Six Paragraphs on Learning: a Response for Sharon Kivland


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Sharon Kivland is a artist, writer, academic, and publisher, and one of the founders of the Transmission public lecture series at Sheffield Hallam University. Now in its fifteenth year, Transmission has hosted major artists from around the world. On the 24 November 2020, Sharon Kivland presented work from two recent exhibitions. LA FORME NATURELLE at EDIZIONI PERIFERIA, LUZERN, March to May 2020 and JAMAIS FILLE CHASTE N’A LU DE ROMANS at the Centre d’art contemporain, Lausanne, November to December 2019. I was delighted to have been asked to deliver a response to Sharon Kivland’s lecture, the text of which is below.

Sharon Kivland, installation view of JAMAIS FILLE CHASTE N’A LU DE ROMANS

‘Comrades of Sheffield Hallam! I call on you to don your ears!’[1]

I remembered this morning that I had written about Sharon’s work in an article called ‘Category Error, Category Terror’, for the journal The Blue Notebook.[2] In it I wrote that her exhibitions are not singular, but series, recrafted, re-edited, as the work moves and evolves between venues. I wrote that the work is concerned with a critique of capital, commodity, seduction, hysteria, the body, and the resultant intersections of psychoanalysis and Marxism. I wrote that the narratives of her work emerge from reformulations of the relations between its constituent parts, between its texts and its objects. I wrote about the deficiencies of ideas of ‘category’. Can we really ever fully disentangle the idea of object and the idea of word? Both are received by the eye or by touch or by ear, and are then to be thought about, thought with. My experience of Sharon’s work is that it has the incremental effect of chapters: a durational construction via text, object, image, publication, and acts of craft, care, and generosity. Her work is a spatial rendering of an artist’s novel and brings to mind Ulisses Carriòn’s statement, following Georges Perec, that ‘a book is a sequence of spaces’.[3]

Installation view of La Forme Naturelle

I wrote the article in 2015, but it was not published until 2016, by which time I had become Sharon’s student, and she my mentor, in her role as Director of Studies of my Ph.D. Our relationship of pedagogy and friendship has taught me so much, not least the value of dangerous reading, of assuming forms, of political action, of new forms of subjectivity, of errancy and transgression, and of lovely, lovely things. I have not prepared any questions for Sharon, as I have come to realise that it is her habit to never quite answer them—she has also taught me the value of refusal! Instead I have written her six short paragraphs on learning:


Six Paragraphs on Learning

I: Anecdotes

I come from a family of five daughters and one son. My father was fond of remarking that there was no point in educating girls. My mother—who before her marriage was a seamstress— started an Open University course which he then shamed her into giving it up. When I informed my father that I had applied for and subsequently obtained a place at art school he replied ‘what are you going to do that for? Its not like there have ever been any women artists’. His favourite insult was ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. For whom, I would often wonder.

II: Vanilla Libraries

From The New York Times, 25 November, 1992:
A plaque intended to be a tribute to Malcolm X at the University of Rhode Island has angered many black students, who say the words of the slain Black Muslim leader inscribed there misrepresent what he said. The quotation, etched in granite on a recently built addition to the main library, came from a longer statement by Malcolm X, parts of which were omitted. The inscription reads: ‘My alma mater was books, a good library. I could spend my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity’. The full quotation, as it appeared in his autobiography, was: ‘I told the Englishmen that my alma mater was books, a good library. Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read. And that’s a lot of books. If I weren’t out there every day battling the white man, I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity. [4]
We can ask now, what did the University of Rhode Island do, when it edited Malcolm X’s words? It erased the politics of reading, it erased the identities of reading, it erased the effort of reading. Malcolm X undoubtedly read for pleasure but the full quotation also demonstrates the labour of his of reading, the work and responsibility of self-education. An aside: the responsibility of self-education is something we should all take up, even if we are currently being educated by others. For Malcolm X there is not just the effort of self-education, of empowerment, but also the work of being able to read under the conditions of exhaustion. The effort to find the time and the energy for reading. The University of Rhode Island’s edit separates the act of reading from the act of living, renders it vanilla, says it is easy, neutralises its power.

