Twas The Rant Before Christmas: Absent Friends and Being Absent as a Friend

Discovering the ideas, traditions and practices associated with open learning from around the world was singularly the most generative discovery of my life.  More than anything it has improved my health, happiness, and ability to think and act in the world in ways which are constructive.  This journey is one which cannot be measured but can be felt; that is experienced emotionally in such a way that connects the body beyond the reduction to facts and figures, and to people.

David Seagrave
David Seagrave


It is in this that I find myself now thinking about what is important.  Over the past two years I have been reading a lot on the psychology of dehumanisation processes.  For a long time it was thought that dehumanisation happened only in extreme circumstances where one set of individuals were outwardly polarised against another set of individuals.  It turns out that there is a whole lot of ground between casual indifference and stark dehumanisation.


In the middle ground there is found everyday dehumanisation processes which reduce people from full and in-finite beings increasingly to cyphers of themselves.  Some authors suggest that if you look towards an individual and believe that you already know all their thoughts and feelings, that it is a sign of dehumanisation at work as this perception cannot represent the sentience of a being… I worry about this, especially in the process of transforming a living behaviour to a mechanical procedure driven organisation.


If people are not recognised as in-finite in the nature of the intellectual and emotional lives they lead, then the danger is that they will not be treated as fully human; they will not get the same behavioural responses, the same opportunities, the same credit to be able to engage and develop.  It is a commodification of a person; a simplification which gives rise to treating them more like an object to be used in achieving an agenda.


Whenever I have encountered this in organisational or personal practice it has creeped me out, and, anyone who has been following my blog over time will have noticed that I cast critical light over the instrumentalisation of people and communities through bureaucracies and other means.  It has been ten years of doing Ragged Uni and it is important to take a moment to cast that critical light on my own practice and attitudes.


Unfortunately the habit of the exceptionalising society is to try and attribute discrete causality to simple factors.  As we move through time, more heuristics, machines and algorithms are employed, and the greater the drive to Keep It Simple Stupid when we sometimes need to also be able to embrace the complex to avoid behaving as an idiot.


The etymological root of idiot is a combining form of Ancient Greek ἴδιος – ídios translating to “own, personal, distinct”; an idiot thinks of themselves, and idiotic values are those which promote self above all others.  This is an easy cult to join when we perceive we are in a divided world. 


My friend Eileen Broughton, a profound inspiration in my life and in formulating the idea of Ragged University, told me “I think the age of individualism has come to its functional end”; she also told me “never use a friend as a leaning post”…


There is a significant danger that what ‘the project is’ has been misapprehended as the work of Alex Dunedin; this is false in the same way that science or blues music (etc) is misattributed to singular figures through history rather than a collaborative series of coalescences in a fuzzy and changing network.  It is a non-sense perpetuated by a culture of exceptionalism which fixates on idols.


I have played a single part in a collective murmuration of pro-social behaviour.  I may have been more obvious or more evident at certain points and certain times, but the same can be said of all the others murmurating in concert.


There’s an exercise I learned from a guy called Robert Anton Wilson who attributed it ultimately to a Buddhist monk in Ceylon. It is an exercise which is suggested to give a simulation of enlightenment. You sit down, as long as you can, and think of as many aspects of the answer to the question, ‘why am I sitting here doing this exercise? ‘Well I’m sitting here doing this exercise because I was told that I should check out Wilson by Jes Haley and Ed; I met them because I learned a lot from conversing with Croupiers in London Picadilly; I had been given my first laptop by Jes and Ed and taught the basics because I had been hand writing all my work in libraries; I had been hand writing because in my adult life my past lover, Justine, had taught me how to write….


Wilson describes the effect of the exercise in this way: “….And you go on adding reasons and after a while you come up with things like I’m sitting here doing this exercise because the Scandinavians overfished the oceans in the North Sea in the fifth century. And they couldn’t make their living as fishermen anymore so they turned to piracy and that’s why my grandmother’s name was O’Loughlin, which means son of the day in Gaelic. And ultimately you come to, because the Sun is the kind of star that has planets and this is the one planet that we know of in the solar system that can support this kind of life.


If you do this exercise, you should try it at least three times in one month, you’ll find out the infinite number factors and coincidences and synchronicities and accidents and entirely inexplicable connections that add up to why you’re sitting here doing that exercise.”

Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance


This is the best approximation I can think of to illustrate all the vital coalescences which must be cited to give some true picture of how ‘this’ all has come about.  I also think of all the mistakes, all the ignorance, all the petty tyrannies, the foolish pride moments, and naivety which I have suffered from and often don’t get written in account.  It is a chronical of a lifetime to examine and articulate these, but probably one of the most important thistles to grab hold of.


Ragged University means to me a social practice which is in each and every person’s life – whether you can see it or not.  These are the mycelium which connect us and give us certain qualities of life.


Looking back

Looking Back

I recall that Will Bentinck designed the first website and (without the humility I hope I am refining), I criticised it without having the depth of technical knowledge which he had.  I was rightly concerned with the harvesting of data and tracking of people’s movements in the information sphere and closed down what had been fruiting…


…I know now because I have learned what is involved in creating a website, that the use of metrics on a website is a key means of understanding how well the website is serving the visitors and ultimately creating a better website.  Is it navigable ?  Are people visiting ?  What features are the favourites ? and so on.


I did not have the skills or character at the time to open up dialogue rather than close down possibility; the result was that I failed to value properly the offerings of someone who I was friends with.  We both had points and the transcending reality is that we were both right, both wrong; we both had something valuable to build on.


There are many mistakes and myopias involved in learning and developing as a complex human being.  This story of learning started its roots in friendship, and that friendliness has been the basis of countless traditions of open learning which form the fabric of humane society.


