Vienna: Löcker, 2009), 113–137, 119.
  9. Rubia Salgado, “Aufrisse zur Reflexivität.” in Kunstvermittlung in der Migrationsgesellschaft. Reflexionen einer Arbeitstagung, ed. Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) et al (Berlin: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen ifa-Galerie Berlin, Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen ifa-Galerie Stuttgart 2012), 53–56, 57.
  10. “If traditional teaching addresses forms of ignorance deemed unacceptable, then postcolonial pedagogy addresses those forms of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ that are often rewarded and may exist everywhere, including among ‘the theoretical elite.’” See Diana Brydon, “Cross-Talk, Postcolonial Pedagogy, and Transnational Literacy” in Home-work: Postcolonialism, Pedagogy, and Canadian Literature, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004), 70. See also Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999) x. This has been discussed in: María do Mar Castro Varela and Nikita Dhawan, “Breaking the Rules. Education and Post-colonialism,” in documenta 12 education. Between Cultural Praxis and Public Service. Results of a Research Project, ed. Carmen Mörsch et al.  (Berlin: diaphanes), 317–332, 327.
  11. “Post-colonial theory and post-colonial activism are not solely concerned with the square meters of occupied territory or the millions of exploited, massacred, and subjugated people in these lands; rather, they also explore how colonialism was equally an intellectual and cultural phenomenon that led to the emergence of Europe and its Other.” See do Mar Castro Varela and Dhawan. “Breaking the Rules,” 317–332, 320.
  12. Cf. Peter Mayo, Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action, (London:Zed Books, 1999).
  13. Cf. Peter Mayo, Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action, (London:Zed Books, 1999).
  14. do Mar Castro Varela and  Dhawan, “Breaking the Rules,”” 317–332,  324.
  15. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France (19771978), trans. Graham Burchell (2004; New York: Picador, 2007).
  16. Author’s translation. María do Mar Castro Varela, “Verlernen und die Strategie des unsichtbaren Ausbesserns Bildung und postkoloniale Kritik,”Bildpunkt Zeitschrift der IG BILDENDE KUNST, 2007, She refers to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York/London: Routledge, 1993)and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Teaching for the times,” in The Decolonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge and Power, eds. Bhikhu Parekh, Jan Nederveen Pieterse (London: Zed Books, 1995), 177–202.
  17. Public Movement, Dabke rehearsal in front of the Habimah Theater, September 22, 2011.
  18. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  19. Cf. Nora Sternfeld, “Unglamourous Tasks: What Can Education Learn from its Political Traditions?” e-flux Journal 14 (2010),

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