III: Fascists are Lazy Readers

Fascists are lazy readers.
Fascism is a failure of imagination, a lack of curiosity.
Fascism is the arrogance to believe that you do not need to carry out the labour of learning.

IV: The Struggle of Learning

In 1903 Frances Mansbridge (née Frances Jane Pringle) and her husband Albert, both of them still in their twenties, using two shillings and sixpence from their housekeeping money, established An Association to promote the Higher Education of Working Men, renamed the Worker’s Educational Association in 1905 to demonstrate the inclusion of women in its fold. Despite Britain’s status as an imperial power, defined by its ruling classes as a civilised and prosperous nation, economic and educational inequalities were severe and punishing, with most working people’s education ending at the age of twelve. By 1910 branches had been formed all over the country and formal partnerships with universities had been established. Students decided what they wanted to learn and teachers and students worked together as equals. In 1919 the Workers Educational Trade Union Committee was formed and in 1944 the WEA secured some government funding and successfully campaigned for educational justice which became enshrined in the education act of that year. [5] Since 2010, under the guise of austerity, governments have closed over 800 libraries. From 2018 the government has stripped the WEA of roughly £7bn, a third of its income, and in October of this year (2020) the government decided to scrap the ULF , the Union Learning Fund, which supported approximately 250,000 workers in engaging with training and education. We must ask ourselves, who is it that fears our knowledge, and why? [6]

V: A Chaste Girl has Never Read a Novel, or; Thrilling Books!

There were no children’s books in the house where I grew up. Instead, my reading was comprised of texts stolen from adult shelves. Dennis Wheatley (in which the women were witches); [7] Ian Fleming (in which they might as well have been); [8] ‘jazz mags’ (print pornography) from my father’s wardrobe, a rogue copy of Madame Bovary. [9] Books full of sex and writhing torments in which robes and kaftans abounded. Rosemary’s Baby was an often returned to terror—the devil raking his horny fingernails across Rosemary’s naked torso. [10]

VI: An Idiot.

‘The emergence of symbolic thought’, wrote the French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘must have required that women, like words, should be things that were exchanged’. [11] What an idiot.


Emma Bolland, responding, with fox ears.


1 In secret, Sharon’s colleagues had plotted before the lecture to wear animal ears and masks, in celebration of Sharon’s use of stuffed animals, birds and woodland creatures, to embody (as I see it) mischief, resistance, revolution, and will.
2 Emma Bolland, ‘Category Error / Category Terror’, in The Blue Notebook, pp. 44–53.
3 Ulisses Carrión, ‘The New Art of Making Books’, in Book, ed. by James Langon, Birmingham: Eastside Projects, 2010 [‘The New Art of Making Books’, in Kontexts 6 /7, 1975] both unpaginated.
4 ‘Campus Journal; A Tribute to Malcolm X Goes Awry’, in The New York Times, November 25, 1992, Section B, Page 7. Digital archive: a-tribute-to-malcolm-x-goes-awry.html last accessed 25 November 2020.
5 Paraphrased source: A Brief History of the Workers’ Educational Association: the WEA History Digital Booklet series, Mar 4 2013. last accessed 25 November 2020.
6 Other indirect online sources include Marcus Barnet, ‘The Tory Attack on Worker Education’, in Tribune, 16 October 2020 and Billy Camden, ‘Future of Workers’ Educational Association threatened by devolution’, in Further Education Weekly, 17 April 2018.
7 Dennis Wheatley (1897–1977) was a prolific British author of thriller, science fiction, and occult novels. Well known titles include The Devil Rides Out (1934) and Gateway to Hell (1970). Many of his books were adapted for film, and his ‘Gregory Sallust’ series of espionage novels were one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for his James Bond stories.
8 Ian Fleming (1908–1964) British writer, journalist, and naval intelligence officer—a spy—best known for his James Bond novels, all of which were adapted, and continue to be adapted, for film.
9 Gustave Flaubert, unknown edition [Madame Bovary, [Madame Bovary: Mœurs de province, Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1857].
10 Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby, New York: Random House, 1967.
11 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969 [Les Structure élémentaires de la parente, The Hague: Mouton & Co, 1968 (1949)].