I cringe at some of the daft, shallow and substantially meaningless managerial bollocks which I turned over in my my conversation as I searched out the realities of how to ‘make Ragged University’ work.  All we need is a slogan, strapline, catchy slick presentation – it seemed to me at points.  All I need to do is perform these dances and the rain will come.  The cowl does not make the monk, and faking it creates the fake.


What I was always searching for was what was around me in the relationships which I had.  I am fortunate enough to have been constantly reminded through actions, deeds and good will that the nourishing stuff is to be found where the friendly is.  Learning and knowledge are part of our social language and it is listening to that social language which has given me a compass to orienteer in an incalculable universe.


I have not been able to thank properly the amazing and talented people in Glasgow who taught me how so much of it could be done – Carrie Westwater and Aphid Hughes of Theatre Found and Found Arts, a community based Arts Network involved in Education just blew the lid off what could be done with the idea by taking it and running with it.


For example, David Newman of Bad Monkey Films who stood on a barrel and called a crowd to attention for a pub talk showed me how to stage courage when I had none… Heather Sinclair who helped put together the first Glasgow event as well.  Nobody has been thanked or acknowledged sufficiently I feel.


Dan Zambas and Sukh Krishan spearheading events in Manchester, planting an acorn and being patient so that it vernalised and put down roots.  Chris Guthrie for taking action and coming down from the balcony to get involved…


All the venue owners, managers, frontline staff who ensured there was a place to put events on and that they ran smoothly… My memory faulters and it fails; I am older in tooth and some things are not as sharp.


Liz Windsor pretty much invented and insisted on a web presence by challenging my ignorance with aplomb.  Anthony Ellis selflessly gifted knowledge, insight and effort to underpin something he recognised as creating social value, public value.


How do I thank the various people in the academic world for being curious and patient; this goes especially for a culture of individual educators in the University of Manchester who have been truly open minds willing to listen and include, and equally important, show me what it is to be critical (it is to be a friend)….


Graeme Sturrock for weaving the cloth of Edinburgh with possibility and a joy of life which is infectious… My head is spinning and my gut is aching just trying to bring all the details together.


Joseph Cranwell and Tommy McMullan for being constant sources of sage honesty as well as unerring practical support…  Steve Tilley, the man at the bus stop who taught me about mental health, sociology, psychology and being open to serendipity…  Leroy Wilsher, Ray Miller, Beau, Kenny, The Beard….


The more I write, the more I realise I am leaving out, and the more I realise the thousands of small, and occassionally large failings, which mark out my story.


“Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrong doing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


At the heart of it all is a pearl which has redemptive qualities.  It is a promise; a covenant with those who have shared their life without expectation of return.  What certainty can I bring to such a promise ?  I aim to honor these Promethians through learning whilst not instrumentalising the relationships which made all this possible.  All the people I have had the good fortune to know on this journey have been my teachers.


‘Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself’ said John Dewey; well, what a meditation !  I am going to try and live life and be in relation with other people as they have been to me.  Keeping this promise is really important and it is anathema to commercialise it.  Below is an example of a contract with the living; you can see some edits of a conversation.


David Seagrave came to be a friend who I knew as a creative force, a proud Aspie (Aspergers individual); I promised to do what I can to share his conversation and legacy after his parting:


YouTube player


For those who do not know David Seagrave, he was a very well known character of Dunfermline and Edinburgh (and various places).  He spent his life creating and refining a philosophy of Contributionism which he could talk at length about in particular detail.


What makes him a powerful teacher for me is that he independently lived his philosophy, adapting and renewing it each day in so many various actions; he was the embodiment of a growth mind set and self motivation.


A beautiful example is how, when he lost his leg in a car accident, he learned the skills to make his own ‘britches’ (as he liked to call them) to hold his prosthetic leg on.  Similarly innovative, he would take disposable cameras and experiment with them to produce unique photographic techniques, developing his own prints and documenting his travels.


His larger than life character could have the effect on some people such that they would see difference, and as a result some would not apprehend the true value or richness which he offered.  If David Bailey split open a Holga camera and replaced the films with specially primed negative film created with his own chemical compounds, the results might be engaged with in very different ways.


I came to know his eccentric communitarian expositions over time with pleasure through active listening and through sharing company.  He was an inspiring human being as he embodied Autodidacticism – self directed learning.  He was a producer of education and student of it at the same time.  He was the producer as student and he was the student as producer, which confounds the institutional teleology at work in so many orthodox settings.


Our world is arrayed with people – full and rich universes that cannot be summed up.


Learning is in great part being wrong and having a safe culture to be wrong in.  It is in the dynamics of a friendly relationship that I argue we find all the apparatus we need for a system of education; peer review, safety in failure, criticality, acknowledgement, valuation, reciprocity, collegiality, meaningful activity and freedom to question… but it is imperative not to disembody these from a humane dynamic or we might be replacing a walk in a real forest with a holograph image of one.  This is an irreplaceable source of our wealth and we must find ways to preserve it in this coming age.

I will finish with an excerpt from ‘John Stuart Mill’s Social and Political Thought: Freedom’  (pp 346). 

“The whole intellectual and moral achievement of mankind depends on the power of rectification of errors. At the moment of their first belief, human­ity became the prey of a Pandora’s boxful of error and false belief, but they can be saved by their only source of intellectual hope: corrigibility.

The false caution that would keep this boxed in is ultimately suicidal, but if criticism is allowed to do its work, there are potentially as many sources of mutual correction as there are intelligences. The same power of rectification not only saves from error, but is also the only firm ground of confidence and certainty:

If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, (hu)mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.


If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there is a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day. This is the sole amount of certainty’ attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it.”


In light of all this, I aim not to repeat the same mistakes

Yours Aye, Alex Dunedin