A Broken Vessel

Vessel Cirlce 3I chose an image for this website. This was a way to circle around a cluster of ideas, notions and myths, that I’ll probably never be able to fully comprehend or contain in my lifetime. For a name, as a word with letters, signifies absence and separation. In its representation of itself, the subject is shattered and opened[i].  Such opening, where interpretations of the text are purposefully not set or pre-specified may be rather utopian, albeit rich and important[ii], which I hope you’ll undertake as a reader-contributor to further.

Yet the desire to understand and to grapple with thinking and practices around these concepts and discourses underpins this process regardless. I am not alone in this hopeful/less dance – it seems to have grabbed many of us, across a number of traditions, backgrounds, geographic contexts, and at different times in history(ies). And this site is what I hope will be an embodiment of this desire and its incompletion…. Because it is in the very broken nature of this vessel that there is hope for enabling the interactions on its pages not to be contained, concluded or reduced to what is within them.

The pages of this site are shaped to circle around problematics and discourses that concern critical Higher Education Studies and my teaching foci, including transformation, access, quality, educational technology, in addition to those which plague my own thinking and research, such as authorship, lived experiences, in/equality. As these are in flux and highly contested, the pages of this site aren’t intended to statically represent best practices or be prescriptive. Rather, they are portals around which those who participate may do so, in a way which hopefully opens the process to those of us who wish to collaborate, debate, understand, explore the complexities of higher education.

“the “excellent” university is also an “exploded” university, it is distributed well beyond the walls of the Crystal Palace through the relatively autonomous—and thus relatively incalculable—nodes of remote learning and other @-universities; and encloses within its walls other similar nodes, such as centres, writing-studies classrooms (!), and (post-)seminars.”[iii]Vessel Cirlce 4

I chose the phrase “broken vessel’ because it is evocative. This phrase has been following me for quite some time, appearing in my artistic practice and in my research. It has within it the fragment, the trace, the ruin, melancholy, but also a sense of hope of beauty. It’s imagery has been evoked across time and in various cultures. It is also got a strong ties to the educational concept of an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge – but in its elusion to the Lurianic myth, as I discuss below, what is asserted is not its containment of something supposedly greater than itself, but rather in its ruinousness, its transformation and diversity from the original. Once broken, the shards of knowledge and the responsibility for their mending shifts to all, birthing the quest for social justice and historical melancholia. In some ways this echoes arguments about changes in HE which some would see as devastating, and would recognise hold radical possibilities.

 In Kiefer’s Shevirat Ha-Kelim (2011), it is possible to see an impulse towards mending and a faith in the durability of learning, but this can only be achieved through a cathartic taking of responsibility, a process of facing up to history with an unshrinking gaze.[iv]

This artist’s treatment of the breaking of the vessels [v] is partly about confronting the past. For me, it also talks to the sense of the website as a space as a vessel opened to rupture – in it’s possibilities for spillage and connectivity, for more than it was intended to contain. So, you’ll see that I have tried  (and continue to try) utilise this visual image, this metaphor of a broken vessel, to evoke more than what it currently is and to invite you to rupture it too. For this is not intended as a portfolio – a space to demonstrate mastery or a flat facade for the world – but rather to open a space where many of us may interconnect our thinking and our practices to intermingle. On each page, there are such possibilities for transgressing the boundaries of each page: for deviations, variations, for divergences and rhizomatous possibilities. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious but this is my hope that the site will be larger than just me as one fragment. In this way, I also admit to its limitations by not pretending to be more than what is possible. I invite suggestions for ways in which the site could allow for more of such transgressions.Vessel Cirlce 2On each page are images of brokenness, constructed by contributors to this site. The particular broken vessel that was chosen as its initial icon came from an exhibition but I did years ago. It is part of a collection found underground in the garden of my first home in Grahamstown, South Africa. It was a fragment of somebody else’s life, dreams and pretension of beauty and the exotic imported from a foreign land, buried within its soil. I chose this one from many other pieces of fragments because it has visual associations with parts of my middle-eastern heritage. I see in it too the appropriated motif which I recently learnt about when at a conference in the town of Paisley, Scotland

Of course, popular Christian notions of the phrase ‘broken vessel’ carry associations of something which has been abused to a position of worthlessness but has been chosen for a purpose larger than themselves.

Someone who is or feels completely destroyed, hollow, forsaken, or inadequate. Taken from the biblical symbolism of a person being a vessel into which God fills divine wisdom and grace.

Despite being hugely debated [vi] the association that has proved powerful for many contemporary social justice projects is “the shattering of the vessels” (in Hebrew, “Shevirat haKeilim“) from a Jewish allegory explaining the basic problem of diverseness and multiplicity 1

The shattering of the sefirot of Tohu is not a coincidence, nor does it signify a flaw in the creative process. On the contrary, it serves a very specific and important purpose, which is to bring about a state of separation or partition of the light into distinct qualities and attributes, and thereby introduce diversity and multiplicity into creation, as explained above. In addition, the shattering of the vessels of Tohu allows for the possibility of evil, and gives man the opportunity to choose between good (for which he gains reward) and evil (for which he is punished). Thus Gd’s attributes of chesed and gevura – the attributes from which reward and punishment derive – are revealed in the world9 , which is one of the primary purposes of creation. [vii]

(See [viii] for an accessible introduction to the historical context for the myth and its significance for contemporary notions of justice, repair, (the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) and responsibility.) What remains with me is the sense that things are broken but there are fragments of good that can and should be collected from that, which are larger than the original –  and it is our human responsibility and agency to do ‘work’ of identifying the fragments, collecting them, and bringing them together anew for mending.Vessel Cirlce 1Post-holocaust, post-colonial, post-racial studies in addition to many other critical traditions underpinned by conflict theory, have pointed to the difficulties of such attempts at repair. Broken vessel does not attempt to hark back to an ideal of wholeness nor to a utopian future of progress. It is an attempt to create something in this place and time, with the possibilities at its disposal.

