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Unlearning by Taeyoon Choi

A letter to Code Societies students

Melanie Hoff, the lead organizer of Code Societies, asked me why we call the School for Poetic Computation(SFPC) participants as students, when they have more agency that traditional schools. I responsed – the participants spend most of their time learning, and the title 'students' give them the freedom experiment and learn from their failure. On that note, I wrote a letter to the incoming students of Code Societies 2020, which I read on the first day of class.

Hand drawn comic of a chair walking. unlearning. taeyoon's guide

How can we learn to become a life long student? I spent the last decade learning to become a teacher. It's been rewarding to have the honor to teach wonderful students in and around academic institutions. Recently, I'm noticing a shift in my thingking about my work as a teacher. Rather than teaching, pedagogy and curriculum, I'm more excited about becoming a better student, someone who prioritizes their learning and unlearning. A life long learner is someone who learns in all they do and share their process. Learning is an arduous act of repetition, staying humble and curious. Unlearning is questioning how we learn and what we learn. Unlearning is to resist the atrocities of systemic oppression, violence formalized in bureaucracies of knowledge production. Moving forward, I want to focus on learning and unlearning a few topics and their connections.

    A: Learning – Unlearning topics: aesthetics, poetics, science, and technology studies, climate justice, disability studies, code and platform studies.
    B: Learning – Unlearning methods: empirical, field-based, participatory, pedagogical, quantitative and translation based approaches
    C: Learning – Unlearning institutions: non-profit art organizations, research universities, NGO, State organizations, community groups and activist spaces

I will make my own curriculum and find my teachers, build a cohort of co-learners. We will create a community of emancipated thinkers, doers, and activators. We will aim to decolonize our minds and our institutions by challenging white supremacy, our complicity in imperialism, violence, and capitalism. We will leverage our institutional affiliations to change the knowledge production from inside out. This process of unlearning needs to be executed systematically in coalition with traditional academics, para-academics, non-academics, and local communities. The term unlearning can be traced back to Gayatari Spivak's use of the word in boundary 2, 1993, Judith Butler's Undoing Gender, 2004 among others. I'm indepted to my co-learners of the Public School New York, a project that I participated about a decade ago (Molly, Sarah, Kamomi, Maia, Sean, Alex to name a few), Free Cooper Union (Casey and Vic to name a few), and the WYFY School by BUFU, (Tsige, Jaz, Kat, Sonia) a collective that continues to point me towards new forms of learning through movement work and community organizing.

As I build my practice, connect with a larger community, I'm learning to be aware of my privileges and responsibilities. I'm learning to be remain alert and self critical. To fight the seductive pessimism, I'm seeking for optimism and self-determination. I will continue my journey of research, archiving, teaching, publishing, unlearning a step towards true freedom, the joy of life. This journey will take me off the beaten path. What is required for me to stay on route? Perhaps I need to be more resilient and imaginative, something I learned from Janice Gates and Tawanna Patty of the Detroit Community Technology Project who I met when SFPC ran a summer workshop in Detroit last summer.

Learning to become a student, especially when you are no longer required to be one, is an act of humility and openness. I met wonderfully accomplished people who choose to become students of SFPC because they value internal growth over accreditation or social validation. Their learning was unlearning what they knew, their privileges, stepping into uncomfortable spaces of uncertainty. This discomfort is the key for unlearning.

I often think about joining traditional academia as a student and I continue to teach as an adjunct professor at a private university. I have issues with the ivory towers, corporate-military-industrial-educational complexes. Then, why do I stay involved in the traditional academia? There are limits to D.I.Y., grassroots institution, which you have to build everything from the ground up. It's difficult to access resources for in-depth research as an outsider. Having an access to research library and scholarly journals opened many doors for me. I think it's good for me, or anyone, to have an academic support structure to work with and work against. Conflicts remain unresolved – do we abolish and build a new institution? or do we stay within an existing institution and bring gradual change from within? I think it's important to try both. Where we put our energy is our decision. I believe another world is possible, and we should build it. I also believe it's important to utilize the existing infrastructures and create open spaces for alternatives. I continue to learn from my friend Nabil Hassein, who's part of the No New Jail NYC and organizing SFPC Critical Theory Retrospective this Sunday.

Something I will never get used to in the academia is their whiteness. Whiteness of the leaders and authors of the books they teach. Even the Person of Color scholars adapt and embody whiteness in their language, their imagination, and their manner. Unless you are part of the Lenape or the indigenous communities in the US, we are standing on a stolen land, we are complicit to the ongoing acts of colonialization. Academic whiteness is a sign of the institution's past and ongoing colonial ambitions and exploit. Whiteness must be understood and challenged. How can we unlearn whiteness? Claudia Rankine's wisdom offers a glimpse on how to have a meaningful conversation about whiteness, race and power differences. How can we create anti-racist structures of knowledge production and cultural expression? How to build a movement to decolonize our institutions? our bookshelves? our languages? our imaginations? our titles? our relationship to fellow learners, teachers and ourselves?

Institutions are make-believes that hold real power. Writing is an act of resistance that begins with radical honesty, immediacy, urgency, and generosity. To write is to fight the power that enables one to write. I'm inspired by As Radical, As Mother, As Salad, As Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now? which holds an array of ideas and provocations about the role of institutions and arts workers today. Writing code, poetry, essays and sharing them, in any stage of completeness, in any broken form or with the trace of E.S.L., is a key for learning and unlearning.

Unlearning is learning to live an active life. It is to resist the atrocities that are normalized in academia, toxic complicity in capitalism. Unlearning to challenge the gatekeepers of information and resources. Unlearning is to bring peace and reconciliation to the violence of everyday life. Unlearning is to rethink and rebuild knowledge production. Unlearning is to create our own community of para-academics, dropouts, outcasts of the academia. Unlearning is to theorize and practice more equitable ways of learning and teaching. Unlearning is an adventure towards the uncompromising truth.

Moving forward into the new decade, I will continue my work as a teacher and administrator at SFPC, while considering my work and position as a learner, a student, someone who learns from everyone in the community. I will explore institutional partnerships, building solidarity, embedding myself in uncomfortable situations. I will consider the code of conduct and responsibilities of crediting our influences more seriously. I will create zines and publications with and for various communities I care about. Neta Bomani's zine practice, American Artists' publishing practice with the Unbag Magazine, and Mimi Onuoha's research and organizing practice are a few of my inspirations. I hope we learn and unlearn together for next three weeks.

Taeyoon Choi, Session Advisor of SFPC Code Societies.