The Captive Mind, Publics and THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE [TINA]


In this series of posts I want to explore the notion of the public, the public within public services and as articulated within discourses in public administration. While I do not make explicit reference to scholarship in the area, as this is not a review of scholars in public administration real or imagined publics.  It is an attempt to frame similar issues, like democratic process, and the public sphere that concern researchers in this area. In particular to think about how designers imagine the public.

It is an attempt to frame them in relation to different ways of knowing, and I am indebted to post-colonial writers and those who write about what is sometimes called Southern Theory, specifically  the feminist thinker Connell, who write about the dominance of western sociology, assumptions and about individuals and publics and their application in the global south through the colonial projects and the role of academic research in subjection and/or exotic othering. Her work and others like Comaroff and Comaroff have led to me question normative accounts of the public, and the dominance of a particular notion of the relationship between the self and society, and I wanted to explore this in relation to literary and academic sources.


Figure 1: Listening to History, Bill Woodrow, 1995, Used as Front Cover to “A Captive Mind” in recent editions. Source: Karsten 11, 2010,

The Captive Mind

In this first post I want to explore Ketman, or Kitman an idea I first encountered through the work of Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then the subsequent communist state that followed its “liberation” by the Red Army. He continued to write poetry under the communists and indeed served as a public servant in Poland and the US. His book “The Captive Mind” is concerned with creativity under totalitarian regimes, regimes which seem to use and encourage openness and debate as a way to manage conformity and weed out errant thought. Kitman is concerned with hiding ones true thoughts from the public, and comes to Milosz from the work of a French public servant and is based on his writing about Persia and Islam.  Khan (2008), in her examination of selfhood and secrecy in Islam examines Kitman in the work of al-Jahiz (circa 776AD to 868AD) and his book “Kitab Kitman al-Sirr” (the book of concealing the secret), he suggests Kitman is the watcher within. Khan suggests we read al-Jahiz text on concealment of true beliefs, of care about what one says, and the need to match utterance to context in relation to the heated political period it was written (the complex Abbasid politics of Baghdad) and the audience for whom it was meant, administrators and those in what we might loosely call “public office”. While read in this way it seems little more than Hamlets father advice to “lend everyman your ear but few your words”, however according to Khan, for al-Jahiz it goes a lot deeper. She notes the interest in embodiment, in the way the body represents thoughts, and the way bodies can betray that which words attempt to conceal. The suggestion is not that we need to act in ways that help us conceal our true thoughts or beliefs, but we should also be concerned with how we censor the inner self in relation to the context in which we live. Here the public self needs also to become the private self to avoid our bodies betraying our real thoughts.

It is an interesting idea, and not without political baggage, one only need google it to see the right wing vitriol and anti-islamic sentiment that goes with it. With lazy commentators  of “The Captive Mind” and Kitman suggesting it is a prime example of the lies and falsehood within Islam more generally. It is probably because it is actually quite a difficult idea to grasp that right wing propaganda can grasp onto it as a marker of untrustworthiness in Islam. It deals with a slightly different relationship between the public and the private from the one we are used to.  For example, Feinberg (2017) notes reviews of “The Captive Mind” in the US often failed to grasp the nature of the argument, reading it in relation to ideas around self, “the American Dream”, binary opposition between the freedoms of capitalism and the heavy fist and control of communism. It read the text as concerned with the ability of the creative mind to resist control. While Kitman is concerned with resistance and Milosz makes much of the pride in those practicing Kitman in  knowing “the truth” of not believing while performing as a believer, it is also about how the self changes, the difficulty in understanding your self when you police the internal self as part of presenting the public self. Where the self you are when alone becomes the public self, where any creative or resistant acts can only be understood in relation to the public face you have turned inwards. Your public self now structures your sense of who you are.  For Milosz the ambiguity also came from the sense of wonder amongst intellectuals and writers in Poland at the time as to whether this act served a broader political goal of creating a more equal society – that it was for “the greater good”.