While these figurative associations of rupture have long been prevalent in contemporary art and in terms of cultural responsibility, but are often resisted in the narrative realism of educational representations. The allusions to the female body and the vessel abound [ix], particularly around female sexuality [x], desire [xi] etc [xii], dis-ease and which connect to many myths of the handmade, domestic and female strength. In a rejection of the rationale, hegemonic Cartesian separation of body and mind, there is a desire to focus with criticality on difference, and the cost paid when negotiating the politics of difference.

Ngugi’s character Wanja in ‘petals of Bloodgrapples with contradictory changings, twinning, conflicting identities as a woman in a changing society. She had carried dreams in a broken vessel. Looking back now she could not even see a trail of the vanished dreams and expectations. She had chosen.See Kanneh [xiii]

Instead of glorifying the excellent, the seamless or the quantifiably convincing, the gaps, deviations and discrepancies are where to look – that which slips through the taken-for-granted cracks in dominant thinking and attention. There are perhaps similarities with Japanese notions of mending:

As a philosophy, kintsugi can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.[10][11] Japanese aesthetics values marks of wear by the use of an object. This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an object around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage.[12]

Kintsugi can relate to the Japanese philosophy of “no mind” (無心 mushin), which encompasses the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change and fate as aspects of human life.[13]

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.— Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk: The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics [xiv]

There is an ethical impulse behind this focus, to which I owe the Jewish philosophers Derrida and Levinas, whose work continues to haunt my own sense of how to grapple with interrelational possibilities in higher education. In many ways, it is a grappling with the problematics, obligations and injunctions of our times that informs this site, as I noted it did in the work of the artists I studied two decades ago:

The work of Kiefer, Boltanski, Kentridge and Mofokeng confronts not just the aesthetic possibilities of visual practise but the theoretical and ethical im-possibilities of such a practice. Formally and philosophically, these artists probe the aesthetic and ethical dilemmas of their art of remembrance and re-collection ‘after Auschwitz’ and ‘after apartheid’, where history and its belated or deferred aesthetic confrontation and articulation are shown to be deeply painful social and cultural processes. Creating works that expose the Adornian Brüche of their own construction as well as their inability to hold and memorialize the immemorial, what is emphasized, in the vein of Lurianic ‘broken vessels’, is that the responsibility to remember and commemorate is that of the ethical viewer, whose memory must remain active and critical to the forces of the past in the present. ([xv]


[1] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).
[1] Umberto Eco, The Open Work / Umberto Eco; Translated by Anna Cancogni; with an Introduction by David Robey. (Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press, 1989), http://encore.qub.ac.uk/iii/encore_qub/record/C__Rb1647435__Sumberto%20eco__Ff:facetfields:author:author:Author::__P0,20__Orightresult__U__X4?lang=eng&suite=qub.
[1] Sean Kohingarara Sturm, ‘The University in Ruins (Not)’, Te Ipu Pakore: The Broken Vessel, 6 October 2009, https://seansturm.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/the-university-in-ruins-not/.
[1] Colin Herd, ‘Confronting the Past’, Aesthetica Magazine, 2012, /confronting-the-past/.
[1] Mary Wells Barron, ‘Breaking of the Vessels:  Destruction and Creation in the Art of Anselm Kiefer’, ARAS Connections, no. 2 (2012), https://aras.org/sites/default/files/docs/00052Barron.pdf; Herd, ‘Confronting the Past’.
[1] Andrew Nusbaum, ‘Social Justice vs. Tikkun Olam: Old Wine in a New Bottle, or Vice-Versa?’, Sefaria Source Sheet Builder, 2016, https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/26838.
[1] Moshe Miller, ‘Shattered Vessels’, 2010, http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380568/jewish/Shattered-Vessels.htm.
[1] Howard Schwartz, ‘How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism’, Tikkun Magazine, 2011, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/how-the-ari-created-a-myth-and-transformed-judaism.
[1] Brian Norman, Dead Women Talking: Figures of Injustice in American Literature (JHU Press, 2012), 71.
[1] Victoria L. Johnson, Restoring Broken Vessels: Confronting the Attack on Female Sexuality (InterVarsity Press, 2002).
[1] Linda E Savage, ‘Female Sexual Desire: The Broken Vessel’, Huffpost, 12 January 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-e-savage/female-sexual-desire-the-_b_767038.html.
[1] Christa Davis Acampora and Angela L. Cotten, Unmaking Race, Remaking Soul: Transformative Aesthetics and the Practice of Freedom (SUNY Press, 2008), 172–73.
[1] Kadiatu Kanneh, African Identities: Pan-Africanisms and Black Identities (Routledge, 2002), 116.
[1] Ryan Landes-Gilman, ‘The Japanese Art of Kintsugi: Perfection Through Imperfection’, Pachamama Alliance, 2014, https://www.pachamama.org/blog/japanese-art-kingsugi-perfection-imperfection.
[1] Dina Zoe Belluigi, Broken Vessels: The Im-Possibility of the Art of Remembrance and Re-Collection in the Work of Anselm Kiefer,Christian Boltanski, William Kentridge and Santu Mofokeng ([S.l: s.n.], 2001), 7.