P is for Precarious (MP Edit)

| April 28, 2014

It all started with an umbrella. A windy and rainy evening and a cheap, crappy Duane Reade umbrella. I was doing the dance of a person whose umbrella has turned inside out one too many times—when the metallic spider legs that shield you from the downpour become brittle and broken after being jammed inside a backpack for too long. I had managed to find that miraculous angle where the wind somehow stayed balanced underneath the polyester, but at any moment a gale would be too strong, or my wrist would dip at just the wrong time, and the umbrella would flip again. It was a balance, but it was only temporary, and imbalance was imminent.

The word “precarious” came to mind and somehow managed to get stuck, almost like a song, inside my head over the following days.

^ (Not me, but easily could have been…)

A simple Google search told me that “precarious” is:




1. not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse.

‘a precarious ladder’

2. dependent on chance; uncertain.

‘she made a precarious living by writing’

synonyms:       uncertain, insecure, unpredictable, risky, parlous, hazardous, dangerous, unsafe;”

I pursued it further, and according to Encyclopedia Britannica, John Dewey himself too had a notion of the precarious. A part of his discussions of the characteristics of nature, the precarious is anything that disrupts or interrupts an experience. However, this type of constant disruption and change is a part of the human experience. Says the above web-page: “The arbitrary cruelty of a tyrant or the kindness shown by a stranger is as natural and precarious as the destruction wrought by a flood or the vibrant colours of a sunset. Human ideas and moral norms must also be viewed in this way. Human knowledge is wholly intertwined with precarious, constantly changing nature.” In this sense, the state of precarious doesn’t always seem like a particularly negative thing. While it may be jarring and perhaps uncomfortable, experiencing precariousness is, according to Dewey, only natural. Although the precarious may stand out in our minds for the moment in which it exists, its experience is interwoven with the constant ups and downs we undergo.

The word called to mind other ideas from a few of the texts we had read this semester. What is the precarious but the constant threat of “going over the edge”—of straying too far from the straight and even lines we construct for ourselves. (Thanks, Ingold.) What is it but another kind of incipient motion, the preacceleration—the inevitable movement, the imminent and predetermined force of gravity, the wind, or even choices that have gotten out of hand? (You, too, Relationscapes!)

Still curious, I discovered that the video below is Youtube’s first response to “precarious.” Although I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly afraid of heights, there’s a certain chill and thrill that comes from witnessing (and doubtlessly, from experiencing) the precarious first-hand. Although these precarious places must be terrifying, the fact that so many continue to chase these thrills anyway can be almost a type of testament to the desire for a more precarious state. The participants, after all, survive, and they appear to be more engaged and often thankful for the opportunity.

Upon further reflection, I can’t help but wonder what it might look to introduce this precarious state into the classroom. Although there is a sense of insecurity and instability, there is also a bit of a rush or thrill derived from the state. When we introduce pedagogical practices or ideas that may disrupt the status quo– that may teeter on the edge of how typical educations is currently defined in present day– we are inviting this sens of the precarious into our classroom. Rather than viewing it with opposition, though, perhaps the precarious is something to be embraced? There is, after all, a delicate art to remaining balanced. And if students do fall head-first into ideas and tasks that challenge them to think outside of their usual, well-balanced boundaries, couldn’t that also be potentially beneficial? Although the precious may be risky or unpredictable, according to its definition, what are concepts that are worth taking risks over? What are the types of pre-accelerations they create for a learning context? Can the unpredictable lead to new ways of interacting with the world than the commonplace?

Uncomfortable as it may be, “precarious” may offer just the impetus needed in any context, be it art or education (or an intersection of both), to peek into alternate ways of seeing and doing.