One cannot help thinking about the work of Arendt, in particular the “Origins of Totalitarianism”, where she suggests what totalitarian regimes do is attempt to colonise every part of one’s life, to fold the private into the public discourse. Nancy Fraser suggests that while Arendt was concerned with the way these regimes destroyed public space, the sense of individuality, and also the notion of plurality, her work was not simply critique of these regimes, but also a commentary on the “free world” (Fraser 2004). While Fraser is careful to situate the work of Arendt in her time, Arendt contribution to our understanding of how nation states as breaking with its geographic boundaries through colonialism which led to things like stateless people, persecution of minorities, the delegitimisation of democratic process, and the “view from nowhere”. The sense of a totalising view of world events, which in treating things as global issues outside the scope of the nation state and its democratic process, depoliticises actions. The views from nowhere which are often presented as being apolitical are all around us in institutions like the World Trade Organisation, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund. The degree to which these bodies depoliticise decisions can be read in the consternation (see the UK Guardian here) around a recent report from the IMF that acknowledged there was such a thing as neoliberalism and it might not be a good thing. This from the body whose sole prescription for economic ills was a short sharp shock of the stuff (Harvey 2006). In that sense what Fraser is suggesting is  a situation which Arendt might recognise, and even wonders about, totalitarianism beyond the nation state, the feeling There is No Alternative.

What has this got to do with Ketman and Design

The connection of Ketman is whether and how we voice our dissent. For example I have often observed a dissonance amongst hard and soft advocates of neoliberalism, in part this is created by the disjunction between the assumptions within neoliberalism that we are all rational self-interested individuals and as Game Theorists suggest any altruism is simply a product of that self-interest – e.g. herd theory in animal behaviour, and how people actually live. These self-interested rational consumers are not them, or me, or the people I know, they are someone else, it is a view from nowhere, it does not reflect how people feel, or act, nor how they would imagine themselves being in the world. However, if we do build systems that assume people are all rational and self-interested, then we should not be surprised when people behave as if they are. Or at least perform as if they are. Therefore should we understand the fact political discourses rarely alight on the dissonance between a neoliberal view from nowhere and our own lived experience as a form of Ketman?


So what has this got to do with design, as this just seems to be a critique of neoliberalism, and of course it is. However, it is also concerned with framing, and how ones imagines the public. As governments become increasingly interested in using design in the development and delivery of public services I think we have to ask, just how are they, and indeed how are we, imagining the public.


Feinberg M. (2017) Curtain of Lies: The Battle over Truth in Stalinist Eastern Europe, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Fraser, N. (2004). Hannah Arendt in the 21st Century. Contemporary Political Theory, 3(3), pp.253–261.

Harvey D. (2006) Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso: London

Khan R. Y. (2008), Self and Secrecy in Early Islam. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia

Milosz C. ([1953] 1981) The Captive Mind, Penguin Books: London




Porous, Permeable, Praxis, Pedagogy, more P’s less HE


After a busy couple of days at the Porous University event in Inverness on the 8th and 9th of May I went back to “the croft”, Keith, Frank and I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure an event that was not structured, unconference seemed too fashionable for us, but something like that was what we aimed for. In the end our gathering started slow with people reaching out beyond their own context, sense making, find their place, and I think in part getting a feel for how safe it was to say what often is left unsaid. Left unsaid not because people think it is unimportant, left unsaid because it is vitally important, because these are thoughts, opinions and reactions to our contexts that might leave us exposed.

People did open up, and there is an excellent selection of blogs and resources, some on this blog here, and many on the Ragged University see here for some talks (more coming) and here for some reflections from Alex. I see no need to add my own summary of the day to those excellent accounts. One thing I did want to pick up was a comment by Alan Levine who joined virtually, he suggested Porous was incorrect as a description or an intention, we should really be talking about permeability. Where porous describes the qualities of the thing (the amount of space), where permeable describes the ease by which things can pass through – see here from Alan. Though it is interesting as something with a biological sciences background where it is used in the sense of whether a plant or animals has pores, i.e. a membrane is porous, it has pores, from the same Greek, Latin Old French root, and perhaps also from literary theory, the idea of boundary crossing.

However, his comment stayed with me, not just because I wondering about the right P, but because it highlighted the U, was the day really about Uni. Actually it was, and I think one of the issues was we often ended up talking about and for those outside the academy, with the best intentions we made visible the barriers and the problems, but from within HE. While as people within HE we have no choice but to speak for, we are also people in the world, with opinions, with views, with families, who engage socially and politically, who form groups, volunteer and campaign.


Figure 1: The Elephant Not in the Room, Macintyre 2010, CC BY SA 4.0

We are in the world, so perhaps what we need to do is take out the University and add some extra P’s. This is by no means a definitive list but I would like to suggest permeable (to accept Alan Levine comment), but I think the important ones are pedagogy and praxis. Praxis because one of the things that ran through the two days was how our education practice transforms and is itself transformed though our actions, and in turn how those practices are used (or not) to create change.  Pedagogy, because of the sense, if we are looking at shifting locus of knowledge creation and production, of opening up, then we need to understand and develop appropriate pedagogies to support those changes.

