What If Higher Learning Was All About Remix? (On Foucault)

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

For about 4 years now, I’ve been experimenting with an assignment of remix in writing and other practices in my classroom where students emulate and replicate being consumers of their own productivity inside a given text or framework. I was in a course exploring how one can be empowered by ANY communication, verbal or non-verbal. It was not an academic training, thankfully, but it was a 10 month course with a weekend long training in Los Angeles once every two months and meetups with local participants here in NYC every week for, yes, 10 months. The meetups were practice sessions for completing homework between the five weekends. The course was called Partnership Explorations.

If anyone knows me personally, they know that for years I’ve said that academia beat my love of reading out of me. Perhaps it started earlier when being book smart and “talking like white people” made me assign a separation from my people to reading. I loved Shakespeare as a teen and wanted to read Freud by my mother thought it was taboo for some reason she never really explained back when I was 14.

By the time I reached the Partnership Explorations course in 2004, I was eight (8) years into being a tenure-track professor. I taught at NYU then and I hated reading books and never read anything outside of work needs. I loved the Internet and probably read as much online as some do from hardback novels. But I resisted reading. Always fell asleep. LOL. I read from cover to cover one book in maybe 10 years, a confession no self-respecting professor should probably make, but it’s true. [The book was The Funeral Planner by Lynn Isenberg, a womanist entreprenurial comedy based around my alma mater, University of Michigan. It was mature, sophisticated Chic Lit.]

So when the course instructor of Partnership Explorations said there were 5 recommended books I confronted my bias. I loved the course but reading books… Each of the weekends involved sharing individually to a group of 300 participants about what you were learning about yourself and your conversations with 20 people we were expected to track in our lives.

I read one book completely. Dire Mastery: Discipleship from Freud to Lacan and I read the first 50 pages of The Order of Things: The Archeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault. Not unlike in the halls of academia, everyone in the course found the book confounding and many hated it. Though I had exposure to Foucault’s work on sexuality and liked it in grad school, this was different. I LOVED it. But still didn’t finish it. My habits were then not servicing any interest in reading more. But the preface of that book wOw-ed me.

Thus began an experiment with slow learning for me. Teaching students to replicate the preface of the book (found here: The Order of Things, 1970) in my African American music courses, my jazz course and my hip-hop courses. I have them do it early, the first weeks of class, to throw them into the world of their own thinking and sorting – reordering the mental maps of the subject they are about to encounter newly and in new ways hopefully.

In all the years since 2005 when I began assigning it, I have never written my own version but I have meticulously edited over 200 versions, I’d say. Often rewriting it for them to see other ways of thought,  to instigate and agitate their thinking (vs. thoughting). Yesterday I wrote my first draft. Today my second.

From my non-academic training,  I often challenge myself to do the work that I assign in my classes. It should be a requirement, I have learned from this practice.  It was my students’ experimenting this winter intercession that inspired me to share my own version. I’ve learned so much from my students in this and other assignments about the “sociology” of people’s experiences with black women in hip-hop. It’s like taking a sociological sampling of culture.  I wrote them earlier today: “It’s your mind each of your need to consider learning more about and intervening in the social constructs you simply inherited that were begun by people long dead and gone but that we transmit and carry on unthinkingly about race, gender and music-making. This is your opportunity to shine! Here is mine…”

Prof. G’s Foucault Remix (2nd draft):

This began as a riff off a intellectual rhymebook not well known, nor understood, inside the ivory towers of its social commons where even PhD students front in abstractions, wastin their breathe on what they “took away” from some book as if they were jookin on a basketball court (not!). It began out of a non-academic course I took on discourses and the partnership of language to uncover what’s unsaid and unknown. It arose out of the pain that shattered, as I read my participation in academia, all the familiar landmarks of my former thought — black and female thought, the thought that brands the video vixen of our hip-hop age and our corporate geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which I as a black woman, a performer, and a scholar had become accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing racist and sexist things students carried with them, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse their age-old distinction between desire and ambition.

This riff quotes a ‘certain true mathematics encyclopedia’ contributed to by the fellowship of Bernice Johnson Reagon (If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me), Audre Lorde (The Uses of the Erotic read here in her own words), Tricia Rose (Black Noise and Hip-Hop Wars), Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of a Hiphop Generation), Joe Schloss (Making Beats and Foundation), and many other oracle mathemeticians, an encyclopedia in which it is written that ‘humanity in hip-hop is divided into: (a) true to Rha Goddess not Gangsta, (b) masculine masoleum, (c) domesticated pornography sold to the white masses selling black behinds, (d) Sucka MCs, (e) a Blige(d) or Beyonce(d) , (f) Fiiiiiine!! (with an extreme nasal sound to intensify meaning and syncopation), (g) rhyme retreatists, (h) not included in the present classification = invisibilified, (i) dope fiends diggin in the crates, (j) bounce, bass, snap, house, (k) Is that your real hair cuz I can’t get a comb through it?, (l) whatevah, (m) just breaks on the Billboard charts that won’t last long if they hear its a female, (n) that from a long way off look like I got fries to go with dat shake and imma reach out and take that junk in the trunk public violence.

