‘Unlearning’ hegemony: An exploration of the applicability of Alain Badiou’s theory of the event to informal learning through an examination of the life histories of South African social movement activists

Anne Harley, 2012

This thesis argues that it is both necessary and possible to change the world. Changing the world requires engaging with, to try to understand it from the basis of lived reality, and then acting. Our ability to do this is, however, affected by hegemony, which attempts to convince us that the way things are is either normal and natural and the only possible way they could be, or that it is impossible to change them. Nevertheless, there is always resistance to this, and I suggest that we might learn something useful by examining how this happens.

The thesis thus explores Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, and its applicability to our current world; and also considers resistance to this. I argue that the nature of capitalism has shifted, and discuss how this shift has impacted on hegemony, identifying three current interlocking hegemonic ideologies. I consider current resistance to this hegemony, including the role of social movements. Much resistance, and many social movements, I argued, cannot properly be called counter-hegemonic in that, although it/they may critique the dominant economic system, it/they remain trapped within hegemonic logic. However, it is clear that there is existing truly counter-hegemonic resistance, including some social movements, and I argue that Abahlali baseMjondolo is one such counter-hegemonic movement. Thus it is possible that those who join/align themselves with this movement might be considered to have ‘unlearned’ hegemony and be useful subjects for this study. I thus consider the life stories of seven people who have aligned themselves to this movement, in order to determine whether they have indeed ‘unlearned’ hegemony, and if so, how.

I discuss relevant and appropriate theory for examining this phenomenon, including experiential learning, transformative learning and Freirean emancipatory learning. I argue that whilst these theories of learning are helpful, they cannot entirely account for unlearning.

I then turn to the theory of the event of Alain Badiou as a possible complementary or alternative way into thinking about unlearning. I apply both the learning theories and Badiou’s theory of the event to the stories, all of which show strong evidence of unlearning, and consider how useful the theories are in understanding this.

I conclude that all of the theories help to some extent in understanding the unlearning in stories. There are, however, fundamental differences between the learning theories on the one hand and Badiou’s theory on the other. I construct a model showing that the basis of the difference between the adult learning theories and Badiou’s theory of the event rests on the locus of the trigger for transformation. I argue that Badiou’s theory provides a very useful additional perspective to adult learning theory; but that it cannot be considered to have replaced existing theories in understanding how people learn informally to think and act in counter-hegemonic ways.


Unlearning Hegemony