I think dropping Uni, or University might also help with another thing that made me worry post event, I have already alluded to the tendency to “talk from within”, at least at first, in part this related to talking about what we know, but its dominance at the event was because most participants were from HE, as you can tell from the way I use “we”, I assume are most of those reading this post. If we are serious about reaching out and reaching in then we need a broader community, the “we” needs to be more inclusive. Otherwise the assumption is that “reaching in” is in the gift of those within the academy. When lots of the examples of reaching is those outside barging in, rowdy, unplanned, rudely asking those within to listen. I am not saying Uni is acting as some sort of barrier, “this is not a network for me”, but instead a change to better describe not what we are at present but where we want to be.

So with this in mind and getting where you are meant to be can I say

“Oh kind friends and companions come join me in rhyme,

 And lift up your voices in chorus wi mine;

 Let’s drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again


Here’s a health to the company and one to my love,

 We’ll drink and be merry all out of one glass;

 Drink and be merry all grief to refrain,

 For we may or might never all meet here again.”

Or Better Watch this

Students as Co-Producers …?

student co-production, a mirage?

The problem with students as co-producers is that they already are creators of value, we just need to recognise it

At the OEPS forum in Glasgow in late 2015 the final plenary was about what the OEPS project does.  On one level the agreement with the Scottish Funding Council details exactly this. Kerr Gardiner, from the OEPS steering group (you can read an interview with him on the OEPS hub) argued that OEPS would have only met the letter of the KPI’s if it only “made stuff”. I agree, educational practices are about doing things, and doing things to find out how to do things, to find answers, and to find out what the right questions are in the first place. One of the questions Kerr asked on that day was, why open educational practices are not leading to a world where students are recognised and valued as creators/producers of knowledge.

I said to Kerr at the end of the day that I had also wondered about this question and I would think about it further. The Thought piece: students Participation, Openness and the Curriculum is the result. In it I make some quite provocative claims. I suggest one of the problems is quality assurance, where student participation is part of a series of competition mimicking metrics and part of the application of private sector models to public goods. Academics are rightly suspicious of “tick box” approaches to measuring the value of education, as are many learners, and student co-production has become tarnished by association.  This links to treating learners as customers and approaches to student co-production drawn from contemporary narratives on “Service Design”, designing for and from end users, or “Design Thinking”, start with the assumption of learner as consumer. This approach fatally undermines participation, as even though learners sometimes behave as service users, learning is about more than this. Learners know this, as do educators.

Atención al cliente: Customer Service, Rahul Rodriguez, (CC BY-SA-2.0)

I mention design, in part because I used to feel “Design Thinking” was part of the solution, I now see the assumptions about customers and how value is created do not map well onto education. However, what does apply is the sense of who is the expert, designers think of themselves as the experts in process and, even when listening to “customer”, the product. Likewise, educators have their own values. I noted above that this makes them suspicious of approaches to education that treat learners as customers and measuring the value of education through crude metrics. However, being the arbiter of quality and value in learning also makes it difficult for educators to “let go”. So while it is tempting to blame issues around student participation on the marketisation and metricisation of value in HE perhaps educator ego also makes a contribution.

“Letting go” is not easy.  For example, in community development, where educators have done so, they report feeling uneasy about their role and function. There are pressures from learners to be the expert, not to mention organisational resistance to change and the effect on career prospects. Learners are also at risk, opening up the curriculum means building learner capacity, it has resource implications and needs to be supported, and it has long-term risks around raised expectations, which go unfulfilled.

The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future, quote from Antione de Saint-Just, from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden “Little Sparta”, Little Sparta, (CC BY-SA-2.0)

These are fraught questions, clearly the technical affordances of digitisation and open licences offer the promise of opening up curriculum. However, as I argue above, and in more detail in the paper, political, organisational and cultural issues, assumptions and attitudes embedded within the stories education organisations tell about themselves represent a significant hurdle to opening up curriculum to learners. As I indicated at the start, the issue with students as co-creators of value in education is that they already are; it is just we have trouble seeing it.

Thought Piece: Students Participation Openness and the Curriculum

Ronald Macintyre