rich and undulating | empty-or-full


A child enters your life.

You give birth after swelling for nine months.
Or you adopt someone a little older.
Or someone comes to visit.
Or you begin a new year at a childcare, kindergarten or school.
Or you invite them to your sports, dance, arts or other club.
Or someone just turns up at your party, workplaces, street, park, home or shop.

Whichever way, a child enters your life.

What are we to make of this moment?
Who are they? What interactions and evolutions are possible?
How do we understand what is or might be going on?

You can understand the child as an empty vessel.
Empty or without.
Needing to be filled.
To be completed.
They need to find out, learn, and be filled with knowledge, judgements, possessions, emotions, languages.
If they have a fault, it is that they don’t know yet, but that can, and will, always change.
“You’re still young, that’s not your fault.”
If they are empty, then we are full. Or at least, fuller than them.
We have stuff, we are loaded, we are big, bigger, more knowledgable, more complex and sophisticated.
We are educated in the ways of the world.
We are less empty. Fuller. We can fill them.

Or you understand the child not as empty, but as pure and perfect.
Clean, fresh, unsullied and uncorrupted.
Already complete.
But soon be corrupted, sullied, poisoned by the ways of the world.
If they have a fault, it is that they cannot stop the rot.
“I woke up clean, but ended the day dirty.”
If they are pure, the we are dirty, corrupt, unpure.
And in this, whilst the child is angelic white, we have the nuance, complexity, paradox, history and baggage.
We have colour, however muddy.

Either way, whether empty or pure, the child is a blank slate.
Either way, you are in charge of giving stuff to the child. It’s one-way traffic. Giving stuff that fills them, or stuff that enlightens and protects them. 
Either way, the child is imagined as a vessel, with an inside bounded from the outside, to be filled, or already full. 

Which point of view you chose probably relies on whether you think people and the world are basically good, or basically bad. 
For those with faith in the goodness of humanity, the child is empty to be filled with whatever accounts for human goodness literacy, manners, knowledge, respect for authorities, property rights, law and other threads of civilisation. 
For those of the pessimistic bent, the child is pure to be inevitably corrupted with whatever accounts for human evil.

But what if we aren't a vessel?
What the child isn’t a vessel?

You understand that we are portals, portals which things pass through, transforming and re-congealing in the process.
At most, tubes. At least, curves.
We’d have no insides, and thus no outsides.
We exist side-by-side. Next to things.
Already something there, not empty, nor full.

The child that enters your life can’t enter your life.
You don’t have an inside, bordered from the outside, that can be entered.
Instead, the child moves near.
Side by side.

A child moves near you.


I think it's fairly easy to see how education/learning/schooling deals with negative and positive difference.

Mainstream education, and developmental psychology, is all about negative difference. Constructing various stairways to heaven (and of course slippery slopes to hell). Everyone is conceived as a point along a spectrum (or spectra), which can be measured/assessed. We are conceived as not-yet-the-ideal intellect, citizen, body, soul etc. So what we get is the image of emptiness. And the teacher, parent, adult, tradition is the expert that is fuller than, and thus is in the position of filling, the poor empty child/student. Kids don't know stuff, can't do stuff, and we the superior ones do and can, and thus education is a one-way street of transmission, of filling up the student with knowledge, skills or whatever. I saw this all the time in the research methods units I helped run for postgrads at my previous uni. Lecturers treating students like there were not researchers, and thus a people-who-need-to-learn-how-to-become-a-researcher There was even something vitriolic in the way some of the lecturers would kind of gloat at all the big ideas, terms and protocols that the humble postgraduate research candidate would have to get their heads around.

Such dealings-with-the-empty-student can take on a very militant form. But there are also a range of very subtle forms too. Consider this story from Keith Johnstone's book called "Impro" (Keith is one of the founders of improvised theatre as we now know it), from a section called Psychotic Girl:

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’ Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’ ‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’ Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!” In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.
Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979)

Instead of empty, we can also imagine the child/student as full, in the sense of complete, whole and pure -- which the world then decays and corrupts over time. Thus, education is the fixative that prevents or at least slows down this corruption. Again, the child is without (without the will, the fore-knowledge, the gift of purity), whilst the teacher/adult is somehow endowed with the special extra something that they need to pass onto the child somehow. I've heard some parents paint this kind of picture about their new babies - they are so perfect/whole/pure etc... and really the implication is that the world is going to stuff them up, or the child will stuff themselves up, or the parent stuff them up, or a wacko combo deal of all these. This purity-image is negative difference always looking back (to a better, holistic past) as opposed to the emptiness-image which is negative difference always looking forward (to a better, fuller future).

Images of emptiness, and wholeness, are actually fantasies that develop out of false origins and false destinations. Both images seek to produce a known, fixed ideal of where the person has come from, and where they are heading. In one image, the origin is empty, and the destination is full (lest it remains empty). In the other, the origin is whole, and the destination is a (patched up) whole (lest it is decayed/broken).

But what else is there, beyond the emptiness and wholeness that is conjured up for us by mainstream education and all its related institutions?

I want to offer up an image of positive difference. Not where everyone is already full, or already whole, but where fullness and wholeness (and thus emptiness and decay) are not part of the picture at all. Without fullness and wholeness, what do we have instead? How about... a person!! In that people, persons, are personhood, are always already something in particular, already an intertwining of multiple things and processes, and always shifting and changing – but never full nor whole. ‘Rich and undulating’ might be a general way of describing this.


When EL-ES and Mr E came out of The Dazzle Dream, it was really obvious in the first few seconds how different their energies were, and already I had some glimpse then of their particular and unique kind of energies. Actually it became overt with the arrival of Mr E, who came out around 15mins later, because in seeing Mr E and his eyes and the way he held his body and looked around the room, it became clear to me not only what his energy was, but also it put EL-ES's posture/eyes/energies into sharp relief. Of course, I could never sum it up, as it's just my duality with Mr E, and with EL-ES, that gives me this idea of difference, and also they and I are changing so any description of it would just be provisional and temporary, but the point is that there was no waiting time here. No time was needed to wait for their difference to first turn up; it was already there. I make this point, and tell this type of birth story, to anyone that asks me about the boys in ways which feel like they either think of the boys as the same energy (twins or something) or think of boys as still finding their energies (the child not yet ripe, just empty or pure).

Of course people change and thus their knowledge, skills etc change and growth too, but I also want to tell people that the boys can do and feel and think stuff I can't. It works both ways. Growing and adapting into one area or plane of existence is going to be a loss of capacity in others.

One thing I found interesting in what Skinny Man and The Garbo were saying at the last Blackened Wood, was that schooling/modern education actively induces people into believing that they have nothing worthwhile of their own, such that they are ready and willing to accept whatever the teachers and experts push at them from on high. From what I remember, Skinny/Garbo were saying that large-scale, wide-spreading school could not have been possible without this framing of the empty child/student. Like it gives the school are reason to be there, as well as a controlling influence. I'm a bit hazy on this, so would like to get some more on this, but what's intriguing to me is the suggestion that the problem of the empty/whole child is structured right into the very core of how education is worked out.