In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing black women, women and girls everywhere as well as conscious fathers, apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of a rhyme and a video screen, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of patriciarchal and post-colonial system of hegemonic thought, is the limitation of our my own thinking, the stark impossibility of ever being without that.

The source of my remix/sample is the “Preface” from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1970).

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”
― Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader

Houston, We Have a Problem! (On the Necessities of Invention)

I’m back!!! Generating at a new current of electricity online under the banner of KyraOcity’s WattShop (Converting Wishbones to Backbones).  These are my power lines.


I was on a training call tonight and got a fresh insight into the expression “necessity is the mother of invention.” Setting immediate deadlines that agitate your sense of urgency can be self-imposed. And perhaps they should be, cuz too often I don’t like when others set deadlines for me. So this is a countdown of sorts.

The video from National Geographic above tells the story of the necessity of invention during the Apollo 13 mission. Let me paraphrase a blog I found while googling the expression.

On the Apollo 13 mission, mission control at the Houston Space Center had a problem at hand after an explosion on-board the vessel forced them to save on electricity and oxygen. The engineers discovered that the astronauts could make it back to earth but they would not have enough air to survive the time needed to return. So the countdown began.

On the ground back in Houston, engineers copied all the parts that they knew where available in the space station and within an extremely short time span managed to invent a new gadgets that could clean CO2 out of the air so that they could survive. I love this story and thank the blogger Sonja Chirico Indrebø for her inspiration.

(The Students in the Room)

The real inspiration came from my own life and the students in my classrooms. Yesterday was a challenging one for me as I realized my own interests in talking about my teaching style (a bit of navel-gazing and egocentrism) were limiting the learning needs for instruction in my courses. My internal mission control was screaming, “Kyra, we have a problem!” I’d been feeling the impact of it, like free falling and sensing I was losing oxygen. I hit rock bottom Thursday night.

After making myself self feel “guilt,” “shame,” and “powerlessness” which led to wasting most of the next morning Wednesday suffering, it was a welcome change at the end of that day to be in a conversation on my training call (unrelated to teaching) that dealt with confronting what we ordinary people don’t ordinarily confront with actual study and urgent invention. We don’t usually analyze the parts we have and reinvent but honey, now I see a light.

After wallowing in feelings about what went wrong, I was behaving as if things were not urgent, like with the Apollo 13 mission. What if I were to act as if they are urgent? What if I, with cooperation from my students, can engineer “some existing parts” to “invent new gagdets” in my instruction right now. I had started to mollify myself into thinking it’ll take two weeks.

Yes, anything lasting takes time but the invention must be quick when things are in danger of falling apart. Sometimes you must demonstrate the change to yourself quickly before anything else.

Being ambitious about your work means having the courage to study and invent that which is urgently needed–in this case, instructing vs. professing–as if the clock is ticking:  10, 9, 8, 7, 6…


In my first class on Thurday, the students in my political sociology course had a conversation about feelings of “guilt,” “shame” and “powerlessness” that surfaced as they read a graphic novel as critique of capitalism by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2011).

The first chapter “Days of Siege” tells a story of extreme poverty, racism, alcoholism, and exploitation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which is one of the poorest places in the United States of what was once Native America.

In a moment of inspiration and curiosity, I posed a question to my 36 students:

What if those three things–“guilt,” “shame” and feeling “powerless” in the face of changing our own habits, much less changing society’s problems, are the very things stopping us from realizing we can make a difference?

As part of a radical orientation to micro-sociologies, I have asked 36 students to study their own habits and their various social ecologies in this election season. They expressed interests in changing procrastinating, overeating, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly, snoozing, doing for everyone else, exercise, scoring high on the GMATs, and more. Sometimes in changing those individual habits which are far less challenging than changing society’s problems, we face those very same challenges–guilt, shame and powerlessness–that stop us from being in action and realizing the difference we can make  at a local and global level.

Tolstoy once wrote “Everybody wants to change the world. No one wants to change themself.”

That’s a great place to return to in my class instruction, but for now I have other work of my own to do–nose to the grind stone, creative, urgent and necessary work to get my feet back down on earth of being an instructor (not a professor).

“Kyra, we have a problem!”

Once you declare a problem, it’s urgent to get into action or procrastination and powerlessness are what lives in our brains (neuroscience and research on willpower are a testament to this). In those moments you don’t act on the problems of real life, the truths we face, feel and resist confronting, we miss opportunity to be creative and invent.

So all I guess I can say now is Ride, Sally Ride!! Ride!  Sally, Ride!!

It’s a serendipitous little riddle. If you know anything about my scholarly book on black girls’ musical games and the history of female astronauts, it’ll make sense. So, put your hands on your hips and let your backbone slip! I’ll keep ya posted on my demonstrations of progress. For now, signing off with

5, 4, 3, 2, 1…blastoff!